There are two kinds of freedom: freedom to, and freedom from. Historically, women in the United States have fought philosophical battles in and out of the home to achieve “freedom to” and have been successful. But what if society suddenly took away these freedoms? What if American women were suddenly returned to their cloistered state of old in which their only freedom was the freedom from the dangers of the surrounding world? Then again, did women ever truly achieve “freedom to” at all?
Such are the difficult-to-answer sociological questions raised in Margaret Atwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale. In this thought-provoking work, two societies with completely opposing ideologies and concepts of freedom are juxtaposed as an attempt to answer these same questions. The first society is Modern America with its relatively liberal mores and customs, and the second is Gilead, a totalitarian Christian theocracy which takes control of America in the late 1980’s in order to save it from its pollution and dwindling birthrate.
The novel’s protagonist, Offred, uses two sets of images to document the history of these contrasting societies. She recounts to the reader with a startling poignancy and photographic clarity the images of her memories of her past life as an American woman, and those of her present life as a Handmaid, or uterine slave, to the Republic of Gilead. Ironically, the images of Offred’s life in Gilead, which are much more fantastical than Offred’s past as a middle class American, are recounted in the present tense, giving them a more solid tone and seeming reality than is used to describe her past life.
The descriptive imagery used by Offred to describe her experience has a richness and directness which translates each scene so effectively that they take on an almost photographic quality to the reader. In effect, imagery in this book is practically synonymous with photography. It is important to note, however, that the novel, written in first person, has a certain subjectivity that cannot be associated with a photograph. Each image, although it is photographic, detailed, and precise in its rendering, is also mingled with the narrators own emotional reaction to it.
The narrator herself is aware of her own capacity to err. She calls her own account a “reconstruction … [because] it’s impossible to say a thing exactly the way it was … you always have to leave something out, there are too many parts, sides, crosscurrents, nuances,” inferring that her story is based on flawed memories of what truly passed. Imagery used to describe place setting uses the same photographic quality. Through Offred’s perceptive eyes, we discover the institutions of Gilead, all based on a rigid caste system oppressive to women.
On the very first page, we find ourselves with Offred in “what had once been a high school gymnasium. ” She goes on to vividly describe the floors painted with lines for now-antiquated games, and the faint smell of sweat and chewing gum which still lingers. Like Offred, we are thrown head first into a foreign world, experiencing, perhaps, the same sense of confusion. Also like Offred, the world of Gilead eventually becomes clearer to us as we are confronted with more and more descriptive pictures of her surroundings.
Every detail of her shapeless red uniform with its blinders is recounted. We learn of the Red Center where handmaids are trained. Of the house of the ‘Commander’ where Offred must live to attempt to bear his children (as well as do the grocery shopping). Of her cell-like room in the Commander’s house, with its thin white curtains and its pillow embroidered with the word FAITH (although Offred is not supposed to read under Gileadean law) and of the bare hole in the ceiling where the light fixture was taken out because the past Handmaid used it to hang herself.
Slowly, the space through which Offred moves becomes clearer and clearer to the reader, and an entire city is built image by photographic image held together only with the mortar of imagination. It is during each of Offred’s days that we come to understand surrounding Gilead, but when Offred lies awake reflecting each night, we learn through her remembered images about her past life as a librarian and married mother of one daughter living in the Boston area. We find that Offred is average in many ways. She has moderate views and an average lifestyle.
These images of past life serve in many ways to contrast the institutions of Gilead. For example, Offred would attend women’s rights rallies with her mother when still a child, and she still clearly remembers the flames rising from piles of pornographic magazines. She also used to smoke, an act prohibited in Gilead. (One day, however, as she attempts to buy cigarettes, all of her money has been transferred into her husband’s care. ) The sense of longing for the past which characterizes Offred’s memories, contrasts also with the calm and passive tone through which she describes Gilead.
It would seem that Offred’s will and capacity for emotion has been marred along with her freedom. Most importantly, though, it is through Offred’s memories that the reader comes to understand the Christian Fundamentalist usurping of power in the late 80s, and that Gilead, an oppressive autocracy, was founded on in the USA. Ironically, the book takes place specifically in what was once Cambridge. In other words, the American mecca of intellectualism has been reduced to a place that institutionalizes ignorance, especially for women.
Perhaps, though, the setting is not so ironic when one remembers that Boston was the sight of the execution of many women deemed witches by the Puritanical theocracy of Colonial times. The complete change in Offred’s surroundings is accompanied also by a change in her perception of self and of her sexuality. Offred’s descriptive camera points inward as she relays this change in the focus of her existence. Through her memory, we find images of her meeting her husband in hotel rooms before they were married.
At this time, love was relevant, and therefore one’s body and sexuality were also. Relationships were an important concern, as “maybe the two of you could work it out together, as if the two of you were a puzzle that could be solved. ” Offred, though once a woman with a family and career that defined her own identity, is now stripped of even her name (Offred – of Fred – being a derivative of Fred, the Commander’s name) and is reduced to being only a set of “viable ovaries. ” Sex, as well, is no longer an act of pleasure, but of biological necessity.
Offred vividly describes the Handmaid scene (derived from the Biblical tale in which a handmaid has children for a barren woman by the woman’s husband) in which Offred is made to lie across the Wife’s legs while having unpleasurable intercourse with the Commander. Offred’s picture of herself and body changes drastically: “I [Offred] used to think of my body as an instrument, of pleasure… or an implement for the accomplishment of my will… [Now] I’m a cloud congealed around a central object [her uterus].
The images used by Offred to describe herself clearly infer the dehumanization resulting from Gilead’s stripping from Handmaids their “freedom to” do anything but bear children. It is important to remember, though, that Offred’s is not just an isolated experience, but the experience of every member of an entire caste in this society. The role of women in this new society is continually contrasted to the old. One image, especially fraught with such a contrast is the viewing of an “Unwoman” (women who went against the political grain) documentary at the Red Center.
Offred describes the film of a political women’s rights march in which banners with slogans such as “FREEDOM TO CHOOSE” and “RECAPTURE OUR BODIES” are carried. In many ways, Offred herself is an “every woman” character who symbolizes woman’s experience in both the old and new societies. She led an average life in her past and, in many ways, she maintains the same moderation in her role as handmaid. She is not as rebellious as her friend Moira who escapes the Red Center, but is also not a sycophant like Janine, who, encouraged by the Aunts (Handmaid trainers), admits that it was her own fault that she was gang raped at the Red Center.
Atwood’s use of such a generic character reaffirms the commonality of the handmaids experience. The ideas of a dehumanized and homogenized society are extremely important to the color scheme used in Offred’s imagery. Characters are rarely just characters – they are also representatives of their caste. Atwood pictorially uses a color with an apparent implication to symbolize each caste. Red, for example, is for the sinful Handmaids, while white and blue (traditionally symbolic of the Virgin Mary) are for the pure Daughters and Wives respectively, and black is for the powerful and authoritative Commanders.
These colors are used very graphically in scenes in which each caste is grouped as a unit, and individuals lose themselves to the mob mentality. At the Salvaging, for example, based on the Puritan institution of group execution of a criminal. , the Handmaids together pull a rope which hangs a man while the seated Wives look on. Literature allows a freedom that simply taking a picture could not afford. Atwood has created a society employing not only visual images, but also images of societal ethics and forgotten traditions.
Perhaps the devices used to create such a society are complex, but the expected result is simple. Although Offred does not plainly pass judgment on her experience herself, the imagery of the Handmaid’s Tale vividly employs the use of contrast between old and new so that readers may come to their own morals conclusions. It is obvious, though, from Offred’s devastation that dehumanization of women for any purpose is reprehensible. Although this dystopian novel may seem like a fantasy, the politics it criticizes are very real.