Offred is a handmaid in the Republic of Gilead. This Republic is a theocratic state that has replaced the traditional democracy of the United States; the Republic is centered on religion, and patriarchy to an extreme degree. Due to the extremely low reproduction rates, the handmaid’s duty to the Republic is to bear children to the elite people of the society who have had problems conceiving on their own. Offred is made to service the Commander and his wife Serena Joy. The later is a former gospel singer and believes in the Republic in an overzealous fashion.
The concept of sex as a tool made to control what would otherwise be a revolutionary advocacy is obvious in the scenes when Offred is made to ‘service’ the Commander. These scenes consist of sex where the two aren’t allowed to speak with each other and the wife, or in this case, Serena, has to hold down the handmaid’s arms. Thus, Offred is made to subjugate her freedom in order to bear this couple a child. Thus, Offred is a piece of property and as such she must follow the rules of the house which entail suspended shopping trips to the city, no contact with anyone, and no personal conversations or friendships of any kind with anyone. Even in the confines of the house Offred is made to keep her bedroom door left open, and the police are on constant watch of all handmaids in case they should step over their boundaries.
Both stories deal with myth in the story as in Frankenstein Victor fashioned himself as Prometheus. He took from the hand of the death and put together life; he breathed air into lungs and stole the fire from the Gods and gave it, just as the Republic in A Handmaid’s Tale aimed at stealing the children borne of handmaid’s and giving them to the family the handmaid’s serviced. The idea of birth as control is central to both stories as Shelley writes, “It was on a dreary night of November, that I beheld the accomplishment of my toils. With an anxiety that almost amounted to agony, I collected the instruments of life around me, that I might infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet. It was already one in the morning; the rain pattered dismally against the panes, and my candle was nearly burnt out, when, by the glimmer of the half-extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs (43)”.
Just as Victor is playing God so is the Republic playing a similar role in Atwood’s story. Thus, even childbirth was a form of control as the child that a handmaid gave birth to was rightfully the couple’s child, and did not in fact belong to the handmaid. In fact, Offred had a child with her husband before the Republic took control, but that child was taken from her since she was a second marriage, and therefore had not rights. The premise of these control tactics rests with the Gilead ideology in which handmaids, or amoral women, have no rights and are completely subservient to men.
One incident which supports this paper’s thesis of sex as a controlling factor is when Offred is taken to the doctor to be checked for diseases or to be checked to find out if she is pregnant. The doctor offers to have sex with her in order to get her pregnant because he believes that the Commander may be infertile. This is another issue of control in the novel. The doctor may be genuine with his request but more than likely he may be trying to get Offred to succumb to his wishes; in either case this would have been another scene, and example of rape had Offred accepted the doctor’s offer.
Serena soon offers Offred a chance to have a picture of her daughter is Offred agrees to have sex with Nick the chauffeur in order for Offred to get pregnant and pass the child off as Serena and the Commanders. This is another coercion used in the novel, and it is another example of the exchange that women commit to in order to gain something necessary for their livelihood; in this case a picture of Offred’s child.
For Victor the idea of creating a companion of seeing him and having conversations with him was a form of that father/son relationship; except the mind was damaged and Victor believed through this ill luck their twined dooming was found. The monster was supposed to be beautiful. Victor’s creation, made from his hard work, genius, spark of life, but when the monster opened his eyes, those yellow and watery orbs stared with accusation. They were appropriately snide in being awaken. In those yellow eyes Victor saw death, guilt, and a hunger to not have been born. When those yellow eye opened Victor saw the reflection of his failure. Thus is birth made horrible.
It was not the eyes alone that made Victor run: The entire entourage of pallid and blanched skin mixed with size all gave Victor the urge to flee. It was in the failure of the monster’s existence that Victor found revulsion; or rather it was the fact that his existence made Victor a failure, the fact that he had created a monster when his intentions were pure. Victor wanted to give humanity something beautiful but the monster was revolting.
Victor was sleeping and the monster approached looking for acceptance for love for the fulfilled intention of a friend and so the monster reached his enormous hand out. Victor was not ready; in his best disguise as God Victor was not ready to look upon Adam and see only blasphemy. The monster saw this not only in Victor’s actions of leaving, but in his reaction of the monster reaching toward Victor. The monster in turn disappears; banished from Victor’s love, and life, and with the close of this scene the thesis of the paper is realized in Shelley’s work; that of birth and creation as blasphemy.
The extent of coercion prevailing in the Republic is directly related to the amount of revolution they intend on finding with the handmaid’s and other underground factions who oppose Gilead ideologies. An example of those who do not succumb to the desires of the Republic is shown in the square outside of what used to Harvard University where they hang betrayers for the public to witness in order for fear to thrive and laws to be obeyed. Serena is a prime example of the extreme faction of the Republic since she holds down Offred’s hands during sex with the Commander and then further wants Offred to have sex with Nick all so that Serena may have a child. This essay has exemplified the concept of sex as a controlling factor in the book A Handmaid’s Tale in the avenue of a brief history of patriarchy, the further expounding of coercion as seen with Moira, and with iron and meat, as well as with the hostage tactics used by Serena to get Offred to have sex with Nick. This concept of sex and power is linked to patriarchy and is well utilized in Margaret Atwood’s novel.
Just as Victor was done being God and bringing the fire down to humanity because it seemd that they did not want it, so does sex and birth in A Handmaid’s Tale reveal a similar fate with Offred’s child and the act of rape throughout the novel. Both processes of creation are a rape, of science in Frankenstein and nature in A Handmaid’s Tale. Victor wonders how many Adams God had to go through but Victor found that he was no God just as Offred found that she was no longer a mother in the society created by the Republic. Victor is robbed of his science while Offred is robbed of her child and the pleasure of sex. The creation process in both novels is one filled with bastardization.
Atwood, Margaret. A Handmaid’s Tale. Anchor, New York. 1998.
Shelley, Mary. (1995). Frankenstein: The Modern Prometheus. Ed. Maurice Hindle. Penguin,