|Essay type:||Book review|
|Categories:||Analysis Social change The Handmaid's Tale Gender in literature|
A society that is divided into social and economic status is known as social class. In simpler terms, social class involves the grouping of people into a set of hierarchical social constituents, which in most cases include upper, middle, and lower social levels (Mare 12). For instance, the handmaid's Tale is narrated in a dystopian society where women are differentiated by class "political and social power” (Wisker 10). Dystopian societies are fictitious communities that impose oppressive, harmful, and miserable existence upon their societal members. In the story, the handmaids are one of the classes in the Republic of Gilead. The Handmaids are depicted as the most significant community members because their primary responsibility is to reproduce. However, they are the most oppressed class of women in the Republic of Gilead. A good example is displayed through the protagonist Offred who acts as the property of the Commander. She is tasked to please the Commander, bore children for the family, and work on household chores without any assistance. Therefore, it is imperative that in every society, social stratification causes the rich and mighty to oppress the weak and poor to their benefit. In the handmaid's Tale, women are the feeble and vulnerable ones and thus the most oppressed members of the Gilead community.
Social positions are government-imposed
Every character has a defined social position determined by the state. People are treated and judged based on their social situation. The rich are treated with respect and dignity, and the poor are subjected to oppression due to their social position. For example, Offred is a servant and thus belongs to the lower-class level, a place that will entirely remain as long she is in the Republic of Gilead (Wisker 85). As earlier mentioned, she has to bore children and do household chores for the wealthy family. Henceforth, in the novel, an individual's social mobility is entirely dependent on gender and class. (Wisker 25) uses the ideological hegemony concept to depict the mechanism used by rulers to control people at the lower social levels, especially women. He asserts that to effectively manifest power, the dominant groups introduce a class system as a social control strategy. The Handmaid's Tale illustrates social stratification, society, and alienation techniques. They are represented based on how Gilead leaders dehumanize people to maintain upper-class society's power.
Additionally, the depiction of social stratification is depicted through both protagonists Offred and antagonist Commander. In the novel, the former is considered a "two-legged womb," meaning her role in the community is to bore children (Wisker 45). The latter uses his power to regulate and manipulate the social behavior of the lower-class societal members rendered powerless and vulnerable by the state-imposed class system. Initially, the Gilead society was formed to respond to a decrease in population, prompting the government to create a social class difference to deal with the issues. The Gilead government would coerce fertile women to give birth to children which would increase the societal population. The women were obliged to do so because of the government-imposed restriction that rendered them powerless.
Handmaid’s major role in the Gilead community
Handmaids are taught early Red Center that their primary role in the Gilead society is to bore children. It is a brain-washing strategy to make the women believe reproducing children is their only contribution to the community. However, the handmaids are only offered to the rich and mighty such as the Commander. The reason is that Nick, being a man, is not provided a handmaid because he hails from the lower-class society and thus despised as well. Although women from a lower social status are despised the most, men from a similar class are treated poorly.
Women's role in social stratification
Women play a significant role in enhancing social class in the way they treat their fellow women. Women married by the rich might take advantage of their position to manipulate women of the lower-societal course. In the novel, the Commander's wives (aunts) are the most powerful compared to other women in society. On the other hand, women from the lower social class are referred to as "Marthas" who work as domestic servants for the aunts. The "Martha" are socially isolated and are subjected to harsh treatment due to their societal status.
A good example is when Offred visited the Commander's mansion, Serena blocked her way until the Commander's wife ordered her to get into the house. Offred mentioned: "She just stood there in the doorway, blocking the entrance. I could not come into the house unless she said so" (Wisker 45). Based on Serena's behavior, she must despise the handmaid because she comes from a lower-class level. Serena as well reminds Offred that she is entailed certain powers in the house. In the Gilead society, people's behavior and attitude depend on the amount of power the government has granted them. Serena's actions illustrate how women treat each other in a dystopian society. The handmaids play a critical role in increasing the Gilead population which has been on the low in the present times. Regardless, they are treated poorly and despised due to their social class level.
Consequently, the Commander's wife coerces Offred to sleep with Nick to produce babies because she is adamant that her husband is sterile. The Commander's wife forces her to do it even though she is aware of the consequences if Offred was caught sleeping with a different man. The former knows that the latter is running of time to get pregnant and thus has little chance of refusing the instruction given. One can observe that social stratification is depicted in various ways, and it even seems worse how women from the upper-class level mistreat their fellow women.
Role of men in social inequality
Men are as well oppressive and mistreat women hailing from the lower class. Similar to upper-class women, men will do anything to prove their powers. According to (Wisker 12) , 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" Based on the given quote, one can observe that the Commander is oppressive and manipulating Offred based on her societal status and uses them for his interests and thus apathetic towards them.
Social stratification depicted in eating behaviors
Social stratification is depicted in the way the Handmaids were allowed to eat. The Gilead society entailed a manner that the Handmaids had to eat. Offred asserts that they will get sandwiches and milk on a tray. Consequently, Offred had to find a friend in a woman that does a similar job to her. Henceforth, due to the Handmaids' lower-class level, their body is controlled by the regulation of diet. In that perspective, individuals hailing from the higher societal class will do anything that will demean people from the lower societal levels.
The social stratification theme is used throughout the novel. One can observe how people, especially women, are treated differently from upper-class level society. The Gilead government entails that people should behave according to the powers given to them. In that perspective, The Handmaid's Tale is an excellent example of totalitarian states exacting draconian measures such as social control to regulate the behavior of people hailing from the lower social classes to maintain the social standing of the powers of the rich and mighty.
Mare, Robert D. "Multigenerational Aspects Of Social Stratification: Issues For Further Research". Research In Social Stratification And Mobility, vol 35, no. 2, 2014, pp. 121-128. Elsevier BV, doi:10.1016/j.rssm.2014.01.004.
Wisker, Gina. Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale. 3rd ed., Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, 2010, pp. 1-109.
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