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Power and Limitations

Throughout The Handmaid’s Tale so far, we get Offred’s own accounts of her experiences. Similar to what we saw in Persepolis, this allows the reader to understand more intimately what the narrator has gone through, but it also colors the reader’s perceptions of characters and events. Two types of characters, in particular, stand out as enemies of Offred because of their imposing and authoritative tendencies that restrict Offred’s own authenticity. The Aunts control every action of the handmaids and are presented as evil and controlling, but we receive glimpses of their own backstories that add to the complexity of each character. Aunt Helen, for example, was once the head of a Weight Watcher’s franchise but is now described as fat by Offred. One can infer that the narrator decided to include Aunt Helen’s physical appearance to show that a person’s role does not define their character. Although the Aunts have significantly more autonomy than the handmaids, they are still grievously oppressed.

The female with the most autonomy and power that we are aware of currently is Serena Joy, who had once been an outspoken proponent for the domesticity of women as stay-at-home wives, under the presumption that women have a duty to serve their husbands. Now that Joy is finally doing her “duty,” she does not appear to enjoy it as much as she would have expected, especially during the vulgar “fucking” scene. Offred acknowledges Joy’s sentiments when she says “Which of us is it worse for, her or me?” on page 95, indicating that both Offred and Joy share restraints on freedom and miseries. At least previously, Joy had the freedom to choose the life she wanted, but now that she is deprived of simple human privileges, it is hard to view Joy as an enemy.

the Aunts and Serena Joy’s roles in an oppressed society is not purely fiction. During WWII, many Jews who were put in concentration camps grappled with similar problems of authority. Not all individuals in concentration camps were treated equally. Certain Jews were given opportunities to hold leadership positions. While this would give these “leaders” certain immunities and a more comfortable life, it also required that these people impose their own punishments on others and deny basic human needs from other members within the concentration camps. Often, these people are made out to be enemies, but, like the Aunts and Serena Joy, they weren’t given much choice. While the ethics of these positions of slightly greater power can be argued, ultimately, all are still oppressed and can connect on some basic level.

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6 Comments

  1. Nicolette Romley Nicolette Romley

    Serena Joy’s perspective is particularly interesting because she wanted this society, she fought for this society but now she does not seem to be completely content with her situation. She used to advocate for various causes, and now she is not supposed to have a voice or read or write. Although the causes for advocated for are rather controversial, she still exercised her power as a woman and is not living in a society she supposedly wanted where her own powers that she once had have been taken away.

  2. David Ataide David Ataide

    I liked your connection between Serena Joy and the Holocaust. It was also what I thought of when I read about Serena and her role in the suppression of women in Gilead. It is interesting to me that now that she has what she wanted, she is unhappy. Presumably this idea of women as “stay-at-home” seemed ideal in her initial outlook but had now become eroded to portray them as second-class and now she is in too deep.

  3. Katherine Fell Katherine Fell

    I also think that it’s incredibly interesting to see that Serena Joy once campaigned for women being relegated to simply serving as housewives. This reality, though, is incredibly different than what she must have been imagined given how unhappy she appears. I think that the same could be said for current day politics. Countless people will help campaign for candidates and push their causes forward, only to have a very different reality once their candidate is elected.

  4. Alexander Seeley Alexander Seeley

    The lack of choice and correlation to nazi german is something I have been thinking about while reading this novel. Additionally, they seem to tie in biblical references, modifying them in order to justify the oppressive system they all live in. In an environment where everyone has duties which revolve around reproducing, we see a total lack of emotion, romance, and life. Everyone, including Serena Joy act in this robotic way in a subdued state of depression where the only way to bear the oppression is disassociation.

  5. Sara Messervey Sara Messervey

    I think Serena Joy is still clearly a bad guy, as she continues to exemplify in her behavior towards Offred throughout these chapters. Her experience of oppression doesn’t deny her oppression of others (in this case, Offred). Intersectionality plays an important role here, as we can acknowledge that all women are oppressed under Gilead’s regime, but some women are responsible for oppressing others when we consider the intersection of gender and class/identity.

  6. Alexander Bogomolov Alexander Bogomolov

    I think your connection with Jews in concentration camps in WWII perfectly reflects the internal battles that many in Gilead likely face in justifying abuse of those like you if it means maintaining a safer position in that society. I also think your point about Serena Joy not enjoying the position she advocated for is interesting. Could she potentially become an ally of Offred later in the novel?

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