The roles that are assigned to the two genders in this novel are exaggerations of the roles traditionally played: women here are responsible for domestic duties and men in Gilead run the government functions (since this is a totalitarian state, business and military concerns are part of the government). To most of the people ofGilead, the strict assignment of these roles seems reasonable, a natural outcome of the physical traits that define males and females.
Industrial pollution has caused sterility in ninety-nine percent of the female population and countless numbers of males, creating a crisis for the ability of the human race to survive into the future. From this the government had claimed the right to require any fertile females to participate in government-supervised child-bearing programs. This has caused a need to keep all non-fertile females in structured domestic roles, in order to assure the passivity and cooperation of the fertile females; and this in turn has caused the requirement that males make political decisions and enforce them with military rule. All of these steps require more than a social policy, they require an almost religious faith in order to assure the participation of the greatest number of people. Training centers like the Rachel and Leah Re-education Center become necessary.
To the social planners of Gilead, this system might seem a reasonable response to the threat of extinction. To people of the modem world and to the futuristic society of Professor Piexoto who view it from the year 2175, it seems rash, twisted, and naive, rooted more in the greed of men than in the common good.
In the name of preserving the lives of the citizens, executions become common; in order to offer women “freedom from” they must give up their “freedom to,” dressing in government-assigned uniforms and suffering intellectual starvation as the only offered alternatives to rape and exploitation. Men like the Commander dictate morality-men that are so corrupt that they break the laws against sex and contraband that they themselves have established.
The roles of the two sexes in this novel are extremes of traditional roles, and that serves to raise the question of whether they are derived from nature or if men are working hard to keep oppressive traditions alive after their usefulness to society is spent. From the shocking contradictions that Gileadean society is forced to accept, the latter appears to be the case.
Any dystopian novel, which means a novel that describes a society that is a terrible place to live in-such as George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World-raises the question of free will: to what degree, readers are asked, are the people in the novel forced to participate in a government that violates their basic ethical beliefs?
The same question dominated the Nuremberg trials after World War Il, when Nazis who had participated in the Holocaust justified the murder of thousands ofinnocent, anonymous victims because they were “just following orders.” Through this novel’s structure, we are introduced to the different ways society uses to intimidate its citizens: the lack of personal possessions or identity, the cattle prods, the armed guards, the dangerous gossip, the subversives hung to death as public spectacle, etc.
It is only gradually, as the narrator recalls being trained to behave like a good housemaid, that the government’s ability to control one’s thoughts presents itself. The narrator behaves as she is supposed to, despite (or because of) the despair she feels, but when she describes Janine’s behavior, she is disgusted as she imagines the conversation the Commander’s wives would probably have about what a good handmaid Janine is. Looking at her life from the outside, the narrator can accept her own behavior as being prudent for survival, but seeing how proud Janine is of her pregnancy keeps her from accepting government-sanctioned ideas as her own.
The novel complicates the question of whether free will is absolute or if it has limits by giving no clear-cut answer about the fate ofthe character with the strongest will, Moira: she says that she is happy working at the house of prostitution, but such happiness would strongly contradict what she has stood for before, and it conveniently fits the government’s role for her. Readers are invited to wonder whether she is really thinking for herself after enduring her torture.
The narrator herself is too fearful to help the Mayday resistance movement, even after they have reached out to her and after the Commander has shown his weakness. When the Ofglen that she knows to be part of the resistance disappears, she is fearful that she will be arrested: so strong is the government’s hold over her mind that she is afraid even though she has done nothing wrong. On the other hand, she carries on her illegal affair with Nick, risking arrest and death to go to his room night after night, telling him her true name. Her love for him neutralizes her intense fear of punishment, raising the issue of her free will again, never answering whether love is freedom or a way to mentally flee worse fates.
Guilt and Innocence
For a situation that causes such misery, none of the characters in this novel is presented as evil or specifically guilty. Aunt Lydia seems to believe that her brainwashing will help her students stay safe from assault, Janine is mercilessly pressured by her peers into compliance, and even the Commander, who comes closest among all of the characters to wielding control, is such a pawn of the situation that he takes risks just to talk with the narrator, listen to her, and play games with her. None of these characters is particularly admirable, but none can be pointed to as a specific example of what has caused the problem in Gilead.
This shows Atwood to be a fair, even-handed writer, willing to examine bad behavior and negative results without losing empathy or creating a two-dimensional villain. It also gives a more accurate depiction of a totalitarian society. A society that relies upon citizens to be responsible for intimidation and oppression would leave itself vulnerable to attacks of conscience, but a society that only asks each person to compromise a little, without turning anyone into an obviously guilty party, can reach further into the homes of otherwise good people and can justify its existence for a long time.
Marie Rose Napierkowski, Novels for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Novels, Volume 4, Margaret Atwood, Gale-Cengage Learning, 1998