Feminism and The Handmaid’s Tale

An interesting article from Jennifer Dean.

Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale would seem, on the surface, a straightforward feminist text. The narrative is set in a speculative future, exploring gender inequalities in an absolute patriarchy in which women are breeders, housekeepers, mistresses, or housewives—or otherwise exiled to the Colonies. In Atwood’s fictional Gilead, all of the work of twentieth-century feminism has been utterly undone, and the text explores the effects of this from a first-person point of view that elicits the reader’s sympathy. Offred’s tale functions as a critique of women’s oppression, as we can see from one of her earlier statements problematizing biological determinism: “I avoid looking down at my body, not so much because it’s shameful or immodest but because I don’t want to see it. I don’t want to look at something that determines me so completely” (72-73). Yet Offred’s story is neither wholly triumphant nor wholly straightforward. Offred’s narrative is potentially undermined, and certainly deconstructed, by the future historians featured in the text’s epilogue. At the same time, Offred herself is an unreliable and elusive narrator. Can we believe her story? And does her unreliable status enhance or detract from the text’s feminist messages? In raising these questions, Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale engages with the debates of feminist politics, dramatizing a complicated and ongoing ideological history. This is a complex novel, one that is open to more than one interpretation, but there are certain affinities with some of the major developments in feminist thought in the twentieth century, from Virginia Woolf’s arguments about women’s roles and women’s writing to later discourses on the male gaze, the binary division of male and female, and the radical potential of language.

Read more here.


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