THE 'OTHERNESS' OF NATURE AND WOMAN: AN ECOFEMINIST STUDY OF MARGARET ATWOOD'S 'THE HANDMAID'S TALE'
AMBIKA BHALLA, DR. JAP PREET KAUR BHANGU AND DR. MANMOHAN SINGH
Ambika Bhalla is a Doctoral Scholar in the Department of Management and Humanities at Sant Longowal Institute of Engineering and Technology, in Sangrur, Punjab. Her M.Phil thesis is on Feminist Sensibility in the Selected works of Shashi Deshpande. Presently, she is doing research on Ecocriticism.
Dr. Jap Preet Kaur Bhangu is Professor in the Department of Management and Humanities at Sant Longowal Institute of Engineering and Technology, Longowal, Punjab, India. She is the author of Reaching Centrestage: Cultural Identity in African-American Theatre.
Dr. Manmohan Singh is Associate Professor of English at Punjabi University Regional Centre, Bathinda. His doctoral work was on Aesthetics in Western Marxism. He attended Summer school at Cornell University under the guidance of Jonathan Culler.
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In contemporary critical discourse, Lithuanian philosopher Emmanuel Levinas's concept of 'alterity' stresses the state of absolute otherness. Simone de Beauvoir argues that in the patriarchal reasoning women and nature are considered as 'other'. Man defines himself as the 'self' and woman and nature as the 'other'. He considers himself as the subject, the mind, the hub of the reason, active form while a woman is considered as the object, the body, the hub of emotions, just passive matter. Ecofeminism combines ecology and feminism and questions the patriarchal domination of women and the capitalist exploitation of nature. Ecofeminists inquire into the patriarchal stance to objectify woman as the 'other' of man. They view that the assertion for the supremacy of 'self' over 'other' is based on the difference between the two. This difference is based on the supposition that the self possesses things which the 'other' lacks. This superiority of the self is used to justify the subordination of the other. This paper attempts to analyze the 'otherness' of woman and nature through the ecofeminist study of Margaret Atwood's novel The Handmaid's Tale. Atwood discusses how female body becomes a territory to be colonized by patriarchy. Greta Gaard aptly says in her essay, "Living Interconnections with animals and Nature," that "ecofeminism's fundamental principle is that the "ideology which authorizes oppressions such as those based on race, class gender, sexuality, physical abilities is the same ideology which sanctions the oppression of nature." (Gaard 1)
The Handmaid's Tale as a representative Ecofeminist book:
Margaret Atwood's novel The Handmaid's Tale is typically an ecofeminist text. Science arbitrarily subjugates nature for man's advantage. Human activities like deforestation, industrialization, dangerous nuclear testings and environmental pollution have negative after- effects on the well-being of people and the biosphere. In the text under study, Atwood describes how this situation affects woman more than man. The female body becomes an area to be colonized by the patriarchal domination to an extent that even the natural constructs like female sexuality and natural processes like reproduction are also controlled by men.
The setting of the novel is 2195 in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It depicts a futuristic, austere and authoritarian society where women are not given even the basic rights. Atwood names it as the 'Republic of Gilead' administered by a fundamentalist Christian theocracy. The army has declared a state of emergency in the state, as the President has been shot while the Congress has been machine-gunned. The constitution no longer holds good, universities no more remain functional. Thus, it is a horrific establishment with racist and chauvinistic views. The environmental deterioration of the present times is the central reason for the creation of Gilead. In the Historical Notes of The Handmaid's Tale Professor Pieixoto suggests that there are many reasons for the decrease of population:
Some of the failure to reproduce can undoubtedly be traced to the widespread availability of birth control of various kinds, including abortion, in the immediate pre-Gilead period. […] Stillbirths, miscarriages, and genetic deformities were widespread and on the increase, and this trend has been linked to the various nuclear-plant accidents, shut down and incidents of sabotage that characterized the period, as well as to leakages from chemical and biological-warfare stockpiles and toxic-waste disposal sites […] and to the uncontrolled use of chemical insecticides, herbicides and other sprays. (Atwood 316-317)
The great decline in population in Gilead results from the haphazard use of reproduction controlling techniques, due to sexually transmitted diseases and ecological contamination of the present times. Women are the worst victims of the consequences of this in Gilead. They are not provided even the right of citizenship in this totalitarian territory. An enforced new law denies them any right to property, which has to be transferred to the next male kin either husband or another one. They are not allowed employment any more. Even their bank accounts are forcibly freezed. They have been assigned only one function and that is reproduction. Women with fertile ovaries are sent as handmaids to the otherwise childless Commanders to continue their progeny. Every handmaid gets three chances, each of two years with one Commander. If, unfortunately, she is unable to produce a child within her term of six years, she is designated as 'Unwoman' and sent to the colonies to clean the poisonous wastes. On the other hand, if the handmaid is lucky enough to beget a child, she is then transferred to the next Commander after giving her child to the earlier Commander and her wife. Hence, woman is no less than a national resource in the Gileadean regime.
Aim of Ecofeminism:
Ecofeminists question the patriarchal stand to objectify woman as the 'other' of man. This type of dualistic philosophy creates hierarchy and subjugation. In "Scientific Objectivity and the Concept of 'the other'", Zuleyma Tang Halpin correctly argues:
Women have been oppressed not so much because they have been equated to nature, but rather because both women and nature have been equated to "the other" […] the same dynamic that has resulted in labeling woman as inferior and justified society's domination of women and nature, has done the same during most of our history, to Blacks and other people of colour, Jews. The poor and gay or lesbian persons. (qtd. in O'Loughlin 148)
It is important to note that nature is imaged as female. Woman and nature are equated as both are life-giving. In patriarchal Gileadean society, woman is nullified to the level of an object and is disposed of any power of logic, feeling, thinking and even individualism. The handmaids are deprived of their names, thus signifying their identity crisis. They are named after the Commander with whom they have to be impregnated, so their names are Offred, Ofglen, Ofwarren Ofwayne etc. Thus, they are mere existing objects to be used by men and have their identity only via men. There is no mention of Offred's real name in the novel. So she says that the name like her existence, is useful only for other, "Your name is like your telephone number, useful only to others" (Atwood 94). Jessie Givner remarks in her article, "Indeed, the desire of the Gilead regime to remove names is as strong as the desire to remove faces. Just as the rulers of Gilead try to eliminate mirrors, reflections of faces, so they attempt to erase names" (58).
Depending on their relationships to men, the Gileadean women are colour coded. Wives of Commanders dress up in blue, Daughters in white, Marthas in green and Aunts in khaki. Econowives, the wives of the poor men wear red, blue and green striped meager clothes. All handmaids are uniformly dressed in scarlet robes signifying adultery. Moreover, their dress is long and concealing with white wings and red veil. This dress code worsens the condition of anonymity and invisibility of the handmaids as Aunt Lydia says, "Modesty is invisibility" (Atwood 38).
In this totalitarian theocracy, women are not given the right of reading and writing. If any handmaid disobeys, her limbs are cut off as punishment. The rulers have selected the limbs to be cut as penalty as they consider them unnecessary for the purpose they rear the handmaids. As handmaids are allowed to talk only when it is inevitable to do so, they communicate mainly through gestures. Even the shops of the regime are identified by pictographs instead of the names. Thus the handmaids survive in a languageless hell to deny them power. Atwood emphasizes the idea that the oppressors know that language is a weapon that liberates people from bondage and oppression. In her lecture "An End to Audience," included in "Second Words," she further articulates this idea thus:
In any totalitarian takeover whether from the left or the right, writers, singers and journalists are the first to be suppressed… The aim of all such oppression is to silence the voice, abolish the word, so that the only voices and words are those of the ones in power. Elsewhere, the word itself is thought to have power, that's why so much trouble is taken to silence it. (Atwood 350)
The subjection of the handmaids is so abject that they even do not possess the power to judge and reason. So much so, that they are not free to decide their own needs and activities like their bath and food. The authorities fix their food based on its nutritional value. They have to eat the food even if they do not feel hungry. It will not be wrong to say that they are treated like animals reared only for breeding and commercial purposes.
They are also denied any link with their pasts. They are totally cut off from their roots. As Offred says, "I'm a refugee from the past" (Atwood 239). She was well-educated from a university, loved books and did a job of transferring books to computer disks. She misses her family consisting her husband Luke and a daughter a lot. She is completely uprooted from her past and the miserable present is her only reality now. Each and every woman-- including the Aunts, Marthas and Wives- is separated from her past. In Gilead, nobody talks about the past as memories bring pain to them as Offred suggests that in that regime, "thought must be rationed" (Atwood 17).
The handmaids are forced to have a robotic existence. They are prohibited all emotions and just mechanically perform the tasks assigned to them. There exists no entertainment in Gilead. No doubt, they are permitted movies once a week after their lunch and before their nap, but these movies are only for educative purpose. They are shown the pornographic movies of the nineteen seventies and eighties to let them know about the brutalities done on women. Their purpose of showing them these movies is to create terror in their minds about the pre-Gileadean period and give them a false sense of security in their present existence.
In this totalitarian theocracy, sensuality is out of place and love is forbidden. Even the desires of the individuals are controlled by the laws of the state. The handmaids are continuously indoctrinated by the Aunts that all flesh is weak and women do have the duty to set the limits. So, sex is reduced to just a reproductive duty and lacks love in Gilead. Offred craves for sensual experience and consequently turns to Nick even in the strict puritanical atmosphere.
The handmaids are reduced to the level of impersonal and inanimate things as they are denied any thoughts, emotions, desires and even individuality. Coral Ann Howells in her book rightly says, "Atwood's feministic concerns are plain here but so too are her concerns for basic human rights" (128). The abject commodification of the handmaids is evident even in their tattooed ankles and constant possession of an identity pass. Their existence is just as items in an establishment of contract and ownership.
The Gileadean system considers women just for their organs. The handmaids are reduced to wombs as Offred says, "We are two-legged wombs, that's all: sacred vessels, ambulatory chalices" (Atwood 146). Their individuality is completely omitted and a handmaid is nothing more than a "wandering womb" (Atwood 156), that is a passive receptacle. Ecofeminists oppose the patriarchal attitude of segregating and reducing things on the basis of value and productivity. As Vandana Shiva argues in Ecofeminism, "Reductionist science is at the root of the growing ecological crisis, because it entails a transformation of nature that destroys its organic processes and rhythms and regenerative capacities" (25). This kind of scientific discourse leads to the creation of the possibility of colonizing and controlling that which is otherwise liberated and self-generative. The woman's body, as a site of regenerative power, like a seed, has become a colony of the capitalist patriarchy. Shiva also adds, "These sites of creative regeneration are transformed into 'passive' sites where the expert 'produces' and adds value." (25) In capitalist patriarchy, nature, woman and non-white people act as the raw material. Likewise in Gilead, woman is condensed to an incubator and man is elevated to that of a parent.
The handmaids in Gilead have to behave like reproductive prostitutes with no control over their own bodies. As the alternative to fertility in this regime is death, so biology comes out to be their destiny. As bodily membranes of women are under the threat of male attack, penetration into women and nature are equated here. The treatment meted out to the handmaids of Gilead is no less than that of animals reared for dairy products like milk, meat, eggs etc. as Offred says, " I wait, washed brushed, fed like a prize pig" (Atwood 79). As selective breeding of the animals with suitable genes is performed, the handmaids too are selected to be the breeders of children. Offred recognizes this function when she says, "We are for breeding purposes" (Atwood 146). This is further evident in the comment of the wives when a handmaid named Ofwarren conceives, "A strong girl, good muscles. No Agent Orange in her family, we checked the records, you can never be too careful" (Atwood 125). Thus the patriarchal culture based on the dualistic concept of the 'self' and the 'other', relates women, nature and animals resulting in their categorization as the 'other'. This association stresses the inferiority and subjugation of these categories, because they fall in the ambit of 'otherness'.
Atwood discusses an important theme of the question of reproductive rights or the male control over female reproduction. As science colonizes the seeds and makes the plant body the centre of experiments with its specialized productive techniques, the Gileaded patriarchy colonizes the wombs of the handmaids. Vandana Shiva states in Ecofeminism, "Colonisation of seed, reflects the patterns of colonization of women's bodies. Profits and power become intimately linked to invasion into all biological organisms" (29). Patriarchy enforces the women to beget children passively resulting in their complete objectification and alienation from their own bodies. The protagonist Offred at the outset remains passive but she has a strong wish to endure and survive. She feels secure in the presence of Nick and she feels being in "a cave" (Atwood 281) with him. But ultimately Serena Joy comes to know about her secrets and she is implicated for violating the strict policies of the state. Nick hints at the prospect of escape by saying that it is 'Mayday' as the van comes to take Offred but she is unsure of her future as she says, "Whether this is my end or a new beginning I have no way of knowing. I have given myself over into the hands of strangers, because it can't be helped" (Atwood 307).
The capitalistic patriarchy equally exploits the productive land and the productive woman and both of them suffer miserably. The handmaids in Gilead fall victims to the totalitarian theocracy and attempt to endure and survive. Offred compares herself to a space, "I am like a room where things once happened and now nothing does…" (Atwood 114).
Interestingly, Atwood uses ecofeminist images to highlight the theme of oppression of woman and nature. She makes the colonized female body the body of the tale. Ecofeminist discussion exposes the metaphors that bind women, nature and animals together displaying their communal subjugation. The novel is replete with many images that relate body to the environment. Offred compares her own body to the earth as she says, "I sink down into my body as into a swamp, fenland, where only I know the footing. Treacherous ground, my own territory. I become the earth. I set my ear against, for rumours of the future" (Atwood 83) As a seed waits to germinate, likewise she waits for a child with hope. Atwood has linked women with nature through the garden imagery also. Offred often recalls her past and remembers, "I once had a garden. I can remember the smell of the turned earth, the plump shapes of bulbs held in the hands, fullness, the dry rustle of seeds through the fingers" (Atwood 22). To her the fragrance from the garden "rises like heat from a body" (Atwood 201). In Gilead many wives engage themselves in gardening to get inner autonomy.
Various images associate female body with the vegetation in the novel. While indoctrination, Aunt Lydia tells the handmaids to, "Think of yourselves as seeds" (Atwood 28). Elsewhere, Offred observes flowers as the "genital organs of plants" (Atwood 91). Roberta In this context, Rubenstein points out, "distinctions between human and non-human, are grotesquely inverted or reduced." (107) Nature has been given female dimensions as blossoming bleeding hearts in Serena Joy's garden are "female in shape" (Atwood 161). After a rainy night, the gravel path Offred walks on, that clearly divides the damp back lawn, appears to her like a "hair parting" (Atwood 27). Further, she identifies herself with the vegetation, "Winter is not so dangerous. I need hardness, cool, rigidity; not this heaviness, as if I'm a melon on a stem, this liquid ripeness" (Atwood 162). While suspecting Ofglen to be a spy, Offred thinks, "It occurs to me that she may be a spy, a plant set up to trap me; such is the soil in which we grow. But I can't believe it; hope is rising in me, like sap in a tree. Blood in a wound. We have made an opening" (Atwood 178).
The Handmaid's Tale contains several images connecting body with various organisms. A multitude of creatures like worm, oyster, spider, beetle, mouse, fish, frog, snake, hawk, vulture, chicken, pig, dog, cat, ant, which are referred to in the discourse to equate the handmaids' survival with them. Talking about Ofglen, Offred says, "She walks demurely head down, red-gloved hands clasped in front, with short little steps like a trained pig's on its hind legs" (Atwood 29). Similarly, the hanged bodies of the victims of Gilead are equated with the meat hung on meat hooks in butchers' shops. Many such organic links exist in the novel as from Janine, a "smell, more animal" is coming, "a smell of dens, of inhabited caves" (Atwood 133).
Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale clearly describes the 'otherness' of woman and nature through an ecofeminist study. The capitalistic patriarchy spreads its tentacles not only through the colonization of the natural resources but also the spaces within woman, vegetation and animals. Likewise in the dystopian society of Gilead, woman is reduced to a mere womb and is dispossessed of power even on her own body. The use of ecofeminist metaphors emphasizes the collective colonization of female body, nature and organisms. Atwood echoes the call for an unprejudiced society where the gap between 'self' and 'other' may be diminished and rights of women and the laws of nature may be well protected.
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