The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

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Atwood’s foregrounding of romantic love in the novel – as something that cannot be ‘overlooked’ – implies a surprisingly radical critique of the regime’s patriarchy, as well as of feminist, ‘matriarchal’ ideas.

The Commander’s statement, given above, about men’s ‘Inability to feel’ (32:198) in pre-Gilead America is actually much more than just his interpretation of the ‘stats’ (34:206): it also reveals a great deal about his own emotional make-up. As an ‘alpha male’ of Gilead, everything – within reason – is available to him. In terms of companionship and sexuality, he has a Wife; he has the (admittedly somewhat limited) pleasure of Offred once every month (more often if he is prepared to break the rules), and he has Jezebel’s whenever he wishes. What he actually wants, however – and perhaps even needs – is the fantasy of courting and winning his Handmaid, even though part of him will always know, it can be assumed, that she is entirely in his power and that his ‘success’ with her comes at the end of a long-winded game as meaningless as their contests at Scrabble. Nevertheless, he can always kid himself that Offred feels some affection for him, and there must be some pleasure for him in that.

It is significant that he dresses Offred (and her predecessor) in a feathery ‘bird’ costume. Moira, whom Offred meets at Jezebel’s, is similarly costumed as a Playboy ‘bunny’. Both of these sexual stereotypes present women as desirable objects to be pursued – even stalked and hunted, though there is nothing quite so animalistic about the Commander’s feelings for Offred. Ironically, this notion of a woman being a ‘bird’ or a ‘bunny’ is part of what makes her desirable and valuable in the Commander’s mind. The cheap and tawdry costumes disguise the Commander’s desire to make Offred, in some limited fantasy sense, his equal – even sometimes his superior. Cheap and tasteless as these costumes are, essential to their symbolism is the idea that the ‘bird’ or ‘bunny’ might not always be caught. It is the tantalising unavailability of these archetypes that makes them desirable. To satisfy his fantasy, the Commander must make Offred temporarily unavailable before he ‘wins’ her – and this inevitably, involves reversing the social dynamic, so that he is beholden to her rather than the other way round. This pattern is particularly noticeable when he is, as Offred astutely remarks, ‘in the courtly phase’ of inebriation, asking her, ‘How is the fair little one this evening?’ (36:215). Courtly love is a complex psychological and social phenomenon. On one level, it is theoretically demeaning for a woman to be called ‘the fair little one’; on another, however, the whole point of courtly romanticism is raise the status of a woman so that she becomes the ultimate object of desire.

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