The Handmaids Tale and On Chesil Beach

In both novels, a strong theme of sexual inequality is present. This is produced in different and yet very similar ways. For example, Context (time periods) aids the novels to put across this point. Both authors also at least hint at some form of sexual abuse, which fortifies the idea of sexual degradation throughout both novels. There is also a persistent theme in both books, of rapid reversal, where the female character goes from a status of individuality and freedom, to one of subordination to men’s desires.

Both authors use narrative techniques to show the characters perspective to the reader.

Margaret Atwood’s sexual themes in The Handmaid’s Tale are obviously motivated by the times in which she wrote and published the book (early 80’s). To go even further, you could say that Margaret Atwood’s approach to a dystopian American future is motivated by the political and theological sexual ethics of pre- 1985. Whilst writing her novel, Margaret Atwood toyed with the idea of adding, in the epigraph, the recent UN quote: “… women represent fifty percent of the adult world population, [… ] and own less than one percent of the world property.

This idea of women “[owning] less that one percent of the world property” (UN) and men owning the rest, is an apparent oppression against women, present in ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’, in which the extent of this ownership covers the female body. It is obvious that the Gileadean regime has created this scenario so that women cannot live independently, and rely on men, they therefore must accept being inferior.

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This is shown when Offred speaks about the time when the Gileadeans took over the country, when all women were ‘relieved’ of their jobs. “It’s strange, now, to think about having a job.

Job. It’s a funny word. It’s a job for a man. Do a jobbie, they’d say to children when they were being toilet-trained. Or of dogs: he did a job on the carpet. ” (182) Offred does many things when she plays with the word job in her head. Firstly she creates a very patronizing tone towards women, ‘Do a jobbie, they’d say to children when they were being toilet-trained’, suggests that Offred feels that herself, as well as other women, needed to be looked after. However, by knowing Offred’s personality, we know that she does not truly feel this, but feels how the regime wants her too.

She then goes on to compare herself to a dog, ‘man’s best friend’. This shows that she feels like her husband, Luke, owned her, at the time, she did not own herself, and doesn’t as we progress through the novel. ‘On Chesil Beach’ contrasts to Atwood’s novel (in this case). McEwan’s novel was published in 2007, a recent year, in a time period with no noticeable sexual changes going on. However the context of the plot gives more insight into how sexual inequality was used to create pressure on Florence.

The novel is set in the early 60’s, the cusp of the sexual revolution, nicknamed ‘The swinging-sixties’. When people were beginning to experiment with non-marital sex (‘Free Love’), and more importantly, women begin to have more control in the bedroom. At the point which Edward and Florence are in their marital suite Florence’s sexual opinions are based upon the cusp of this new-era sexual status quo, and the former etiquette in which the man is dominant, this causes room for an unspoken pressure upon Edward and Florence equally, to dominate the scenario.

This causes Florence’s body to be used as the scape goat for Edward’s lack of control of his own body Both novels appear to have some hint of sexual abuse present in the lives of the female characters. In ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ Offred and the other ‘Handmaids’ are made to take part in ‘The Ceremony’; the basis of the Gileadian regime. During ‘The Ceremony’, the Commander has sexual intercourse with Offred which, according to the laws of the regime is purely for procreative purposes.

Throughout the ceremony Offred distracts herself from the present, not by thinking of the past or future directly, but by overthinking the situation, this gives the reader a narration from an onlookers point of view. This distraction shows that although the physical body is all the Regime has interest for, the mind is a much more powerful resource to the individual. Atwood uses Offred’s ever blunt language to generate the audience’s emotions, “Below it the Commander is fucking.

What he is fucking is the lower part of my body… “(105) By using a more crass phrase, Offred explains that ‘The Ceremony’ is vile act that she has to endure, by saying ‘What he is fucking is the lower part of my body’ she detaches herself from the act, which shows that she views it, the Commander and herself with contempt for being part of this. She continues “… I do not say making love, because this is not what he’s doing. Copulating too would be inaccurate, because it would imply two people and only one is involved. ”

She tells us that all of this is ‘[his] doing’, she again tries to distance herself from any involvement, this is contrasted by “Nor does rape cover it: nothing is going on here that I haven’t signed up for. ” Offred seems to be partially indoctrinated by the regime here, suggesting that this was her choice, but as we know this is not entirely true, their only other choice was what many would consider a worse fate, going to the ‘Colonies’ and working in terrible conditions until they died of starvation, radioactive poisoning and other such painful demises.

Or, as we find later, she could become a common prostitute, serving the commanders for sexual pleasure rather than procreation. This clearly shows that in the theocracy, women are viewed as resources; procreation, manual labor, or pleasurable sex. d This links closely to On Chesil Beach: McEwan hints throughout the novel that Florence’s phobia of sex is rooted in her past. “Here came the past anyway, the indistinct past…

” McEwan explains the Florence has obviously been trying hard to forget this part of her childhood, therefore telling the audience that whatever she is now unintentionally remembering, is a sincerely troubling one. “… She was twelve years old, lying still like this, waiting, shivering in the narrow bunk with polished mahogany sides… “. Florence compares the way she lay on a bunk in a bed on her fathers boat, to how she is lying, feeling vulnerably naked while Edward undresses in preparation for their love making, this suggests that a traumatic sexual experience occurred at this point in her life.

Such trauma is shown by the emphasized detail of the wooden interior, it appears that she was trying to concentrate on anything but the present situation, much like she is doing in the hotel room. “… It was late in the evening, and her father was moving around the cabin, undressing, like Edward now. ” We are told that her father is taking off his clothes the same way the Edward is. McEwan explains subtly that there are different methods of de-robing, and having explained earlier that Edward “undressed hurriedly”, we are giving insight into an implied paternal rape of Florence at a young age.

A shocking discovery, that McEwan only hints at, further emphasising the fact that it is an instance too terrible to discuss. The fact that Florence is one a boat, crossing the channel means that she cannot escape from her father, she is trapped, physically, where as now she is trapped mentally; she wants to please Edward, but she doesn’t want to have to be put in a sexual situation again. Edward is oblivious to this fact, but does not ask either.

The reader is presented with the morale knowledge that if Edward were perhaps more sensitive, and did not see Florence as a commodity for sex on their wedding night, he would be able to understand the issue much better, perhaps to an extent that they could save their marriage. Another technique used by both writers to show that the female is nothing but the body, is that of rapid reversal of rights. During one of Offred’s flashbacks, she re-lives the day of the Gileadean coup.

When she is remembering lying in bed with her husband, having just been told she could no longer work, or own her own possession’s, and take care of her accounts, and that they were all controlled, instead, by the man in the relationship, she comes to the conclusion that, “We are not each other’s, any more. Instead, I am his. ” (192). Offred, uses this simple sentence to some up what happened over the course of a few days, by bringing the time frame from days to a few words, shows how quickly she has lost every freedom that she once had.

describes how the equality that she once had in her relationship, has declined, and she is powerless, and Luke’s subordinate. Throughout the novel Atwood describes how it is not just the handmaids who succumb to the rapid reversal in the Gileadean society. The novel has a succinct hierarchy, that is, one without any exceptions. If, before the coup took place, a women were infertile, a side effect of the biological weapon; Agent Orange (as we find out in the ‘Historical Notes’), and had no husband, and no uses, she would be deemed an ‘unwoman’, and be sent to the colonies to work herself to death.

If they were infertile but useful (i. e: wife to a upstanding member of society, or had skills and were willing to be part of the Republic of Gilead), they would become a Commanders Wife, a Martha, an Aunt, among other things. Women had very little say in any of these matters. Such an oppression of their rights, reducing them so quickly to common stereotypes, shows how rapid reversal was used to turn the women into cogs in a machine, they all had a part, and it always depending on their physical potential. On Chesil beach shows a different, more subtle, but nonetheless reduction of a woman’s rights.

McEwan shows Edward’s obvious lust for Florence, throughout the novel we hear of his misinterpretations of Florence’s behavior, from examples of her committing perfectly innocent actions, which he deems to be a sign of a similar sexual lust. However in every instance before their marriage that he judged as a time for sexual lust, turned out to be obviously wrong; “he could not escape the memories of those times he had misread the signs, most spectacularly in the cinema [… ] when she leaped out of her seat and into the aisle”

Here we see that Edward is actually hopelessly clueless as to what his intentions should be at that stage in their relationship, and as we progress, we see that Edward schemed to get Florence to marry him, in order to bed her, he seems to justify his urge to have sex with her with marriage vows, showing us that he has managed to turn her into a stereotypical wife of the early 20th century, who pleases her husband. From Florence being what we could deem as a feminist, with her own individual will, and passion, to this shows a strong, again purposeful rapid reversal of rights.

Margaret Atwood writes ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ in the first person through Offred. Whilst reading the novel they subconsciously read as if it were written down by Offred, however in the historical notes, we are told that the story is compiled of dictated transcripts found many years after Offred’s abrupt escape. Katharina Ochsenfahr writes: “She is recording her story on tape afterwards, probably when she is in a safe house. So she is telling it from her memory. Despite this the reader sees her story through her eyes and therefore gets to know the treatment of women in Gilead.

” By doing this, Atwood forces the reader to think back to especially emotional parts of the narrative and imagine it being spoken. It causes the word plays to make more sense, deepening the personal impact of the story, and making the reader carry on thinking about it long after closing the book. McEwan uses a contrasting narrative, whereas Offred’s narration is subject to her understanding of events (although quite an intuitive one), McEwan’s narrative is described by Jake Seliger (The Story’s Story) as:

“A clever variation of the omniscient viewpoint in a way similar to but different from the way he wrote Atonement, and it conveys the uncertainty of the characters while informing and clarifying for the reader. We are left with a central scene from a life, but not a still life, for the motion of the characters’ minds and the aftermath of their encounter reverberates through time. ” He suggests that McEwan’s ‘hopping’ between person, time and place bring the characters of Edward and Florence alive from the numb state which they are in on Chesil Beach.

This technique is similar to that of modernist writers of the early twentieth century such as Woolf, and Joyce who ‘tunneled’ massive caverns of history behind their characters which built up their personalities’. In this case it causes a clash between Edward and Florence as Edward feels he should be in control, but is not in control of himself, a feeling that is shown through instances in his life such as his mother becoming brain damaged by a freak accident.

Florence contrasts this by feeling out of control, and feels like that is her rightful place, this has been induced by her aforementioned experiences of sexual abuse. Both novels have strong links, and equally strong differences. However, both writers have expressed these similarities or differences using the same techniques. Resulting in a clear theme of unequal sexual ethics towards women. They have used role reversal, language, disturbing experiences of abuse, contextual knowledge and narrative technique to conclude with the ideology of ‘The Female [being] Nothing But the body’.

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The Handmaids Tale and On Chesil Beach. (2017, Jul 05). Retrieved from

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