by Anushka Maheshwary.
Margaret Atwood in her book The Handmaid’s Tale spins a tale so gripping that it leaves one gasping for air after being submerged in turbulent waters of the totalitarian state of Gilead. It tells the story of the narrator, a woman whose name is later revealed to be Offred and with this name begins to unfold the twisted nature of everything that the Gilead represents. In this particular setup, women took on names based on the name of the commander whose household they’ve been assigned (Of+ Commander’s name), therefore Offred= Of + Fred. Every other handmaid assigned to the narrator’s commander’s household was also called Offred, none of them having an identity of their own but being known only by association with the men and each of them lost in the sea of the same- an observation one makes when the narrator on her usual shopping trips with Ofglen is greeted by another woman who has now taken the old one’s place.
Since Gilead was formed as a response to a crisis caused by dramatically decreasing birthrates, the entire structure of the system was built around establishing control over the process of reproduction, a process they began by establishing control over the lives of women. Women were seen as nothing more than carriers of foetuses- Offuture one might call them, valued for nothing more than their wombs. This was all the use Gilead wanted them to be off, so the state went right ahead and assumed absolute control over their lives and denied them the right to vote, read or even move freely because a) these rights were seen as irrelevant to the primary function of their bodies- reproduction, b) anything that provided them with an opportunity to exercise their agency could also encourage dissent that might turn into rebellion which might be the end of Gilead.
There was also a system of female hierarchy put in place by the state, one that ensured that women keep other women in check for the state, Gilead, the men. Within this system, those on the top were the Wives, women like Serena Joy– Fred’s, the commander, wife, who had but a mere illusion of power in the sense that they exercise power in their households, over the Handmaids and the Marthas (a class of women who did all the household work for the wives). At no point in the book is the reader ever allowed to forget that these Aunts are not to be seen as mother figures even though one might be tempted to draw a parallel between their instructions and those of a mother’s. Offred, even after being someone who did not believe in what the state was propagating, was still affected by the things Aunt Lydia had drummed into the handmaidens’ minds.
Female rebels were sent to work in dangerous colonies or underground clubs as prostitutes for the commanders, figuratively put into positions where their vocal cords were snapped. Women were fitted like pieces into the jigsaw puzzle, each piece aligned with and kept in a place like that by the other according to the model of the state. In clear contrast to this, men were at the top of the order, held ranks in the military, were also the ones that history someday might accredit with the warding off the crisis, and putting in place an ingenious structure like the Republic of Gilead. Men remained the oppressors and women, the object of oppression, reduced to the status of objects.
The system of the Republic of Gilead can certainly not take refuge under either the moral philosophy of Kant or Mill’s Utilitarianism. Kant in his Groundwork of the metaphysics of morals in the humanity formulation of the categorical imperative clearly states that we must never act in a way that we treat humanity- in ourselves or in others, as a means to an end. The humanity formula does not rule out using other human beings as a means to our ends on a daily basis but does rule against the pervasive use of humans as mere means to some ends. Employing the services of a taxi driver to reach the airport falls under the former category while the case of the handmaids of Gilead lists under the latter. So, when these women are reduced to mere carriers of the future, are seen as nothing more than a set of ovaries and a means to resolve the crisis, it would be a violation of the categorical imperative and therefore an immoral act. Another consideration regarding the humanity formula is that we must treat the humanity, to engage in rational behavior and to pursue one’s own ends, in human beings as an end in itself. Again, as long as the taxi driver is able to exercise his rational capacities and then agree to sell his services at a given price, there is no violation of the imperative. In the case of the handmaids, however, all their rights were taken away, they were reduced to nothing but their wombs, and at no time were they allowed to exercise their rational capacities as even small acts of the agency were seen as threats to the order established. Kant’s humanity formula invokes a sense of dignity that humanity in persons must be treated with and for this, we must respect its absolute value or worth.
Even when the origins of the state of Gilead were to bring the crisis under control and to replace the old failing system with one that worked more efficiently at dealing with the crisis at hand, it doesn’t hold up under Utilitarianism either. The greatest happiness principle aims at the greatest amount of happiness in a wider sense than just one’s own happiness. Utilitarianism being an ends based theory does not take into consideration any of the means employed by the state to achieve the greatest happiness but only the consequences and even so cannot justify a state like Gilead. The women in the state were not happy given the oppressive system of female hierarchy already set in place which causes double the pain to the handmaids; the wives are not happy, all they had was an illusion of power. In the book, Margaret Atwood makes it clear that even the men in power weren’t happy. One can observe this in instances like the following, the narrator’s commander often sought out her company and went as far as violating laws when he got her old magazines to read in what one supposes was an attempt to build an intimate relationship with her to ward off the loneliness that a hollowing marriage created. During the course of the book, it was also revealed that the commander had a similar relationship with the previous handmaiden. These instances in the story point out that the commander, who helped build this system, found himself unhappy and sought out the company of the handmaids to change that.
In the epilogue of the book, the patriarchal state ultimately did have its downfall. The epilogue takes the form of a speech delivered by Professor Pieixoto, one of the two men responsible for the transcription of the series of tapes left by Offred into the document that is the book- The Handmaid’s Tale. One would expect better times to follow the fall of the Republic of Gilead and they were better in the sense that women returned to the public sphere and occupied positions other than that of a child-bearer evident from the fact that Pieixoto is introduced by a woman. Professor Pieixoto exhibited a sense of apathy toward the women’s struggle and in moments even treated the struggle with disregard and mockery. For instance, when he called what was supposed to be The Underground Femaleroad- the only escape route for the women of Gilead, “The Underground Frailroad”. Though the professor never regarded the men of Gilead with explicit moral praise, he did view them as important historical figures and even went to the extent of showing some sort of regard for the men who’d set up the totalitarian regime by saying that it’s Gilead’s synthesis that’s genius. In one part of his address, the professor says something that can only be seen as an argument for and from cultural relativism- “must be cautious about posing moral judgment upon the Gileadean. Surely we have learned by now that such judgments are of necessity culture-specific.”. Pieixoto’s dismissal of Gilead as cultural relativism and acknowledging its systematically violent nature, even after having heard Offred’s tapes about what was done to women, can be seen as symbolic of him coming from a distant place of male privilege. Writing off the oppression of an entire class of people- the handmaids, marthas, wives, gender traitors, as cultural relativism meant that it could not be judged as morally wrong but could be explained or even justified in reference to the norms of the society it was practiced in.
The book, in painting a truth so dark it at times becomes hard to swallow, raises some very important, complicated and yet to be resolved questions that people have faced in the past, continue to do so in the present and might even have in the near future. It grapples with the issue of ethics of objectification. When women are reduced to their fertility and only seen as carriers of the children of the state, they find themselves at the receiving end of subhuman treatment and are deprived of their individuality. One can look at Atwood’s work as a study of the patriarchy, in the form of a particular manifestation of it- Gilead, where there is no such thing like the greatest happiness, a society where even the oppressors aren’t happy because the system is such that it eats itself from within so that it turns hollow. It is a study of power and how it plays out amongst and within the gender binary. Offred’s story is documented by men, men who make a mockery of hers and the struggle of thousands of other women, men who glorify the oppressors of the women whose history they are documenting, men who come from a distant place of privilege, men who do not understand the struggle yet control Offred’s retelling of it in its entirety and in doing so ultimately take away the smallest fraction of agency she could exercise. This apathy toward the struggle of a large section of the society is an indicator of how Gilead is always shadowing us, ready to drag us under at the tiniest of slip-ups and this is what the story is about. It’s not about drawing a parallel between the current state of the world and Gilead but of how there’s always a possibility of returning to a similar regime as is evident from the patriarchal underpinnings of Pieixoto’s speech in the epilogue.