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The Handmaid’s Tale and The French Lieutenant’s Woman

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Margaret Atwood’s ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’, and John Fowles’ ‘The French Lieutenant’s Woman’ are both classic novels conveying the constrictions placed upon women by society and how they fight against these. Both use women as the pivotal point in their novel, struggling to live in a hierarchical society where men appear to rule. ‘The French Lieutenant’s Woman’ revolves around the character of Sarah: a proto-feminist, symbol of women and freedom, and a mythic figure. Although she is the main role and is vital to the plot, she remains ambiguous.

Through this Sarah is viewed more as the novel’s central figure, rather than the conventional protagonist. The plot follows her as she is born and trapped into this intolerant, hypocritical society in which she does not belong, and this could be the reason why the reader is never allowed into her thoughts. This could be Fowles conveying Sarah as a ‘New Woman’ by her refusal to follow tradition and by her quest for freedom. Sarah can be interpreted as a modern day character, placed into the realms of the oppressive 19th century.

Robert Huffaker sees Sarah as “the novel’s one thoroughly modern character” and that he views her as the ‘missing link’ between the present century, and the century in which she exists. Her constrictions as a woman lie under the harsh and judgemental Victorian etiquette, contrasted with the dystopian society of Gilead in ‘The Handmaids Tale’ that Offred has to undertake. Here the Government attempts to control every aspect of people’s public and private lives, where women are seen more as objects of desire and their only input to society is to produce offspring.

Atwood has created an oppressed society which displays corporal and capital punishment as a norm to its citizens who are kept alike to prisoners in a concentration camp, with the high walls and limited thoughts and speech. The very fact that the protagonist of the novel has a patronymic slave name (Of-Fred) conveys to the reader her function, in that she belongs to her Commander, Fred, and clarifies the oppression of Gileadean society. Although being set in different periods of time, both novels’ presentation of the constrictions of women can be seen as timeless, with some of these constrictions occurring in modern day times.

In Pakistan, Iran, Afghanistan, and similar South Asian countries there are many rules and restrictions likening to that of Gileadean policies, such as the rule that all women must cover their entire bodies with veils. This kind of power can also be compared to the work of Sylvia Plath, describing “Jovian voices” and “jewel masters” that control her life and have total power over her. Plath’s poems convey how belittled a human can be by another, and how this can almost de-humanise one, as Plath describes herself to have become “as drunk as a foetus” expressing how powerless she has become.

Both Atwood and Fowles present ideas of a deeply oppressive and controlling society and government. In ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ a significant example of the state’s desire to control every aspect of life is the headdress that the handmaids have to wear. “The white wings that frame my face” are similar to that of a nun’s headdress, which outlines the irony, as the handmaids are committing adultery, but also exposes the hypocrisy of the Government. They also serve a double purpose; “to keep us from seeing, but also from being seen.

By preventing men from looking at them and restricting their vision, desire is averted and the potentiality of rebellious acts of romance or lust is less likely. This links to ‘The French Lieutenant’s Woman’ as Sarah is constantly trying to escape from the people within her society through her refusal to allow them into her inner thoughts and to have been “born with a computer in her heart”. This line in particular showed Sarah to be an anachronism in Victorian society, and shines light on the struggle Sarah is going through by having to abide by society’s restrictions in which she disagrees with.

The readers first introduction to Sarah’s character is that she is dressed in a cloak-like coat, standing like a statue “Its clothes were black”, this quote alone shows how Fowles wants us to view Sarah; without identity, thus foreshadowing the mystery that shrouds Sarah throughout the novel. The handmaids are also dressed in cloaks, however these are of deep red, like “A Sister, dipped in blood”. This imagery connotes the their purpose of fertility, and at the same time, the danger of death if they fail to conceive.

Different colours and variations of clothes are used to construct almost a Marxist style society into a strict hierarchy, classifying women according to their functions and status – Aunts, Wives, Handmaids, Marthas, Econowives – all roles with the intention of supporting a patriarchal state. This is true to ‘French Lieutenant’s Woman’ too, in that Victorian society was all about status and etiquette. Ernestina’s character is a typical example of the ideal Victorian woman; shallow values, marriage aspirations, and the love of social events.

Even with her flaws, Ernestina still abides by the social rules of Victorian society, of which Sarah does not. Dr. Grogan also summarises the readers’ thoughts on Sarah clearly when he comments that she has a “warped mind”. Many characters in the “French Lieutenants’ Woman” believe Sarah to not be of sound mind which conveys how to separate oneself from the norms of this Victorian society was ordained as sinful and would be outcast from the social world. From the beginning of Atwood’s novel, the theme of control is made apparent.

The handmaids sleep in “army cots that had been set up in rows, with spaces between so we could not talk”. The description creates imagery of a regimented, military style existence. Gilead upholds thought control by disallowing communication, which, naturally, is rebelled against as life could not go on without it. Other than the lip reading, whispers and meetings in the toilets at the Red Centre, other moments of rebellion include when Offred talks to the Marthas and tells of how she “used to despise such talk.

Now I long for it. At least it was talk. An exchange, of sorts. ” The regime seeks to strip them of all human rights by creating prescribed greetings, “Blessed be the fruit” and even prescribed farewells, “Under His Eye”. These established religious terms draw on Christianity as a way of using religion and faith to maintain control. To subject these women to speaking like this conveys how limited their lives are, in that they are forbidden even for ‘free speech’.

The fact that they abide by these rules suggests the extent of how conditioned they are by this society, and how fearful they are of rebelling against many of the rules/ This factor of the novel presents a literary parallel to the Newspeak engineered in ‘1984’ to also remove even the possibility of rebellious thoughts. These words that may provoke such thoughts have been eliminated through Newspeak, whereas speaking is virtually forbidden in Gilead.

This has been arranged by the regime to result in a loss of contact, bonds and friendships as with the lack of security provided by these, members of society are left isolated and therefore less likely to rebel. The use of capital letters is intended for two effects; it firstly portrays the importance of the Government, but also the implied constant presence of being watched and followed. However, we can see that this does not always prove effective as we see Ofglen breaking these rules when she says; “It’s a beautiful May day,” Ofglen says. I feel rather than see her head turn towards me, waiting for a reply.

The idea of pairing up the handmaids in order for them to observe each other’s behaviour backfires on the state as, although it does restrict and delay most conversation, it also undeniably creates rebellion. However, Offred is still being psychologically controlled, as unlike people who are completely rebelling, she doesn’t turn her head to engage in or pursue the conversation by creating eye contact. The regime forbids all forms of reading and use mass propaganda and censorship, e. g. the limited and unreliable information they receive about the war, controlling any opportunity for thoughts concerning events outside Gilead.

This is reinforced by their obliteration of the handmaids’ past by destroying the details. This idea of control is also reinforced in some of Sylvia Plath’s poetry. For example, the poem ‘The Stones’ is an unbiased poem describing the horrors of electric shock therapy. Through using language such as “the flint lip” suggests a subhuman image of the voice of this poem, linking to the two novels in the sense that all identity has been diminished by allowing society, or in the poem’s case, Doctors’, total power over one’s body.

The theme of control is also brought our in Fowles’ ‘The French Lieutenant’s Woman’ with the high constrictions in Victorian society. For example, the character of Ernestina represents the evolving economy and fashion, while still remaining dated when it comes to female sexuality and the New Woman. The narrator claims: “whenever the physical female implications of her body, sexual, menstrual, parturitional, try to force an entry into her consciousness,” she simply tells herself, “I must not”.

The narrator seems sympathetic for how sexually frigid she seems, for after Charles’s proposal, he says, “How can you mercilessly imprison all natural sexual instinct for twenty years and then not expect the prisoner to be racked with sobs when the doors are thrown open? ” The word “prisoner” suggests that Ernestina’s actions are limited by her cultural inheritance. Though control is executed powerfully and in many different ways, rebellion takes place on many levels in Gilead, from the lesbian friend of Offred, Moira, and stereotypical female victim Janine, who later becomes Ofwarren, to, ironically, the Commander.

Although he is presented as having a hand in establishing Gilead and being part of the social elite who benefit, he seems to break more of its rules than most characters. For example, he has numerous secret meetings with Offred in which he allows her to read, use hand cream, play Scrabble and even go to an underground nightclub, Jezebels, in which sex takes place for reasons other than procreation. Atwood uses his character to attack the pretence in politics and corruption that is kept hidden.

While the Mayday underground group is the most actively effective form of resistance, there are subtler ways in which characters rebel privately. Early on in the novel, Offred deliberately wiggles her hips for the Angels to see and describes it like “thumbing your nose from behind a fence or teasing a dog with a bone held out of reach”, she steals a daffodil which she hides under her mattress and keeps butter to keep as hand cream. Though they may be overlooked when compared to Moira’s escape, they are just as significant forms of rebellion against Gileadean society.

This is because the subtleness of her hiding things, and keeping secrets against what is allowed in this society conveys how although it may appear from a distance that she has been almost completely conditioned by Gilead, she still rebels by keeping memories and objects to remind her of her past life. This completely undermines the objectives of Gilead, as their intention is to erase all details of the past life, however this is impossible for handmaids like Offred who rebel against society by refusing to let go of the past.

In ‘The French Lieutenant’s Woman’ marriage can be seen as a form of escapism from the judgemental societies of which they are situated. Whilst the character of Ernestina feels a need and necessity for marriage simply because it is of the social etiquette, which she needs to conform under if she wants to feel accepted. Sarah, however, views marriage as a reason for rebellion, as in one of Fowles’ two endings the reader sees Sarah’s character deciding to live as part of a mixed gender commune with the Pre-Raphaelites.

This way of life, which is deemed as completely unacceptable by society, is the one way Sarah could fit in with a group of people, allowing her character, although still an outcast to society, to be accepted for who she was. Fowles emphasizes this idea of how Sarah’s only real ability to find happiness was to rebel, when he says: “It is only when our characters and events begin to disobey us that they begin to live”. Fowles conveys throughout the novel how Sarah displays a ruthlessness to maintain independent and free spirited.

However, the reader, like Charles, does not begin to understand Sarah until late in the novel, and it is not until the reader discovers what she has voluntarily sacrificed that they realise how much her freedom means to her. Plath’s poetry agrees with Sarah’s disliking for a domesticated life, as she describes marriage as “adhering to rules, rules, rules”, conveying the want for freedom. Instead, Plath’s form of escapism and rebellion appears to be death. She continuously has a want for death, viewing it as ‘sweet’ way out: “Sweetly, sweetly I breathe in”, conveying how death would essentially save her.

However in ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’, although many of the women did strive to be Wives, as they would then sit at the top of the female social ladder, there is clear evidence of these Wives not being content. For example, Serena Joy, the Commander’s Wife, is desperately unhappy. This conveys how her oppressive and restrictive, male dominated life cannot bring happiness even to society’s most fortunate and ‘powerful’ women. In her dissatisfaction with her life, Serena clings to her high status and behaves cruelly toward the Handmaids in her household.

This links to Plath’s poem ‘Mirror’ as it describes a woman, much like Serena Joy, looking in the mirror “searching my reaches for what she really is”: essentially searching for her true identity so she can find happiness. However the mirror has “drowned the young girl”, in this case, the oppressive society has drowned Joy’s past singing career, and replaced it with a bitter “terrible fish”. Both Atwood and Fowles use great comparisons of men and women in their novels. In ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ the system is contrived to outline not only Atwood’s feminist values, but also her concern for basic human rights.

The regime maintains control of all citizens, both men and women, by stripping them of their individuality, yet making them identifiable as groups, leaving them vulnerable and less likely to rebel. However within this regime, men have more advantages as, although they are also classified, they are rewarded for compliance and promoted in the system, unlike women. However Fowles uses a different approach by presenting Sarah through the thoughts and opinions of male characters including Charles, the narrator, and Fowles’ voice.

Not only do Sarah’s thoughts remain outside the realm of the novel, the perspective offered of Sarah is purely masculine. The novel’s failure to realise Sarah as a character and human being in her own right, whether done intentionally or not, is due in part to its exclusive use of male views. The novel is undeniably full and dominated by the male perspective, which has been, and still is dominant in western culture, bringing to the novel all sorts of preconceptions and myths about women.

Fowles does this to convey his awareness of how limited male views of women can be; therefore disallowing the readers any deep insight into her character. In ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ the misconception that men are superior to women is a key factor of Gilead’s ideology and aspects of the Bible, partially taken out of context, altered or changed completely, are used as a means of validating their practices. For example, the use of the extract from Genesis in the Bible is the basis for the idea of handmaids: “And she said, Behold my maid Bilhah, go in unto her; and she shall bear upon my knees, that I may also have children by her.

Similarly to Puritanism, the leaders of Gilead take this literally; physically relaying the event, as seen in the description Offred gives of her monthly Ceremony; “Serena Joy is arranged, outspread. Her legs apart, I lie between them, my head on her stomach, her pubic bone under the base of my skull, her thighs on either side of me. ” This backs up the interpretation that ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ is a futuristic take on many beliefs given in the classic biblical stories, and how they are viewed by different cultures.

Throughout the novel, Atwood uses a very limited amount of dialogue to serve the purpose of portraying its absence, and even when used, conversation is minimal and dull. “Prayvaganzas” and “Salvagings” are terms created specifically to define and somehow excuse the sadistic rituals the Gileadean state operates and are constructed by Atwood to sound ludicrous in order to undermine the Government. The violence that the state induces is evident throughout, first seen in the brutal beatings of women caught resisting control in the Red Centre and are all made public for the same reason the Wall and the colonies are – to create fear in people.

These punishments intend to remove people who are openly rebelling to the regime but by publicising these acts of ritualised mass executions, they act as deterrents to other rebels forcing them to conform as they see the result of resistance. Weapons are openly displayed and are mentioned frequently, showing how often Offred sees them or thinks about them – the Government’s intended effect: “Aunt Sara and Aunt Elizabeth patrolled; they had electric cattle prods slung on thongs from their leather belts… Guns were for the guards”.

These weapons and the idea of the handmaids being “enclosed now by a chain-link fence topped with barbed wire” does not however stop the handmaids from rebelling from within this very institution as Offred describes how they “learned to whisper almost without sound… learned to lip-read”. This shows how even the greatest attempts at coercing people to obey will always result in rebellion, even if on such a small scale as whispering. Fowles however has a different approach to weaponry in ‘The French Lieutenant’s Woman’ as Sarah uses her sexual power as a weapon.

She exerts power through her ability to lure Charles towards her, so she can manipulate him to get her own way. This could be interpreted as Sarah’s form of rebellion, through Deleuzean Desires, ushering her to go against the Victorian etiquette and follow her undomesticated impulses and desires. Overall, ‘The French Lieutenant’s Woman’ and ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ prove that no matter how regimented or organised laws are to control people in any society, there will always be some, if not many, forms of resistance against it.

They both determine the hardships of living life as a woman in oppressed societies, yet allow hope to resist against them. This thought is backed up by Fowles in ‘The Aristos’ stating that if we strive to be free, the “terms of existence encourage us to change, to evolve. ” Simone de Beauvioir also stated that: “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman”. This is proof that, despite heavy beliefs in the Bible and other such material, to lead domesticated lives is not in the blood of women, but merely led by their environment and history.

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