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Because Gilead was formed in response to the crisis caused by dramatically decreased birthrates, the state's entire structure, with its religious trappings and rigid political hierarchy, is built around a single goal: control of reproduction. The state tackles the problem head-on by assuming complete control of women's bodies through their political subjugation. Women cannot vote, hold property or jobs, read, or do anything else that might allow them to become subversive or independent and thereby undermine their husbands or the state.
Despite all of Gilead's pro-women rhetoric, such subjugation creates a society in which women are treated as subhuman. They are reduced to their fertility, treated as nothing more than a set of ovaries and a womb. In one of the novel's key scenes, Offred lies in the bath and reflects that, before Gilead, she considered her body an instrument of her desires; now, she is just a mound of flesh surrounding a womb that must be filled in order to make her useful. Gilead seeks to deprive women of their individuality in order to make them docile carriers of the next generation.
In The Handmaid's Tale technology seems to have reversed. Gilead is no techno-dystopia, we see that that society has stepped backwards in time, to a kind of government and lifestyle of times long gone. Technology as we know it seems to have been largely removed from this society. Interestingly, this rejection of technology includes medical techniques to help deal with problems of infertility even though it is such a struggle to conceive a child in this society.
The novel's tone is dark, and at times elegiac for the lost world before Gilead. Consistently unhappy, Offred finds both refuge and pain in her memories. A sense of fear and paranoia also pervades the novel, since all the characters live under a ruthless, totalitarian government.
Quote: I used to think of my body as an instrument, of pleasure, or a means of transportation, or an implement for the accomplishment of my will . . . Now the flesh arranges itself differently. I'm a cloud, congealed around a central object, the shape of a pear, which is hard and more real than I am and glows red within its translucent wrapping.
This passage is from Chapter 13, when Offred sits in the bath, naked, and contrasts the way she used to think about her body to the way she thinks about it now. Before, her body was an instrument, an extension of her self; now, her self no longer matters, and her body is only important because of its "central object," her womb, which can bear a child. Offred's musings show that she has internalized Gilead's attitude toward women, which treats them not as individuals but as objects important only for the children that they can bear. Women's wombs are a "national resource," the state insists, using language that dehumanizes women and reduces them to, as Offred puts it, "a cloud, congealed around a central object, which is hard and more real than I am."
Point of View:
I would like to believe this is a story I'm telling. I need to believe it. I must believe it. Those who can believe that such stories are only stories have a better chance. If it's a story I'm telling, then I have control over the ending. Then there will be an ending, to the story, and real life will come after it. I can pick up where I left off.
This quotation, from the end of Chapter 7, reflects the connection between Offred's story, her readers, her lost family, and her inner state. These words suggest that Offred is not recounting events from afar, looking back on an earlier period in her life. Rather, she is describing the horror of Gilead as she experiences it from day to day. For Offred, the act of telling her story becomes a rebellion against her society. Gilead seeks to silence women, but Offred speaks out, even if it is only to an imaginary reader, to Luke, or to God. Gilead denies women control over their own lives, but Offred's creation of a story gives her, as she puts it, "control over the ending." Most important, Offred's creation of a narrative gives her hope for the future, a sense that "there will be an ending . . . and real life will come after it." She can hope that someone will hear her story, or that she will tell it to Luke someday. Offred has found the only avenue of rebellion available in her totalitarian society: she denies Gilead control over her inner life.