Social Class in The Handmaid’s Tale paper

Examine the representation of social class in The Handmaid’s Tale. How are certain classes empowered and/or disempowered, and why? How does the novel depict the constraints of class difference, community, or alienation, and how does it influence the interpretation of the story?

Social Class in The Handmaid’s Tale

The Handmaid’s Tale takes place in a dystopian society where women are separated by class “social and political power” (Rao 12). Dystopian societies are fictitious societies with brutal state oppression that dehumanize the individual. In the novel, Handmaids are one of the classes in the Republic of Gilead. Although the Handmaids are essential members of society, since their primary responsibility is to reproduce, they are the most oppressed class of women in Gilead. This oppression is displayed through the main character, Offred, who is the property of the Commander. Her main duties are in pleasing the commander, getting a baby for the family and taking care of household duties.
The representation of social class in The Handmaid’s Tale is displayed by the clearly defined social hierarchy where each class of persons in the novel occupies a clearly defined social position that is determined by the state (i.e. the lower class Marthas who are servants and the upper-class aunts). For instance, Offred belongs to the lower class as she is a servant, a position that will never change as long as she in Gilead. An individual’s social mobility was dependent on their class and gender. Atwood uses the concept of ideological hegemony to show the mechanisms of social control used by the rulers to control women and lower social classes. To effectively consolidate power, the dominant group institutes a class system as a means of social control. The novel displays the constraints of class difference, community and alienation by examining how authoritarian rulers create artificial class differences that dehumanize people, with the aim of maintaining the power of the ruling class.
The representation of a social class is seen through the protagonist of the novel Offred who is considered nothing more than “two-legged wombs” (Atwood 157). The antagonist, the Commander, uses his power to manipulate and regulate the social behavior of those citizens who are rendered powerless because of the state-imposed class system. The main community in the novel is called Gilead which was created in response to a decrease in the population and was aimed at increasing birth rates. The community development resulted in the government creating social classes and taking advantage of fertile women and implementing government restrictions, thereby disempowering the lower class
The novel depicts the role that social class plays in how women treat each other, and how those interactions demoralize the lower class. The Commander’s wives are the most powerful amongst women social classes in the novel. They are referred to as “aunts” while the Marthas are from the lower class and work as domestic servants for the aunts. The handmaids in the story are socially isolated and subject to abusive treatment based on their lower social class. This is evident through Off red’s first visit to the Commander’s house: “she just stood there in the doorway, blocking the entrance. I could not come into the house unless she said so” (Atwood 15). Serena’s behavior indicates that she despises Offred, even though the Commander’s wife needs her more for a baby since Offred is fertile. They both have to put up with each other to get along.
However, Serena further reminded Offred of the power she held in the household where Offred is required to obey as “‘people behave according to the amount of power they have been granted’ ” (Rao). This quote demonstrated how women turned against one another in this dystopian society. It also shows that Serena constantly reminded Offred of her lower class in which she is. Although the Commander’s wives are at the top of the social class of women, they are unable to reproduce and therefore require a handmaid.
Additionally, the social hierarchy also determined what the handmaids were allowed to eat “we’ll get milk and sandwiches, on a tray. However, they have a coffee urn, and bottles of wine” (Atwood 134). This example displays that due to the class system that traps the handmaid’s in a low social position, their body is controlled by the regulation of diet, therefore further showing that what people eat in Gilead is an indication of their social status. As a result of social regulations controlling their behavior, women of the lower classes are alienated from the community and the rest of society who are of a higher social class. For instance, Offred finds a companion in someone who undergoes what she does, at her age.
Throughout the novel, the Commander’s wife uses her power to tell Offred that she should sleep with Nick in order to reproduce as she believes that the Commander is sterile, despite knowing the consequences which Offred might be facing if she is caught with another man. Serena demonstrates how for her own self-interest, she manipulates Offred in an act which can have consequences if Offred is caught. Ultimately, she knows Offred cannot deny this behavior as she is aware that she is running out of time to get pregnant.
Just as the wives use their power derived from their social class in the novel, the men in the novel do so as well. For example, Offred can never decline the Commander’s orders, because she is a handmaid. “But to refuse to see him could be worse. There is no doubt about holds the real power” (Atwood 158). This quote demonstrates that the Commander is manipulative towards the handmaids as he uses them for his companionship and is apathetic toward them.
Handmaids are taught very early at the Red center that their bodies are objects to produce children for the Commander’s and they are brainwashed continuously into believing that they have one objective – to produce children. Handmaids, who are to have babies for higher social class men like the Commander, demonstrate the power exercised by upper-classmen. An example of this is Nick’s character “Low Status: he hasn’t been issued a woman, not even one” (Atwood 20). Nick has not been assigned as handmaid due to his lower-class ranking in society as he is a guardian, again demonstrating how in this dystopian world autocrats like the Commander have total control over someone’s fate.

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In conclusion, The Handmaid’s Tale uses the theme of class differences to influence how handmaids are treated in the Gilead community and to determine which groups of people are empowered and disempowered by the state. The other theme of alienation was used in Off red’s treatment by Serena to demonstrate the power the upper class had over the social interactions of the lower class which Offred held. Serena possessed the power to make Offred feel belittled, by manipulating her into having intercourse with Nick for Serena’s benefit. Further, in Gilead where Commanders held the most power demonstrated that the class below him in the hierarchy was not permitted the same privileges afforded to handmaids. The Handmaid’s Tale provides a stark example of how totalitarian states can exact draconian measures of social control to strictly regulate the behavior of citizens in order to maintain the social standing and power of the rulers.

Work Cited

Rao, Eleonora. Strategies for Identity: The Fiction of Margaret Atwood. New York: Lang, 1993. Print.

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