Welcome to my second post on The Handmaid’s Tale.  In this post I will be covering the following topics:  Marx’s concept of alienated labor as exemplified by the women in the Republic of Gilead, the use of religion in manufacturing the consent of men and women, and, briefly, the meaning of the “Historical Notes on The Handmaid’s Tale”.

            Offred:  The Exploited Worker

Marx argued that, in a market economy, workers are alienated from their labor.  What does this mean?  On one level, Marx was concerned with the fact that the work a worker did was less valuable than the product being produced.  The example of a McDonald’s employee should illustrate the point.  Billy makes the cheeseburger, which sells at a dollar a burger.  Of course, for McDonalds to make a profit, the corporation has to cover the expenses of the raw materials (the bun, the cheese, the meat), the cost of transporting those products, the overhead of running the physical plant (water, sewage, taxes, electricity, rent, etc) and the cost of paying Billy’s salary.  For all of this to happen, the time it takes Billy to make one burger, deliver it to the customer and ring up the sale, has to be less valuable than the burger itself.  If Billy was hired and only worked long enough to make one burger before being fired, the amount of money he would get paid would not be enough to buy the burger he just made.

Not only is Billy’s work immediately worth less than the product it produces, as he works faster, his labor decreases in value.  Let’s assume that when Billy starts working, he makes twenty cheese burgers an hour and that he is paid an hourly wage of seven dollars.  Over the week, Billy’s productivity increases to forty cheese burgers an hour.  His pay, however, doesn’t go up simply because he is more productive, and, of course, the price of a cheese burger doesn’t go down either.  What does this mean for Billy?  In monetary terms, the value of his labor has decreased.  Who benefits from Billy’s devalued labor?  McDonalds.  As Marx explains,

The worker becomes poorer the more wealth he produces, the more his production increases in power and extent. The worker becomes an ever cheaper commodity the more commodities he produces. The devaluation of the human world grows in direct proportion to the increase in value of the world of things. Labor not only produces commodities; it also produces itself and the workers as a commodity and it does so in the same proportion in which it produces commodities in general.


So, why do workers, like Billy, work at a loss?  Few workers make this unfair exchange simply because they enjoy their work (university professors being one of the notable exceptions).  Instead, workers work so that they can pay for the commodities that they need and want and so that they can fulfil their obligations as family members and citizens.  In other words, they work unwillingly. Again, Marx explains this quite clearly:

[T]he worker feels himself only when he is not working; when he is working, he does not feel himself. He is at home when he is not working, and not at home when he is working. His labor is, therefore, not voluntary but forced, it is forced labor. It is, therefore, not the satisfaction of a need but a mere means to satisfy needs outside itself. Its alien character is clearly demonstrated by the fact that as soon as no physical or other compulsion exists, it is shunned like the plague.  (

Put in other terms, if Billy could afford everything he wants without working for McDonalds, he would quit tomorrow.  On the other hand, a lucky few of us enjoy our work so much that even if we had the money to retire tomorrow, we would keep on working because our work is “the satisfaction of a need”.

Most workers, however, are alienated through labor on a number of levels.  On the one hand, they are generally not the owners of the products that they produce.  To the extent that they do enjoy the commodities produced, they do so through an uneven exchange of their time and labor for those commodities.  Furthermore, because they grudgingly have to pay through their labor, the time they spend working is no longer their own.  It belongs to someone else.  During the work day, the worker belongs to the corporation or boss that pays him or her.  While there are laws limiting the power of the boss or corporation, the worker is still disempowered.  This helps explain why waiters at some restaurants sing Happy Birthday to customers about whom they don’t know and don’t care.  Beyond that, however, the worker not only produces a commodity, he or she is a commodity.  Customers thus feel that they are not merely entitled to the services or goods for which they are paid, but also to certain form of behavior from the workers providing those services and products.  When businesses say that the customer is always right, they do not mean that the customer is always right in relation to the business but rather in relation to the worker serving the customer.  Of course, in America, every worker is also a consumer of the labor of others.  These daily experiences of consuming others unwilling labor divides workers from other workers.   From Marx’s perspective, all of these experiences create four different types of alienation:

The worker is alienated from his or her essential nature.  He or she works to live instead of living to work.  In other words, he or she begins to lose his or her essential humanity and become machinelike.

The worker is alienated from the product produced by his or her labor.  He or she does not own the product, in some cases can not afford to consume the product and frequently does not have a vested long-term interest in the product.  Usually the worker also does not have much if any personal input into the design of a product.

The worker is alienated from the means of production.  The corporation determines how the product or service will be produced, and the worker has little if any say in these decisions.  These decisions range from where one works to how long one works to even what types of clothing one may wear at work or when one can take a bathroom break.

The worker is alienated from his or her fellow workers.  The only reason why the worker spends any time with his or her coworkers is because they’re all paid to be their working.  Their encounters are artificial interactions brought about by the exchange of capital.  Furthermore, at the workplace, the social relationship that might naturally exist between these individuals is actively discouraged by the demands of production, and the workers find themselves in competition with each other.

By now you should be asking yourself, what does this have to do with Offred and the other handmaids.  You may have noted that in our last post I said that Offred could not be considered an employee of the Commander.  While this remains true—she isn’t an employee—she is very much an alienated laborer. For her and the other Handmaids, their labor consists of going into labor and thus producing the products—children.  These children, of course, are not theirs as becomes evident when the handmaid named Janine gives birth.  The child born by Janine is named by the Wives, because, “It’s the Wives who do the naming, around here” (163).  Indeed, the fact that Janine produces the child, but does not have any claim on the child is further indicated by Offred’s observation that Janine will “be transferred, to see if she can do it again, with someone else who needs a turn” (163).

What Janine’s experience illustrates is that Handmaids are neither lovers, nor mothers.  They are wombs charged with reproducing as many children as they can have.  As Offred explains, “We are for breeding purposes […].  We are two-legged wombs, that’s all:  sacred vessels, ambulatory chalices” (176).  Significantly, the language Offred uses suggests her role not as a laborer, but as a product.  She has become alienated from her essential humanity.  This transformation from person to product is predicted rather ruthlessly by Aunt Lydia, who is responsible for the indoctrination of the Handmaids.  She tells them, “A think is valued […]only if it is rare and hard to get.  We want you to valued, girls.  […] Think of yourselves as pearls” (145).  While Offred presumably does not see herself as a pearl, she has begun to see herself in utilitarian terms of purpose, instead of seeing herself as individual.  She rationalizes the removal of her identity, “My name isn’t Offred, I have another name which nobody uses now it’s forbidden.  I tell myself it doesn’t matter, your name is like your telephone number, useful only to others; but what I tell myself is wrong, it does matter” (108).  Unfortunately for her, the process of becoming a product is not far enough advanced for her quite to believe what she tells us, and she withdraws her assertion as soon as she makes it.

Given the division of labor, and the fact that the Handmaids come to see themselves not simply as producers, but rather products, it is logical that the care of the children produced by these wombs belongs to somebody else.  Products cannot care, after all, for other products.  Someone else must consume the products.  This explains, in part, why Offred’s daughter from her marriage to Luke is taken away from her to be raised by somebody else.  Offred is estranged from the child she has produced.

Through this whole process, it should be noted that while the Handmaids suffer a deterioration from being humans to being product-machines, the infants they produce experience an amelioration from being products to being humans.  Offred’s daughter, placed with a new family, is perhaps viewed as a person in a way that Offred is not.  That said, because Offred’s daughter is a woman, she too will be consumed, either as a Wife, an Econowife, a Martha, or a Handmaid, or she will be disposed of as an Unwoman.

Like Marx’s envisioned workers, Offred is also alienated from the means of production.  Sex occurs when she is most fertile.  Because sex is work, it is not meant to be pleasurable.  Offred notes, “This is not recreation, even for the Commander.  This is serious business.  The Commander, too, is doing his duty” (122).  Indeed, in spite of the apparently “intimate” nature of the relationship between Offred, Serena Joy and the Commander, from very early on Serena Joy informs Offred, “As far as I’m concerned, this is like a business transaction”(21).  The fact that the Commander also sees these sexual encounters as business, not pleasure, is indicated by the fact that he prays for “a blessing, and for success in all our ventures” (117).  Sex is a venture, and from Offred’s description, one that both the Commander and she would prefer to successfully complete as quickly as possible.  For Offred, the possibility of impregnation signifies a brief respite from her work.  She will be well treated during the pregnancy and not be required to perform her duties during the few months following the birth before she is transferred.

Although Offred only benefits in limited terms from any pregnancy, like most workers she has partially consented to the ideology under which she suffers.  She notes to the reader that she is not being raped because “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).  She has also bought into the ideology of the Republic of Gilead in as much as she has come to see herself as others see her.  Offred informs us that, “Every month I watch for blood, fearfully, for when it comes it means failure.  I have failed once again to fulfill the expectations of others, which have become my own”  (95).  The sense of failure she expresses, of course, has nothing to do with her own goals and desires.  There is nothing to suggest that she wishes to have a child at this time in her life.  Her life has become not an end of its own, but rather a means to an end, which is precisely how Marx defined the alienating effect of labor.

There is, however, an ironic twist in Offred’s role as “an ambulatory womb”.  Offred’s mother earlier made use of her father in much the same way that Offred is used by the Commander.  Offred remembers her mother saying, “A man is just a woman’s strategy for making other women.  Not that your father wasn’t a nice guy and all, but he wasn’t up to fatherhood.  Not that I expected it of him.  Just do the job, then you can bugger off, I said […]”  (155).  The difference between the position of Offred’s unnamed father and herself is perhaps only that he has more options that she does, and agrees to do “the job” because it is something he wants to do.  Like Offred though, he is not expected to be invested in the baby-product that is born as a consequence of his “work”.  If Offred is an ambulatory womb, then her father was, at least from her mother’s point of view, merely an ambulatory penis.  In both cases, the “worker” is alienated on several levels from the process of (re)production.

Give Me that Old Time Religion:  Faith in the Republic of Gilead

As I have hopefully made clear in my earlier posts, religious and mythological imagery play substantial roles in the dystopian genre.  Unlike in many other dystopian novels, however, the relationship of religion to power is one of the central themes, if not the central theme, of The Handmaid’s Tale.  The centrality of religion to the Republic of Gilead can be best explained by considering the observation of the 18th century French philosopher, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who wrote in The Social Contract, “The strongest man is never strong enough to be master all the time, unless he transforms force into right and obedience into duty” (52).  Replace Rousseau’s imaginary strong man with any government and it becomes clear that for a government to sustain its power it cannot rely on mere brute force.  Rather, it must also be able to create a moral code justifying and naturalizing its power.

Significantly, this appeal to a higher moral foundation is missing in many of the dystopian novels we’ve so far read.  Oceania, the One State, Metropolis and Gattaca dispense with any significant rationale for their systems of control.  Mustapha Mond, the World Controller in Brave New World, does provide a utilitarian morality for the designing and conditioning of citizens in the World State, but only to John, Bernard, and Helmholtz, three mavericks who have questioned the status quo.  Mond’s explanation can be summarized accordingly:  we do what we do because it makes everyone happy and prevents social unrest.  If happiness is the highest goal achievable by humanity, then the World State appears to be remarkably successful.  The Republic of Gilead, by contrast, does not use the happiness of its citizenry as a rationale for its actions.

The fact that happiness is not considered to be critical to the ideology of the Republic of Gilead becomes evident from what Offred tells us about attitudes towards love.  Aunt Lydia, the supervisor of the novice Handmaids, tells the girls that they are not to fall in love with the men whom impregnate them:  “Love is not the point” (285).  Similarly, when Offred implicitly criticizes the new social order to the Commander by observing that the planners left out the idea of love, he dismisses the idea of love as unnecessary (284-285).  The Commander also offers Offred a definition of “better” that undercuts any notion that happiness is the goal of the republic:  “Better never means better for everyone […].  It always means worse for some” (274).  His definition of “better” raises the question, how can the state ensure the obedience of those who are destined to suffer as a consequence of changes to the social order?  In the Republic of Gilead, the answer to this problem is to restructure Christian theology to make subjugation of women an integral part of the divine plan for humanity.  In this theological construct, women can only find fulfillment by submitting to God through their submission to men.

Islam and civil libertiesAlthough Atwood’s vision of the Republic of Gilead was inspired, in part, by the Iranian revolution of 1979, the theological underpinnings of the Republic of Gilead are distinctly Christian.  Not all Christians, however, are accomplices in the state misogyny.  Offred acknowledges religious dissent in her passing references to the “sect wars” (57).  Prior to the sect wars, women could expect a certain degree of protection so “long as [they] said [they] were some sort of Christian[s] and [they] were married for the first time” instead of being married multiple times (321).  Eventually, however, the state began to consolidate its power and “the sectarian roundups” began.  Clues in the novel tell us which denominations  were included in these roundups.  Offred’s friend, Moira, for example, informs Offred that she was aided in her attempted escape to Canada by Quakers, who ran a station in the “Underground Femaleroad” (320).  In addition to the Quakers, resistance is also evidently offered by Baptist guerillas (106).  Finally, in part because their vows of celibacy prevent them from following the biblical injunction to “be fruitful and multiply”, Catholic priests and nuns are also viewed as threats to the republic.  Atwood provides less evidence as to the identity of the ruling religious group in the Republic of Gilead, but it seems likely that the state religion is based on evangelical Christianity.  Offred informs us that prior to the establishment of the Republic of Gilead, Serena Joy worked as a type of televangelist (60-61).

Atwood incorporates Christian references throughout her novel to suggest the extent to which religion and state have become intertwined.  The very name of Offred’s country, Gilead, is taken from scriptures.  Gilead, which literally means hill of testimony, is perhaps Atwood’s way of signaling to her better informed readers that the entire novel is, in fact, a testimony to the dangers of religious fanaticism.

Serena JoyThe extent to which Christianity has been warped by the Republic of Gilead is evidenced by the misuse of scriptures.  One such distortion occurs when Offred listens to the Beatitudes played for her and other women at the training center.  When the recording says, “Blessed are the silent”, Offred observes, “I knew they made that up, I knew it was wrong, and they left things out too, but there was no way of checking” (115).  The reason why Offred cannot check the accuracy of this and other assertions that the state makes about the will of God is because women are not allowed to read.  Even if Offred were permitted to read, however, “The Bible is kept locked up, the way people once kept tea locked up, so the servants wouldn’t steal it.  It is an incendiary device:  who knows what we’d make of it, if we ever got our hands on it?  We can be read to from it, by [the Commander], but we cannot read” (112).

By positioning themselves as the gatekeepers to divine knowledge, the Commander and the other leading men of the Republic of Gilead have effectively reversed the Reformation concept that everyone should be able to read and interpret the scriptures for him or herself.  The men determine what information is shared with the women and how that information is to be interpreted.  In so doing, these men lay claim to and regulate the discourses used to define “Truth”.  As French philosopher Michel Foucault has pointed out  certain discourses play a substantial role in both creating and verifying “Truth”:

Truth is a thing of this world:  it is produced only by virtue of multiple forms of constraint.  And it induces regular effects of power.  Each society has its régime of truth, its ‘general politics’ of truth:  that is, the types of discourse which it accepts and makes function as true; the mechanisms and instances which enable one to distinguish between true and false statements, the means by which each is sanctioned; the techniques and procedures accorded value in the acquisition of truth; the status of those who are charged with saying what counts as true.  (Foucault 1980, 131)

 The consequence of this control of “Truth” is that the men are able to tell the women who women are and who they ought to be.

The men justify their control of the “Truth” by the using the very scriptures that they deny women.  At a women’s Prayvaganza, a Commander enunciates the logic which denies women any access to spiritual “Truth”.  Quoting Paul in 1 Timothy 2:11-15, he states:

Let the woman learn in silence with all subjection. […] But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence.  For Adam was first formed, then Eve.  And Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived was in the transgression.  Notwithstanding she shall be saved in childbearing, if they continue in faith and charity and holiness with sobriety. (286)

This simple passage defines women in the Republic of Gilead in terms of their position to knowledge, men and salvation.  Women are to be taught, not to teach.  They are to be subject to men because they have inherited Eve’s gullibility and are easily deceived.  Their hope of salvation lies in their ability to reproduce, so long as they do so while continuing in “faith and charity and holiness”.   Of course, this passage by St. Paul has been specifically chosen because of the restraints that it places on women.  Biblical passages that might be used to argue for greater freedom for women are simply ignored, and, because women don’t have access to Bibles, they are unable to offer any counter argument to Paul’s statement.

The control that the men assert over the “Truth” is not, necessarily, inspired by a desire for power.  It seems possible that these men believe that the women “entrusted” to them through divine providence must be protected from themselves.  After all, as Aunt Lydia tells the novice Handmaid’s “There is more than one kind of freedom […].  Freedom to and freedom from.  In the days of anarchy, it was freedom to.  Now you are being given freedom from” (33).  The men, in other words, may feel that this new freedom is more valuable than the older freedom.  Of course, even if they are acting out of pure motives, this does not change the fact that the access they have to the Bible gives them a monopoly on the “Truth”.

All the same, it is not simply the men who have come to accept this social order nor are they solely responsible for creating and maintaining the patriarchy in Gilead.  The story of Serena Joy illustrates that women have also contributed to the oppression of women.  Offred describes Serena Joy collaboration in the creation of this order:

Her speeches were about the sanctity of the home, about how women should stay home.  Serena Joy didn’t do this herself, she made speeches instead, but she presented this failure of hers as a sacrifice she was making for the good of all.  […]  She doesn’t make speeches anymore.  She has become speechless.  She stays in her home, but it doesn’t seem to agree with her.  How furious she must be, now that she’s been taken at her word.  (60-61)

The dissatisfaction Serena Joy may feel over the diminishment of her place in the world, however, is not equally shared by other women.  Serena Joy has less power than she once had—Aunt Lydia has more.  As the female spokesperson for the patriarchal social order, she is allowed a certain degree of authority over other women.  As Offred notes, “We are hers to define […]” (145).  The power that Aunt Lydia has by proxy extends beyond merely defining these young women.  She also has power at the Salvagings, where criminals are beaten to death by the Handmaids (355-361).  A selective use of scriptures, which neither she nor the Handmaids can legally read, bolsters Aunt Lydia’s authority for pronouncing the death penalty on criminals.  When a man is presented to the Handmaids as a rapist, she informs them that according to Deuteronomy 22:23-29, the punishment for rape is death.

The question we need to ask, is why do these women, including Offred, participate in their own subjugation.  True, there are not many options available to them, but there are some, as becomes clear by Moira’s choice to work in a brothel rather than serve as a Handmaid or be sent to the colonies.  Perhaps one explanation is that many of the women who are accomplices in maintaining the authority of the state do so both because it gives them a type of power and because they believe in the moral legitimacy of the Republic of Gilead.  This illustrates the point made by sociologist Pierre Bourdieu:

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)

Consequently, for the true believers in the Republic of Gilead there is nothing “unnatural” about the enslavement of women.

Any Questions?  Historical Notes on The Handmaid’s Tale

Atwood provides an ambiguous ending for her novel.  The fate of Offred remains undefined.  What Atwood does, provide, however, is what appears to be a scholarly presentation from the future on Offred’s tale.  This presentation raises a dilemma that historians face, and which we, as readers of The Handmaid’s Tale, face.  The speaker, Professor Pieixoto, tells his audience, “[I]n my opinion we must be cautious about passing moral judgment upon the Gileadans.  Surely we have learned by now that such judgments are of necessity culture-specific.  […]  Our job is not censure but to understand” (383).  But, having read this text, can we truly understand without censuring?  Is the fact that something occurred in the past, in a different culture, sufficient reason for us not to cast our moral judgment?


Works Cited

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

Foucault, Michel.  1980.  Power/Knowledge:  Selected Interviews and Other Writings 1972-1977.  ed. Colin Gordon, trans. Colin Gordon, Leo Marshal, John Mepham and Kate Soper.  New York:  Harvester Wheatsheaf.

Rouseau, Jean-Jacques.  1978.  The Social Contract.  Penguin Books:  New York.







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.

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