The Importance of Being Offred

The Importance of Being Offred

Why should we study Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale in 2022?

I can think of several reasons why the novel is worthwhile of study:

  • The novel addresses important matters such as the individual in a community;
  • The novel also addresses the value of defiance in a society that lacks freedoms;
  • The novel presents the reader with an image of totalitarianism, and invites us to scrutinize it;
  • The novel addresses the role of women in society;
  • The novel addresses the significance of the line of succession in a society;
  • The novel grants the reader the opportunity to engage in an exploration of a narrative voice.

Atwood’s novel was published in 1985 and was a response to Atwood’s concern for growing conservatism in the USA.

Traditional liberal views (broadly speaking), value the role of the individual in society. A definition from The Hutchinson Dictionary of Ideas (edited by Anne-Lucie Norton) is as follows:

Liberalism: Political and social theory that favours representative government, freedom of the press, speech and worship, the abolition of class privileges, the use of state resources to protect the welfare of the individual, and international free trade.

In addition – the theory is associated with the Liberal Party in the UK and the Democratic Party in the USA.

[From the same dictionary there is a definition of Totalitarianism: government of all activities within a country, overtly political or otherwise.]

Based on the above, it is evident that Atwood’s Gilead is a society lacking in liberalism, and for Atwood this would have been a great concern. The freedom of expression (valued by liberal theorists) would be a central value for Atwood and other authors. Notably, there is no freedom of expression in Gilead. Offred’s spoken words are monitored, and the reading of books or magazines is forbidden. A totalitarian society such as Gilead operates in a manner that reduces freedom of expression and therefore attempts to control thought and behaviour.

An aside: In the modern world there is a great reliance on social media for information. There is a phenomenon in which people in relatively small social groups engage in communication. The ideas reflected in these small groups tend to be repeated or replicated by the group members. This reinforcing of a small number of ideas within a group is termed ‘the echo chamber effect’. The echo chamber reinforces biases and does not support different opinions. Ironically, even though the modern world has the potential for sharing information, there are elements/individuals of this world who choose to limit their knowledge.

The monitoring of Gilead by the authorities, and the punishments meted out to people who do not follow expected rules, are evidence that Gilead is a totalitarian state. It is clear that Atwood objects to this type of monitoring and rejects this type of social structure/system. It is important to think about the monitoring of society in our current situation. Anybody using the internet is likely to have their online behaviour monitored by cookies. When using WhatsApp or SMS systems there is predictive text processing, which predicts the next word based on the records of previous messages.

In a well-known advert one of the characters asks “What is your credit score?” It turns out that the credit score is based on data that is recorded through financial transactions. This is a form of monitoring of behaviour.

To get vaccinated against Covid-19, citizens in South Africa were required to register on a website, and thereafter the citizens received SMS messages stating the date and location of the vaccination. This is possible through data gathering.

Gilead monitors the citizens to ensure compliance with restrictive rules. Although the society in which we live operates differently, monitoring still takes place.

The issue of defiance is an important matter to consider. In Gilead anybody who challenges the system is punished. Offred is defiant in thought, initially, but by the end of her narrative she acts in total defiance of the system. Offred’s meetings with Ofglen and with the Commander are both examples of defiance, in that the parties knowingly break the rules of the society. There is value in acts of defiance in that individuals can act against an unjust society. However, it must be noted that some acts of defiance are merely destructive. Considering the action of defiance has value in the English class because it relates to the morals and values that we have, and how we express these. Consider how we would judge Offred if she took a defiant stance against a democratic society that manifests the freedoms mention in the definition above.

It is telling that the novel is narrated by a female character, and she lists the injustices evident in the treatment of women by the society. The novel therefore raises questions about what the role of women should be. The social and political power in the novel is located in the hands of men, but, at the time of publishing, women had held significant positions of authority in the world. Most obvious was the British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. She held a significant position in the world, through the influence that Britain held at that time. Other women in positions of power included Golda Meir (Prime Minister of Israel 1969-1974), Indira Gandhi (Prime Minister of India 1966-1977), and, Benazir Bhutto, who was the first woman to be Prime Minister of Pakistan, taking power in 1988 (a little after the publication of the novel). It is notable that since 1985 women have gained more power in the shape of being Heads of State – including in Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, Germany, Iceland, Ireland, Liberia and New Zealand. Arguably more women have political power than in 1985.

However, it must be noted that the role of women in terms of social, economic or political power is not a homogenous one; some states restrict the rights of women. An example of the oppression of women is in the restriction or denial of access to education. The novel reminds us of women’s rights to full participation in society.

A significant element of the novel is in the need for progeny – the Commander and Serena Joy wish for a child. One of the associations with a child is the ongoing lineage of a family. The society introduces the Handmaid system as an attempt to ensure that a family line can be continued. This is linked to the idea of ongoing significance or presence in a society. In one sense it is also an attempt at immortality, through the ongoing genetic inheritance. Readers can speculate on the desire to increase a global population that already exceeds 7 billion, and continues to rise.

There is an element of the novel that requires some engagement, and that is the narrative form itself. The novel is told by two people – Offred and Professor Pieixoto. Offred narrates her experiences and memories in the major part of the novel. In the Historical Notes, at the end, Prof Pieixoto provides an historical perspective on Gilead (he is speaking at an academic conference long after Gilead has failed as a state).

The voice(s) of the narrators provide a sense of authenticity regarding the nature of the state. Offred provides a journal or diary of sorts, and Prof Pieixoto provides a scientific, research-based, statement. Prof Pieixoto’s statement indicates that Offred’s statement was recorded on tape(s), and that the recording took place after the events, because Offred had no access to such a recording resource during the narrative she provides. In addition, there is some doubt cast on the authenticity of Offred’s tale, although Prof Pieixoto indicates that it is probably genuine/authentic.

The two voices in the narrative provide the reader with the opportunity to question what we read, in terms of accuracy and credibility. Atwood suggests that the reader should question the narrative of any individual.

In the year that Offred was first presented to the world (1985), there were other significant births. One was the footballer Cristiano Ronaldo. Another was the performer Leona Lewis. However, in the year 1985, as Atwood presented the reader with a world in which women were oppressed, Gal Gadot was born. She would become Wonder Woman in several films inspired by the DC comics of the same name. Wonder Woman presents a different type of woman to the Handmaids in Atwood’s book. Or perhaps they share many features. The reader can decide.

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