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EBWP - The Handmaid's Tale

English Literature 9695
Exam Based Writing Practice
----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------Name: Vinuthi Dheeraratne
01 hour
The Handmaid’s Tale - Margaret Atwood
Answer the question.
(a) To what extent do you agree that The Handmaid’s Tale expresses
ambivalence about feminism?
Margaret Atwood’s ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ is an account of the future, a dystopia, where
pollution and radiation have rendered countless women sterile, and the birthrates of North
America are dangerously declining. A puritan theocracy now controls the former United States,
now called the Republic of Gilead led by the Sons of Jacob. Handmaids are recruited to
repopulate the state and this world that Atwood creates seems absurd and near impossible as
women are kept under slavery for reproductive purposes. Though the novel is mostly seen as
a femisnit novel, the protagonist of the novel seems to be indecisive on her ideologies of
Though the first person female narrative of Offred provides a feminist message in the
novel, a closer look at her account of her life shows that she is not the feminist that we would
have expected her to be. Unlike strong feminist characters like Moira nd Offred’d mother,
Offred conforms to the set standards of women and we see how she takes upon the assigned
roles for women prior to the rise of the regime. We see how Offred takes her mother’s strong
drive for her feminist movements “unneccesary” and how she laughs at her mother’s ideas of
having to live under a certain prototype. “You young people don’t appreciate things, she’d say.
You don’t know what we had to go through, just to get where you are”, Offred’s mother fears
the consequences of slacking in this area, a fear that would just prove to be justified, as she is
sent to the colonies after the creation of the colonies.
Even after the regime is established, we see how Offred does not show any active
defiance. Unlike Moira, who escapes the Red Centre despite being punished earlier, Offred
decides to give into the regime. The novel reveals how Moira used to be a feminist in the time
before and Offred’s flashbacks show instances of her as an active personality. “ Now, said
Moira. You don’t need to paint your face, it’s only me. What’s your paper on? I just did one on
date rape”. This shows how Moira is in fact a feminsit as she clearly critiques the treatment of
women in the society.
Furthermore, Offred’s fellow Handmaid, Ofglen is another woman who is seemingly
much braver than Offred. Ofglen is involved in the resistance and she is the one who pushes
their relationship beyond what is generally accepted among Handmaids. She gives Offred
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information about the resistance and wants Offred to pass on the information received from her
Commander, which is something that Offred does not dare.
Though all the three women, Moira, Ofglen and Offred’s mother are presented as three
failures we see no doubt in their sense of feminism which is rather unlikely in Offred. Moira is
sent to a brothel after being captured while she was trying to escape, Offred’s mother is sent to
the colonies while Ofglen hangs herself. Offred decides to choose survival over defiance. The
readers tend to see Offred as more of an anti-feminist, when Ofglen hangs herself before “The
Eyes” came for her, Offred is relived since Ofglen then cannot reveal anything about her. “She
did it before they came. I feel great relief. I feel thankful to her. She has died so that I may live.
I will mourn later”. Offred does not feel any guilt or express any sadness, but feels relief as she
knows that she is safe at the moment. Relief at the death of another woman, is certainly not what
the readers would have expected from a feminist.
Offred’s reliance on other characters make her seem more as chauvinist. Offred
surrenders to survive. All her life she has been surrounded by women who fight and sacrifice
themselves for the cause, but she has not been able to join them. As a result, she gives in to
Gilead discourse in order to survive, while the women who do not surrender end up dead. Offred
wants Gilead to fall, but she does not have the power to participate in making it happen.
Consequently she relies on other women. We also she how she not only depends on women but
also on men. At Atwood’s vague ending we see how instead of finding her own way out of
gathering up enough power to end her life, Offred decides to seek Nick’s help, despite not
confirming if he was from the resistance or an Eye.
Offred’s drive to get what she needs, in terms of sexuality, lust and love, restricts her
thoughts as a feminist. We see how before she falls in love with Nick, she was quite willing to
pass on information about the Commander, but then after the entire episode with Nick, she
becomes reluctant and in fact has no interest in the resistance or whatsoever. For the sake of her
survival, Offred decides to be a mere sex object for both the Commander and Nick, which we
as readers would have hoped to see otherwise.
However, despite being seen more in the negative light for acting as the typical feminist,
Offred does have a sense of feminism and defiance in herself. In the Republic of Gilead. women
are not allowed to read or write. In a place where even the shops have sign boards with images
instead of letters, Offred manages to record her life in Gilead. Offred's way of defiance is
certainly passive. We see her going against the regime mainly through her thoughts. Her
memories of her past life as a librarian, mother and as a wife shows how she is still not ready to
completely surrender herself. Her passive acts such as thoughts of going against the
Commander, fantasising about him and Nick and silently cursing and feeling power over Serena
Joy, shows how she does try to be rather resistant to the staring patriarchal energies around her.
Offred’s finding of the Latin phrase “Nolite te bastardes carborundorum”, “Don’t let the bastards
grind you down”, and her treatment to ut as a prayer also shows that sense of feminism in her,
which keeps her from fully transforming into a Handmaid under the regime.
In a totalitarian regime, where women are treated as mere objects and where they are
turned against each other, Offed’s efforts undeniably show a sense of feminism and defiance,
but as readers we surely expect more from the protagonist. Just like Atwood, makes it rather
unclear if Offred is a defiant female like Moira, Offred’s mother and Ofglen, or a brainwashed
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female of the Gileadean society like Serena Joy, we as readers find it hard to say if Offred
functions more as a femisnt or as an anti-feminist.
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