The Evidence of an Unsuccessful Control System in Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale”
An analysis on the theocratic republic of Gilead in The Handmaid’s Tale.
Edmund Cooper, a prolific speculative fiction writer, writes in one of his books, “I am rebelling against imprisonment. I am rebelling against tyranny of the mind. I am rebelling against a collection of machines with interchangeable faces. Above all, I am rebelling against my own ignorance and your deliberate deception.” Similarly, in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, the theocratic republic of Gilead has created a controlled society where Offred and her friend Moira, along with other fertile women, are being used as surrogate mothers for childless Wives and Commanders, who belong at the top of the hierarchy. The failure of the Gilead regime’s attempt at controlling society is proven by the handmaids’ trying to maintain a sense of power, Moira’s acts of rebellion and the Commander breaking the rules.
The handmaids use acts of violence to express revenge and sustain control over themselves despite the fact that substantial power has been taken away from them, such as the right to read, vote, become educated or any other actions that may allow them to become subversive. Firstly, when Serena Joy finds out about the previous Offred’s affair with the Commander, the handmaid chooses to commit suicide rather than allowing Serena Joy to decide her fate. Similarly, Ofglen hangs herself once the Eyes find out that she is part of the resistance and are coming to capture her. Both handmaids commit suicide in order to preserve authority over their bodies and decisions, which show that Gilead’s control system may have been able to temporarily control the handmaids’ outward actions, but they cannot change the way the handmaid’s think. Moreover, during the Particicution, Offred states that Ofglen “pushes the Guardian down sideways, then kicks his head viciously, one, two, three times, sharp painful jabs with the foot, well-aimed”(Atwood 322), which demonstrates her barbaric behavior. As opposed to hurting the Guardian for revenge, Ofglen is doing it to save him of his misery; an act of rebellion which the Eyes soon find out about. This act shows that Ofglen not only finds a way to uphold authority over herself but for other individuals too. The actions of the handmaids break the laws of the system, proving its failure.
Moira is a true rebel with a cause who refuses to be changed by Gilead’s control system into a self-effacing, compliant handmaid, despite the efforts of indoctrination done by the Aunts at the Red Centre. Firstly, Moira makes every effort possible in order to escape the Red Centre and her failure after the first attempt only fuels her desire to get back out. She develops a tactful plan in which she turns a piece of a toilet into a weapon and holds Aunt Elizabeth hostage, exchanges outfits with the her, and walks out without suspicion. These acts prove Moira’s determination and show that she stands up for her own rights and refuses to remain muted by the Center or the injustice of the control system. Moreover, after Moira’s escape, Offred recalls, “Moira was like an elevator with open sides. She made us dizzy. Already we were losing the taste for freedom, already we were finding these walls secure.”(Attwood 154) Moira’s independent spirit provides the other handmaids with a sense of fantasy and hope. While they are starting to succumb to the Center’s brainwashing and feel comfortable there, Moira never does; she is never willing to concede her freedom. Secondly, when Moira is recaptured, she chooses to end up at Jezebel’s rather than the alternative: working in the dreaded Colonies.
In a society where both gender treachery and public mingling is forbidden, Moira finds a way to interact with women at Jezebel’s, which she otherwise would not be able to do since homosexuality is punishable by death. In the end, Moira gets everything she wants: she escapes the Centre, remains unchanged by the new ways of the Gileadean society and coexists with women, and this point shows the loopholes of the control system. All in all, the failure of the regime’s control system is proven by the fact that Moira does not forget about the time before and the world that used to be, and therefore stands up to authority in order to remain unaffected.
The Commander, despite being at the top of the hierarchy, resists the regime’s control by breaking the rules since he feels as though he has earned the rights to freedom. Firstly, the commander obtains and keeps forbidden items such as books, magazines and girdles, and also gifts Offred a copy of a magazine he hasn’t thrown away. When Offred asks why he has it has not been burned, he replies, “Some of us retain an appreciation for old things.” (Atwood, 181) Moreover, although the Commander has kept a vast array of illicit novels and magazines such as Mademoiselle, Esquire, and Reader’s Digest, he does not get caught. However, the fact that even the smallest act of defiance done by the wives, handmaids or even guardians is immediately and severely punished, shows the rank of hypocrisy and injustice in the Gileadean system. Secondly, the Commander repeats his mistake of having an affair with a handmaid, despite the fact that Serena Joy found out about his previous one. Moreover, he also takes Offred to Jezebel’s, a place where the elite men of the society, such as the Commander, engage in recreational extramarital sex. He uses justifications such as “everyone’s human, after all” and “It stimulates trade. It’s a good place to meet people. You can hardly do business without it”.(Pg 274) The fact that such a senior member of the society can commit such large-scale crimes and not get caught brings out the fault in Gilead’s system and proves that imposing strict laws can suffocate any member of society and leave them with no option but to defy the rules.
In a nutshell, it is the handmaids’ attempts at maintaining self-power, Moira’s uprisings and the Commander’s contradictions towards the laws that provide evidence for the Gilead regime’s control system being at fault.
Atwood’s characters prove that people find a way to maintain authority over themselves, remain true to their beliefs and rebel at systems that impose strict order, no matter what their status in society.
- Atwood, Margaret. The Handmaid’s Tale. Canada: McClelland and Stewart, 2014. Print.
- “Edmund Cooper.” — Wikiquote. Web. 10 Jan. 2016. <https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Edmund_Cooper>.
- Shmoop Editorial Team. “Moira in The Handmaid’s Tale.” Shmoop.com. Shmoop University, Inc., 11 Nov. 2008. Web. 11 Jan. 2016. <http://www.shmoop.com/handmaids-tale/moira.html>.
- SparkNotes. SparkNotes. Web. 10 Jan. 2016. <http://www.sparknotes.com/lit/handmaid/section11.rhtml>.