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Living as a Prisoner in Your Society

The first chapters of the Handmaid’s Tale paint a dark picture of what it means to live in the Republic of Gilead. While in Persepolis, the women in Iran were incredibly restricted in how they could behave and present themselves in public, the women of Gilead, especially the Handmaids, are not nearly given the amount of freedom that Iranian women have. The Handmaids in Gilead exist simply as property of the state, and have no autonomy over themselves. It is incredibly jarring as a reader, especially coming from a western perspective, to see women treated this way in a fundamentalist society.

I think the most important element of the opening chapters, though, and the book as a whole, are Offred’s flashbacks. We learn that she not only lives in a society that treats her so cruelly and dehumanizes, her, but she remembers living in a world that closely resembles our own. Offred has not lived her whole life in Gilead and has not only existed as a Handmaid. There was a time in which she did not know what this life was, and we know this given the perspective of the first chapter when she is in the gym with the other women as they discretely share their names with one another in hope to evade the Aunts. this is incredibly important because we ourselves like to think that our society is well founded enough and that we have systems in place to prevent something like Gilead from taking reality. However, I find that the most terrifying part of the beginning of The Handmaid’s Tale to be the fact that this kind of society was not always considered normal, however it was entirely possible for these extreme views to come into fruition and be imposed on the people.

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5 Comments

  1. Nora Apt Nora Apt

    Margaret Atwood touches on this notion of stability/security in the novel’s introduction; specifically, she writes that she “knew that stablished orders could vanish overnight. Change could also be as fast as lightning. It Can’t happen here could not be depended on: anything could happen anywhere, given the circumstances” (XIII). I think that this excerpt relates well to your final paragraph. Moreover, I agree that an extremely unsettling part of this opening section is how quickly these extreme viewpoints can be implemented.

  2. Rachel Nugent Rachel Nugent

    I agree with how you’ve pointed out how jarring it is to dive into the world of Gilead. I’ve been telling people that I find the book interesting so far, but I know that at some point it’s likely to make me feel sick to my stomach. But I too thought about it in relation to Persepolis and I think Persepolis is harder for me to bear, because it’s real. But the thought of Gilead becoming reality is surely terrifying and Satrapi used a lot of comic relief to help us through her work where Atwood clearly does not, so I think Handmaid’s Tale comes off a little stronger and bleaker at first glance.

  3. Emma Joaquin Emma Joaquin

    I like your comparison with Persepolis in this post. In all of the novels we have read or are reading this semester women have been severely oppressed, and it is interesting to look at the similarities and differences. The Handmaid’s Tale seems to encompass the slavery shown in Beloved and the severe sexist oppression of women in society in Persepolis.

  4. Alexander Seeley Alexander Seeley

    I like how you finished this commentary. It is interesting to see throughout history and in fictional instances such as this novel where extremist views can take over and become the norm. In comparison to such regimes as the Nazis, extreme views contained by such groups have always existed and continue to exist, the scary part to me is that there seems to be a cycle in which such oppression as Nazism comes and goes, just as generations come and go.

  5. Michael Paul Michael Paul

    Atwood’s use of flashbacks makes me wonder how long Offred has lived in Gilead. Clearly, she has previously been freer as we hear about her experiences when she was younger. This type of oppression is similar to what we see in Persepolis and I could see a potential fight against this oppression in the future.

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