The late 1980s were distinguished by the number of public controversies that were often related to the issues of gender and reproduction. The feminist movement continued experiencing its 1970s ‘second-wave’ flowering, while the conservative right embarked on the ‘moral majority’ narrative, seeking to legitimize its discourse by the appeal to ‘traditional values’. In this context, a number of literary works were produced by leading exponents of these conflicting perspectives, with the objective of spreading their socio-cultural message across the wider spectrum of public opinion.
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood (1986) may be considered one of the important examples of the feminist speculative fiction of this era. Building on the 1980s anxieties of the impending nuclear war, Atwood presents a picture of tyrannical Gileadean regime that has ostensibly emerged from the ashes of the war waged with atomic weapons in the American mainland. The Republic of Gilead is explicitly built on the Scriptural principles and run by a theocratic and misogynist dictatorship. The majority of its women are infertile, while the ones that retained their child-bearing capacity are doomed to the life of sexual degradation as the ‘Handmaids’ in households of the ‘Commanders’, an exclusively male Gileadean ruling class. The protagonist of the novel, Offred, is one of the Handmaids, and the plot of the most part of the novel is based as her personal narrative. Through the eyes of the protagonist, the author explores the issues of both social degradation of the immediate producers (in this case, the child-bearing women) and of the female gender in general. Given the conflation of a class- and gender-based exploitation in Atwood’s novel, it is imperative to locate this work within the context of larger Marxist and feminist literary frameworks that have exerted their influence on the 1980s radical American literature.
The paper will make use of a number of secondary sources. In particular, Terry Eagleton’s (2006) and Lucien Goldman’s ( / 1996) contributions on the Marxist literary criticism and its treatment of a novel as a specific literary genre will be utilized to prepare the grounds for providing a Marxist theoretical perspective on the problematique of the novel and its protagonist. George Lukács’s (1971) perspective on the specificity of the novel protagonist as the linkage between the degraded world of present and the search for authentic values rooted in the past may be of special significance here as well. From the feminist standpoint, Nancy Armstrong’s (2006) and Barbara Ehrenreich’s ruminations on the contradictions of both traditional literary criticism and the feminist social theory itself may be regarded as the highly valid contributions to the overarching theoretical perspective of this paper. The radical feminist perspective presented by Shulamith Firestone (1972) may enable the researcher to compare and contrast the viewpoint of the author with respect to the inter-gender relations with the more ‘orthodox’ feminist interpretations. Finally, the Foucaultian theory of bio-politics, as presented in James W. Bernauer and Michael Manon (2005), as well as in Thomas Lemke (2011), may appear to represent a binding link between the theoretical positions of the economy-oriented Marxist and gender-focused feminist social critiques.
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1. Marxist and Feminist Literary Theories: A Comparative Review
The Marxist literary theory should necessarily be viewed within the context of a more general Marxian critique of ideology. As expounded in The German Ideology and the number of other oeuvres, Marx and Engels regarded human subjectivity as inherently connected with the human productive and reproductive capacity. For them, the main differences between humans and other animals may have been contributed to the fact that human “consistently produce, reproduce and transform their living capacities” within the context of their shared life (i.e. society). Therefore, according to Marxist theory, a study of all segments of humans’ social existence should necessarily proceed from the assumption of the primacy of production relations within the greater social continuum.
Such terms as ‘base’ and ‘superstructure’ are frequently used in Marxist social theories (primarily those inspired by orthodox Marxism) to refer to the relatively dominant role of the society’s production matrix and the relatively subordinate one of all other cultural phenomena, respectively. However, one should not overlook the fact that even in the most orthodox Marxist works from the early 20th century, the notion of a relative autonomy of art and literature from their economic base was often accepted. Thus, a commonplace misinterpretation of the orthodox Marxist view on ideology as a mere derivative from the society’s economic base should be rejected. Moreover, in the 1970s currents of orthodox Marxism, such as the one represented by Louis Althusser, the notion of ideology as a ‘false consciousness’ or the simple superstructure to the society’s economic base was supplemented by a more elaborate and dialectical perspective focusing on the ideology’s leading role in shaping a social subject (i.e. human being) in accordance with implicit demands of the ruling class and its state apparatus. Hence, in Althusserian, or ‘structural Marxist’, perspective, which has had exerted a powerful yet indirect influence on both feminist and poststructuralist social and cultural studies, an ideology, including its various artistic and literary forms, is an active element contributing to the maintenance of the base’s stability. In fact, the famous letter of Engels to Joseph Bloch (21-22 September 1890), with its emphasis on “interaction of all [the] elements” of social life in production of history may be taken as the first original evidence to such claim.
The next important concept influencing the vast majority of Marxist and post-Marxist literary theories is that of a class. The Marxist definition of the class varies from one Marxist political and/or philosophical current to the other; however, the dominant definition was the one presented by V.I. Lenin which basically treats social classes as “large groups of people who differ in their place in a historically concrete mode of social production”, with “their role in social organization of production;…their relationship to the means of production; and…methods of obtaining and the size of the share of social wealth they have at their disposal” being instrumental for the concept of social class. This definition was implicitly shared by the majority of the social theorists espousing their commitment to Marxian paradigm of social and cultural research until at least the 1960s. However, the Althusserian tradition of Western Marxism that became relatively prevalent in the 1970s to 1980s seems to have shifted the focus from the “economic reductionist” view of a social class to the one characterized by the thesis on “relative autonomy” of politics and ideology in the formation of antagonistic social classes and their interests. In a similar vein, Nicos Poulantzas proposed to view social class as an inherently ideological construct, as a distinct set of “class practices”, which, while being the external expressions of internal contradictions of a given social formation, are nonetheless not limited to the ones connected with the struggle over “ownership of productive resources”. Therefore, a more structuralist concept of a social class would include all three aspects of “a capitalist social division of labor”, i.e. the political, economic, and ideological one.
The latter aspect may refer one directly to the problem of the Marxist conceptualization of linkages between social class and literary theory. As noted by Goldmann ( / 1996), the Marxist notion of connection between a distinct social class and the ideological narrative of a respective literary work ultimately rests on the assumption that a “coherent mental structure corresponding to what is called a ‘world-view’” can be established only by the relevant social group, or class, as a whole, with “the individual being able only of carrying it to a very high degree” of conceptual and creative implementation. Thus, in Marxist theory, an individual artist is likely to be viewed only as a transmitter of some portion of the body of social experience that belongs to a social class at large. However, as conceded by Goldmann, this point of view may be inadequate, as it tends to underestimate the individual’s autonomy, e.g. the capacity of an individual from one social class to reflect the ideology of the other. George Lukács, widely regarded as the paragon of the 20th century Marxist literary theory, with a particular relevance to the theory of novel, presented an elaborate perspective on the dialectical nature of a novel form. In Lukácsian interpretation, the novel sits in the cross-section between a tragic view of the insurmountable disconnection between a hero and the world, which results from their mutual degradation with respect to the authentic values of that world, on the one hand, and an epic perspective of the community between a hero and his/her world. For Lukács, “the outward form of the novel” is necessarily biographical, as “the central character of a biography is significant only by his [sic] relationship to a world of ideas” that define the protagonist’s world. Hence, the novel’s protagonist is, in Goldmann’s words, “a problematic character whose degraded, and therefore inauthentic, search for authentic values in a world of conformity and convention” forms the basics of a novel’s plot structure.
The narrative and the protagonist of Atwood’s novel appear to conform to the theoretical theses outlined by Lukács and Goldmann. The Gileadean society is clearly divided into distinct social classes, with their roles and hierarchy being determined not only (and not primarily) by the purely economic factors, but by the totality of class practices they engage in. A tangible social division of labor is intact, with the Guardians, the Angels, and the Commanders forming the social hierarchy of the male-dominated societies, and the Handmaids, the Aunts, and the Commander’s Wives reflecting the masculine class structure in the feminine world. The differences in social hierarchy are clear at both scales; Nick, the Commander’s Guardian “lives…in the household over the garage. Low status: he hasn’t been issued a woman, not even one”. In contrast, the Commander and his Wife enjoy the luxury of authentic artworks and lavish carpets in their house; in the description of their sitting room, the narrator observes that “money has trickled through this room for years and years”. Such items that should be greatly valued in an impoverished Gileadean society as “the matching chairs, eighteenth century,… the tufted Chinese rug on the floor”, which is directly mentioned as “authentic”, or “an oval mirror, flanked by two pairs of silver candlesticks”, are the visible indicators of the material basis of the Commanders’ power over the Republic of Gilead.
Offred, the protagonist herself, appears to correspond to Lukácsian concept of the problematic hero in search of the lost authentic values. The numerous reminiscences of the pre-war life, with its greater freedom and independence, are presented in contrast with the degrading conditions Offred and other Handmaids have to find themselves in the anti-egalitarian Gileadean society. The very beginning of the novel seems to be presenting a contrast between the protagonist’s authentic past and her inauthentic and degrading present:
We slept in what had once been a gymnasium… I thought I could smell, faintly like an afterimage, the pungent scent of sweat, shot through with the sweet taint of chewing gum and perfume from the watching girls… Dances would have been held there; the music lingered, a palimpsest of unheard sound, style upon style, an undercurrent of drums…
This idyllic – and authentic – depiction is then contrasted with the bleak and inauthentic reality faced by the protagonist and her companions:
We yearned for the future. How did we learn it, that talent for insatiability? It was in the air; and it was still in the air, an after-thought, as we tried to sleep, in the army cots that had been set up in rows, with spaces between so we could not talk…The lights were turned down but not out. Aunt Sara and Aunt Elizabeth patrolled; they had electric cattle prods slung on thongs from their leather belts.
Thus, the protagonist’s implicit motivation, as if in accordance with Lukácsian theory, is to ameliorate the rapture between authentic values (represented by freedom and autonomy) and the world and herself that lost them by sinking into depths of the authoritarian patriarchy. While Moira, the protagonist’s rebellious friend, manages to temporarily escape the Gileadean theocracy, she is later returned and forced to the life of prostitution. Offred, on the other hand, expresses her subversiveness by engaging in unauthorized sexual contacts with Nick, the Commander’s chauffer. In the end, though, both of them are discovered and condemned for their disloyalty, reflecting the tragic component of the novel’s genre.
However, the problem of social inequality in The Handmaid’s Tale is further compounded by the presence of the gender factor, as the significant part of the Gileadean social hierarchy is gender-based. Thus, it is necessary to review the feminist literary theories in order to understand their connections with the novel.
The core problematique of feminist social theory is inherently connected with the notion of gender. The latter term forms an epistemological crux of this theory’s approach to socio-cultural issues, just as ‘class’ performs this function in the case of Marxism. The problem of gender is posited with regard to the potential of liberating society from the supposed ‘patriarchy’, or male domination, which would lead to the social situation where “gender and sex no longer determined social existence.” Hence, one may claim that feminists regard gender as primarily socially constructed phenomenon, attributing the main role in social relations of domination and subjugation to the fact of the males’ dominance over females.
Several feminist approaches exist with regard to the origins and nature of gender-based social domination. For instance, Shulamith Firestone (1972) was the main proponent of the notion of a connection between females’ reproductive role and their subjugation to the masculine gender. This author attempts to proffer a quasi-Marxist view of the inter-gender relations, positing that humanity’s social history might be based on “the division of society into two distinct biological classes for procreative reproduction, and the struggles of these classes with one another.” The nature-based divergence between males and females would thus be conceptualized as giving rise to a specific “sexual class system,"which would privilege males as opposed to females.
This radical feminist concept puts the biological differences between males and females at the center of social antagonism. In particular, biological nuclear family may be viewed as the main venue through which the domination of males over females is sustained and extended. This concept may be present in Atwood’s novel as well, because the actions of even originally sympathetic male characters, e.g. Nick, are viewed as potentially domineering and ill-willed toward the protagonist and other disadvantaged females described in the novel. However, there are no specifically radical feminist messages in The Handmaid’s Tales, as the author clearly posits a dichotomy between a supposedly egalitarian and female-friendly society that existed before the Republic of Gilead; this would preclude the positioning of the inherent biological antagonism between the sexes.
Another feminist theoretical approach that would appear to be relevant for the purposes of the present discussion was formulated by Mary O’Brien (1981). In her opinion, “the biological processes of conception, gestation and birth and the social relations involved in nurturing a child” would produce the gender stereotypes that may come to shape the character of a child in the biological family. While Atwood’s novel does not focus on the problem of child rearing and the reproduction of gender relations in the newly born, it still proceeds from the assumption of importance of socio-biological reproduction for the maintenance of society. The Gileadean theocracy places major emphasis on the child birth and bestows lower social status upon the fertile females who are forced to virtually perform the function of the living incubators for the society’s overlords; this would testify to the relevance of gender hierarchy for the understanding of the principles of social power.
The specifically feminist literary criticism would predominantly center on the aspects of the work under consideration that would seem to reflect the hierarchical structure of contemporary society’s gender relations. In particular, the problem of “disclosure of…such patriarchal narratives of femininity” has frequently become a focus of the majority of feminist literary theories. With respect to the novel form, feminist literary critics appear to shift the emphasis from the previous assumption of the lack of certain significant quality in the protagonist as his/her defining trait to the problem of cultural power, or “voice”, the lack whereof would have a significant impact on the position of the protagonist in his/her community or the novel’s fictional world.
While the majority of conventional feminist literary critics draw main attention to the problem of the lack of access to the “means of self-expression” that may be “readily available” to male characters, The Handmaid’s Tale seems to be centered on the notion of the lack of the protagonist’s voice as such. While the heroines of classical novels still lived in the world where at least a modicum of the future potential for gender equality existed, Offred, Moira and other Handmaids are completely dispossessed and relegated to the status of the reproducing commodity, being exploited and abused by the Commanders and their Wives.
Furthermore, the problem of the interrelationship between female oppression and pornography appears to be frequently raised by the feminist social and literary criticism. Pornography has often been regarded as the utmost expression of the female body’s objectification in the male-dominated world. In this, some points of unsettling compromise between religious conservatives and some radical feminists may emerge. Indeed, Barbara Ehrenreich remarks that the world of Gilead is characterized by the almost complete absence of “pornography…cosmetics or other artifices to insult the natural female form.” This observation would point at the presence of the hidden critique of some forms of radical feminism in Atwood’s work – the problem that will be dealt with later.
Thus, the application of Marxist and feminist critical frameworks to the main tenets of Margaret Atwood’s novel would appear to be especially fruitful, in the light of the various aspects of the Handmaids’ oppression that the author seeks to present and unmask. Therefore, the analysis of the main themes and subjects present in Atwood’s work should proceed from the assumption of the conflation of socio-economic and gender-based factors in the protagonist’s lack of social autonomy and the social self as such.
2. The Handmaid’s Tale: Key Themes and Subjects
The writing of The Handmaid’s Tale basically coincided with the period of intense cultural controversies generated by the attempts of the American New Right, constituted primarily on religious basis, to oppose the development of secular humanist and feminist elements in the American culture. The New Right argued that feminists were supposedly aiming at the complete destruction of the traditional family values and the public expression of religious devotion; some of them, such as Jerry Falwell, alleged that feminist movement’s primary goal was none other as the “satanic attack on the home.” The conservatives’ narrative basically emphasized the themes of the imminent moral breakdown and the reign of sexual promiscuity that would be the result of the feasible feminist victory. Such assertions, constantly propped up by the numerous ‘televangelists’, were seen as valid by the significant component of the American public at that time.
Therefore, The Handmaid’s Tale should best be viewed within the overarching socio-political context of that time. Margaret Atwood herself reminisced that the very idea to present the picture of the male-dominated dystopia resulted from her 1981 discussion with one of her friends of the problem posed by the New Right’s moral crusade.Nevertheless, in the process of writing the novel, Atwood appears to have drawn upon not only the anxieties of the 1980s America, with its ‘Cultural Wars,’ but likewise on the scholarship of the various practices of birth control and female repression in the number of societies that can be earnestly considered antifeminist, e.g. “Nazi Germany or Ceausescu’s Romania.”. In this way, the author would contextualize the antifeminism of the U.S. New Right with general historical experiences of the patriarchy.
The main themes of The Handmaid’s Tale appear to revolve around the issue of bio-politics. The latter term was basically introduced by Michel Foucault, the renowned French social theorist and philosopher of the postmodernist era. Foucault attempted to present bio-politics as a specifically ‘modern’ form of the total social control, or power, which is defined by the dominant power’s desire to “administer, secure, develop and foster life.” While previously the state as a sovereign power effectively limited its competence to the exercise of the right of seizure of its subjects’ property, social power, or even life, it still did not try to impose a totalized control over all aspects of their birth, life and death, nor was the state practically able to do this. In contrast, the modern state extends its grasp over the majority of the functional spheres of its subjects’ lives, seeking to shape their consciousness and the very existence. Foucault attributes such methodological shift in the exercise of social power to the transformation of the modern state associated with the rise of absolutism in the 17th century; such forms of ‘bio-power’ as the population management and the increasing confinement of socially undesirable groups (e.g. prisoners and the psychotics) are viewed by Foucault as constituting the earliest and most brutal forms of the nascent bio-politics. In particular, the problem of sexuality was regarded by the philosopher as an especially important aspect of the development of the bio-political power. James W. Bernauer and Michael Manon (2005) observe that in Foucault’s interpretation, sexuality was “located at the pivot of the two axes” along which the “power over life” would assert itself: “access to both the individual and the social bodies.”
The system of bio-power is necessarily underpinned by the structures of surveillance. In the Foucaultian discourse, surveillance is viewed as “the disciplinary gaze” that aims at controlling the individuals entangled in the “network of power” formed by the number of the constraining institutions that seek to pervade the individual’s safety mechanisms and to integrate him/her into the wider system of power relations as a powerless subject.
From this perspective, the Gileadean preoccupation with the biological reproduction, as well as the system created by the Commanders’ will, would be a perfect example of the horribly warped, yet distinctively modern, society based upon the notions of the generalized bio-power and surveillance-based politics of reproduction. While Foucault describes the systems of surveillance as based on the combination of superficially ‘educating’ and confining purposes and instruments, the Gileadean society uses the institutes of the Aunts and the Angels, together with the variety of re-educating (including those specifically aimed at the Handmaids) and penitentiary units the main purpose whereof appears to consist in molding the psychological profiles of the persons deemed asocial or in need of certain disciplining.
While the Gileadeans appear to proceed from their religious considerations of vice and religiously driven obedience, their means of enforcing such behavioral and cultural uniformity are distinctively modern: from the Eyes as the prototypic secret police service to the propaganda and indoctrination techniques per se. Hence, it would appear that the Foucaltian concept of bio-politics would be perfectly applicable to the situation of the Republic of Gilead.
The problem of connections between religion and state, exemplified by the Gileadean patriarchal-theocratic government, would feature high on the list of concerns that motivated Atwood to write the novel in the first place. One should not forget that the 1980s Evangelical Right was firmly opposed to the idea of the public secularism that had gradually become a norm since the 1950s. The issues of blasphemy laws and restoration of school prayer would appear to be some of the causes used by the Right to appeal to their followers. Furthermore, the ‘family values’ concept sough to challenge and stem the tide of the feminist and emancipatory developments that had previously led to the relative decline of the patriarchal and traditionalist stereotypes of the pre-1960s era. In particular, the notions that the husbands’ rightful place as a leader of the family was usurped and the American males were increasingly feminized were frequently raised by the Evangelical Right’s prominent speakers.
Atwood’s polemical strategy with respect to the supporters of the patriarchal and antifeminist values basically consists in presenting the picture of the society that conforms perfectly to their most hidden fantasies. While it is understandable that only a limited segment of the Evangelical Right were in favor in of installing a theocracy, i.e. the political regime characterized by the dominance of the “people of faith”, such attitudes were undoubtedly present among the members or adherents of the movements and coalitions comprising the Right. Thus, the Gileadean society is presented as a model incarnation of the social order that may be desired by such ultra-conservative figures as Rev. Jerry Falwell or Rev. Pat Robertson.
The whole life of the citizens of Gilead would appear to be subordinated to the religiously sanctioned concepts and forms of social interaction. One of the most striking examples thereof may be found in the latter part of the novel, as Offred meets another Handmaid, Ofglen (more precisely, the ‘new’ Ofglen, as the ‘previous’ one was apparently sent to the Colonies for some alleged transgression), and exchanges greetings with her. Even though the characters are not visibly followed by any kind of the government’s agents, they still go to great lengths to observe the strict provisions of the religion-driven greeting protocol. Such forms as “Blessed be the fruit” or “May the Lord open” are used by both women even though at least one of them does not feel any genuine religious convictions in them. The same situation may be observed in the case of the ceremonial prayer described in Chapter 34 the attendance whereof is mandatory, even for the Handmaids. The Commander “in charge of this service” acts in the capacity of both civic and religious leader, which is a definite sign of the final elimination of the church-state separation in the Gileadean society.
The second major theme of The Handmaid’s Tale is that of female resistance against the power that intends to oppress the feminine gender and use it as either the Unwomen doomed to clean the radioactive waste, “shipped off to the Colonies”, or as the Handmaids that are used as the breeding production units for the Commander elite. However, the degradation of women is not confined to these two states in the novel; even the Aunts and the Commanders’ Wives who may be considered relatively privileged strata of the female part of the Gileadean society are still barred from any significant occupations apart from those connected with child rearing or (in the Aunts’ case) the policing of the handful of the fertile females that opted for the miserable life of the Handmaids, instead of a guaranteed slow death in the Colonies. One of the most ironic moments in the novel is when Offred understands that her new Commander’s Wife is in fact Serena Joy, the former lead star of the “Growing Souls Gospel Hours, where they would tell Bible tales for children and sing hymns.” A strongly hysterical character (“she could smile and cry at the same time”, Serena Joy was understandably disappointed at the decreased social position she has found herself in as the result of the change to the fundamentalist social order she has helped to bring about. Such an irony is especially telling, as there were indeed a number of antifeminist women in the Evangelical Right’s movements who were especially negatively predisposed toward all expressions of the feminist movement. The story of Serena Joy’s fate may be presented by the author as a hint at the fate they might face in the world they were striving to usher in.
Finally, the problem of sexual domination of the socially dispossessed women would appear to connect the themes of class and gender exploitation in Atwood’s work. Offred’s strenuous relationship with her Commander is typical of the situations that have frequently arisen in the traditional class societies where high-ranking males were free to engage in the supposedly sinful or frivolous activities with their concubines or similarly degraded lower-class women. In contrast, the Handmaids’ sexual intercourse with the men other than ‘their’ Commanders is regarded as the ultimate sin; the punishment for such act on behalf of the lower-class male is a cruel death at the hand of the Handmaids, directed by ‘their’ Aunts. Nevertheless, the state-sanctioned brothels (in one of which Moira eventually ends her failed quest for liberty) still exist, as the regime is as hypocritical in its supposed crusade for a new morality, as the individual Commanders are.
3. The Gileadean Political Economy: Gender and Class
The subject of political economy has been often invoked by Marxist critics when dealing with the problem of the fictional societies described in the contemporary literary works. The concluding part of the novel, which presents a fictitious analysis of Offred’s tale from the standpoint of the late 22nd century historians, seems to point at the more systemic features of Gileadean political economy, where both class and gender elements of social hierarchy were necessarily intertwined.
The social structure and the underlying philosophy of the Gileadean society would appear to be constructed upon the foundations of both Christian fundamentalist theology and sociobiological theories harbored by the members of the ‘Sons of Jacob’ think tank, a fictional body responsible for the creation of the Gileadean project. The narrator seems to be indicating that “the sociobiological theory of natural polygamy was used” by the regime to justify “some of the odder practices” upon which the Gileadean gender hierarchy was based, with the direct comparison drawn between Sons of Jacob’s Christian sociobiology and the early 20th century Social Darwinism.Accordingly, the system of class and gender hierarchy established by Judd, Waterford and other Commanders sought to re-establish the ‘family values’ of the old times and to exclude the supposedly inferior populations (most visibly, women) from any say in social life. The foreboding remark, “Our big mistake was teaching them to read,” attributed to Judd, would point at the hidden fear of the conservative male hierarchy with respect to the hidden resistance potential of their female servants and concubines, which would require such extreme measures as the ban on reading to at least partially dispel them.
The Republic of Gilead is a post-apocalyptic society, and thus its economy is to a large extent based on the ruthless exploitation of the prisoners and other undesirables in the Colonies, where both the cultivation of the (allegedly) edible fruits and vegetables and the cleaning of nuclear waste would take place. In a manner reminiscent of both the Nazi and Stalinist regimes, political and religious dissidents, as well as the males and females suspected of failing to conform to the regime’s tenets, were sent there. In particular, as it was mentioned in the beginning of the novel, the fertile females were able to choose the exile to the Colonies, as opposed to becoming the Commanders’ Handmaids; however, this would constitute a classical example of the false choice.
In this paper, I have made effort to examine the context of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, proceeding from the assumption that an application of Marxist and feminist analytical frameworks will contribute to the deeper understanding of the literary work under inquiry. While this attempt was necessarily limited by the paper’s scope and objectives, one may assume that it has borne some constructive results in this direction. In particular, the problematique of class and gender oppression has been found to exert a significant impact upon the author’s and the protagonist’s thinking, which would allow one to make an inference to the presence of interrelationship between the Marxist and feminist paradigms in Atwood’s work.
The Handmaid’s Tale was intended to serve as the warning of the dismal possibilities of the return to power of traditionalist elements that would defy the secular and relatively tolerant social order which took root in the post-1960s America. At the same time, its major message seems to exceed the relatively narrow framework of such conceptualization. This novel has become a glimpse at the interrelationship between social and gender oppression, represented by the hierarchical bio-political structure, so typical of the modern societies. The threat of social engineering and fundamentalist regimes has not yet been eliminated in full, as the example of the continuing growth of the right populism in the U.S. and especially in Europe shows; thus, the warning issued by Margaret Atwood remains as valid as it was in 1987.
The treatment of the conflation of class / social status and gender-based systems of oppression in The Handmaid’s Tale belies the author’s keen understanding of the interrelationship of these two aspects of a general phenomenon of social domination. The challenge posed by the Evangelical Right in the 1980s, with its emphasis on anti-welfarist and antifeminist counterparts of the right-wing political strategy, might have motivated Margaret Atwood to include both problems in the novel’s narrative. The Republic of Gilead is both anti-lower classes and anti-feminist in its core policies; both male servants and dispossessed, on the one hand, and female population, on the other, suffer under the yoke of the Commanders’ order. Hence, Atwood appears to point her reader to the conclusion that the truly emancipative politics should necessarily include both social and gender liberation agendas.
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