The Handmaid’s Tale

The role of mother is one that has existed for as long as we have, as one of the most prominent and defining roles in society, civilised or not. Functions and priorities differ across cultures, but views from the Western world have, for a long time, idealised the mother as tender, and over protective. The holiday of Mother’s Day epitomises the view of the mother, with flowers, cards, and giving the mother the “day off” to “relax”.

It almost appears as though the bond between mother and child is somehow stronger than that between father and child. Controversy has surrounded the role of the mother in debates regarding, for instance, pro-life/choice, fathers4justice, and surrogacy. What this conflict arises from is the question of what it really means to be a mother, and what the role entails. The ability to bear a child has long influenced male attitudes and treatment of females.

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Primarily, it is a determining factor that separates the two sexes; secondly, it arguably adds more purpose and value to the existence of women. Within the selected texts it is evident that often the male simply values the woman for this ability, and that to the male, the role of being a mother is solely the ability to have the child. They do not consider the complex layers of motherhood; the effects of which we can see on characters like Offred and Professor Higgins.

At the time of ‘The Merchant’s Tale’ and ‘The Clerk’s Tale’, perceptions of sex and women were vastly different and many aspects misunderstood: natural processes like menstruation were assumed to be associated with the devil, and female sexuality intrinsically evil. 1 These views would have most certainly moulded Chaucer’s depiction of females within his texts. Januarie presents a detailed argument in favour of his decision to marry during his discussion with his “brothers” Placebo and Justinus. Amongst his list of reasons is that he “should take a wife [… for the sake of lawful procreation of children”.

Each word in this sentence is laden with implication – “take” shows that Januarie perceives himself as the possessor of May, and “for the sake of” indicates that the procreation is the sole purpose of the union, as opposed to a bonus or a by-product of their love. Later on in the relationship, May hints that she is pregnant in order to get Januarie to permit her to climb the tree, under the pretence that she is craving a pear. She abuses his perception of her as a “two-legged womb” to engage in her extra-marital affair.

In this case, the pear is relevant because it is symbolic of both the womb and pregnancy; thus implying their importance. By the end of the tale Januarie “strokes her womb”, a caring action directed at her womb, not her as a woman in general. The same sort of exploitation occurs within The Clerk’s Tale, but reversed – the marquis uses Griselda’s role as a mother in order to test her loyalty. He takes away her children, and places them in the care of his sister (another woman who is only appreciated as a foster mother).

These views can be seen to be rooted in the Bible with the character of Mary – famed and favoured for being the mother of Jesus, but no credit or information is given to her raising him – only the virginal birth. In Luke, it is remarked of Mary: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! ” Again, the focus is on May’s childbearing skills. Yet some may comment that actually, Jesus refers to Mary only as “the Woman”, never “mother”, indicating he doesn’t consider her simply giving birth to him as qualifying her as a mother.

Unfortunately the Bible is an undoubtedly misogynistic text, and it should be considered that both ‘The Clerk’s Tale’ and ‘The Merchant’s Tale’ were written in a heavily religious climate, and therefore maybe it is religion that has imposed these perceptions of motherhood onto the male; Atwood suggests this by her epigraph – “give me children, or else I die” – a quotation from Genesis. Atwood is implying that to say we have moved away from these views of women is merely an illusion – we still hold them, just on smaller scales.

Carrying them out to their extremes results in a society like that proposed in A Handmaid’s Tale. This attitude is imitated clearly in The Handmaid’s Tale: the women who are fertile are considered “national resources”. Their roles are reduced to attempting to give birth, and the fact that they can do this means they are respected, pampered and valued by society. Those who are unable to become pregnant are deemed “Unwomen”, insulting and offensive – showing that the entirety of what it means to be a woman rests on the ability to give birth.

Those who are unable are not womanly. Offred is aware of this attitude towards her in the novel, but has nonetheless been somewhat brainwashed into reducing her own perception of herself to something akin: when she describes how she is similar to candyfloss, she remarks “squeeze me and I’d turn into a small sickly damp wad of weeping pinky red” a description that could easily be transferred to a womb. The relevance is that sometimes it is not only the male that is guilty of reducing the role of women, but women themselves.

This can be observed further in Offred’s changing attitude towards her own body: “I used to think of my body as an instrument of pleasure [… ] now the flesh arranges itself differently”. The predominant purpose of Offred’s body has changed, and evidently she feels this. Offred has become conditioned to view herself this way, has absorbed the male prejudice. Alanna A Callaway suggests in her article ‘Women disunited: Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale as a critique of feminism’3 that it is not a feminist dystopian novel, but instead a commentary on how feminism has brought about the disunity of women.

The question must be asked, is the female perception of themselves as “vessels” simply mimicking the male perspective? After Janine’s baby is discovered to be a “shredder”, Offred remarks of Janine’s guilt “people will do anything rather than admit that their lives have no meaning. No use, that is. No plot”. Considering that what has been taken from Janine is a baby, the ‘use’ and ‘plot’ she speaks of can be seen to describe the baby. The baby is the use and plot of Janine’s life in Gilead, and the same can be said for many of the women in Gilead, for example, Serena.

To believe that what it means to be a mother is just giving birth is the reductionist view held by many of the males in these texts. What they ignore are the numerous other layers of motherhood that ironically have shaped even them to be the people they are. Mothers in the texts have a lot of bearing and influence on the way that the characters behave, and this can be seen in Offred, Higgins and the functions of the Wives. Offred’s mother taught and instructed Offred, priming her for life and, later on, for the inevitable totalitarianism of Gilead, although unforeseen by her.

Her mother always used to tell her – “steel yourself”, and Offred repeats this to herself on certain significant occasions – during the ceremony and when revealing herself to Ofglen as non-orthodox. The scene of the ‘Prayvaganza’, where the weddings occur en masse, illuminates the shift in the bond between mother and daughter: Offred describes how “daughters, in white, come shyly forward, their mothers holding their elbows. It’s the mothers, not fathers, who give away daughters these days. This is the last set of daughters that will have existed in a pre-Gileadean society, and this ceremony becomes a complex metaphor for the mother-daughter relationship in Gilead. The daughters are being guided by their mothers, and then given away, which on the surface refers to them being walked up the aisle, but metaphorically, something far more sinister – giving them away permanently. They are being given to Gilead where they will become birthing machines.

Offred frequently flashes back to scenes with her mother and these enlighten us as to the motives or causes of Offred’s thinking and behaviour. What becomes evident is that as a mother, Offred’s confounded the stereotype. Her method was not tender, not “creating snug and comfy” as a mother is described in ‘Thoughts After Ruskin’ by Elma Mitchell4 – instead she exposed Offred to things like a documentary about the holocaust to educate her. Offred notices her mother in one of the videos she is shown in the Red Centre, protesting.

She remarks that her mother is pretty – ironically her mother confounds the stereotype of being a mother by being a feminist, and yet bucks the feminist stereotype by being beautiful. Later when Offred remembers her mother visiting her and Luke, she describes Offred’s father as a “nice guy who just wasn’t up to fatherhood”. Offred’s mother has reversed the stereotype posed in the question – she has a holistic view of motherhood but had reduced the father’s role to simply the donation of sperm.

She succinctly explains this when she claims, “A man is just a woman’s strategy for making other women. ” She criticises Offred and Luke as unappreciative, and she has ended up bitter that her protesting has not produced action in the next generation. Offred retells the scene of her mother crying quite passively – she doesn’t introduce any overtones of pity or remorse for the way things were between them, she simply remarks, “I admired my mother in some ways, although things between us were never easy. … ] I didn’t want to live my life on her terms”. Offred’s mother may be disappointed in Offred, but it is evident that she has taught Offred to think for herself, and that actually Offred’s apparent submission/quiet subversion is arguably more effective than her mother’s brash resistance – seen in the fate of her mother and Moira. Moira’s similarities to Offred’s mother, and Offred’s longing for their reunion – “I want her back” – is arguably what gives birth to the friendship between the two women.

Offred, ironically, appears to reject the pre-Gileadean feminism propagated by her mother. Offred is a character that seems to decide on the admirable characteristics of the people that surround her – her mother, Moira etc, and draw them all into one personality – her own. She has none of the excessiveness of these people. Offred digs at her mother by saying, “I am not your justification for existence”, again tangling the role of the mother, giving birth and its relation to the raising of a child. IS having a child justification for the existence of a woman?

It certainly is in The Handmaid’s Tale, and it is partly in ‘The Merchant’s Tale’, alongside sexual enjoyment. Offred, ironically and arguably, comes closer to her mother in her absence, because her existence within Gileadean society leads to her understanding her mother’s feelings more and more. Her slight rebellions and subversions are Offred’s way of remembering and honouring her mother: “I’ve mourned for her already. But I will do it again, and again” – clearly Offred misses her mother constantly and wants to keep the memory of her alive.