How Margaret Atwood Presents Flawed Characters in Challenging Environments in Her Novel The Handmaid's Tale

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Offred is a non-heroic character in Margaret Atwood’s ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’, forced to live in a society that devalues women and from which there appears to be no escape. She is a Handmaid, utilized only for her working ovaries, in the totalitarian government of the Republic of Gilead. These facts show clearly that Atwood’s protagonist is an imperfect character, living the most challenging of lives in which she has lost her name, her possessions and her sense of self, and is obliged to be the victim in ritualized rape ceremonies. Hence, I believe that this quote is accurate, especially in the context of ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’.

Atwood purposefully chose to present a main character that was not the hero, saying “I did not want the central character to be a hero… I wanted an ordinary person, for the simple reason that most people subjected to those conditions are ordinary people”. ‘Ordinary’ people are often cowards, make bad decisions and fear what they do not know. Offred chose to evade responsibility and be an observer, never once participating in marches or meetings to take action against what was to be. Rather, she stood around and waited to see the outcome- ‘we lived by ignoring. Ignoring isn’t the same as ignorance, you have to work at it’. The irony here is that just as she previously chose not to speak, she is now forbidden any form of communication. She was too cowardly to take part, and ended up losing all of her rights because of it. She also makes bad decisions, as seen when she starts up her affair with Nick, the chauffer, while she is her Commander’s mistress. Her fear of the unknown also illustrates the flawed nature of her character- she is too terrified to stand up for what is right and protect her fellow Handmaids because she fears she will be sent to ‘The Colonies’, a place nobody knows about because no one ever returns from there. 

The idea of presenting a flawed character also shows up in Atwood’s novel ‘Bodily Harm’. In it, the main character, Rennie, allows herself to be treated as on object, a sexual being for the sole purpose of pleasuring men. She takes the stance of the non-feminist, quite happy with her partner, Jake, complimenting her ‘fantastic ass’.  However, her passive adherence to Jake’s every whim means she loses herself as a person, and eventually drives him away. She too makes bad decisions, is cowardly and does not stand up for what is right. Presenting a flawed character such as Offred or Rennie makes the character more accessible to the novel’s readers, and as the protagonist is presented as a normal person, the audience can identify with her. It has been noticed that in many of Atwood’s novels, she teaches through negative example.

The Republic of Gilead is an oppressive regime which relies on fear to control it’s inhabitants. In fact, the control over the people of Gilead is what makes it such a challenging environment. The women of Gilead constantly fear they are being watched, as if in a panopticon, as they never know when they may come across an ‘Eye’, an undercover surveillance team who disguise themselves to make sure everybody is behaving acceptably and abiding to all the set rules. The uncertainty and fear of these ‘Eyes’, just like guards in a panopticon prison, makes the Handmaids regulate their behaviour and act in accordance to Gileadean rules at all times. This stops alliances from forming, and trust becomes practically non-existent because nobody is sure of one another’s true identity.

The women of Gilead are segregated into groups according to their class and colour-coded in their dress so that they are easily distinguishable. There are the Martha’s, women who cook and clean in a Commander’s house, in green, the Wives of the Commanders who wear blue, and the Handmaids in red. Each must wear full-length nun-like attire at all times, much like the women of the Taliban must wear a burqa. The uniform defines the role a person plays in society, but also strips a person of their individuality and identity. Also like the rules of the Taliban is the fact that Handmaids no longer assume their own names, but those of their Commanders. Offred’s Commander is called Fred, hence ‘Of- Fred’.  In the Taliban, people with non-Islamic names must change them to suitable Islamic ones. This is another control mechanism used in both societies that strips the individuality of a person. Like the women controlled by the Taliban, the women of Gilead are barred from education and socialization, and therefore become emotionally incomplete shells.

As noted before, communication in Gileadean society is virtually forbidden. It is for this reason that nobody knows anything about the dreaded ‘Colonies’. Books, newspapers, magazines, televisions, have all been prohibited, meaning that none of the women have access to information on the severity of society’s depravation. Here, Atwood does not stretch the truth about the lengths governments will go to so that their people do not know the truth about what is really happening in their society. In North Korea, even today, every newspaper and video is made by the government and only tells the people of it’s successes and how great it is. The people of that society do not have any idea about what is happening in the outside world. In the Taliban, it’s people are banned from listening to music or watching movies, television or videos, because they may form ideas and beliefs outside of the Taliban agenda. Atwood said that ‘one of the tasks I set myself when writing the novel was to avoid including any practices that had not already happened somewhere, at some time’. Although the text was written in the 1980s, some of the practices mentioned are still happening in society today.

The worst part of the tyrannical society is that it is almost impossible to escape. The borders of Gilead are heavily guarded with gun-wielding security guards, and the added precaution of a ‘chain-link fence topped with barbed wire’ to further ensure that physically escaping is basically unattainable.  To be permitted into the centre of Gilead, an identification pass is needed, and failure to produce such a pass quickly can result in death, as guards often mistake someone searching for a pass as someone looking for a weapon. However, Offred does escape in the end of the novel, but to where we do not know. It has been speculated that she may have been saved by Nick, or that one of the ‘Eyes’ has found out about her discrepancies and is kidnapping her and taking her to the Colonies. Atwood left the story on an ambiguous note, so that it is up to the reader to decide which fate they believe Offred succumbed to.

Novels certainly present flawed characters in challenging environments, sometimes to provoke interest, sometimes to create a character people will relate to, and other times to make a point. Margaret Atwood does the latter in her novel. ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ serves as a warning to young women of the post-feminist 1980s and after who begun taking for granted those rights that had been secured to women.  Offred’s passive acceptance of her place in Gileadean society shows that the male-dominated patriarchal society has once again been instated and women are powerless against it. Using a regular, imperfect person as a protagonist demonstrates that something like this can happen to anyone, and the challenging environment gives a scary message to the women who could potentially have to go through what Offred does. The realty of the situations and events taking place scare the reader into thinking about the wider issues surrounding the text and make them consider what can be done about it. Hence, the flawed character and challenging environment serve a purpose.

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