White-Washing Oppression in Atwood's the Handmaid's Tale

By Merriman, Ben | Notes on Contemporary Literature, January 2009 | Go to article overview

White-Washing Oppression in Atwood's the Handmaid's Tale


Merriman, Ben, Notes on Contemporary Literature


White privilege is rarely manifested in intentional, positive acts. It is, in Peggy McIntosh's terms, "invisible," "unearned," and "cashed in each day" ("White Privilege and Male Privilege" in Critical White Studies: Looking Behind the Mirror [Philadelphia: Temple UP, 1997]: 291). To be White is to be the norm, universal. This norm functions automatically, and unless the universality of White experience is explicitly questioned or subverted, racial distortions may appear even against the conscious intent of an author.

Such distortions appear throughout Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale (NY: Houghton-Mifflin, 1986). Atwood attempts to offer an archetypal account of female exploitation, but the stand-in for this universal experience is Offred, a White, college-educated American. Offred would seem an unlikely victim, but at no point in the text does Atwood acknowledge that sexism in America has, generally, been modulated by forms of race and class oppression, nor does she acknowledge the parallels between her own story and the experience of Black slavery. Because these historically-specific oppressions are removed from their broader context, the Tale drifts from speculative fiction, which is anchored in reality, into conceptually suspect and politically hazardous fantasy.

Atwood's dystopia is set in the late 20th Century, when a cadre of fundamentalist Christians have overthrown the U.S. government and created the theocratic Republic of Gilead. Due to an unexplained fertility crisis, the government has impressed unmarried women of proven fertility into a state of sexual servitude. Many others work as domestic slaves in an autarkic, inefficient command economy. Women are forbidden to read or to meet without supervision. The novel thus places particular emphasis on the most persistent forms of female victimization: the sexual exploitation, isolation, and compelled ignorance that accompany severe economic and political powerlessness.

These forms of victimization do not function in a vacuum, and in the United States they have been associated most strongly with the enslavement of African-Americans. Forced procreation arose from widespread slavery associated with plantation agriculture, particularly during in the 19th Century, when the Trans-Atlantic slave trade was on the wane and industrialization increased the demand for raw materials. This form of abuse followed a specific vector, from the White slaveholding man to the Black enslaved woman.

In The Handmaid's Tale, victimization does appear to function in a historical and causal vacuum. The Republic of Gilead is an all-White enclave, and Blacks are erased from the novel in a single line, cloaked in Old Testament euphemism:

"'Resettlement of the Children of Ham is continuing on schedule,' says the reassuring pink face, back on the screen. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA 8, MLA 7, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Note: primary sources have slightly different requirements for citation. Please see these guidelines for more information.

Cited article

White-Washing Oppression in Atwood's the Handmaid's Tale
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Help
Full screen
Items saved from this article
  • Highlights & Notes
  • Citations
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Style
    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA 8, MLA 7, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Search by... Author
    Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

    Oops!

    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.