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The Handmaid's Tale: Plot Analysis

Essay by   •  February 15, 2011  •  Essay  •  1,924 Words (8 Pages)  •  2,688 Views

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The Handmaid's Tale is written by Margaret Atwood and was originally published by McClelland and Stewart in 1985. The novel is set in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The Handmaid's Tale explores themes of a new totalitarian theocratic state society that is terrifying and horrific. Its main concentration is on the subjugation of women in Gilead, and it also explores the plethora of means by which the state and agencies gain control and domination against every aspect of these women's lives. Restrictive dress codes also play an important factor as a means of social order and control in this new society.

Offred, not her real name but the name given to her by her occupation, is a Handmaid in the Republic of Gilead. The Republic of Gilead is a totalitarian dictatorship and theocratic state that has won victory by means of military coup, thus replacing the former United States of America. This new Republic is ruled through Christian Biblical Fundamentalism with an extremist restriction and enforcement on all aspects of social-economical and political live.

In Gilead, perhaps because of the former United States past histories of reckless miss care for the environment and secret biological experiments there is result of dangerously low reproduction rates. The population is extremely low and people in Gilead find it very hard to get pregnant and bear successful healthy babies to perpetuate the species.

To this end, Handmaids are assigned to bear children for Commanders and other Offices or members of the elite that cannot conceive naturally. The protagonists and narrator is a female named Offred. The given occupational Handmaid alias of Offred simply means she is 'Of her Commander who is named Fred'. Offred is an intellectual woman, she is also kind, caring, and very thoughtful and perceptive. Unlike her mother, Offred is not a feminist advocate, and has displayed her un-comfort for activism several times throughout the novel. She had a former husband named Luke, and they had a little daughter together before the new regime took over.

Offred's purpose is to serve the Commander and his wife, Serena Joy. When Offred is at the crucial point in her menstrual cycle when she is most fertile, the Commander must have passionless sex with Offred in order to accomplish the objective of impregnating her. This is Offred's third attempt; she was not successful with the two Commanders before this one. If Offred fails again she will be declared an Unwoman and sent to the colonies for hard labor. Offred's freedom is completely restricted. She can not have the door to her room totally shut, and she can leave the house only on specific purposeful trips such as to visit the wall or for purchasing grocery items. All the while, Gilead's secret police forces, known only as 'Eyes', are scrutinizing every move she makes.

As the female narrators reads the story to the audience we realize that she often has flashbacks to former times, when the United States was still a nation. She recalls the happier times she had with her mother, her close friends, and her lover and husband Luck. In the Pre-Gilead period, she also had a little daughter, June, with Luck. Offred's mother was a single mother and feminist activist. Her best friend was Moira, who was also fiercely independent.

Using the military, the founders of Gilead rose to power by successfully doing a coup and mass assassination of the president and members of US Congress. They declared a new Constitution and a new sovereignty while overthrowing the former regime. Soon they began to crack down on women's rights, and later restricted and forbade women to acquire or have property or to hold jobs. Seeing the desperate situation, Offred and Luke decided to pack up and cross the border to flee to free Canada, but they were caught and separated from each other, each sent to some part of Gilead to service the new Empire.

Gilead government voided the marriage between Offred and Luke, sighting reasons that Luke was formerly marriage to another woman. Luke's fate was ultimately unknown, but Offred was sent to the Red Center, or where is officially known as Rachel and Leah Re-education Center (for Biblical reasons). At the center, women were ingrained into the propaganda of Gilead's ideology in order to well prepare them for their coming duties as Handmaids for the elite. Aunt Lydia was their supervisor, often telling these women that they should be subservient to men and that their sole concerned was with bearing children. Aunt Lydia also believed this kind of social order actually offers women more respect and safety than the pre-Gilead society did.

Moira, Offred's best friend in the pre-Gilead era, soon escapes from the Red Center. Offred doesn't know what becomes of her best friend until much later on in the novel.

Offred's life soon becomes boring and routine after being assigned to Commander Fred's household. She is paired with Ofglen and they often shop together. This pairing off is to insure mutual crosschecking, to make sure everyone is being watched and no one breaks any of the rules of Gilead. Sometimes Offred and Ofglen also visit the morbid Wall outside, which used to be Harvard University. Now on the wall the bodies of rebels and dissents are hung and displayed for all to see. Sometimes these Handmaids are required to observe the "Ceremony". This is where the Commander first reads to everyone from his Bible, and then has sex with Offred while his wife Serena Joy watches in the back. One of the major breaks in Offred's routine is when the Commander sends Nick, his chaffer, to summon Offred to come see him in his study the following the Ceremony. Soon the Commander and Offred are well acquainted and they visit each other regularly. The Commander makes a usual and fetish request that Offred plays the illegal game of "Scramble" with him. In return for the favor, the Command lets Offred have some fringe benefits such as using hand lotion and looking at old magazines. At the end of these secret meetings, he asks her to kiss him before parting. Offred obeys.

At one point, Ofglen reveals to Offred that she is a member of "Mayday". Mayday is a codename for an underground network that services the dual purpose of helping desperate and oppressed people escape and also as a means to overthrow and bring down the Gilead nation.

As time passes by Offred and the Commander become more than just impersonal persons and their sexual act is more than just a business transaction. This is of course unbeknownst to the Commanders wife, Serena Joy. Sometimes at night Offred would even inquire the Command on the new order Gilead created. When Offred

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