Feminist and Marxist Theories Applied to The Handmaid’s Tale



Marxist and Feminist theories applied to writing open up the blooms of context that the author writes in between the spaces of semantics. Strengthened by analysis, weakened by assumptions, each theory offers insight into novels such as The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood, which is subject to conjecture due to the specific nature of each analysis. A potentially whole bodied analysis would include parts of two or more theories to remove weaknesses and strengthen analysis. Feminist and Marxist theories provide a dual lens to magnify aspects of The Handmaid’s Tale, to showcase a society that “rejects the premise of industrial society,” and conveys metanarratives of a world run by men, run by women (Rivkin, 355). The crack in this premise that is seen through Marxist and Feminist theory lenses tells a story of surface appearances that do not represent the reality underneath. The Commander may appear to be the boss, but it is the women who control the workplace.

Atwood tells a story about a dystopian society that rearranges the hierarchy of citizens from the world familiar with modern times to one with a male Commander in charge and all women in servant roles. Feminist analysis sees women represented as suppressed and the Marxist analysis sees the Handmaids specifically as unpaid sex workers. The value of labor in Gilead is placed on the production of the women to support the religious, patriarchal structure that governs them, but just like a black market underground of any society, the women of Gilead control the labor market with supply and demand of offspring produced by them. If a woman can control her reproduction, she can control the marketplace of Gilead. Men strip the women of every conceivable luxury and contraband but do so through the women placed higher in the hierarchy, not directly themselves. Everything from butter in their shoes to replace the taken lotions, to the matches needed to light cigarettes they are not supposed to have, women will subvert oppression no matter who places it upon them. Regardless of the circumstances, even if stripped of income, women will find a way to create currency, exchange goods, and services, and show patriarchal regimes that they are not being asked to relinquish control over them because the patriarchy never had it in the first place.

The Handmaids were able to endure such oppression without seemingly giving as much as an occasional woman who objected, because of a coping skill inherent to women that the men of Gilead mistake for compliance. “Women are such good mimics, it is because they are not simply absorbed” into any given situation, they are able to “remain elsewhere” disassociating themselves as a survival technique (Iragaray, 795). Offred was expected to engage in sexual intercourse with the Commander, as his wife sat nearby and held her hand, for purposes of procreation, a created job role for the Handmaid in the Gilead society. Offred’s position was a rewritten sex worker position, without income paid for her services, but provided room and board instead. Other women were utilized to reinforce the rules of Gilead for daily upkeep of the rules and women followed them not out of fear, but out of respect for the women who were placed in charge over them. Feminist theorist Luce Irigaray saw this as a means to an end. The women will follow along with the oppression as a means to “convert a form of subordination into an affirmation, and thus to begin to thwart it” which conveys the message that women must submit in order to divert attention in order to begin pushing back against the oppression (Rivkin, 795). Ofglen internalizes the teachings the Aunt’s brainwash them with, teaching shame and modesty when it comes to their own bodies. “Offred sees herself as a ‘prize pig’ and Ofglen is a “trained pig,” both monikers that were considered acceptable despite being degrading (Stein, 64). Feminist theory expects a full analysis of the system and destruction in order to rebuild with equality in all aspects of women’s lives, bringing “darkness within; or else the light” (Atwood, 294). The opposition would argue that this approach is dangerous since there is no way of knowing if it is darkness or light from which the future is being built.

The women can accomplish more in the dark corners than out in the open, due to their suppression of importance in Gilead. The message is clouded in the unspoken when the Aunts give instruction to the Handmaids. “I also know better than to say yes. Modesty is invisibility, said Aunt Lydia. Never forget it. To be seen-to be seen-is to be-her voice trembled-penetrated. What you must be, girls is impenetrable. She called us girls” (Atwood, 28). If the Handmaids are out and clear with their intentions they are seen as the enemy and targets for noncompliance in a society built upon the ideology of suppression of women. Atwood makes interesting word choices with penetrated and impenetrable considering their role as Handmaids is for procreation. The Handmaids are being told that by being a nobody in the crowd of workers enables them to become a faceless entity who could avoid being forced into taking it all in without personal reward or control. The handmaids are the working class of the Gilead society.

Feminist and Marxist lenses dissect the effects on women and the working class when women are part of the manipulation process in order to further the agenda of men. Joy calls Offred a bitch in the end, because “after all he did for you,” reinforcing the depth to which the conditioning goes when women believe what they are doing to be of virtue or significance higher than themselves because ultimately women put others first before themselves (Atwood, 294). Karl Marx would call Joy a good worker, while Luce Irigaray would say she is a good mimic. I would say they are both correct and that is why I feel both theories work well together in analyzing this story. Women, such as Serena Joy are charged with the role of being in charge, which for a Feminist lens makes her a strong feminist role model, but by piecing together the actions of Serena, readers learn that women like Serena only use their strength for self-serving purposes, the antithesis of feminism, which calls for equality of all women. Serena should by all accounts be happy, but since her worker role in society is to produce a child for her husband through her chaperoned intercourse sessions, unhappy is the only thing she can be. As a way to cope with this situation, Serena finds a way to exert control over the women she controls and specifically focuses her manipulation on Offred since it is Offred that is the only one who potentially could bring Serena happiness once she fulfills her duty of delivering her a baby. Through several actions, Serena switches Offred’s perception of her as a means to control Serena’s work force. Serena offers her a match, “now don’t you go setting fire to nothing,” Serena tells her, but knowing this action is a gate begging to be pushed open for more access (Atwood, 208). She uses a curse word when talking to her in the garden, which relaxes Offred’s perception of Serena, calculated by Serena for such purposes. Then as a final master manipulation, Serena’s desire to have Offred deliver a baby for Serena by arranging sex with Nick, Serena shows Offred a picture of her long lost daughter. This move not only leans Offred into the lane that Serena wants her in but reinforces the fact that Serena has more power than she has been letting on. She has all the control, not the Commander. Offred knows “she’s known all along” and the news grabs her like a chokehold. Not only has Offred been playing along with the Commanders requests hoping they lead to access, she realizes he is being deceived as much as she is. The veil is lifted and the crack in the premise widens.

“Within The Handmaid’s Tale lies the powerful suggestion that progress toward global human rights will never be possible until nations of ‘freedom’ face their own incarcerated dystopian realities” (Dodson, 66). Labor Power, as Karl Marx describes it gives power to the worker based upon the value of the production by the worker for the capitalist. If Offred knew the true value of her labor to produce an offspring for the Commander and Serena, she would have realized her true labor power. If more Handmaids learned this same lesson, workers united, they could have been free from chains that oppress them. Women such as Serena Joy somewhere along the way learned their labor power and took measure to ensure their value in the dystopian society. Regardless of how, Serena used the power she had access to, instead of focusing on the power she was stripped of. Each woman has its place in society, both workers, but on different status levels, both wield their labor power in order to command power in a male driven society where the commodity of choice is a woman. Women became a commodity to be exchanged “because they are ‘scarce [commodities]…essential to the life of the group,” making the Handmaids valuable within the labor force of Gilead (Irigaray, 799). “Labor power, therefore, is a commodity, neither more nor less than sugar,” so if the demand for sugar goes up, the value of it does (Marx, 659). The Handmaids did not realize they were sugar. They did not know they could demand hand lotion and stop hiding butter in their shoes. Every sense of individuality and identity was stripped from them upon entering the Gilead society construct. “Hence “Offred,” the narrator’ s relational naming, is not a name but a tag that she wears to signify that she is the handmaid “of Fred,” Offred is reprogrammed in the new society along with all the other women (Reddy, 5). Stripped of independent jobs that the women elected to be part of in their original lives, the women have issued a new job of womb hosts that rendered them useful, yet subjugated to the lowest common denominator in society for a woman. Control was placed through perception and judgment knowing all women are aware of this role and what it means in societies.

Sex workers have been around since the dawn of time and “began to change from a temporary job to a more permanent occupation as a result of nineteenth-century agitation, legal reform, and police persecution” (Rubin, 889). Atwood’s Handmaids are legal sex workers sanctioned by the government of Gilead.        Marxism would see this as a good thing. Workers have more control than they realize, but the capitalist controls the market and therefore controls workers. “Power and conflict are central to the society of Gilead, its political and economic structure” which is central to the Atwood novel (Gotsch, 71). The worker is being paid for their labor in the form of room and board, but a feminist may hold a different opinion depending on what wave of feminism lens used. Some feminist would see this as a good thing because of the regulation and wages that come with legalization, others would be dead set against a woman selling her body for an occupation. The feminist lens would also be against Offred’s forced role in society since it was not her choice, but possibly more permissive of Moira’s role since she chose it over being in a work camp. The Marxist lens would chastise Offred for not demanding more in the form of a monetary payment, but applaud the Commander for getting the biggest return on his investment by taking her to the sex club, showing her there was room for growth and opportunity in the workplace. Depending on what angle a reader looks from will depend on the perspective a reader has when analyzing works.

Marxist and Feminist analysis of The Handmaid’s Tale captures the nuances embedded in the language of the novel magnifying them to point out the power of women regardless of suppression, who will work to control their own lives while patriarchy lives in the illusion that they are the capitalist in charge. Atwood’s dystopian novel may be fantasy, but as with all good fiction, reality means simply a matter of taking a closer look. Both theories widen the cracks in the premise of this novel in order for readers to take a myopic look into the reality that is lying underneath Atwood’s Gilead fictionalized society. Maryam Morida uses Louis Althusser’s theory on the ideology of a working class to take a closer look into The Handmaid’s Tale and the oppression of the working class. By using this lens Moira was able to see the machine at work actively oppressing a working class by empowering a ruling class while pointing to the Aunt’s role in Gilead as empowered oppressors albeit women. Feminist and Marxist lenses offer this type of insight into a story being told through a tiered system of messages that would otherwise be ignored as a flat story of women oppressed by men in charge. Atwood wrote The Handmaid’s Tale with cracks to begging to be opened, but by design require tools to open them. With these lenses as tools, this story can unearth messages that can change how men are seen, as well as how women view themselves and each other in historical and contemporary societies. The handmaids were giving birth to future generations, but Atwood gave birth to a grand metanarrative.



Works Cited

Atwood, Margaret. The Handmaid’s Tale. New York: Anchor Books, 1998. Print.

Gotsch-Thomson, Susan. “The Integrating Of Gender Into The Teaching Of Classical

Social Theory: Help From The Handmaid’s Tale.” Teaching Sociology 18.1

(1990): 69-73. SocINDEX with Full Text. Web. 30 Aug. 2016.

Irigaray, Luce. “The Power of Discourse and the Subordination of the

Feminine.” Literary Theory” An Anthology by Julie Rivkin

and Michael Ryan, editors. Blackwell Publishing, 2004, P. 795-798.

Marx, Karl. “Wage Labor and Capital.” Literary Theory” An Anthology by Julie Rivkin

and Michael Ryan, editors. Blackwell Publishing, 2004, P. 659-664.

Moradi, Maryam and Fatemeh AzizMohammadi. “The Study Of Ideology In The

Handmaids’ Tale Based On Althusser’s View.” International Letters Of Social & Humanistic Sciences (2015): 75. Publisher Provided Full Text Searching File. Web. 30 Aug. 2016.

Reddy, Dr. P. Madhurima. The Handmaid’s Tale: The Carving Out of Feminist Space in

Margaret Atwood’s Novel. Chaitanya Bharathi Institute of Technology. The Criterion: An International Journal in English. Vol. II. Issue. IV. December 2011.

Rivkin, Julie, and Michael Ryan. Literary Theory: An Anthology. Second ed. Malden:

Blackwell, 2004. Print.

Rubin, Gayle. “Sexual Transformations.” Literary Theory” An Anthology by Julie Rivkin

and Michael Ryan, editors. Blackwell Publishing, 2004, P. 659-664.

Stein, Karen. “Margaret Atwood’s Modest Proposal: The Handmaid’s Tale.” Canadian

Literature.http://digitalcommons.uri.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1001&context=eng_facpubs 148:57-72. 1996.

Wilson, Sharon Rose. Women’s Utopian And Dystopian Fiction. Newcastle upon Tyne,

UK: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2013. eBook Collection (EBSCOhost). Web. 30 Aug. 2016.




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