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Sapp Drew Sapp Julia Raybould-Rodgers English 103 July 29, 2012 Womens Oppression In The Handmaids Tale,

Margaret Atwood creates a vivid and disturbing image of a dystopian society where war has ravaged the country and women have been completely subjugated to the oppression of the government, more specifically the prominent male figures. Women can no longer own property, have jobs, or do nearly anything other than the classic, domestic responsibilities. Imagine being stripped of everything, even a name. In The Handmaids Tale, Margaret Atwood uses symbolism and language to illustrate womens oppression. Throughout the novel, Atwood uses a number of symbols that support this notion that women and their individualism are being suppressed. In Gilead, women have been put down in all aspects of life. Women are no longer allowed to own property, hold jobs, or even read and

write as they please. It may appear that some women have control in respect to their homes, but this is a trivial and somewhat comical thought. Only women of higher status, such as those married to Commanders, hold any sort of superiority over other women and even at that, it is a false sense of purpose that maintains this meager hierarchy among women, a hierarchy that is completely overshadowed by the mountain of male dominance. This can be seen in the colors that Atwood uses to describe peoples position in Gileadean society. The colors are a symbolic of power and the lack thereof. For example, black is symbolic of wealth and power; the commanders car, the van the police drive. Identification by color is a technique the government

Sapp employs to suppress women and maintain control. The most symbolic of these colors is the red of the Handmaids habits. The Handmaids are by far the most integral part of their society. With the number of fertile women dangerously low and birthrates plummeting, it is the Handmaids duty to ensure the survival of their society. The significance is exemplified by the

fear of failure. Offred, the protagonist of the story who is also a Handmaid, says that each month she would . . . watch for blood, fearfully, for when it comes it means failure (Atwood 73). Atwood once again emphasizes the significance of the color red, using it to symbolize failure. The Handmaids are meant to reproduce and each time they menstruate, they are reminded yet again that they have failed to do their job. This fear of failure stems from the consequences that could ensue. At Offreds doctor appointment, it is made clear just how much Handmaids fear failure as Offred and the doctor converse: Lots of women do it, he goes on. You want a baby, dont you? Yes, I say. Its true, and I dont ask why, because I know. Give me children, or else I die. Theres more than one meaning to it. Youre soft, he says. Its time. Today or tomorrow would do it, why waste it? Itd only take a minute, honey. What he called his wife, once; maybe he still does, but really its a generic term. We are all honey. . . His hand stops. Think about it, he says. Ive seen your chart. You dont have a lot of time left. But its your life. Handmaids are suppressed to such an extent that they will go to nearly any length to survive. The government has given Handmaids an ultimatum: conceive children, or die. It is ironic that red has such a strong connotation with love and romance, through which a child is normally conceived, but Atwood has given red a strong negative connotation. Red is a poignant reminder

Sapp of the Handmaids suppression and the consequences that they could face. There is also a parallel that can be drawn from Nathaniel Hawthornes, The Scarlet Letter. Just as Hester

Prynnes red A was symbolic of her adultery, so to are the red habits of the Handmaids. Even though it is their job, the Handmaids are looked at with contempt by the Wives of the Commanders due to the adulterous nature of their work. Adulterous though it may be, there is nothing secretive about it. Another major symbol throughout the novel is the Eyes. Eyes are related to seeing, or more specifically, watching. There is a pervasive feeling that there is constantly someone who is watching. This idea is very similar to the idea of Big Brother in George Orwells 1984. It is this feeling of being watched that is connected with the Eyes of God, the secret police of Gilead. The Eyes are yet another way the government maintains control and suppresses women. Control is once again maintained through fear. As Offred approaches the house and notices Nick looking at her, she thinks to herself, Perhaps it was a test, to see what I would do. Perhaps he is an Eye (Atwood 18). It is the unknown that makes the fear of the Eyes even stronger. This fear is further exemplified when the black van pulls up next to Offred and Ofglen. When the man next to them is taken, she feels . . . relief. It wasnt me (Atwood 170). Anyone could be an Eye; because of this the Handmaids refrain from extended interaction or suspicious behavior, especially out in public. It is their fear of being taken that keeps them controlled. This is also seen in the way Offred and Ofglen leave one another, Under His Eye, she says. The right farewell (Atwood 45). The idea of seeing and being seen is toyed with throughout the novel, especially for Handmaids such as Offred. The Eyes are representative of the eye of God, Gods all knowing and eternally watchful eye. The Handmaids are under constant supervision, even in their own homes. As Offred says, one never knows who is a true believer, and so one must be

Sapp cautious, especially of those closest, like the people at home. At the same time the Handmaids are being watched, they are expected to see nothing. They are shielded from anything vulgar or pertaining to sexuality. They have large, winged hats that obscure their vision. They can no longer read or write and are not permitted to view it, this is seen by the symbols that are now used for store signs rather than words. Sight is a huge concept that Atwood symbolically represents through the Eyes of God. A more subtle symbol is the University. The University has been changed into the

complete opposite of what it once used to be. It has been taken over by the Eyes and is used as a detention center, a converted police station of sorts. A university is recognized as a place of intellectual freedom, a place where people are free to learn and discuss and explore, but a detention center is the antithesis of what the University once was. In addition to that, the wall that surrounds the University is the infamous wall upon which the dead bodies of those that have committed crimes hang. In addition to that, the Salvagings, public executions, take place on the lawn. Offred observes that, The white steps going up are still the same, the main entrance is unaltered. Theres a wooden stage erected on the lawn, something like the one they used every spring, for commencement, in the time before (Atwood 272). Offred frequently reminisces upon a time when she attended school. She remembers studying and reading books; she remembers what it was like to learn. With the University being such a prominent structure in the city, it is only more oppressive to see it in its current state. It is a constant reminder of the power and control that the government has over its subjects. It is yet another sentiment of the past, a past that Offred, nor any of the other women, will have the chance to relive. Continuing with the idea of learning, language and social interactions have been stunted.

Sapp Interaction among one another in public is strictly limited. There are predetermined, appropriate phrases for greetings and farewells. Blessed be the fruit, she says to me, the accepted greeting among us. May the Lord open, I answer, the accepted response (Atwood 19). They are limited in what they can say without endangering themselves around possible

Eyes. It is once again reminiscent of George Orwells 1984 and the idea of newspeak. It is yet another method of control the government uses. The government has also stripped women of their names. Women are identified by their roles, such as Martha, Wife, or Handmaid. Handmaids are further stripped of their identity. Handmaids are identified by who their Commanders are, Offred, Ofglen, Ofwarren, etc. They are merely the property of whom they serve. This strips women of any sense of identity or individualism. This not only discourages independent thought, but it makes women appear to be dispensable. Once one Handmaid has served her time and moved on, another one takes her place and life resumes. Women are oppressed in every way, even in language and interactions. In Gilead, the government has taken every possible step to suppress women, both physically and mentally. Women have become nothing more than tools for men, from domestic chores, to reproduction. Not only that, women have lost all sense of self-identity and individualism. They can no longer read or write and they have been given demeaning titles representative only of they domestic purpose. The injustice towards women is as poignant and blunt as the red habits that adorn the Handmaids. Margaret Atwoods innate use of symbolism and unique simplification of language depict the injustice and oppression from which women suffer.

Sapp Works Cited Atwood, Margaret. The Handmaid's Tale. New York: First Anchor, 1998. Print.

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