Master of Arts
This thesis examines the complexity of resistance and the conditions of power for women in The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. Using feminist theory, theories of neoliberalism, and Dominionism, this thesis works to understand the ways in which victimhood and complicity influence resistance in totalitarian regimes. I argue that neoliberal ideologies skew understandings of freedom, agency, and power in a way that ensures individuals, specifically women, remain trapped in the system. Focusing on reproduction, I examine how Gilead controls women’s bodies and reproductive abilities to ensure a future for itself. The Eve-Complex is one way that the state integrates itself into the identity of motherhood; by making reproduction a state-controlled affair, Gilead effectively separates women from the identity of motherhood and uses this identity to ensure the production of a future generation of Gileadeans. Analyzing Offred, Serena Joy, and Moira, I determine the value of their respective attempts at resistance, and the implications of their role in propagating the system. Ultimately, I connect my analysis to the current events in the United States, such as the overturning of Roe v. Wade to demonstrate the importance of reading the novel in a modern context.
Summary for Lay Audience
As a dystopian, authoritarian regime, Gilead warns what could occur in the United States if religious, extremist political parties take over. However, what makes Gilead all the more dangerous is the way in which it relies on female bodies. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood does not simply critique feminism but offers a solemn warning as to what could occur in America when politics and religion merge to establish a regime that uses bodies as an economy. As a response to Reagan and Thatcher’s political philosophy in the 1980s, Gilead demonstrates the insidious ways in which underlying ideologies that capitalize on individual lives can foster generations of oppression. More importantly, Atwood demonstrates how specific terminologies, such as freedom, choice, and resistance are exploited to maintain control over people. Discussion on abortion rights indicates a paradox evident in terms such as freedom and choice; by incorporating the same language that pro-lifers use in their antiabortion propaganda, Gilead shows how by advocating for the rights and freedom of foetuses also effectively marginalizes and removes the political rights of the mother. Yet, Gilead requires women to reproduce to ensure its own futurity, and as such, female bodies become paradoxically the most valuable commodity, and simultaneously the most expendable. Under the guise of religion, state powers are not only able to influence but also rationalize the authoritarian control over female bodies as a sacrifice for the greater good. While Gilead relies on female bodies to function, it also marginalizes them; female resistance, as such, works to combat erasure by reinstating agency, subjectivity, and identity back into their bodies. This essay explores how the state of Gilead exploits and entraps women by invading not only their bodies but their minds, and what possible methods women can take to combat this invasion. It asks the question about what the value of Offred, Serena Joy, and Moira’s resistance is, and whether there is any possibility of extricating the self from the system.
Mufti, Sana H., "Bodies of Silence and Space: Victimhood, Complicity, and Resistance in Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale" (2023). Electronic Thesis and Dissertation Repository. 9296.
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