Exploring a new literary form feminist dystopias
Margaret Atwood s novel The Handmaid s Tale differs in many aspects from traditional feminist writing. During the liberation time in the 1960 s and 1970 s many women discovered utopia as a new literary form of writing. This branch of literature was long dominated by male writers who described ideal alternative worlds somewhere in the outer space. In these works of fiction, the role of women was frequently peripheralised.
Feminist utopias can be seen as a reaction to the political liberating phase of the 1960 s and early 1970 s. Stimulated by the liberating spirit of the counter-revolution, this formerly male dominated literary form was newly explored (neu endeckt) by women writers, who focused on the role of women in our society. Many female writers felt that advances such the Equal Right Amendment and the Equal Pay Act would not only bring positive changes for women, but could mean a change to the better for the whole world. With women getting more power and influence on the economic and political level, they hoped for a positive influence on world politics. The sexual liberation challenged also heterosexual love, substituting it with lesbianism or bisexualism. Therefore, many fictious works were created by female writers, depicting ideal worlds led and governed by women.
The political background of Atwood s dystopia
'The Handmaid's Tale' is less a reaction to the liberating phase of the 60 s. but can be seen as an reaction to the growing political power of the Religious Right in the 1980 s. In her book, which was published four years after Reagan took office, Atwood projects an anti-utopia in which fundamentalists establish a theocracy in Boston, Massachusetts. In the new republic of Gilead, few elitist men oppress all women.
Atwood sensed that Reagan s politics did not only prevent further gains for women, but could even turn back the clock. When Reagan took office in 1981, many people hoped that he would get the country there were it was once. Americans at that time were disappointed by the failures of government, both on the international and national level.
Some political leaders blamed the moral and economic decay on the women. They linked the failure of men in politics, economics or at home to the emancipation of women, who had found a job outside of the home. Other conservatives blamed working mothers for juvenile delinquency because they left their children at home without proper guidance. Furthermore, women were made responsible for the dropping birth rate when they opted rather for a good career than for a baby.
Being a Canadian writer, Margaret Atwood observed the change in American politics with a critical eye of an Outsider. In 'The Handmaid's Tale' she links the backlash to the feminist movement to the conservative fundamentalism. Her book, she says, can be seen as the logical consequence of what was happening in the 1980 s during Reagan s presidency. The Reagan administration cut many social programs for day care centres, forcing many women to stay at home. Other programs were supported only under the condition that the father was working. Atwood sensed that Reagan supporters wanted women back to where they were once back behind the hearth. Unlike a feminist utopia, she does not offer a positive counter-model but rather a negative future world. Dystopias can be characterized as a thought experiment, which isolates certain social trend and exaggerates them to make clear their most negative qualities. In the case of 'The Handmaid's Tale', Atwood extrapolates the tendencies of the rising Religious Rights, and emphasizes the negative aspects of an all-women world controlled by an elitist patriarchy.
What s new about Atwood s dystopia
Although Atwood s dystopia follows the tradition of negative utopias, her work differs clearly from other dystopias like Huxley s Brave New World. Whereas in the latter technology and science oppress humans, it is men who oppress humans in Atwood works. In fact, we can differentiate two distinct strands of dystopian fiction. In works like Player Piano or Brave New World the scientific development is emphasized. The technological advances demonstrate the capability to understand, dominate and control nature, but the same advances are dominating and controlling people as well. In many dystopias this fear of domination by humanity by its machines is the central focus. The other type of dystopia deals with the oppressing force of state regulations and political power, which is displayed for example in Orwell s 1984. In 'The Handmaid's Tale' Atwood goes one step further and links the political power to religion. The principal focus is the exercise of religious totalitarianism. Nietzsche argues that science and Christianity are more alike than different, since both involve an overarching and fundamental drive toward truth. The most life denying drive, says Nietzsche, is the drive toward univocal truth that categorizes both science and religion, a drive that can also be equated to a quest form mastery and dominance of the kind that makes totalitarian regimes makes possible. For Nietzsche both science and religion impose simplistic interpretations on an infinitely complex world, confining the individual within a limited sphere that shuts out alternative possibilities. (8)
In 'The Handmaid's Tale' Atwood describes a totalitarian phallocentric theocracy called Gilead, which can be located around Cambridge, Massachusetts. On top of the monolithic theocracy are the Commanders of the Faithful, who have all the power to control Gilead. Other men are employed as soldiers, called Angels, or agents, called Eyes and Guardians. Their solely purpose is to control the state. The Commanders are married to postmenopausal wives and live in neat Victorian houses. Since nuclear pollution and the Aids-epidemic caused a dropping of the Caucasian population, fertile women are recruited by the state to serve breeding purposes. Those women called Handmaids are first trained in Red Centers by Aunts, and then posted in households of Commanders and their Wife. During a monthly ceremonial the Commander copulates with the Handmaid. Pregnancy is the social goal, and if not successfully completed, the women get deported as Unwomen to the colonies to clean up nuclear waste.
Offred, the protagonist, is a handmaid who has already her second posting. Her real name is never mentioned. Throughout the tale she is called Offred. The patronymic coined with the pronoun of and the first name of the Commander of the present posting strips off of every personality and identity of the Handmaids.
Gilead and its multiple voices.
Gilead is a society in transition. Offred tells about her life and the life of other women in Gilead, but also remembers the times before the revolution. In her accounts she remembers her mother and her friend Moira, and in telling their stories Offred gives her voice to several women and persons in her tale. Atwood chose to name the new theocracy Gilead, which means Hall of Witness in Hebrew. Offred serves as the witness of the present totalitarian regime, although the professors in the epilogue criticize her for not mentioning certain details about the structure of the government and politics. At the same time, she gives accounts about the time and women before the new system.
Often she remembers her mother who belonged to the early feminist groups. So-called first stage feminist, influenced by Betty Friedan s work The feminine mystique , broke with the traditional role of women as housewives and mothers. Afters years of being enclaved in neat little suburban houses, women gradually felt that this could not be all in their lives. The post-war years had pushed women back behind the hearth, defining a strong black and white scheme about what was considered feminine and unfeminine. Women happiness was strongly defined by marriage, children and household chores, but the general disillusionment about their lives was increasing. Betty Friedan argued in her book that in was high time for women to go their own way. She encouraged women to give up household chores and to pursue a professional career in order to develop a personality and identity on their own.
Therefore, the logical conclusion for many women was the total rejection of the traditional role of women. The emancipated women of the 1960 s and 1970 s had a job and did not rely on a man for a living. The typical feminist did not care for a pretty house and household chores. Offred s mother recaptures the feminist activist of that time. As we learn from her tale, her mother never stayed in an apartment too long although she d stopped moving every few years (178) and she did not care for the typically feminine things like doing the household or sewing and knitting. My mother did not knit or anything like that. But whenever she would bring things back from the cleaner s, her good blouses, winter coats, she d save up the safety pins and make them into a chain. (204). Friedan often argued that women should not waste their time by doing chores that could be easily done by machines or neglected.
Many feminists felt that women should be independent from women, and in fact, the Equal Pay Act and other political measures gave the possibility to women to live on their own and not necessarily depend on a man or husband. Offred s mother chose to live on her own and she describes:
Anyway what do I need it [making yourself pretty for a man] for, I don t want a man around, what use are they except for ten second s worth of half babies. A man is just a woman s strategy for making other women. Not that your father wasn t a nice guy and all, but he wasn t up to fatherhood. Not that I expected it of him. Just do the job, then you can bugger of, I said, I make a decent salary, I can afford day care. So he went to the coast and sent Christmas cards.
In fact, made feminists at that time thought to do better without a man. After the years of oppression and being little more than a sex slave and cleaning women, many opted for a life on their own and among their female friends. Also Moira, Offred s college friend, decided to prefer women (172) and explains that a relationship between two women as opposed to a heterosexual relationship was different, because the balance of power was equal between women so sex was an even-steven transaction. Moira opted clearly for an all-women world, which in fact is often depicted in feminist utopias like in Gilman s Herland . Nevertheless, the protagonist at that time realized already that if Moira thought she could create Utopia by shutting herself up in a women-only enclave she was sadly mistaken . And Offred explains why: because men were not just going to go away. You [One] couldn t just ignore them. (172). Indeed, many female writers experimented with the idea of non-heterosexual relationships as the norm. There are three distinct forms of feminist utopias: all-women societies like the one in Herland, a society of biological androgynes or a genuily egalitarian two-sex society. After the Niederlage of first stage feminism and feminist utopias women realized that it was not that easy.
Furthermore, feminist wanted to strip off the image of women as the traditional provider and Versorger of children. The protest against women as childbearing machines and good mother only followed the baby-boom period of the 1950 s. During post-war year the American government encouraged women to bear as many children in order to increase the country s prosperity and prospect for the future. But the role as mother did not satisfy most women, and they became disillusioned about their role. Unfortunately, most women did not have much choice, since most clinics did not offer abortion. Furthermore, conservative supporters argued that abortion and modern family planning were immoral. Hence, many women felt trapped in this political and religious situation. Feminists argued therefore that the first step to free women from this situation was to legalize abortion and give the right to choose. Later, conservative right wing politicians called them anti-family. Also mothers who chose to have their babies after their career, like Offred s mother, were blamed to be doing so against nature. Offred remembers the problem her mother had when she had her as a baby:
I had you when I was thirty-seven [ ] You were a wanted child, all right, and did I get shit from some quarters! My oldest buddy Tricia accused me of being a pronatalist, the bitch. Jealousy, I put that down to. Some of the others were okay though. But when I was six months pregnant, a lot of them started sending me these articles about how the birth-defect rate went zooming up after thirty-five. Just what I needed. And stuff about how hard it was to be a single parent. Fuck, that shit, I told them, I ve started this and I m going to finish it. At the hospital they wrote down Aged Primipara on the chart, I caught them in the act. That s what they call you when it s your first baby over thirst, over thirty for god-sake. Garbage, I told them, biologically I m twenty-two, I could run rings around you any day. I could have triplets and walk out of here while you were still trying to get up off the bed. (120).
This passage emphasizes that not all feminist held the same opinion of how the women s lives should look like. Many feminists wanted to be independent from man and children and chose to live alone or enter a lesbian or bisexual relationship. They, like Tricia, felt that other women who still yearned for some family betrayed their fightings. Furthermore, as a result of having the free choice whether to have a baby or a career, the birth rate was even more going down. Although many conservative politicians tried to encourage women to have more children by supporting child-care centers and giving tax-reduction for each child, fewer women were having more than one baby. Soon, feminists were entitled anti-family , and the religious right started pro-family programs and right for life initiatives, throwing a bad light on the feminist who still marched for abortion laws.
Feminists not only wanted to get away with the image of women as children-bearer, but also with focus on women as sexual objects. Feminist activist blamed the media, especially women magazines and pornographic magazines, to transport a wrong idea of the modern women. Women should not serve as mere sexual objects, which have to wear make-up and short skirts to appear attractive to some men. Feminist demonstrated their discontent with those magazines by burning them. As a child, Offred accompanied her mother to one of the then popular magazine burnings:
But there were some women burning a book, that s what she was really there for. To see her friends, she d lied to me, Saturdays were supposed to be my day. I turned away from her, sulking, towards the ducks, but the fire drew me back.
There were some men, too, among the women, and the books were magazines. They must have poured gasoline, because the flames shot high, and then they began dumping magazines, from boxes, not too many at a time. Some of them were chanting; onlookers gathered. Their faces were happy, ecstatic almost [ ] The women handed me one of the magazines. It had a pretty woman on it, with no clothes on, hanging from the ceiling by a chain wound around her hands. I looked at it with interest. It didn t frighten me. I thought she was swinging, like Tarzan on TV. Don t let her see it, said my mother. Here, she said to me, toss it in, quick. I threw the magazine into the flames. It riffled open in the wind of its burning; big flakes of paper came loose, sailed into the air, still on fire, parts of women s bodies, turning to black ash, in the air, before my eyes. (38f)
Ironically, this preoccupation with pornography had an unwanted result: it put the radical feminists on the same side as the conservatives who were too against pornography because they felt it was immoral to show women naked.
Hence, we can assume that Offred s mother marched side by side in their anti-porn marches next to the fundamentalists. One such character in the 'The Handmaid's Tale' is Serena Joy, the Commander s Wife. When Offred is posted with her, she instantly recognizes her as a former gospel singer and speechmaker on TV.
Serena Joy was never her real name, not even than. Her real name was Pam. I read that in a profile on her, in a news magazine, long after I d first watched her singing while my mother slept in on Sunday mornings. By that time she was worthy a profile: Time or Newsweek it was, it must have been. She wasn t singing anymore by then, she was making speeches. She was good at it. Her speeches were about he sanctity of the home, about how women should stay home. (45)
Serena Joy depicts the typical women of the religious right. Disgusted by the liberating spirit of the 1960 s and 1970 s, some women felt that it was not right for young women to leave their children and husbands to go off to work. Furthermore, they felt the new clothing and hairstyles too vulgar. In fact, many women spoke up against the women s movement. Women like (see Faludi) said that every woman should and can find her fulfilment in life in marriage and children. Ironically, those women described by Faludi in Backlash , were all women who pursued a professional career as spokeswomen and had at the same time their husbands at home who would cook and take care of the children and the household. While they were talking against the immoral and bad influence of feminist women in the social network, they ernteten the fruits of their sisters. Even Serena Joy had a wonderful career as a gospel singer and TV speeches maker and must have been constantly on the road, although she praised women staying at home. Paradoxically, the maxims she called for did not seem to suit her as much as she thought it should do. When the Republic of Gilead actually banned all women to their houses, Serena Joy does not seem as happy as she preached women were when thrown back to domesticity. She feels trapped in what she preached once so eagerly:
She doesn t make speeches anymore. She has become speechless. She stays in her home, but it doesn t seem to agree with her. How furious she must be, now that she s been taken at her word.
But not all women are unhappy and trapped in the system of Gilead. The Aunts who educate the recruited handmaids in the Red Center seem to enjoy their new powerful role in society. Although their equipment is not more than a simple cattle prod as weapon, they celebrate their power over the handmaids. Aunt Lydia in 'The Handmaid's Tale' is an old, verbittert women who criticizes the former time as immoral. In her view, the new system should celebrated as the greatest victory of women. She argues that women in former times had to dress up and look good to catch a man, that they had to many possibilities they could chose from. In Gilead, women should be happy because they system tells them clearly what their role and function in society is, whereas many women back then were not sure anymore about their role in society. Aunt Lydia celebrates also the victory over women who were merely regarded as sexual objects:
Sometimes the movie she [Aunt Lydia] showed would be an old porno film, from the seventies or eighties. Women kneeling, sucking penises or guns, women tied up or chained or with dog collars around their necks, women hanging from trees, or upside-down, naked, with their legs held apart, women being raped, beaten up, killed. Once we had to watch a woman being slowly cut into pieces, her fingers and breasts snipped off with garden shears, her stomach slit open and her intestines pulled out.
Consider the alternatives, said Aunt Lydia. You see what things used to be like? That was what the thought of women, then. Her voice trembled with indignation. (118)
Aunt Lydia tries to convince the handmaids that their new situation is much better than their life before: There is more than one kind of freedom, said Aunt Lydia. Freedom to and freedom from. In the days of anarchy, it was freedom to. Now you are being given freedom from. Don t underrate it. (24). What Aunt Lydia means by this is that women should consider themselves happier to have a singular and clearly defined role and function in the Gileadean society. Being given the freedom to [choose] can be extremely distorting for women. Next to the radical feminists who choose to be alone or live among their sisters, there were many women who wanted to have family and pursue a professional career. Soon they had to realize that both, family and job, was hardly to bringen unter einem Hut. They wanted to have it all , but within a male structured and dominated society this was almost impossible.
Also the Commander explains that the situation for women turned to the better:
We ve given them more than we ve taken away, said the Commander. Think of the trouble they had before. Don t you remember the singles bars, the indignity of high school blind dates? The meat market. Don t you remember the terrible gap between the one who could get a man easily and the ones who couldn t? Some of them were desperate, they starved themselves thin or pumped their breast full of silicone, had their noses cut off. Think of the human misery.
He waved a hand at his stacks of old magazines. They were always complaining. Problems this, problems that. Remember the ads in the Personal columns, Bright attractive women, thirty-five This way they all get a man, nobody s left out. And then if they did marry, they could be left with a kid, two kids, the husbands might just get fed up and take off, disappear, they d have to go on welfare. Or else he d stay around and beat them up. Or if they had a job, the children in day care or left with some brutal ignorant woman, and they d have to pay for those themselves, out of their wretched little pay checks. Money was the only measure of worth, for everyone, they got no respect as mothers. No wonder they were giving up on the whole business. This way they re protected; they can fulfil their biological destinies in peace. With full support and encouragement. (221-2)
Probably, a passage like this was the official justification what the Commanders and leaders of Gilead did to the women. Under the pretence to protect them, they oppressed them. This passage also emphasizes that the failure of feminism was solely blamed on women. Furthermore, the Commander focuses on the women as the ones who were guilty of divorces, or children in day care.
Many women had to realize that the male bias of society could not just be ignored or excluded. Also Betty Friedan realized that it was wrong to establish a women s world but according to male standards. Since women were given the feeling of inferiority and inequality, women tried to be as men to overcome the inferiority and inequality. Friedan explains that the logical consequence was in reality that women not only had to be a perfect mother, but also to be successful at work in order to compete with men in the workforce. Friedan concludes in her second book The second stage published in 1981:
The growing chorus expresses a personal disillusionment with male-defined careers, a faintheartedness about having it all , a rebellion against superwoman standards, a sense of malaise or guilt or regret about prices paid in marriage or with children and a recurring these of not wanting to be like man. (1981,349)
Friedan concludes that not equality of man and woman should be aimed at, but the difference between the two sexes and genders need to be affirmed. Women s goal should not be becoming like a man , but should focus on the creation of an identity of their own. She admits that
First stage feminism denied real differences between women and men except for the sexual organs themselves. Some feminists still do not understand that true equality is not possible unless those differences between men and women are affirmed and until values based on female sensitives to life begin to be voiced in every discipline and profession, from architecture to economics, where, until recently, all concepts and standards were defined by men. (1981, 362)
One major point of criticism which can be linked to this approach of behaving like men was that women who held a job soon became power-seeking and business-like as their male colleagues. Women often had to adapt phallocentric behaviour in order to survive in the male-dominated and male-defined standards in the work force. Consequently, women would only make a difference, if they would not follow the male model.
Offred herself highlightens the paradoxes and dilemmas of the women s movement. As we learn from her Ausfl ge in the past, she had a job as a discer and a family. We can call her a modern women, she marries Luke, who was married before, and does not feel bad about it. She never was of a revolutionary personality or never wanted to be a separatist lesbian like Moira was. She definitely cannot identify with the feminist ideas of her mother, and even later in the new system she is too afraid to join the Mayday movement, which Ofglen joined to escape the totalitarian regime. Although she seems modern in some aspects, e.g. her job as a discer, her marriage with a divorced man, she is completely traditional in other things. Even under the oppressive theocracy, she yearns for the traditional, romantic ideal of falling and being in love, she likes her female friends to chat with, and she cares a lot about the traditional mother daughter relationship. Although the relationship with her own daughter seems intact, she still blames her mother for being the type of woman her mother is and was. She remembers ruefully the Sunday mornings when her mother slept in, or the Saturdays that her mother spent with her female friends even though it was supposed to be her day . Secretly, the protagonist seems to blame her mother as the feminist to be responsible for not having had the traditional family she then, later in her own life, is so eager to create and preserve. Offred never had a father, was raised by a single, feminist mother, who, so it seemed to Offred, spent more time in finding out about her own personality, then caring about her daughter. Offred, then, develops differently than her mother, and in contrast to her mother, the feminist, she is more the traditional type of women, fulfilling the traditional role of a woman.
You re such a prude, she would say to me, in a tone of voice that was on the whole pleased. She like being more outrageous than I was, more rebellious. Adolescents are always such prudes.
Part of my disapproval was that, I m sure: perfunctory, routine. But also I wanted from her a life more ceremonious, less subject to makeshift and decampment. (180-181)
The protagonist s disapproval of her mother s life style was not only a reaction of a teenager who is embarrassed by her mother, but there is more to it than that. She cannot understand why her mother acted the way she did, not understanding what it meant for her mother to be the feminist she was at that time she was born and raised. In the same way, her mother does not understand why her daughter lacks understanding for the women of the generation before.
As for you, she d say to me, you re just a backlash. Flash in the pan. History will absolve me.
You young people don t appreciate things, she d say. You don t know what we had to go through, just to get you where you are. Look at him [Luke], slicing up the carrots. Don t you know how many women s lives, how many women s bodies, the tanks had to roll over just to get that far? (121)
Her mother emphasizes her disillusionment about all the modern women of the 1980 s who regarded their mothers and all the other feminist women of the 60 s and 70 s as radical, hard-heartedness women without motherly feelings for children or tender care for husbands. The first stage of feminism surely had failed, and the next generation was about to go back where they once were in the hope to make it all better again.
When Offred finds herself trapped in Gilead by her sex and femaleness, she realizes that women s bodies were always used to enclose women. Reduced to her function as child-bearer and denied of any sexual autonomy, she finds out that she can use her body to gain some sort of power.
All men in Gilead, except the Commanders, are also denied of any sexuality. Offred even bemitleided the soldiers in Gilead, although she enjoys having power over these men.
As we walk away I know they re watching, these two men who aren t yet permitted to touch women. They touch with their eyes instead and I move my hips a little, felling the full red skirt sway around me. It s like thumbing your nose from behind a fence or teasing a dog with a bone held out of reach, and I m ashamed of myself for doing it, because non of this is the fault of these men, they re too young.
Then I find I m not ashamed after all. I enjoy the power; power of a dog bone, passive but there. I hope they get hard at the sight of us and have to rub themselves against the painted barriers, surreptitiously. They will suffer, later at night, in their regimented beds. They have no outlets now except themselves, and that s a sacrilege. There are no more magazines, no more films, no more substitutes; only me and my shadow, walking away from the two men, who stand at attention, stiffly, by a roadblock, watching our retreating steps. (22)
Although it seems at first that handmaids or Offred do not have any power at all, and have to suffer passively the torture of the regime, the protagonist finds out that she can be active in the new system, that she can alter her situation. At first, it is her imagination, which helps her to cope with her situation. She dreams of the former times, when she were free to choose and do anything she wanted, but step by step Offred also learns to be more active than passive in the new system. Slowly but surely she reclaims her right to tell her story, and by telling her story she frees herself from the oppressive system, which denied her any form of personality and individuality. Slowly, she creates again her own identity, and finds a speech for herself. The art of telling her story becomes Offred s major escape from the totalitarian regime. Nietzsche and Heidegger both reflect that the more questioningly we ponder the essence of technology [and religion], the more mysterious the essence of art becomes (8). Offred overcomes the eternal conflict between the social necessity of conformity and obedience and claims her individual rights of personality and identity. Atwood focuses here on the principles of French feminists that women are able to take steps and tell stories to establish their own female identity.
Postmodernism/ intertextuality and historical mirroring
Many readers would see the 'The Handmaid's Tale' as a feminist tractate, but I would go further and call it a post-feminist novel with postmodernist elements. Atwood broke in some aspects with the dystopian tradition, in so far she focused on a woman as the protagonist. Furthermore, the heroine as the unreliable narrator focuses only on the details, which are important to her, and leaves out all the details about the political structure and working of Gilead, which would have been so important to the historians in the epilogue. Offred not only tells us the stories and lives of her and other women s lives, but she also reflects her work of recording and telling the story. She addresses the reader in the hope that one day her tapes will be found and listened to, although she is not sure whether or not she or her tapes will survive the Gileadean regime. Offred knows that she as the author of her story could influence the plot and ending by merely inventing and changing the story line. The technique of talking about the act of writing is called meta-fiction , and is a postmodernist technique.
This is a reconstruction. All of it is a reconstruction. It s a reconstruction now, in my head, as I lie flat on my single bed rehearsing what I should of shouldn t have said, what I should or shouldn t have done, how I should have played it. If I ever get out of here Let s stop there. I intend to get out of here. It can t last forever. (134)
By telling you anything at all I m at last believing in you. I believe you re there, I believe you into being. Because I m telling you this story I will you existence. I tell, therefore you are. (268)
If it s a story I m telling, then I have e control over the ending. Then there will be an ending, to the story, and real life will come after it. I can pick up where I left off. (39)
Another postmodernist technique is not offering only one ending, but multiple endings of the story. This is what Offred does when she imagines what could have happened to her former husband Luke, who she never saw after she had been recruited to the Red Center. (104-5)
Furthermore, the 'The Handmaid's Tale' includes many allusions, also called intertextuality. Atwood reflects in one interview, that nothing is new in 'The Handmaid's Tale , everything, so she says, has already been there once. Hence, Atwood focuses on the cyclical repetition of history. The most salient allusions are the numerous references to the Bible. The first epigraph about Leah, Rachel and the Billah, the handmaid for Jacob, not only justifies the form of procreation in Gilead, but also emphasizes that polygamy has been quite common during different eras of history. The Bible is also the most popular book of the working of patriarchy. The tradition of the Christian principles of men being the good and women being the bad ones worked 2000 years, and is still working all over the world.
During a Women s Prayvaganzas, the justification is again repeated.
The Commander continues with the service:
I will that women adorn themselves in modest apparel, he says, with shamefacedness and sobriety; not with braided hair, or gold, or pearls, or costly array,
But (which becometh women professing godliness) with good works.
Let the woman learn in silence with all subjection. Here he looks over us. All, her repeats.
But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence.
For Adam was first formed, then Eve.
And Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived was in the transgression.
Not withstanding she shall be saved by childbearing, if they continue in faith and charity and holiness with sobriety (221)
Women s biology is therefore their destiny, as God wanted it.
The way people in Gilead are dressed, hints at the Puritan clothing described in the passage when Offred and Ofglen walk to the church, which serves as educational museum in Gilead.
Inside it [the church] you can see painting, of women in long somber dresses, their hair covered by white caps, and of upright men, darkly clothed and unsmiling. Our ancestors. (31)
Allusions to more contemporary events in history are more frequent. One salient feature is the allusions to the Nazi-regime. The totalitarian regime of Gilead can be compared to the Hitler regime. In both society, minorities are oppressed, reclassified and either killed or verfolgt. In Gilead, the war against other religious groups as the Quakers and Jews is mentioned in the News. To scare the people, dead bodies of Jews and Intellectuals who resisted the regime, are hanged on a wall. This procedure reminds of the Jews hanged in Vienna. The four digit tattoo on Offred ankle is a fatal, ever lasting mark as one of the most valued national resource, and can be compared to the number that had been tattooed on Jews arm for classification.
I cannot avoid seeing, now, the small tattoo on my ankle. Four digits and an eye, a passport in reverse. It s supposed to guarantee that I will never be able to fade, finally, into another landscape. I am too important, too scarce, for that. I am a national resource. (65)
Little later Offred thinks about her hair, which is hidden underneath the cap. She remembers a film about women, kneeling in the town square, hand holding them, their hair falling in clumps? What had they done? It must have been a long time ago, because I can t remember. (65) What Offred remembers is the ceremony of female Jews who were being shaved before they were killed, because Hitler used to hair also as national resource to fill mattresses etc. Although it must have been something the protagonist had heard in history lessons in school and college, she cannot remember to what the scene refers to. Atwood emphasizes that history, however horrible, tends to be forgotten. The question she poses is if we really learn from history.
It seems that Atwood doubts that men will ever constructively learn from history. In Gilead, anti-semitism and anti apartheid have spread, and only the Caucasian population (and here mainly the male) is valued. Minorities are deported to ghetto-like cities:
Resettlement of the Children of Ham is continuing on schedule, says the reassuring pink face, back on the screen. Three thousand have arrived this week in National Homeland One, with another two thousand in transit. (83)
This procedure of bringing the black people to North Dakota to do farming reminds of the Verschleppung of the Jews during WW II into the concentration camps.
The strong use of intertextuality in 'The Handmaid's Tale' suggests that Atwood views history not as a linear movement, but a cyclical evolution where things (however cruel and unfair) are repeated without learning from human failures and mistakes. Next to the question whether we learned from history, Atwood asks whether or not the situation of women has changed until now. Patriarchy is still not overcome by matriarchy, women are still oppressed and do not have the same equal chances, although it is festhalten in laws. The modern woman of the year 2001 still does not have the same chances in the workforce; she is still benachteiligt because she is bearing children, and often enough she is only viewed as a sexual object. We could conclude that there is no hope for women. History has proved that women, whatever they do and however hard they try, they will not overcome the 2000-year-old patriarchal structure. But Atwood s conclusion is not as simple. Although the author has highlightened that patriarchy is hard to overcome, she does not admit that there is no hope for women. Rather, she concludes that women have to form and write their own identity. Like Offred who was freed by telling her-story, all women should start telling and writing their own femaleness, identity and body. Only then we will be able to create her-story next to his-story.