Rebellion in Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale
Length: 2092 words (6 double-spaced pages)
"Rebels defy the rules of society, risking everything to retain their humanity. If the world Atwood depicts is chilling, if 'God is losing,' the only hope for optimism is a vision that includes the inevitability of human struggle against the prevailing order." -Joyce Johnson-
Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale analyzes human nature by presenting an internal conflict in Offred: acceptance of current social trends (victim mentality) -vs- resistance for the sake of individual welfare and liberties (humanity). This conflict serves as a warning to society, about the dangers of the general acceptance of social evils and boldly illustrates the internal struggle that rebels face in choosing to rebel.
Offred is a Handmaid in the republic of Gilead and while she seems unhappy about this, she is confused about her identity and even starts to accept the role that has been imposed upon her. It seems strange that one might accept such radical changes so easily. Offred has been manipulated into believing that this sinister system was designed for her own good. Peter S. Prescott says: " Offred at first accepts assurance that the new order is for her protection." (151) She must lie on her back once a month and hope that commander makes her pregnant because her sole purpose is to act as a vessel. She even starts to measure her self-worth by the viability of her ovaries and this negatively affects her self-image. This is how Offred characterizes the deploring act : "The commander is fucking. What he is fucking is the lower part of my body. I don't say making love because that's not what he is doing. Copulating too would be inaccurate because it would imply two people,when there is only one. Nor does rape cover it. Nothing was going on here that I haven't signed up for. There wasn't a lot of choice, but there was some and this is what I chose." (Atwood,121) This statement is very dangerous. It shows how Offred has convinced herself that this deploring act is not so bad. It also shows how she is beginning to embrace the system and justify the violations that are being commited against her. By calling it a choice she has shifted the blame from her oppressors to herself and labeled the blatant crime as a mere ritual.
Offred shows signs of a developing victim mentality where she accepts defeat and associates the regime's will with her own.
The danger lies in her complacency because if she accepts this role as being her choice she eliminates any need to rebel. This mentality provides her with a false sense of security which will impede her ability to fight back. We can try to argue tht Offred's unwillingness to resist was due to fear, but there's more to it than that. In the novel she is afraid that spies (eyes) are everywhere and that trust is a lost luxury.
Maybe she was afraid to fight by herself. This seems understandable, but Offred's reluctance to fight back is more complicated than just fear. By coming to accept her role in the "new society" she clouds her perception of freedom and her need to rebel at all. Ehrenreich argues: "Offred cries alot and lives in fear of finding her erstwhile husand hanging from a hook on the wall, but when she is finally contacted by the resistance she is curiously uninterested." (155) Ehrenreich also argues that Offred's unwillingness to embrace the resistance is due to her changed mentality; the system has been embedded in her. She states: "Offred has sunk too far into the incestuous little house she serves." (155) So we can't say she's stuck in this alone others have revealed that they too want to fight. It's her altered character and acceptance of social evils that makes her weak. Gayle Greene calls her a "Good German" rather than a freedom fighter. Unlike Moira she doesn't have the rebel simmering in her from the beginning. Offred doesn't have Moira's strenghth, but she needs to believe in it.(159) Offred even says herself ",I don't want her to be like me. Give in, go along, save her skin...I want gallantry from her, swashbuckling heroism. Something I lack." (Atwood,327) At least Offred identifies with rebels, but she is either too scared or too conflicted. She wants others to rebel for her. Does that make her a coward? The internal conflict stems from two places. First, she is confused about what she wants. She wants things to go back to the way they were, but yet she finds a bizzare comfort in the system that provides a false sense of security. Secondly, all the changes have overwhelmed her and as she adjusts, she is deciding if she wants to save her ass or risk breaking the rule for the sake of change, a brighter day.
Now we must analyze the ways Offred attempts to stand up for herself and the reasons why she chooses to fight. Gilead has attempted to eradicate any semblance of the "corrupt" past, but they failed to see that you can't wipe out the memories of the human heart. It is easy to deprive someone of some thing they never had, but its almost imposssible to erase something that people have already experienced, like freedom. Offred may show signs of giving in, but her old self won't go out without a fight. She has memories of a life that was ripped from her. She can remember years before, when she had a husband and child, when she had a job, money, and access to knowledge. All of these things conflict her perception of Gilead and make her want to rebel to get them back. Jane Gardam argues: "There is even a horrible beauty in the heroine's plight -her quiet reverie of better days, her dignity, her sorrow, her courageous rationing of recollection of times past so that she will be able to bear them." (152) She's fighting to keep her past alive and not be sucked in entirely by the system that restrains her. Her inspiration comes from knowing she is alive, and the goal that she must survive if she is going so see a new day. She harbors a vague love, hope, and desire to see her daughter and husband someday. So she must survive for their sake because she needs to believe that they are still alive. Her dreams and reality become intertwined and this makes her fight for her sanity. Offred fights to retain her peace of mind. She says ", sanity is a valuealble possession; I save it, so I will have enough when the time comes." (Atwood,140) To be sane is to be alive. If she were insane and blindly following orders she would be living, but she wouldn't be alive. Offred lives, as usual, by ignoring."Ignoring isn't the same as ignorance you have to work at it."(Atwood,734) For Offred obedience comes at a great price, Johnson characterizes it as a death of the senses which leads to a death of the spirit and a loss of humanity.(148) Offred starts to relize that if she allows her soul to wither she will lose her essence and become what Gilead wants her to be, a dumb subservient slave.
Christopher Lehmann-Haupt states that Offred ", knows better and that she understands the psychology of tyranny and feels guilty for submitting."(147) Offred feels herself dying and decides that she wants to be "alive." She takes a stand and decides to suffer with meaning and try to define her own being. She acknowledges her humanity and sees the necessity in trying to maintain it. So survival is more than just making it, it's also why you decided to stick it out. If you have no purpose or direction you might as well be dead or suffer like Camus' Mersault. Offred may not be a freedom fighter out on the front line, but she finds ways of thumbing her nose at the regime. She feels a sense of victory and even a perverse sense of pleasure in breaking the rules and without others knowing. It gives her a sense of power. She may be scared ,but it's these small bursts of resistance that build up Offred's courage. Maynard argues that Offred breaks the rules in the hope of preparing for a better future: "Offred hides her daily allotment of butter in the toe of her shoe, to rub over her skin, later a moisterizer from the commander. Not because she's worried about wrinkles, but because she needs to believe that there will be some future to stay unwrinkled for."(!53) This small act of defiance represents the internal hope that Offred has built up. She develops an ideaology of keeping the faith and fighting to stay sane.When the commander calls Offred into his office at night she complies not for his sake ,but for her own. She plays scrabble, reads magazines, and talks freely. These illegal excursions represent many things to her. First she sees that the system isn't perfect and even the guardians feel a need to rebel at times.
Second, she quenches her thirst for knowledge by playing games and asking to know what there is to know. The magazines and the scrabble offer her tangible proof that some humanity has survived and not even the regime could take that away. Her forbidden love with Nick shows that not even the spies can be controlled and that people still harbor love, something that Gilead had over looked. The historical notes offer us proof that Offred's struggles payed off even if she never got to see that brighter day. Her tapes proved that by maintaining her humanity she was able to move on and tell her story. Even if if she never got to witness the fall of Gilead she proved that they couldn't make her fall. Margaret Atwood want's us to see that inner strength doesn't come in one shot, but rather is built in turmoil and through life's experiences. Offred's predecessor left a note for her: " NOLITE TE BASTARDES CARBORUNDORUM." Offred's internal conflict was part of the grinding process, and this message was manifested through Offred when she decided to fight back. At times she wanted to give up and accept the will of the regime, but her memories and her humanity wouldn't let her. In the end it was a culmination of desire and strong will that enabled Offred to maintain her sanity and that made her escape, even more worthwhile. This conflict teaches us an important lesson about the danger of not fighting against social evils. Peter S. Prescott says Atwood's theme is caution ", current social trends are dangerous to individual welfare." (151) In studying Offred's rebellion we can see that she suffered an internal conflict. Johnson states: "Offred's plight is always human as well as idealogical and so is the inevitable assertion of her needs." (148) The struggle to resist oppression is something that all rebels face. Victoria Glendinning tells us that ",Whatever the accepted norms there will always be dissidents and our handmaid is one of these. What has been overlooked by the regime is the subversive force of love."(146) Rebellion is an instinct and all people have. It's an inherent thrust for fighting oppression. Offred is driven by a thirst for freedom to love and be loved. People don't die from lack of sex, but from lack of love(Atwood,131) All true rebels have a cause and this is Offred's. By studying her conflict in choosing to rebel we can see the great danger in having a victim mentallity.
Mary McCarthy argues: " It is true that a leading trait of Offred was her unwillingness to stick her neck out and perhaps we are meant to conclude that such unwillingness, multipled, may be fatal to a free society."(150) The role of a rebel is crucial when it comes to bringing about change, but it is the majority's acceptance that determines what changes will really last. It is a great sacrifice that rebels make for the sake of their fellow man. That's why we must respect a rebel who stands up for his cause while sacrificing his own well being for the sake of others. A rebel like Offred had to win an internal battle in order to start and external one. Offred won this conflict and decided that her humanity was worth the risk and Atwood wants us to do the same. Don't just accept things because society "says so" take a moral stand. Be your own dictionary, define yourself.