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    Lit:Major themes in The Handmaid's Tale 2

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    Rahma Sboui Gueddah

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    Lit:Major themes in The Handmaid's Tale 2

    Post by Rahma Sboui Gueddah on Fri Mar 09, 2007 4:43 pm

    Socially unacceptable categories of women in Gilead:
    Outside of society exist two further classes of women.
    1. Jezebels. Informally, the desires of Commanders for mistresses and sexual variety has resulted in a collective form of prostitution available only to them. The women who populate this system are informally known as Jezebels. This category includes some lesbians and attractive, educated women who were unable to adjust to handmaid status. These women are housed in the remains of a hotel and are also used by Commanders to entertain foreign dignitaries. Jezebels dress in the remnants of sexualized costumes from "the time before": cheerleaders' costumes, school uniforms, and Playboy Bunny costumes.
    2. Unwomen are sterile women, widows, feminists, lesbians, nuns and politically dissident women confined to the Colonies (both areas of agricultural production and deadly pollution). Handmaids who fail to produce a child within three chances are also sent here. Unwomen as a category embraces all women unable to fit within the Republic of Gilead's gender categories. Unlike members of society who transgress and break fundamental rules (who are murderously punished), unwomen are simply regarded as categorically incapable of social integration as their society rejects them utterly. Males who engage in homosexuality (or related acts) are declared Gender Traitors, and either executed, or sent to the Colonies to die a slow death. All those banished to the colonies, men or women, wear grey dresses.
    "The Ceremony":
    Human sexuality in Gilead is regulated by the stated belief that sex for pleasure is fundamentally degrading to women, though controlling women's sexuality is, at bottom, a means of denying them power and independence. Men are understood to desire sexual pleasure constantly but are obliged to abstain from all but marital sex for religio-social reasons. The social regulations are enforced by law, with corporal punishment inflicted for lesser offences and capital punishment sometimes inflicted by a group of Handmaids for greater offences. This latter ritual, known as particicution, is also a means of allowing the Handmaids to let off steam, particularly when the condemned is male.
    "The Ceremony" is a non-marital sexual act sanctioned solely for the purpose of reproduction and unites Wives, Aunts, Marthas and Handmaids in an urgent mission. Sex acts that defile the Ceremony (for example, sex with a Handmaid for pleasure) are punished with death. It is unknown what social rules regulate sexual relations between men and their Wives, but Commander Fred's marriage clearly suffers from a high degree of personal and sexual alienation. The sexual position of Econowives is inferred by references to Serena Joy's alienation from the world in which she was a "star," and by descriptions of wives who have been hung for various crimes. Though the narrator has little interaction with them, she is able to analyze what she perceives happening to them, and mourns that none of the various groups of women are able to empathize with the others, women are taught to hate and fear other women.
    The Ceremony reenacts in rather literal fashion the biblical passage in which Jacob's infertile wife Rachel says to him "Behold my maid Bilhah, go in unto her; and she shall bear upon my knees" (Genesis 29:3135; 30:124). The Gileadan variation on the passage has the Handmaid lying supine upon the Wife during the sex act itself.
    Offred describes the ceremony:
    My red skirt is hitched up to my waist though no higher. Below it the Commander is fucking. What he is fucking is the lower part of my body. I do not say making love, because this is not what he's doing. Copulating too would be inaccurate, because it would imply two people and only one is involved. Nor does rape cover it: nothing is going on here that I haven't signed up for.
    Atwood, pg.104-105

    Once a Handmaid is pregnant, she is venerated by her peers and by the Wives. After her baby is born, it is given to the Wife of her Commander, and she is reassigned to another household. The Handmaid's reward for giving birth is that she will never be sent to the Colonies, even if she does not conceive again. This suggests an illusion of justice within Gileadean society that supposedly gives some recompense for some women, however minimal. Atwood never explains what really happens to these women, but she does indicate that their "reward" is not what it seems to be. Moreover, these rewards may simply be a functional incentive for social cooperation, motivated more by a need to avoid disorder than by justice. Owing to the ecological disasters, approximately one quarter of all children born, who thrive, have physical defects. These are taken by the government, after which they are never heard of again. They are described by the Handmaids as shredders, a dysphemism that implies their death perhaps by euthanasia. During the length of the book, we are introduced to a number of pregnant Handmaids, yet we never see a child who survives long after birth. We do not even know the fate of the child Offred is carring by the end of the novel, presumably while she is making the tapes and waiting for rescue. Atwood's skillful writing allows the reader to presume a happy ending, if they need one, or a less sanguine conclusion - based on the inability of the Anthropoligist's to find any trace of her or her descendents.
    Subjection of women in pre-Gileadian society:
    Via Offred's memories, the novel indicates that pre-Gileadian society was not a heaven for women. This society was late 20th-century America as Atwood envisioned it developing towards the year 2000. Women feared physical and sexual violence, and despite long-running feminist campaigns (approximately 19702000 within the text), they had not achieved equality. Feminist campaigners, particularly radicals like Moira (Offred's long-time friend) and Offred's mother were persecuted by the state. In addition, mass commercialization of sexuality had occurred and prostitution had reached a nadir of "fast-food" and "home delivery" sexuality. Women outside of prostitution in "the former times" were subject to a socially-constructed vision of romantic love that encouraged serial monogamy in favor of men's social and sexual interests.
    Atwood is also mocking those who talk of 'traditional values'; for example, such leaders as Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan who suggested that women should return to being housewives. Atwood was eager to demonstrate that extremist views might result in fundamentalist totalitarianism that targets even the holders of such views. Serena Joy, formerly a television Gospel singer and preacher of traditional values, has been forced to give up her career and is clearly not content. Her preaching has destroyed her own life.
    On the other hand, in pre-Gileadean society and despite holding a University degree from an unspecified North American university, Offred was a menial white collar worker. Offred's coworkers were all women, but her boss was a man. Aside from having had to cope with oppressive cultural and social phenomena, women lacked full and meaningful control over their economic lives.
    Social regulation of human sexuality:
    As The Commander explains, the Gileadian elite has formulated an explanation of the failure of society in "the former times": women were too available to men. Men's ready sexual access to women led to violence and abuse and a decrease of authentic feeling. Gilead's solution is to limit men's access to women until they have proved themselves within social-ideological terms. Fred (supposedly the Commander's proper name) sees no problem in the fact that women are in both cases treated as the property of men, in the former case as individual property and in the latter case as social property. Fred also makes it clear that women are considered to be intellectually and emotionally inferior; in Gilead, they are not permitted to read and female children are not educated, since the view is that allowing women to become literate was a great mistake of the past.
    Sumptuary laws:
    The sumptuary laws of Gilead are complex. All lower status individuals are regulated by sumptuary dress laws. Women, in particular, are divided into castes by their dress. Men too are regulated but equipped with military or paramilitary uniforms: constrained but also empowered. Only rare civilians (increasingly persecuted) and Commanders seem to be free of sumptuary restrictions. This freedom itself is indicative of power.Additionally, those punished with death are dressed for the occasion: priests in long, forbidding robes and doctors in consulting gowns.


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