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In every human beings life, one is given freedoms. With freedom comes responsibility, consequence following close behind. Sometimes this freedom is not freedom to do, but freedom from harm. The extreme form of this would form a Garrison mentality. A Garrison mentality is a situation in which a society protects but also confines an individual. “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.” (Atwood 24). Gilead is a society with an intolerant theocracy. The commanders, in the highest power; followed by their wives; then the aunts, who are teachers; the angels, who are guards; the eyes, who are spies; the marthas, who are housemaids; and lastly the handmaids, who are given to the commanders to bear children. In Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, the society in which the characters live trap handmaids in a Garrison mentality.
The handmaids are trapped for protection. They are trapped in the commanders’ manors, kept in baron rooms, and not aloud so much as a pen or a book to read. This is to protect them from the harm of knowledge. The handmaids are the most important to Gilead’s society because they are the ones that give birth to new life. The handmaid (who is the narrator of the novel) is having her scheduled bath. While being bathed by one of the marthas, she notices the small tattoo on her ankle. “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, to scarce, for that. I am a national resource.” (60 –61). The tattoo is a brand to say that she is a handmaid. This tattoo means that she can never be at a higher level, and that she can never pass as someone else. Because she is one of the still fertile women, she will always be a handmaid. If one day she is not able to bear children, she will be killed or sent to the colonies where other infertile women do hard labor. The handmaids are so important to society; they are given many restrictions. This is for their safety, so that they will stay well to bear children.
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The handmaids are repressed and protected by being forbidden to show their faces outside of the manors. They must wear long red gowns and veils. This is to protect them from being harassed. It is believed that if men cannot see their faces, they cannot be tempted. The advances of the men then cannot tempt the handmaids. This is said to protect them of rape or harassment, which they have been taught they bring onto themselves. The narrator is reflecting back to the Center, a school where the handmaids are taught the ‘religion’ of handmaids. She is remembering one of the lessons an aunt taught them. “Temptation comes next. At the Center, temptation was anything much more than eating and sleeping. Knowing was a temptation. What you don’t know won’t tempt you, Aunt Lydia used to say.” (183). They were also taught that “The Fall was a fall from innocence to knowledge.” (183). The theocracy of Gilead was one that, if one were kept from knowledge, one would be protected, even from his/her own mistakes. The fall refers to a fall from grace. It occurred when one knew too much, therefore resulting in a loss of innocence. The handmaids, however, do not only have these restrictions, but other limitations as well.
The handmaids are protected and trapped because they have limitations on when they can leave the manor, and where they can go. They are only allowed in the town Center where there are little shops. The handmaids are sent in pairs for their protection, and are only allowed to buy what the marthas have given them tokens for. The narrator is walking to the Center with her pair, Ofglen. She is saying that sometimes they vary the route of their daily path. “Now and again we vary the route; there’s nothing against it, as long as we stay in the barriers. A rat in a maze is free to go anywhere, as long as it stays inside the maze.” (155). She is talking about the barriers that confine her. The narrator feels trapped. She compares herself to a lab rat, because she knows she has not other choice, just as the rat has no choice. As long as she stays inside the maze, nothing can happen to her. The handmaids are not only trapped inside barriers, but also their minds are trapped. They even have limitations on the information they receive.
The handmaids are trapped for their protection by being kept from knowledge of the world outside of the manor. The narrator is thinking of how the night has fallen and what the significance is of saying night ‘falls’. “Maybe night falls because it is heavy, a thick curtain pulled up over the eyes. Wool blanket. I wish I could see in the dark, better than I do.” (179). The narrator is feeling as though everything is being hidden from her. She is saying that she is being ‘kept in the dark’ from information, and wishes she could understand everything better. The narrator feels as though her life is out of her control. She feels that without knowledge she is being held against her will.
The handmaids in “The Handmaid’s Tale” are in a Garrison mentality because they feel trapped but are also protected in their society. There are many restrictions put on what the handmaids can do. These restrictions are put on them for their protection. This results in a Garrison mentality. When one is given freedom to, responsibility and consequence often follow. Freedom from protects one from consequence, but also can give one a heavy feeling of entrapment.
The Handmaid's Tale. Margaret Atwood. Toronto: Mclelland-Bantam,INC., 1985.