THE ANGEL IN THE HOUSE: THE CULT OF DOMESTICITY IN MARGARET ATWOOD’S “THE HANDMAID’S TALE”

“Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m Through”

– Sylvia Plath

Female characters play a significant role in dystopian literature.  In early dystopian fiction this role has frequently been limited to being the catalyst for rebellious behaviour.  In other words, women provide the initial impetus for characters like D-503, Winston Smith, and John Savage to act.  To a certain extent this pattern is merely an extension of a long tradition in Western literature.  From the Illiad, with its account of heroics inspired by the kidnap of Helen, to the romances of the Middle Ages, with knights going off to rescue damsels in distress, to the more recent tales, like the Star Wars adventure set in motion by the captured Princess Leia, women have long been depicted as providing the motivation for male action.   The Handmaid’s Tale and The Stepford Wives challenge this stereotypical representation of women by making women not the cause of the story, but rather the story itself.  Beyond that, both of these dystopias will suggest that for women, dystopia consists of the construction of a patriarchal-masculinist utopia.  In this first post on The Handmaid’s Tale, I’ll be focussing on providing a feminist understanding of how patriarchy operates in our world.

Dystopian societies in fiction are frequently divided into hierarchical classifications that differentiate between the types of power that each group possesses.  In 1984 and Metropolis these divisions are at least partially modeled on the Marxist categories of workers and owners.  In Brave New World and Gattaca, on the other hand, while there are still the categories of workers and owners (Vincent, in Gattaca, can be interpreted as making the transition from “worker” to “owner”), groups are “scientifically” differentiated according to their biologic and genetic characteristics.  While this latter form of classification may seem further removed from our reality than the class system presupposed by Marxism, the truth is that the oldest and most universal demarcation between those with greater power and those with lesser power is based on whether a person has an XY chromosome and is thus classified as a male, or an XX chromosome, and is classified as a female.

Although there is no natural explanation for why women are routinely disempowered, there can be little debate that being born female in many cultures relegates one to a separate and unequal status.  As Kate Millet notes in her influential book, Sexual Politics:

[A] disinterested examination of our system of sexual relationship must point out that the situation between the sexes now, and throughout history, is a case of that phenomenon Max Weber defined as herrschaft, a relationship of dominance and subordinance.  What goes largely unexamined, often even unacknowledged (yet is institutionalized nonetheless) in our social order, is the birthright priority whereby males rule females.  Through this system a most ingenious form of “interior colonization” has been achieved.  It is one which tends moreover to be sturdier than any form of segregation, and more rigorous than class stratification, more uniform, more enduring.  However muted its present appearance may be, sexual dominion remains nevertheless as perhaps the most pervasive ideology of our culture and provides its most fundamental concept of power (Millet 1972, 24-25, italics mine).

 

The absence of any “natural” justification for this subordination of women is commented on by the philosopher and feminist Simone de Beauvoir, who argues in her book The Second Sex,

One is not born, but becomes a woman.  No biological, psychological, or economic fate determines the figure that the human female presents in society:  it is civilization as a whole that produces this creature, intermediate between male and eunuch, which is described as feminine. (1952, 249)

What does she mean by this claim?  She means that while the presence or absence of certain sexual organs may be defined by genetics, the way one is treated because of the presence or absence of those sexual organs is culturally determined.  One is born male or female (in her opinion), but one becomes a man or a woman because of culture.  This perhaps helps clarify why our culture has terms like “girly men” and “manly women”.  People so labeled have not “become” entirely what is expected of them.

Put another way, as feminist theorist Elaine Showalter points out, “gender is not only a question of difference, which assumes that sexes are separate and equal; but of power, since in looking at the history of gender relations, we find sexual asymmetry, inequality, and male dominance in every known society” (1989, 4).  Thus, according to de Beauvoir, Millet, Showalter and other feminists, the discrepancies that exist between men and women in terms of power are not—contrary to what readers of Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus might believe—natural,  but rather social; not innate, but rather constructed.

Although there is nothing natural about the limitations placed on women, western societies have worked to rationalize the inequities of the gender system by appealing to “natural law”.  As feminist critic, Monique Wittig explains,

The ideology of sexual difference functions as censorship in our culture by masking on the ground of nature, the social opposition between men and women.  Masculine/feminine, male/female are the categories which serve to conceal the fact that social differences always belong to an economic, political, ideological order. (Wittig 1992, 2)

In other words, the terms male and female become a means of obfuscating the fact that women are frequently denied the rights granted men.  The fact that more women don’t protest this unfair treatment is not surprising.    As the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu points out,

Being included, as a man or woman, in the object that we are trying to comprehend, we have embodied the historical structures of the masculine order in the form of unconscious schemes of perception and appreciation.  When we try to understand masculine domination we are therefore likely to resort to modes of thought that are the product of domination.  […]  The dominated apply categories constructed from the point of view of the dominant to the relations of domination, thus making them appear as natural (Bourdieu 2001, 5, 35)

In simple terms, women (and men) have been conditioned to accept the inequities between the sexes.  As, Huxley would say, “that is the secret of happiness and virtue—liking what you’ve got to do.  All conditioning aims at that: making people like their unescapable social destiny”(1989, 15).  Atwood provides a slightly different take on conditioning by noting the human capacity to adjust to the demands of society.  Her character, Aunt Lydia, informs the women she is educating that “Ordinary […] is what you are used to.  This may not seem ordinary to you now, but after a time it will.  It will become ordinary” (45).  In the case of gender differences, society both works to make the social destiny of men and women seem inescapable and, at the same time, natural and preferable.  In other words, the gender roles we’ve been assigned since birth have become “ordinary”.

Atwood pictureMargaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale depicts a future American society, the Republic of Gilead, which has returned to “traditional values” and thus cost women many of the freedoms that they gained during the 20th century (9).  The patriarchal nature of this society is indicated by the fact that women are distributed to the men.  The dictum upon which this distribution is based is summed up in the slogan of the Republic of Gilead, “From each […] according to her ability:  to each according to his need” (151).  Women are judged only by their abilities at fulfilling certain social functions.  They are never to be the recipients of the abilities that they and others possess.  Men, by contrast, are judged only according to their need and are always the recipients.

Not all men, of course, benefit equally from this distribution of women. When Offred, the protagonist, first encounters her Commander’s chauffer, Nick, for example, she notes that he is of “[l]ow status:  he hasn’t been issued a woman, not one.  He doesn’t rate;  some defect, lack of connections” (24).  The fact that Nick is judged not to need, or warrant, a wife, is consistent with the inequitable distribution of power in our society.  As Arthur Brittan has observed, “Although a large number of men may benefit from patriarchy and heterosexualism, this does not mean that they all benefit equally; similarly, not all women are equally oppressed” (1989, 139).

The status of each of the women available for distribution is indicated by the nomenclature used in the Republic of Gilead.  Each of the handmaids, along with being given the Biblical title of handmaid, is also given a temporary title that indicates her relationship to the man who own her.  Consequently, the protagonist is called Offred because her owner is Fred.  Once she is transferred, her title will change to match her new owner.  Similarly, other women, who belong to different social groups also have different titles, all of which are indicative of their relative positions in society.  The women who are married to the Commanders are called “Wives”.  The consistent capitalization of this title signals that the word “Wife” means more in the Republic of Gilead than it does in our society.  A Wife is not simply a married woman—she is a woman who is allowed to marry, unlike the other women in society.

On a lower station from the Wives who are married to the Commanders are the Econowives, who are married to lesser men.  The Econowives, as Offred explains, “are not divided into functions.  They have to do everything; if they can” (32).  Beneath these multipurpose wives are the handmaids, who are responsible for reproduction and the female servants, or Marthas, who are responsible for the housework.  In addition to Aunt Jemimathese women, who are clearly connected to specific households, if only on a temporary basis, there are also the Aunts, who have the responsibility for educating and indoctrinating the handmaids.  The title of “Aunt” works on two specific levels.  On the one hand, it is suggestive of an older, wiser, family member, someone whom the handmaids are meant to admire and turn to for advice.  On the other hand, the title evokes the use of the word “aunt” as part of the history of slavery in the United States.

Throughout the story, the relationship of Offred to her Commander remains obscure.  The initial relationship is not, technically, sexual, although they do have sex.  Offred describes a sexual encounter between him and her in the Ceremony in these terms:

The red skirt is hitched up to my waist, though no higher.  Below it the Commander is fucking.  What he is fucking is the lower part of my body.  I do not say making love, because this is not what he’s doing.  Copulating too would be inaccurate, because it would imply two people and only one is involved.  Nor does rape cover it:  nothing is going on here that I haven’t signed up for.  There wasn’t a lot of choice but there was some, and this is what I chose.  (121)

Consequently, she is not—until later in the story—his mistress (210).  As the relationship is established in the beginning, she cannot be a mistress.  The word mistress presupposes a woman involved in a  sustained intimate relationship with a married man whose wife is typically either ignorant of the affair, or who, if she is aware of it, disapproves of the affair.  The relationship between the Commander and Offred is clearly not intimate, even in a sexual sense, nor is it even particularly enjoyable for either of the parties involved.  As Offred explains, from the Commander’s perspective, “The sexual act, although he performed it in a perfunctory way, must have been largely unconscious for him, like scratching himself” (207).  Offred’s experience of the sexual act is also distant.  She objectively records that,

What is going on in this room, under Serena Joy’s silvery canopy, is not exciting.  It has nothing to do with passion or love or romance or any of those other notions we used to titillate ourselves with.  It has nothing to do with sexual desire, at least for me, and certainly not for Serena.  Arousal and orgasm are no longer thought necessary; they would be a symptom of frivolity merely, like jazz garters or beauty spots: superfluous distractions for the light-minded.  (122).

Not only is the act devoid of all passion, the act is done with the permission of the Wife, Serena Joy, and indeed, occurs with Offred’s head lying on Serena Joy’s lap.  These facts alone make it evident that Offred is not intended as a mistress for the Commander.  In any event, lest there should be any confusion about her role, Offred disabuses the reader of the “fantasy” of the kept woman:

We are for breeding purposes:  we aren’t concubines, geisha girls, courtesans.  On the contrary:  everything possible has been done to remove us from that category.  There is supposed to be nothing entertaining about us, no room is to be permitted for the flowering of secret lusts; no special favors to be wheedled, by them or us, there are to be no toeholds for love.  We are two-legged wombs, that’s all:  sacred vessels, ambulatory chalices (176).

Offred is not, then, a prostitute or kept woman.   She is not the Commander’s employee, for she receives no wages and can never quit her duties to the Commander.  As the slogan, “From each […] according to her ability:  to each according to his need” suggests, there is no question of her being compensated for fulfilling the Commander’s needs (151).  Of course she can refuse to fulfill her role as a handmaid, but to do so risks exile to the colonies.

Offred is not family either, although the social group to which she, the Wife, the Marthas and the Commander belong is meant to resemble a family.  Indeed, during her earlier indoctrination, Aunt Lydia explains,

For the generations that come after […] it will be so much better.  The women will live in harmony together, all in one family; you will be like daughters to them, and when the population level is up to scratch again we’ll no longer have to transfer you from one house to another because there will be enough to go round.  There can be bonds of real affection […] under such conditions.  Women united for a common end!  Helping one another in their daily chores as they walk the path of life together, each performing her appointed task.  Why expect one woman to carry out all the functions necessary to the serene running of a household?  It isn’t reasonable or humane.  Your daughters will have greater freedom.  (209-210, italics mine)    

Although the future envisioned by Aunt Lydia is one of family, even she is uncertain of how this family will be constituted, for while the handmaids “will be like daughters”, they clearly won’t be daughters of the families to which they are assigned.  In any event, Offred’s membership in the family is undercut by the fact that she will be reassigned as soon as she has performed her duty to the Commander’s family by producing a child.

The relationship then, that Offred has to the Commander is one of property to owner.  Early on, when her society begins the transition to the Republic of Gilead, Offred’s friend, Moira, tells her, “Women can’t hold property anymore.  […]  It’s a new law” (231).  The reason, of course, why women cannot own property is because they are themselves property.  Logically, property cannot own property, or hold down a job, or have any of the freedoms granted to a citizen.  Offred is keenly aware of the fact that all women are property in the Republic of Gilead.  Reflecting on the structure of her little community, she muses,

I wait, for the household to assemble.  Household:  that is what we are.  The Commander is the head of the household.  The house is what he holds.  To have and to hold, till death do us part.

            The hold of a ship.  Hollow.  (103-104).

The hold of a ship conjures for the reader the image of the hold of a slave ship.  To a certain extent, though, Offred is even less than a slave, whose freedom is tacitly stripped away.  She explains, “I wait.  I compose myself.  My self is a thing I must now compose, as one composes a speech.  What I must present is a made thing, not something born” (86).  To place this again in Simone de Beauvoir’s famous phrasing, “One is not born, but becomes a woman” (1952, 249).  Offred has become a womb.

Works Cited.

De Beauvoir, Siomone.  1952.  The Second Sex.  New York:  Bantam.

Bourdieu, Pierre.  2001.  Masculine Domination.  Trans.  Richard Nice,  Cambridge:  Polity Press.

Brittan, Arthur.  1989.  Masculinity and Power.  Oxford:  Basil Blackwell.

Millett, Kate.  1972.  Sexual Politics.  London:  Abacus.

 

Showalter, Elaine.  1989.  Introduction:  The Rise of Gender.  In Speaking of Gender.  New York:  Routledge, pp. 1-16.

 

Wittig, Monique.  1992.  The Straight Mind and Other Essays. New York:  Harvester.

 

 

Author: mdamey

I am an English professor with expertise in medieval and modern retellings of the stories of King Arthur. I've taught high school and university courses over a a range of topics including Utopian and Dystopian fiction, Harry Potter, Science Fiction and Fantasy literature.

2 thoughts on “THE ANGEL IN THE HOUSE: THE CULT OF DOMESTICITY IN MARGARET ATWOOD’S “THE HANDMAID’S TALE””

  1. Excellent work. I just started reading The Handmaid’s Tale, and I love the context in which you’ve set her work and themes. I love the power in that last line: “Offred has become a womb.”

    Like

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