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    Lit:Major themes in The Handmaid's Tale 1

    Rahma Sboui Gueddah

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    Registration date : 2006-12-09

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    Lit:Major themes in The Handmaid's Tale 1

    Post by Rahma Sboui Gueddah on Fri Mar 09, 2007 4:42 pm

    Major themes:
    A revolution has taken place and the United States has become a nominally Christian dystopia, albeit one that does not appear to be modeled on any real Christian-majority society that has existed in history since the declining influence of the Catholic Church during and after the Inquisition. Atwood beautifully portrays the keen psychological and anthropological evaluation of what life would be like if the Christian Right were allowed to take over completely. At the opening of the novel, the Constitution has been abrogated, and a new order has been established: the Republic of Gilead. Gilead is ruled through biblical fundamentalism and rigid enforcement of social roles vaguely resembling current Dominionist thinking. Most citizens have been stripped of their freedoms. Key to this suppression is the conscious elimination of literacy among the population. Pictures take the place of labels in the grocery store. All religions, except the official state religion, have been suppressed. Those who do not conform to the new norms, or who in the past became pregnant and did not immediately embrace the "new world order," are pressed into service as handmaids and personal servants or deported to "the colonies" (regions where pollution has reached toxic levels) — if they are lucky. All those who threaten the bigoted fanaticism of the religious leaders, and those who will not repent - political and religious dissidents, pro-choice advocates - called abortionists in the book, and homosexuals (gender treachery)are executed hung at "The Wall" for public display. The government has proclaimed martial law owing to the destabilizing effect of "hordes of guerrillas" roaming the countryside. This is reinforced by the roadblocks, sandbags and the sounds of gun and rocket fire that are mentioned repeatedly, yet almost glossed over by the characters, who seem to regard living in a war zone the normal routine of life.
    In Gilead, many people are infertile, the reason for this is revealed piecemeal, and we eventually discover that the mass infertility of the citizens of Gilead is due to female scientists who, when they knew they were destined for the brothel or the "Colonies," cooked up and gave themselves a virulent disease that rendered all of their sexual partners permanently sterile, and then spread to all of their sexual partners - perhaps a veiled reference to the AIDS epidemic, and the utter indifference of the Christian Right to do anything about the "sinner's plague.". This of course leads to the downfall of Gilead, which we discover only in the Coda, from the Native American Anthropologists who are analyzing these tapes at a conference. The ugly regime fell prey to its own hypocrisy, a subtle but meaningful point. Though never stated directly, the intimation of the ultimate destruction of the white man and his blind quest for power instead of ethics has lead to his extinction in the America's. The massive mortality rate and declining population, unable to recover because of an almost total inability of the men to father children, is mainly due to the ecological disasters that have made large parts of the country uninhabitable, and involved nuclear-plant accidents and leakages from toxic-waste sites and stockpiles of chemical weapons. Fertile women who were not parties to state-approved marriages are forced to engage in sexual reproduction for the benefit of the upper classes (the only ones supposed to have children). Virtually all children born fail to thrive, and of course this is also blamed on the women. Single women who cannot reproduce are exiled, which amounts to a slow execution. Although it is the men who are infertile, it is fundamental to the Gileadian worldview and power structure that they be regarded as beyond reproach. According to the state, the problem is not with the men, it is always with the women. This is the blind spot that ultimately destroys them.
    The title character is a woman who had married a divorced man before the revolution. As divorces are all retroactively declared void, she is designated an adulteress and faced with exile to the colonies unless she becomes a handmaid. She has proved her fertility by giving birth to a daughter who survived infancy, but the child had been taken from her after she and her husband and child make a failed attempt to escape Gilead and cross into Canada.
    The handmaids are women modeled after Zilpah and Bilhah in the Old Testament of the Bible, the slaves of the patriarch Jacob's wives Rachel and Leah. When the wives could not conceive, they had their handmaids lay with their husband to have children on their behalf. Like the biblical handmaids, the title character must have ritualized and completely cold sex with a man, with his wife holding her hands (sexual satisfaction is forbidden) and if a child is produced, it will be considered the offspring of the man and his wife. The title character's name is never given, but she is known as "Offred" or "of Fred" in reference to the man who owns her. Though she is never called a slave, she is a slave in a vicious regime that dehumanizes and dismisses women, rather like the Taliban.
    Handmaids who cannot conceive within three placements are deemed barren and sent to the dreaded colonies with all the other "Unwomen" - so that many genuinely fertile Handmaids seek to impregnate themselves using alternative methods. For example, when Offred receives a medical check-up, the doctor offers to "do the job" for her. Later she discovers through the quiet gossip of the oppressed that any woman who agreed to let the Doctor impregnate them has been hung. Similarly, Fred's wife Serena Joy sets Offred up with Nick the chauffeur, so that she may conceive and produce a child for Serena Joy and her husband and avoid deportation. This is terribly risky, as she and her partner could be publically hung is she is caught. The irony of falling in love and trying to survive in such a sick society is the main emotional thrust of this seminal work. The dual pressure to conceive, and the cameras in every corner of the house (she must sleep with her hands outside the covers) produces an insurmountable psychosis in the Handmaids. Offred frequently refers to the words secretly carved in Latin inside her closet where no one can see, presumably left be a former Handmaid - "Don't let the bastards wear you down."Subjugation of women
    In Gilead, women are stripped of their independence through the reversal of feminist accomplishments. They are no longer allowed to hold property, arrange their own affairs, make reproductive choices, read, wear make-up, control money, or choose their clothes. Women are segregated into categories, and dressed according to their social functions. Seven legitimate categories (Wives, Daughters, Widows, Aunts, Marthas, Handmaids, and Econowives), and two illegitimate functional categories (Unwomen and, secretly, prostitutes), are mentioned in the novel.
    Socially accepted and promoted categories of women in Gilead
    White women seem to be the default in the Gilead society. In the novel, the main non-white ethnic group mentioned are Blacks. Blacks, along with Jews, are quickly shuttled away per the fundamentalist Gileadan interpretations of the Bible. Blacks are labeled as Children of Ham while Jews are called Sons of Jacob. The reproductive value of white women in America is privileged over that of others. This is an underpinning assumption of the book. Women in Gilead are categorized “hierarchically according to class status and reproductive capacity” as well as “metonymically color-coded according to their function and their labor” (Kauffman 232).
    1. Wives are at the top social level permitted to women. They are women married to the Commanders who are the ruling circle of the new military dictatorship. They are often infertile for unknown reasons, possibly related to an unexplored ecological disaster or effects of a bioweapon. Wives always wear blue dresses. After the death of her husband, a Wife becomes a Widow, and must dress in black. It is implicitly suggested in the novel that Widows are also being sent to the colonies.
    2. Daughters are the natural or adopted children of Wives, and, though this is not mentioned, perhaps also of Econowives. They wear white until marriage (it is mentioned in the book that some of the daughters' being wed could have been no older than 14. Though this is not a set age.). The narrator's daughter has been adopted by an infertile Wife.
    3. Aunts train and monitor the Handmaids. In return they receive — relatively speaking — a degree of personal autonomy. It is a central organisational element of Gilead that women be used in the social repression of women. Aunts dress in brown.
    4. Handmaids are fertile women whose social function is to bear children for the Wives. Handmaids are subjected to a monthly reproductive ritual derived from the biblical story of Rachel and Leah's reproductive competition (Genesis 29:31–35; 30:1–24). Handmaids dress in a red habit with a white head-dress which obscures their peripheral vision. The Aunt system produces Handmaids, by reeducating fertile women who have broken Gileadean gender and social laws. Owing to the demands of Wives for fertile Handmaids, Gilead gradually increased the number of gender-crimes. However, the Aunt system attempts to promote the role of the Handmaid as an honorable one and seeks to legitimise it by removing any association with gender-criminality.
    5. Marthas are older infertile women whose compliant nature and domestic skills recommend them to a life of domestic servitude in the houses of the elite. There has been some conjecture that Marthas are Black, reflecting a long tradition of the American elite employing black slaves and domestic workers. However, since black people (referred to in the novel as the "Children of Ham") are described as having been relocated into bantustans, this is unlikely. Marthas dress in green smocks. The title of "Martha" is based on the Gileadite reading of the incident recounted in Luke 10:38-42, where Jesus visits Mary, sister of Lazarus, and Martha; Mary listens to Jesus while Martha is preoccupied "by all the preparations that had to be made."
    6. Econowives are women who have married relatively low-ranking men, meaning any man who does not belong to the ruling elite. Econowives are expected to perform all the female functions: domestic duties, companionship, child-bearing. The Econowife dress is multicoloured: red, blue and green to reflect these multiple roles.
    The division of labour between women engenders some resentment between categories. Marthas, Wives and Econowives perceive Handmaids as sluttish, and Econowives also resent their freedom from domestic work.

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