Handmaid’s Tale Analysis

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Directions

  • Read the following analysis from Spark Notes and do a 3-2-1:
  • Write 3 important insights
  • 2 insights that interested you, that you’d like to discuss or further investigate
  • 1 discussion question this analysis made you think of

Analysis: Chapters 33—36

The word Prayvaganza combines “pray” with “extravaganza,” and emphasizes that in the new order, prayer serves a public, state function. Church and state, far from being separated, make up one entity. Prayer is no longer a private matter, but a public spectacle and an act of patriotic fervor. The banner that hangs over the Prayvaganza sums up the new church-state relationship. It reads “God is a National Resource.”

When the Commander justifies the marriage process in Gilead, he offers a compelling critique of the old order (and consequently of our society). Again using feminist rhetoric, he makes several valid points: society should not force women to spend their entire paycheck on day care, it should value the work of mothering, it should not allow fathers to run off and abandon children, it should not allow domestic abuse. In Gilead, none of these conditions officially exist. Still, Offred deflates the Commander’s argument by pointing out the importance of love. She points out that such a scheme, while removing some uncertainty and unhappiness, leaves out the possibility of freedom. Arranged marriages are, by definition, the opposite of free choice. Romance, though uncertain, is an ultimate expression of the soul’s liberty, the liberty to choose whom to love.

The Commander comments in Chapter 32 that men could not feel before Gilead, but it seems that for Offred, Gilead erases the ability to feel. In depriving her and other women of the opportunity to be in love, Gilead amputates their ability to feel. After the Prayvaganza, Offred thinks of how love felt and is overcome by a wave of strong emotion. She can only cling to her memories of Luke and what loving him felt like. She reflects that the next generation will have no such memories. This affirms Aunt Lydia’s sinister comment that Gildead will eventually “become ordinary.” Atwood suggests that this closing of the horizon is the dark power of a totalitarian society. Once people cannot imagine anything other than oppression, oppression becomes ordinary.

Atwood draws a parallel between the nuns forced to become Handmaids and the Handmaids themselves. The Handmaids resemble nuns: both groups are cloistered, consecrated to a religious duty, and required to wear long garments referred to as “habits.” But whereas nuns vow to remain celibate and serve God by ignoring their fertility and their sexual urges, Handmaids’ sole religious and social duty is to reproduce. According to the worldview of Gilead, nuns pose a greater threat to the totalitarian order than divorced women or women who have premarital sex. The women in the latter groups are simply behaving immorally, but the nuns are taking themselves out of the sexual world entirely. Since Gilead is built on sexual control, the adoption of a celibate life is the ultimate rejection of the totalitarian order.

Directions

  • Read the following analysis from Spark Notes and do a 3-2-1:
  • Write 3 important insights
  • 2 insights that interested you, that you’d like to discuss or further investigate
  • 1 discussion question this analysis made you think of

Analysis: Chapters 38–40

Atwood suggests that patriarchal societies tend to divide women into two types: the virgin and the whore. In Gilead, the virginal women are the nearly sexless Wives and daughters, the invisible Marthas, and the holy Handmaids—all of whose sexual lives are tightly restricted. The whores are the prostitutes at Jezebel’s. Jezebel, for whom the men’s club is named, was an evil Old Testament queen, guilty of every sort of depravity, who came to symbolize the prototypically vicious woman in the Judeo-Christian imagination. The men of Gilead admit to no middle ground or gray area between virgin and whore.

The club exposes the hypocrisy of the powerful men who prate about sexual morality and then spend their evenings dallying with prostitutes. Officially, Gilead draws its ideology from the Old Testament (it warps the Old Testament in order to suit its ideas) and wholly rejects modern science. Yet to justify Jezebel’s existence, the Commander snatches at the rhetoric of late-twentieth-century evolutionary psychologists, lecturing Offred on how men need multiple sexual partners because “Nature demands variety . . . it’s part of the procreational strategy.” The Commanders pick and choose from earlier traditions as they please. The Old Testament is useful for subjugating women, but modern sociobiology provides justification for their own philandering.

During her encounter with Moira, Offred learns that the spirit of her mother and that of Moira, both figures of transgression and resistance, have been broken. At the Red Center, Moira was an icon whose actions suggested that fighting Gilead was possible. Offred’s mother, a feminist and a political activist, embodied everything that Gilead condemns. Although Offred once took for granted the freedoms her mother’s generation fought for, now, trapped in Gilead, she realizes that her mother was like Moira, an embodiment of resistance to the regime. At Jezebel’s, Moira says she is resigned to her fate. She seems listless and trapped. Instead of embodying defiance, Moira now embodies Gilead’s ability to crush even the strongest spirit. When Offred learns that her mother went to the Colonies, she knows her mother will not have any strength left for resistance, even if she is still alive. Only one flash of hope lights up Moira’s narrative: her description of the Underground Femaleroad, an underground network working to smuggle women out of Gilead. Its name references the Underground Railroad, which transported escaped slaves from safe house to safe house in the days before the Civil War in the United States. The fact that such a network exists gives us the sense that even if Moira herself has given up hope, the struggle against Gilead presses on.

Atwood juxtaposes Offred’s sexual encounters with the Commander and with Nick to highlight the difference between forced sex and sex by choice. While the Commander has sex with her, Offred cannot muster any passion. Her passivity disappoints the Commander, who seems to want romance and passion despite his praise for arranged marriages. Atwood’s novel suggests that Offred cannot give him passion because she sleeps with him against her will, and romance requires the exercise of free will. Because Gilead outlaws the freedom essential to passion, the Commander cannot call it into being to suit his whims. Offred and Nick’s coupling, on the other hand, has a spark, a sense of desire. Offred narrates the scene in an elegiac tone, depicting her sex with Nick as an act of mourning for the vanished world of romance and courtship and love. His request, “no romance,” reminds them of what they cannot have.

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