Essay on The Handmaids Tale - Feminist?

Essay on The Handmaids Tale - Feminist?

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Do you agree that although The Handmaid's Tale is written from a feminist point of view, the portraits given of men are surprisingly sympathetic while those of women are often critical?

Yes, I agree with this statement. Although the theocratic totalitarian regime operating in Gilead was instigated and is controlled by men, the male protagonists in the novel are seen as caring and sympathetic. Although one or two women have become quite close through their ordeal, despite the fact they’ve had no other choice (“We’re used to each other”); the mass majority of women get on uneasily, due to the rituals and social hierarchies that have been prearranged by male rulers. (“The Econowives do not like us”)

Status in Gilead is predetermined by sex. Although there are high-ranking women in Gilead, their titles are nonetheless determined by their gender. Aunts and Wives are how they are referred to, whereas the male Commanders, Angels, Eyes and Guardians do not reduce individual men to their sex. Therefore, regardless of rank, a woman’s central feature is her gender. Even a Wife, the highest-ranking woman in Gilead, is defined in relation to a man. Bearing this in mind it may seem odd that Offred views men with a certain sympathy whilst remaining wary of women, but it is a correct assumption.

It is possible to assume from the narration that, despite being a staunch feminist, Offred relates more comfortably to the opposite sex than she does to her own. Throughout the novel she is increasingly critical and scathing of other women, whilst becoming emotionally attached to the various men in her life. It is not known whether this was a character trait of the pre-Gilead Offred, although she is somewhat dismissive of her own mother’s strong feminist views, and of Moira’s views on lesbianism and balanced sexual power between women (as opposed to an unequal balance between a man and a woman.)

Offred seems to need an influential male figure in her life; a figure of power whom she can rely on. She speaks frequently of Luke - her husband in pre-Gilead times - and seems to view him in this way, placing him on a pedestal. “Luke told me...” and “Luke said...” are common phrases to be found in Offred’s reminiscences; and although Luke is obviously loving toward Offred, she depicts him in a way that makes him seem sexist and patronising. He often seems to try and deliberately catch...


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...women who seem to truly believe in these barbaric anti-feminist regimes. Aside from the Aunts, some of the other Handmaids are particularly volatile, kicking and beating a Guardian to death at one of the many Salvagings.

Offred’s system of social relationships seems to follow the lines of ‘Do as you would be done by.’ Generally, if other women treat her civilly she is inclined to be civil back. She gets on relatively well with Cora, unlike Rita - “I don’t smile. Why tempt her to friendship?” - even though “The Marthas are not supposed to fraternise with [the Handmaids]”, and gets on well with one of the many Ofglens. However the strict control of social relationships by the state could be a clue to her wary toleration of other women in Gilead.

It can be concluded that the original statement is true, and the novel frequently views men with a sympathetic eye regardless of the pro-feminist message. However, the Handmaids are possibly the most vulnerable caste in Gileadean society; although the portraits given of men as individuals are sympathetic, collective males were the instigators of the dystopian nightmare, which is worryingly marked with traces of our own history and culture.

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