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Feminist critics focus on the struggles that women face in society and ways these are questioned in literature. ‘The Beginning Theory’ by P. Barry, states: “To put what I have just sketched in somewhat different terms: this type of feminist criticism leads to a thorough examination of gender roles. Gender has to do not with how females (and males) really are, but with the way that a given culture or subculture sees them, how they are culturally constructed”. In other words, P. Barry is saying our image of gender is being formed by the culture we are being raised in. In feminist criticism this includes: revaluing women’s experiences, exposing the patriarchy and understanding that men and women are viewed differently not due to biology, but culturally constructed images and exploring male and female identity.

‘The Testaments’ is an allusion of the Old and New Testaments of the Bible, which was written by men, as they were the only educated members of society. Atwood’s ‘The Testaments’ features three female narrators whose stories are told in 27 books (the New Testaments also features 27 books), labelled in roman numerals to mirror published versions of the Bible. ‘The Testaments’ is based solely on true experiences. Atwood is emphasizing that women deserve to speak up and testify their stories of abuse and mistreatment, as in most Islamic countries women aren’t allowed to speak in court alone.

The novel starts by describing the oppression of women, and how as a child Agnes was taught to take responsibility for men’s actions, as they can’t control themselves, therefore young girls should not tempt them. “Arms covered, hair covered, skirts down to the knee before you were five and no more than two inches above the ankle after that, because the urges of men were terrible things and those urges needed to be curbed” (Atwood, ‘The Testaments’, pg.9). Atwood’s intentions are to show her annoyance with society and how culture shields young girls to keep them safe, rather than attempting to teach boys to control their urges and respect women, this is ultimately the problem. ‘Urges’ portray men as animalistic because an urge is something uncontrollable, yet women are still held accountable. Feminist critics explore how gender roles make individuals feel not only whilst reading novels but also authors views of the patriarchy themselves.

When we consider Agnes’ fear of marriage at such a young age, it’s upsetting as she has been taught to fear men, “I dreaded the thought of growing older- older enough for a wedding”, but is also a blessing because it leads to her breaking the social norms of what is expected of women and she became a Supplicant in the order of the Aunts. Readers think that her success is a good thing, and has stemmed from her motivation and intelligence, but sadly, it is due to a different reason. Jemima had a traumatic childhood, from losing her mother, surviving sexual assault from Dr. Grove (another example of why she does not like nor trust men, as he is known to sexually assault other young girls as well as herself) and witnessing the horrible death of her families Handmaid, who sadly passed away during childbirth. Atwood is using Jemima’s traumatic childhood to indicate that although Gilead is under strict social norms, it is only in favor of men, not women, as they don’t have enough support during childbirth or control of their own bodies (an example being lack of consent).

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Atwood expresses that women deserve more power in the form of Aunt Lydia and how hard it is for her to gain power and maintain it. Feminist critics examine power relations which obtain in texts and in life, with a view to breaking them down, seeing reading as a political act, and showing the extent of patriarchy. Atwood presents Agnes as scared of getting older, due to thought of getting married, after watching her mother have no independence growing up and being told about sexual needs and desires of men and how she would (as a wife) be expected to fulfill them. According to ‘The Beginning Theory’ by P. Barry, in feminist criticism in the 1970s the major effect went into exposing what might be called the mechanisms of patriarchy, that is, the cultural ‘mind-set’ in men and women which perpetuated sexual inequality. Critical attention was given to books by male writers in which influential or typical images of women were constructed in this case being expected to cover themselves up and give in to men’s expectations.

Agnes’ luxury dollhouse is used to symbolize the Republic of Gilead’s social hierarchy in miniature form, with many different types of dolls that she would see in human form every day. These include a Commander, a Wife, a Marta and an Aunt. Using dolls could be seen as a symbol that females feel that they are being controlled by men in Gilead and being told how to live their lives and how to behave. Agnes grew up with Martas (female servants for rich households, who do not have children of their own), who informed her of her mother’s illness as a child. They also described marriage, men’s expectations of women and were ultimately mother figures. Agnes’ mother is the typical feminine character, she is weak and reliant on others, particularly of her husband’s money as she is a stereotypically unemployed woman. Despite these descriptions, her lack of maternal qualities juxtaposed her feminine traits. For example, she only sees Agnes when she comes into her room and leaves all the cooking, cleaning and mothering to Martas. This is also because Agnes’ father does nothing to help around the house and is a typical man, who is academic with a high paying job, but his wife and daughter aren’t allowed to ever be this successful, “men had something in their heads that was like fingers, only a sort of finger girls did not have”. Atwood uses the metaphor of fingers to imply that Agnes views the lifestyle of being successful as out of her reach, she can’t touch it with her feminine fingers, they were meant for housework and looking after children.

The novel is focusing on cultural views and how people are expected to act based on their assigned sex at birth, “to say something about what it is to be a female; to say that women are naturally timid, or sweet, or intuitive, or dependent, or self-pitying, is to construct a role for them”. ‘The Beginning Theory’ directly links to the idea of Agnes’s mum being reliant on her husband due to her timid nature and society expectations that set unrealistic rules for women, meaning they aren’t allowed to work and “in order to be a mother, you need to have a magic ring”. In rules on becoming a mother don’t exist. This emphasizes how women in Gilead have completely different lives to women now. However, in ‘The Testaments’ Aunt Lydia is the opposite of this and fights against Gilead’s oppressive policies against women. Aunt Lydia has become “swollen with power, true, but also nebulous with it – formless, shape-shifting. I am everywhere and nowhere: even in the minds of the Commanders I cast an unsettling shadow. How can I regain myself? How to shrink back to my normal size, the size of an ordinary woman?”. In part three we learn that the manuscript that this came from was written by Aunt Lydia in part one. This is an example of an escape motif and it highlights the oppressive nature of men and the fact the girls want to get out of this. It offers a juxtaposing view when Aunt Lydia wants to escape the role of power she has, and for the girls such as Agnes who can’t escape being a servant to men’s needs. Aunt Lydia writes the manuscript because she has a different perspective on life in Gilead compared to others, due to being in a position of power, but also being a woman, so having to use this power against other women in order to stay alive.

In part XXVII, Sendoff, we learn that the manuscript was written by Aunt Lydia to give girls confidence to follow their dreams and believe that they can use their intelligence to be independent, despite the social norms in Gilead. This is tragic because we learn that her life choices have led to the authorities wanting to punish her, so using morphine that she stole from the hospital whilst visiting another Aunt, she kills herself, “our time together is drawing short, my reader”. An interesting point about Gilead’s society is it doesn’t allow young girls to grow up with the hope of having free will to be safe following their dreams, but is scaring them into conforming with society’s expectations. Daisy (known as Baby Nicole in ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’) grows up in Canada so doesn’t have a clear understanding of the experiences that Gilead has in terms of views of women. We can see her liberal view through choosing not to get involved with Gilead’s issues and keeping the belief that everyone is entitled to their own way of living, ignoring the fact it may be hurting other women. It is implied to us right from the start of ‘The Testaments’ that Atwood is opposed to the idea of powerful men in Gilead and how they can experience capital gain much easier than women, leading to a potential class divide for single women, whose options are to become housewives, Martas or Aunts.

To conclude, I believe that Atwood’s intentions were to spread awareness of how poorly women have been treated throughout history, just because of the sex that they were born with. The message implied is that women are sick of being seen as different, and just want to be viewed as equals by society. “I asked some women students in a poetry seminar I was giving, ‘Why do women feel threatened by men?’. ‘They’re afraid of being killed’, they said (Margaret Atwood, 1960-1982) The patriarchal society is toxic and unsafe, leaving women feeling as though they must conform to men’s expectations of them in order to keep their life. The patriarchy is also heavily criticized through the use of three women writing testaments and writing the novel through women’s true experiences, not using male’s opinions on the matter.

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