Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaiden’s Tale is a text which opens a number of discourses through a queer theory lens. Topics of discussion include various forms of oppression as well as gender performances and performative language. I would like to initially state that the novel is set in a dystopian society, allowing the reader to critique Atwood’s work more freely. Her ability to combine a number of authentic instances of oppression in one setting allows for a “worst case scenario” for the reader to deconstruct. This speculative fiction is a reminder that the oppression and static roles of characters are, in fact, constructions. In this way, she constructs a fictitious world from a real society with real constructions.
One example of these realistic constructions is the role of the Aunts. While they are women themselves, they promote the isolation of the handmaidens in the community. They hold power over the handmaidens, and encourage them to accept their limiting roles. Aunt Lydia tells Offred, the narrator, “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. Don’t underrate it” (Atwood, 24). This statement suggests the handmaidens are lucky in their situations, because they are “safe” from societal dangers. In a way, this is true. The handmaidens are protected in their isolation, but this only applies if they follow certain constructions. For example, if a handmaiden follows her schedule and uses “proper” orthodox language, she will be safe. On the other hand, if she were to speak out against the structure of her day (as Moira did), then she will most likely be punished through exile or death. Aunt Lydia recognizes the limitations of her women, but rather than speaking out against those limitations as a woman of power, she rationalizes the constructions: “You are a transitional generation…It is hardest for you. We know the sacrifices you are being expected to make…For the ones who come after you, it will be easier. They will accept their duties with willing hearts” (117). In this moment, Aunt Lydia is not only rationalising the oppression, but normalizing it. Offred notices her superior’s language choice. Rather than saying “Because they will have no memory of any other way” she says “They won’t want things they can’t have” (117). By using Offred and Aunt Lydia’s phrasing against each other, Atwood exposes the power of language in its ability to construct roles in society.
Offred seems to hint at this power earlier in the novel, reflecting on her required uniform as a handmaiden: “Some people call them habits, a good word for them. Habits are hard to break” (24). In the same way that it is habitual (or required) for one to wear certain clothing, it is habitual (or seemingly required) for one to follow gender constructions. On page 37, Offred muses on the power and gendering of words:
Lay is always passive. Even men used to say, I’d like to get laid. Though sometimes they said, I’d like to lay her. All this is pure speculation. I don’t really know what men used to say. I only Had their words for it
I lie then, inside the room…and step sideways out of my own time.
This quotation is very complex. Offred knows there are implications of using lay as opposed to lie- while lay implies submission, a more feminine construct, lie implies dominance, a more masculine construct. There are other examples of gendered language in our society, such as referring to a group of people as “guys” rather than “girls.” Somehow the second label promotes an air of subordinance, while the first is understood as “neutral.” Despite these very real language constructions, Offred manages to queer them, applying the feminine “lay” to men and the masculine “lie” to herself. This monologue is also troubling, because even though she is attempting to show some assertion, she is also working within a very limited role and dismisses her powerful statement on language by saying “this is pure speculation. I don’t really know what men used to say.” Queer theory would take issue with this dismissal, claiming that Offred is still performing as a dismissive character; therefore reinforcing the binary between men and women.
This reinforcement is also expressed through the handmaidens’ objectification of each other, referring to themselves as interchangeable shapes as well as competing with each other for attention through pregnancy. There are far too many examples of oppression that are completely possible in our society to go into detail with this short reflection. This is due to the novel’s construction as a dystopian piece. Again, Atwood’s work is an example of the “worst case scenario,” giving the reader a type of warning as to what constructions can ultimately do to a society. The work should function to motivate discussion of binaries and the dangers of relying on them. I am personally drawn to this genre of literature because although reading the texts make me moderately paranoid, they also allow me to examine my own performances as they relate to social construction.