Essay on 'The Handmaid's Tale' Politics

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“A good book is an event in my life.” - Stendhal Through every challenge or setback human faces, their outlook on life changes. One’s principles and beliefs are affected by the environment around them this includes the human family, friends, and relationships they create. It is often helpful to delve beneath the literary surface and do research on the author while reading and analyzing a book to gain a true understanding. Margaret Atwood the author of The Handmaid's Tale and Alias Grace, has a background in feminist education and political awareness. In this case, many argue that Atwood takes a feminist stance in her novels. In Atwood's most famous novel, The Handmaid's Tale, Atwood uses her knowledge and political awareness throughout her work to help the reader have a better understanding of the novel. Though the novel takes place in the future, she still uses events of political change in America in the 1960s- 1970s.

In the novel Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood, she was inspired by the events around her. In the novel, Atwood used feminism from the 1980’s. When Atwood infuses current events in her works, it has an impact on the reader's mind. One that forces you to think about reality and fiction. This awakens the reader to the problems surrounding them in the real world. Atwood is passionate about her studies. She writes in hopes of change for the future. While there are many different ways to read literature, researching the author helps connect ideas to current events and the author's life to the writing. While Atwood was writing Alias Grace, the trial of Paul Bernardo and Karla Homolka took place. As she watched the trial unfold, Atwood was more interested in the public's reaction. In an interview with CBS, Atwood said 'In murders in which there are a man and a woman involved, public opinion usually goes in the following fashion: everybody is agreed on the man but opinion is usually split about the woman. One side: 'She instigated it all. She's the female demon.' The other side: 'She is an innocent victim coerced by force, circumstance and fear',' Paul Bernardo and Karla Homolka were a Canadian couple who were rapists and serial killers. When the news aired, it was harder for the public to understand that a woman was a serial killer.

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The public made excuses for Karla, but Karla was just as guilty as Paul. In the novel Alias Grace, Grace Marks, who is one of the narrators of the story, and James McDermott are convicted of the murder of their wealthy employer and his mistress. Shortly after the trial, James McDermott was hung while Grace Marks was sent to prison for twenty-eight years. All the other citizens were shocked when Marks was guilty. In old society, women were frail, easily influenced, and inferior to men. With very little explication of the murder, the memories of the murder and her past life are recreated in vivid flashbacks while she attends therapy with Dr. Jordan. While the novel Alias Grace took place in the past, Atwood's other novel, The Handmaid's Tale, took place in a futuristic society that has ended democracy and turned into the Republic of Gilead. In the new society, all women are stripped of their rights. Women are no longer allowed to work, read, or write. All women are separated, by the color of the dresses, into six categories based on their relationship and health status.

“Everything except the wings around my face is red: the color of blood, which defines us” (8). Fertile women, who have “sinned”, are the Handmaids. They are sent to the Commanders’ households as a reward for their work. Once the Handmaids are done with giving birth, she is passed off to another household. “I wait, washed, brushed, fed, like a prize pig. Sometime in the eighties they invented pig balls, for pigs who were being fattened in pens” (69). Handmaids were forced to have sex with “commanders” while their wives sat and watched, ensuring it was pronation and not for pleasure. Once the Handmaid's gives birth and hands the newborn over, she is sent to a new commander's house and starts the whole process over. The idea of handmaids stems from the biblical story of Rachel and Jacob, “When Rachel saw that she bore Jacob no children, she envied her sister. She said to Jacob, ‘Give me children, or I shall die!’ Jacob's anger was kindled against Rachel, and he said, ‘Am I in the place of God, who has withheld from you the fruit of the womb?’ Then she said, ‘Here is my servant Bilhah; go into her, so that she may give birth on my behalf, that even I may have children through her’” (English Standard Version, Gen. 30). These now called Handmaids were once free women. Now they suffer mental and physical abuse from a biblical society. Even today in our country, fifty years after legislation was passed allowing women to make their own decisions, men and women are still not equal. According to the NSVRC (National Sexual Violence Resource Center), one in five women will be raped sometime in their life. In The Handmaid's Tale, one character opens up to her aunts. She tells them how she was raped as a young woman and the aunts continue to say “her fault, her fault, her fault” (Handmaid’s 72). In this new society, women no longer have to deal with men harassing them and their sexualization because they do not have the freedom to be themselves. Instead, they are dehumanized and dressed in uniforms that cover their bodies head to toe. Instead of teaching men self-control and respect, we are shaming women for qualities they can not help. Unfortunately, in both societies, females are punished and men are rewarded. This is still a problem in today's world. In school, girls are not allowed to show their shoulders or thighs because boys will get distracted.

According to the NSVRC, ninety-one percent of victims of rape are women. Looking past the story of the novel, Atwood uses her liberal feminist beliefs and shows how it feels for some women in today's society. Throughout the novel Alias Grace, Grace Marks's therapist is trying to see if Grace’s old employer sexually harassed her. Grace Marks is a very complex character. Many believed she was mentally ill and manipulative. When Dr. Jordan asks her if she was sexually assaulted in any way she sidesteps the question. The reader does know that her employer has at least attempted. As the story goes on, we discover her father was an abusive alcoholic and that her mother was often pregnant. Which was hard for Grace and her mother to support their fairly large family. Grace’s mother was “too wise a woman” to challenge her husband, so she had to support her children by selling handmade shirts (Atwood, 109).

Grace’s mother is terrified of her husband due to his abuse. Toward the end of the novel, Grace hints that her father abused her as well. Grace and her mother have the responsibility of caring for all the children and supporting the family financially. While their father squanders the family’s money on alcohol. This puts pressure on Grace starting at a young age. At age sixteen Grace begins to get overwhelmed and runs away to never see her family again. Studies have shown that children who are surrounded by alcoholism at home grow up to have trust issues. For Grace, it was hard for her to open up to Dr.Jordan about her past. Grace also made it clear throughout the novel that she has no interest in getting close to anyone. Feminism has been around for over one hundred years. The first wave of feminism took place in the 1920’s for women’s suffrage. Due to the similar goals of equality, women merged with the Black Suffrage and the Abolitionist movement. The second wave happened in the 1960’s. The second wave fought for the right to use birth control and the National Organization of Women (NOW) was formed. The third wave focused on diversity and embracing individualism. The fourth wave takes place in the present day. The fourth wave focuses on sexual harassment and assault. In the wake of Brett Kavanaugh’s case, the #METOO has become extremely popular. With having the advantage of social media at our fingertips, it has helped women become more confident and share their stories. The #METOO movement has been around for about two years and hasn’t died down but has only become more popular. The #METOO movement is designed for women to come together and share there about there sexual assault stories. This helps gain support and confidence from others. While reading Atwood's novels, her work shows women being pushed down and shamed by society, but also rising and fighting the battles her characters have lost.  

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Essay on ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ Politics. (2024, April 18). Edubirdie. Retrieved June 16, 2024, from
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