The Handmaids Tale – Feminist?

Do you agree that although The Handmaid’s Tale is written from a feminist point of view, the portraits given of men are surprisingly sympathetic while those of women are often critical?
Yes, I agree with this statement. Although the theocratic totalitarian regime operating in Gilead was instigated and is controlled by men, the male protagonists in the novel are seen as caring and sympathetic. Although one or two women have become quite close through their ordeal, despite the fact they’ve had no other choice (“We’re used to each other”); the mass majority of women get on uneasily, due to the rituals and social hierarchies that have been prearranged by male rulers. (“The Econowives do not like us”)
Status in Gilead is predetermined by sex. Although there are high-ranking women in Gilead, their titles are nonetheless determined by their gender. Aunts and Wives are how they are referred to, whereas the male Commanders, Angels, Eyes and Guardians do not reduce individual men to their sex. Therefore, regardless of rank, a woman’s central feature is her gender. Even a Wife, the highest-ranking woman in Gilead, is defined in relation to a man. Bearing this in mind it may seem odd that Offred views men with a certain sympathy whilst remaining wary of women, but it is a correct assumption.


It is possible to assume from the narration that, despite being a staunch feminist, Offred relates more comfortably to the opposite sex than she does to her own. Throughout the novel she is increasingly critical and scathing of other women, whilst becoming emotionally attached to the various men in her life. It is not known whether this was a character trait of the pre-Gilead Offred, although she is somewhat dismissive of her own mother’s strong feminist views, and of Moira’s views on lesbianism and balanced sexual power between women (as opposed to an unequal balance between a man and a woman.)
Offred seems to need an influential male figure in her life; a figure of power whom she can rely on. She speaks frequently of Luke – her husband in pre-Gilead times – and seems to view him in this way, placing him on a pedestal. “Luke told me…” and “Luke said…” are common phrases to be found in Offred’s reminiscences; and although Luke is obviously loving toward Offred, she depicts him in a way that makes him seem sexist and patronising. He often seems to try and deliberately catch her out; in an early reference he asks Offred where the distress signal Mayday comes from. As he already knows (“It’s French, Luke said. From M’aidez”) then his only point in asking Offred this seems to be that he is eager to display his own superior knowledge; as though he gets a perverse pleasure out of being more intellectual and knowledgeable than his wife. However most times Luke is mentioned, he is painted as a sensitive and understanding figure.


With Luke out of the picture, Offred turns to Nick as her role model. A young member of the Gileadean secret police, like Offred Nick is a subversive rebel and takes risks that most people would never dream of (“He begins to whistle. The he winks”). Nick is amongst the few characters described in close physical detail, instantly making him appear more friendly than any of the other characters as the reader can assume a detailed mental picture of him. Offred paints a sympathetic portrait of Nick as she views him as her saviour; he has a higher chance of getting her pregnant. However, when the Eyes arrive to take her, Offred is convinced that Nick has betrayed her. (“You shit, I think… My suspicion hovers in the air above him, a dark angel warning me away.”)
The other influential male in Offred’s new life is her Commander. Although alleged to be one of the architects of Gileadean society, throughout the novel he is portrayed as surprisingly sympathetic, if not a little pitiable. During the Ceremony, Offred quickly detaches herself from the situation (“What he is fucking is the lower part of my body Making love is not an accurate phrase, as this is not what we’re doing”), but she simultaneously describes the man as having a “not-unpleasant face”. When the personal meetings begin Offred holds him in some esteem (“There’s no doubt about who holds the real power), but this opinion quickly drains (“This is one of the most bizarre things that’s ever happened to me, ever”). The couple’s late-night Scrabble trysts are symbolic of the absurd society of Gilead (“Now it’s forbidden, for us. Now it’s indecent. Now it’s something he can’t do with his Wife”) and this section provides the strongest image of male wretchedness than at any other point in the novel. His smile is described as “sheepish” and according to Offred, “He was so sad.”
However, in turn Offred also enjoys exploiting her own feminine power over men. Her mildly sadistic teasing of two young Guardians – “I move my hips a little, feeling the full red skirt sway around me… I hope they get hard at the sight of us and have to rub themselves against the painted barriers, surreptitiously” – is a classic example of this, and again the men in question are portrayed as slightly pathetic, sexually repressed creatures. It is hinted from the beginning that men are the supreme powers in Gilead; Offred’s “we still had our bodies” indicates that the only weapon available to the Handmaids is unsolicited sex.


The whole encounter with the young Guardians, portraying them as sexually frustrated and unhappy men is designed to make the reader feel sympathy for some of the lower-ranking men in Gilead. The Guardians can only wish to become Angels, being able to take a wife and perhaps a Handmaid.


The only time a man is portrayed as being sexually controlling (except within the Ceremony) is during Offred’s encounter with her doctor. He displays sympathy for Offred, rather than the other way around; “It’s genuine, genuine sympathy;” although “he’s enjoying this, sympathy and all.” This section of narrative shows that not all individual men are vulnerable; Offred is rather worried after she refuses his help. “He could fake the tests, report me for cancer, for infertility… None of this has been said, but the knowledge of his power hangs nevertheless in the air as he pats my thigh,” This is one of the rare examples in the novel of where a man has a stronghold over Offred.
Offred’s contempt toward some of her fellow Handmaids is strange. Her marked abhorrence toward Janine, a woman inclined to play the role of the martyr, is not particularly uncouth or unprovoked (“It’s Janine, telling about how she was gang-raped at fourteen… It may not even be true… But since it’s Janine, it’s probably more or less true”), but Offred views many of the women in her own situation with visible disdain.
The practice of Testifying, a surreal brainwashing process used to persuade the Handmaids that the phallocentric totalitarian society is more competent, may well be responsible for Offred’s opinions and cynicism.


“But whose fault was it? Aunt Helena says, holding up one plump finger.

Her fault, her fault, her fault, we chant in unison.

Who led them on? Aunt Helena beams, pleased with us.

She did. She did. She did.

Why did God allow such a terrible thing to happen?
Teach her a lesson. Teach her a lesson. Teach her a lesson.”
This perverse and cruel regime, orchestrated by the Gileadean rulers and happily carried out by an assemblage of Aunts, is of course designed to alienate the women from their contemporaries. (“Friendships were suspicious, we knew it”; “This week Janine doesn’t wait for us to jeer at her. It was my fault, she says.”)
However, Offred’s loathing of the Aunts is utterly justified; “they had electric cattle prods slung on thongs from their leather belts.” It could be argued that Offred’s cynicism and wariness stems from the fact that there are some women who seem to truly believe in these barbaric anti-feminist regimes. Aside from the Aunts, some of the other Handmaids are particularly volatile, kicking and beating a Guardian to death at one of the many Salvagings.


Offred’s system of social relationships seems to follow the lines of Do as you would be done by.’ Generally, if other women treat her civilly she is inclined to be civil back. She gets on relatively well with Cora, unlike Rita – “I don’t smile. Why tempt her to friendship?” – even though “The Marthas are not supposed to fraternise with the Handmaids”, and gets on well with one of the many Ofglens. However the strict control of social relationships by the state could be a clue to her wary toleration of other women in Gilead.


It can be concluded that the original statement is true, and the novel frequently views men with a sympathetic eye regardless of the pro-feminist message. However, the Handmaids are possibly the most vulnerable caste in Gileadean society; although the portraits given of men as individuals are sympathetic, collective males were the instigators of the dystopian nightmare, which is worryingly marked with traces of our own history and culture.

About the author