The Handmaids Tale - Feminist? Essay

This essay has a total of 1545 words and 7 pages.

The Handmaids Tale - Feminist?

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 her out; in an early reference he asks Offred
where the distress signal Mayday comes from. As he already knows ("It's French, [Luke]
said. From M'aidez") then his only point in asking Offred this seems to be that he is
eager to display his own superior knowledge; as though he gets a perverse pleasure out of
being more intellectual and knowledgeable than his wife. However most times Luke is
mentioned, he is painted as a sensitive and understanding figure.


With Luke out of the picture, Offred turns to Nick as her role model. A young member of
the Gileadean secret police, like Offred Nick is a subversive rebel and takes risks that
most people would never dream of ("He begins to whistle. The he winks"). Nick is amongst
the few characters described in close physical detail, instantly making him appear more
friendly than any of the other characters as the reader can assume a detailed mental
picture of him. Offred paints a sympathetic portrait of Nick as she views him as her
saviour; he has a higher chance of getting her pregnant. However, when the Eyes arrive to
take her, Offred is convinced that Nick has betrayed her. ("You shit, I think... My
suspicion hovers in the air above him, a dark angel warning me away.")


The other influential male in Offred's new life is her Commander. Although alleged to be
one of the architects of Gileadean society, throughout the novel he is portrayed as
surprisingly sympathetic, if not a little pitiable. During the Ceremony, Offred quickly
detaches herself from the situation ("What he is fucking is the lower part of my body…
Making love is not an accurate phrase, as this is not what we're doing"), but she
simultaneously describes the man as having a "not-unpleasant face". When the personal
meetings begin Offred holds him in some esteem ("There's no doubt about who holds the real
power), but this opinion quickly drains ("This is one of the most bizarre things that's
ever happened to me, ever"). The couple's late-night Scrabble trysts are symbolic of the
absurd society of Gilead ("Now it's forbidden, for us. Now it's indecent. Now it's
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