Ms. Margaret Eleanor Atwood is…
Ms. Margaret Eleanor Atwood is an internationally celebrated novelist, literary critic, and poet. As a child, Atwood spent her time between Ontario, her family’s primary residence and sparsely settled bush country in northern Canada, where her father, an entomologist, conducted research. Because of her father’s ongoing research Atwood spent most of her childhood in the woods of northern Quebec and traveled continuously between Ottawa, Sault Ste. Maire, and Toronto. She did not attend school full time until she was eight years old. Because of her upbringing, her works often have themes of the dangers of the ideologies of sexual politics and civilization vs. wilderness. Although, Atwood embeds feminist ideals in her writing as she rallies to empower women, she also cautions her readers by writing dystopian works that touch upon the darkness that is present in humanity.
She studied at the University of Toronto where she began publishing her poems in the college literary journal. In 1961, she graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in English and minors in philosophy and French. In 1961, she printed a book of poems, ‘Double of Persephone,’ and was named he winner of the E.J. Pratt medal. She then went on to obtain her master’s at Harvard’s Radcliff. She planned to pursue higher degrees at Hardvard University, but did not finish her dissertation.
Her first significant work was a book of poetry, ‘The Circle Game’ published in 1964, which was highly praised worldwide and honored in 1964. After that, she wrote numerous novel, screenplays, short stories, children books, and e-books. Atwood also had a distinguished career as a professor. She held positions at the University of British Columbia from 1964-1965, Sir George Williams University from 1967-1968, and York University from 1971-1972. Atwood continued writing some of her most celebrated novels including the Handmaid’s Tale, the Blind Assassin she continued writing some of her most celebrated novels including The Handmaid’s Tale, the Blind Assassin, The Penelopiad, Alias Grace, The Edible Woman and many more.
In her works, Atwood continually pits civilization against wilderness and society against savagery. She often considers these opposites to be some of the defining characteristics of Canadian society. By pitting civilization against the wilderness, she can create metaphors for the divisions between human personality. Society, civilization, and culture all represent the humanity of all humans while wilderness, irrational, carnal thoughts and actions all represent the savagery of our inner beings.
In one of her most famous novels, The Handmaid’s Tale is about a futuristic totalitarian society called the Republic of Gilead. Gilead rose to power because they wanted to put a stop to prostitution, porn and violence toward women. They also wanted to raise the declining fertility rates caused by pollution and chemical spills which lead to radiation sickness. The main character’s name is Offred which isn’t her real name, but symbolizes the ownership that a man has over her. Offred’s job as a andmaid and her job is Gilead is to be assigned to married couples to bear their children. Offred is assigned to the Commander and his wife, Serena Joy. During the “Ceremony” Offred is obligated to have sex with the Commander while Serena holds her hands down. The Handmaid’s Tale is interesting because it uses many of Offred’s flashbacks to tell the story of how Gilead began. By doing this we are able to find out that Offred had an affair with a married man and ends up marrying him. After they marry they have a daughter together. In the novel, Offred has a best friend named Moira who refuses to become a victim to Gilead’s oppression. Offred had a best friend named Moira who was a rebellious who refuses to stand down against Gilead.
As Gilead takes over women’s rights are virtually non-existent. They are not allowed to own property, have jobs, or vote. When Luke and Offred realize how horrible their life will be they try to escape to Canada, but are captured at the border and separated. Offred is then banished to the Rachel and Leah Re-education center where she is educated as a Handmaid. Moira unable to take stand down escapes and leaves Offred alone. Moira soon escapes leaving Offred alone. Offred is then assigned to the Commander’s house. Her only freedom is to go shopping which she must be accompanied by Ofglen.
One day the Commander tells his Chuffer to let Offred know to meet him in the study secretly. After that, Offred visits him regularly and he allows her to play Scrabble and read vogue which is forbidden. Serena Joy begins to notice that Offred is not getting pregnant and tells Offred that in exchange of having sex with Nick and then passing off the baby as the Commander’s she will bring Offred a picture of her daughter.One night the Commander takes Offred to Jezebel where Commanders meet prostitutes. While there she meets Moira who explains that she was captured after running away from the red center she was captured and chose to be a prostitute rather than being sent to the Colonies. Later that night, the Commander takes Offred to a hotel room and has sex with Offred. After returning home Serena brings Offred to Nick’s room and they proceed to have sex with each other. There secret affair continues for weeks after that. Offred gets very involved in the affair and strays from collecting information about the Commander for Ofglen. Offred then finds out that Oglen hanged herself after she realized that the secret police were coming for her. Later, Serena finds out about Offred’s trip to Jezebel and sends Offred to her room. As she is waiting in her room a black van pulls up with the same logo as the Eyes. Thinking she is about to get moved to the Colonies, Nick quickly reassures her that the van is taking her to safety, but she doesn’t really trust Nick’s word. Despite her skepticism she gets on the van going either to freedom or prison.
One of the overarching themes in The Handmaid’s Tale is using women as pawns in a political war. The aim of the founders of Gilead is to stop the decreasing fertility rates, violence, and pornography by creating a completely new political structure. They completely removed democracy for all the people especially women and replaced it with Totalitarianism and theocracy. Women’s political freedom was stripped away including their rights to vote, own property, acquire a job, or read. Previously, these rights empowered women to become independent and educated members of society and know they are reduced to nothing but a womb. In one of the novel’s key scenes, Offred lies in the bath and thinks about a time where her body was her own and not the property of Gilead.
Often in Atwood’s writing her themes involve an awareness of the struggles within a power structure whether it be democratic structure or a totalitarian structure. Atwood often explores the different ways where individuals became involved in power relationships that are often reduced to domination and victimization.
By exploring domination and victimization Atwood crosses into the complicated world of religion. In Gilead, the “Sons of Jacob” are the aggressors and eventually the victors against democracy and totalitarianism and oppression masked as religion into the lives of millions. As Atood explains how capable humans are to inflict cruelty and darkness she places Biblical references throughout her novel. Before every “Ceremony” where Handmaid’s like Offred are raped in an effort to bear children, a passage from Genesis is read to the whole household specifically Genesis 30:1-3. The passage reads, “and when Rachel saw that she bare Jacob no children, Rachel envied her sister, and said unto Jacob, ‘Give me children or else I die’ (Genesis). And she said, ‘Behold my maid, Bilhah. Go unto her and she shall bear upon my knees so that I might also have children by her.’ And she gave him Bilhah, their Handmaid, to wife, and Jacob went unto her” (Genesis). Sons of Jacob use religion as a way to dominate women by explaining that it is within the Bible. The ceremony is about the power relationship between women and men. As she is being held down by the commander’s wife, the Handmaid is made to lay between them as she provides her womb to the couple. The result of the ceremony further implicates that the seed she carries belongs to the man she should be honored to carry.
One of the highlights of the Handmaid’s Tale is when Offred finally realizes that power lies within her sexuality. During one of her glimpses of freedom through a shopping trip, Offred fantasizes about having a sexual relationship with a guard. She says, ” as we walk I know they’re watching, these two men aren’t yet permitted to touch women. They touch with their eyes instead and I move my hips a little, feeling the full red skirt sway around me….I enjoy the power of a dog bone, passive but there. I hope they get hard at the sight of us and have to rub themselves against the painted barriers, surreptitiously…”(Atwood, 30). As the pair walk away Offred brings along their carnal desires with her. Offred later says, “it’s difficult for me to believe I have power over him, of any sort, but I do; although it’s of an unequivocal kind” (272). By realizing the extent of her relationship with the Commander she now has power over Serena. She says, “now that I was seeing the Commander on the sly, if only to play his games and listen to him talk, our functions were no longer as separate as they should have been in theory. I was taking something away from her, although she didn’t know it” (208). In this quote Offred explains how she is entangling in her web of power without either of them realizing it. Everytime she goes to see the Commander he allows her to read vogue and play scramble in exchange for a kiss. This clearly displays how he isn’t a fan of the impersonal and worthless sexual ritual they have every month rather he is yearning to have a passionate woman beneath him.
As she writes about the power struggles between men and women she also highlights the struggles within women themselves. Atwood’s says, “women will gang up on other women. Yes, they will accuse others to keep themselves of the hook: We see that very publicly in the age of social media, which enables group swarmings. Yes, they will gladly take positions of power over other women, even- and, possibly, especially – in systems in which women as a whole have scant power. All power is relative, and in tough times any amount is seen as better than none” (New York Times). In The Handmaid’s Tale, men ostracize some women and raise others to a pedestal. The wives and aunts are loved and praised as they imprison other women who they deem as ‘lower status.’ One of the most alarming aspects of Atwood’s dystopia that the society justifies sexist tyranny through feminist ideals. Citizens of Gilead make all sorts of remarks about how their social structures protect women from rape and violence and encourages respect for motherhood while the dehumanize women and take away their right to seek pleasure in their most basic rights.