The fictional novel by Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale, is about the American society in the future which is the complete opposite of the present land of freedom, dreams and opportunities. Now known as the Republic of Gilead, the country is administered by harsh, racists and anti-feminist nativists who strongly believe in using oppression and taking away people’s basic human rights in order to stay in control and prevent chaos. Women, especially, are controlled and divided into certain social groups such as the wives, who are the elite women married to the strongest of men. These are followed by the daughters who are raised by elite couples. After daughters are the handmaids, who are extremely suppressed and their sole purpose in life is to bear children for rich men whose wives do not have children.
The American Future Society in The Handmaid’s Tale
The book is narrated by Offred, a handmaid who serves the Commander Fred, thus being named of-Fred. She explains to the reader that she is not allowed to read or write, show any passion or challenge men around her. In fact, even her sexual intercourse sessions with the Commander are monitored by the wife of the Commander, Serena Joy. However, she tells the reader that she once had a husband and a daughter, but was separated from them as punishment when the family tried escaping to Canada. Throughout the story, Offred points out the various double standards and hypocrisies in the Republic, such as the Commander and other wealthy men going to prostitutes. More importantly, the reader sees through Offred’s eyes the level of human injustices and hypocrisies committed by the elite women against lower class women. Specifically, Serena Joy’s character is a prime example of typical elitist women in the Gilead society who not only supports the injustices committed against other women, but, in fact, helps create and nourish them, always desiring to stay on top of the social circle to the best of her abilities. During the novel, the reader receives secret information about Serena Joy showing her hypocrisies in order to create a social placing for her own self that benefitted her. The narrator states, “Her speeches were about the sanctity of the home, about how women should stay home. Serena Joy didn’t do this herself, she made speeches instead, but she presented this failure of hers as a sacrifice she was making for the good of all” (Atwood, 21).
Before the Republic of Gildean, Serena Joy was a famous television celebrity which automatically made her wealthier, more popular and more powerful than other women and men around her. Therefore, it does not come as a little surprise to the reader when Serena Joy displays a strong personality throughout the novel, even though it is negative. She is an emotionless and manipulative woman, who is willing to sacrifice anything that is necessary for her to keep a secured position in the social ladder of Gildean. With that being said, she does display the emotion of being highly bitter and angry, secretly resenting the Gildean Republic’s treatment of women. However, it is imperative to clarify that she does not resent all women’s treatment, nor is she a secret feminist activist or social worker. She merely resents the government for taking her rights and power away from her. In regards to all other women, she openly salutes and applauds the government. Offred makes an accurate comment about Serena Joy, seeing her true face at the beginning, by saying:
I would watch the Growing Souls Gospel Hour, where they would tell Bible stories for children and sing hymns. One of the women was called Serena Joy…she could smile and cry at the same time…The woman sitting in front of me was Serena Joy. Or, had been, once. So it was worse than I thought (Atwood , Chapter 3).
Here, Offred foreshadows to the reader that Serena Joy is a woman who is capable of impossible and difficult things and is highly manipulative, able to gain the attention of people she desires and getting exactly what she wants.
Focusing on the reasons behind her strong resentment for the Gildean Republic, Serena Joy despises having to be confined to her home and duties of being a commander’s wife. She does not like seeing her husband having intercourse with another woman, especially while she must watch and monitor the act. However, her dual personality suggests that despite hating her duties, she would rather be a part of them as this provides her with a sense of importance and gives her some control over circumstances. The reader realizes that the supporters of the harsh government realize the drawbacks of their own rules and system, yet they are too proud and scared of losing power to change them; thus, they have to control their emotions and find other ways of oppression as revenge, which is exactly what Serena Joy does.
She seems to be in a difficult situation as she is limited to her house or a few social gatherings, and she gains sympathy and support from the reader because no wife should have to be forced to see her husband have intercourse with another woman for a child. She tells Offred at the beginning of their arrangement, “As for my husband, she said, he’s just that. My husband. I want that to be perfectly clear. Till death do us part. It’s final” (Atwood, Chapter 3). However, Serena Joy uses this tactic to attract the reader, which is unsuccessful since it quickly becomes apparent that Serena does not care about anyone else except her own motives and social goals. She simply uses Offred as an object by which to gain her goal, and plays with her emotions at various points, such as making her aware that she always knew where her daughter was and by forcing her to sleep with Nick for her own benefit.
Ultimately, Serena Joy is the biggest villain in Offred’s life, suggesting to the reader that all women in Serena Joy’s class are similar to her. She not only torments Offred physically, but also emotionally by continuing to haunt and tease Offred about her daughter’s whereabouts. This is proof that she is unsympathetic, and the author ultimately designed this character to show to the reader that the men of Gilead are simply the voices being heard; the worst of the tormentors are the women, who are committing immoral crimes against their own gender. Serena Joy’s character is the back, hidden support behind the entire government, because she happened to be married to the men in power; therefore, she sold her soul and ethical responsibility to gain selfish rewards.