The Handmaids Tale


In Margaret Atwoods novel, "The Handmaids Tale", the birth rate in the
United States had dropped so low that extremists decided to take matters into
their own hands by killing off the government, taking over themselves, and
reducing the womens role in society to that of a silent birthing machine. One
handmaid describes what happened and how it came about as she, too, is forced to
comply with the new order.
Before the new order, known as the Sons of Jacob, took over, women had a
lot to be afraid of. They had freedom to do whatever they wanted, but this
freedom was severely inhibited by maniacs who could strike at any time. Women
followed rules to keep them out of danger, but they were not enforced.

"I remember the rules, rules that were never spelled out but that every woman
knew; dont open your door to a stranger, even if he is the police. Make him
slide his ID under the door. Dont stop on the road to help a motorist
pretending to be in trouble. Keep the locks on and keep going. If anyone
whistles, dont turn to look. Dont go into a laundromat, by yourself, at night .
.. Women were not protected then."(p. 24)

Nobody believed it could happen to them. When the Sons of Jacob took over and
began to take away their freedom, they accepted it. They were afraid and the
Sons gave them some security. Because they accepted the first few laws, it was
hard to refuse to not go along with the ones that followed.
When the women were finally stripped of their identities, they felt as
though they had deserved it because they had done nothing to try and save any of
their other rights.

"We looked at one anothers faces and saw dismay, and a certain shame, as if wed
been caught doing something we shouldnt. Its outrageous one woman said, but
without belief. What was it about this that made us feel we deserved it?"(p.
166)

The Sons used this insecurity to round up the women and place them in
institutions where they would be "safe". Once they had them within their
clutches, they were able to use them for their own purposes.
The key to the whole program was using other women to train and control
them. It is hard to go against your own kind, and the Sons knew that if they
used men, it wouldnt work. The women would feel oppressed and strike back as
one group, or could too easily seduce the males to get their own way.
"Something could be exchanged... We still had our bodies."(p. 4) By using other
women, known as the Aunts, they could tell the women that they understood and
knew what it was like, and that all this was for their own good, to keep them
safe and make their world a better place.
There were many of these training facilities, but we learn the most
about the red centers, where the women are trained to be handmaidens. In other
words, mistresses, to bear children for wives who were no longer capable of
child birth, but too important to get rid of.
Older women, and some incapable of child birth were trained as Marthas.
They were servants to the wives and raised the children, if they were lucky
enough to have one.
The poorer women were called Econowives and performed the duties of wife,
handmaiden and Martha. The final category was the "unwomen"; those who had
committed some crime such as abortion, or who were too old to be good for
anything. These "unwomen" were sent to the edges of the colonies to clean up
nuclear waste or work in the industries. Both of which would soon lead to death.

The women were distinguished by the color of robes they wore, which
reached to the ground, revealing nothing. This was another way of keeping them
safe, so men would not be tempted. The handmaids wore red, the Marthas green,
the wives blue, daughters white, the unwomen wore grey, and "the striped dresses,
red and blue and green and cheap and skimpy, mark the women of the poorer
men."(p. 23) the econowives. "Sometimes there is a woman all in black, a widow.
There used to be more of them, but they seem to be diminishing."(p. 23) The
Sons of Jacob did not want any fertile women to go to waste.
The handmaids and Marthas were then given positions in the houses.
Marthas were permanent, but a handmaid changed every three years, if they lasted
that long. Becoming pregnant was always first and foremost in their minds.
Their lives depended on it.