The Handmaid's Tale and Tess of the D'Urbervilles

The Dictionary definition of ‘Control’ as a “means of restraining or regulating,” is most obvious in the way the characters are defined by the society in which they live. For example, the Republic of Gilead, the regime under which Offred lives, aims to control its subjects utterly and annihilate all dissenters. It is a pattern of life, “based on conformity, censorship… and terror – in short, the usual terms of existence enforced by totalitarian states”1.

More than this, however, Gilead’s most potent weapon of control is ignorance.

Atwood herself comments on the plight of Offred and indeed all her sex, “her lack of information is part of the nightmare”. We, as the readers, are aware from the beginning that everyone is given a specific yet ‘blinkered’ role and that it is accepted (“nothing is going on here that I haven’t signed up for”). Everyone, from the Marthas to the denizens of ‘Jezebel’s’, has a specific name which indicates what their role is – that is accepted also.

From the wings on her head-dress which only allow her to perceive a partial version of her world, to the “ownership” tattoo on her ankle, Offred seemingly has no freedom. Even her name is sublimated to her role as a “worthy vessel”. Each choreographed Prayvaganza, each electric cattle-prod, and each shatter proof, non-opening window is testimony to the society’s desire for control of the “transitional generation” to win ultimate control, ironically, by virtually ‘airbrushing out’ those who contributed to its success. Offred comments wryly, that in future photograph albums, “we’ll be invisible… ut the children will be in them alright”.

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The same cannot be said necessarily for the society in ‘Tess of the D’Urbervilles’. The rural Wessex setting seems at first, not nearly as suffocating as the manicured lawns and ubiquitous check points of the ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’. Tess lives in an area with “Grassy banks”, “Blue hills” and a “languorous atmosphere”; we get the impression that there are fewer constraints on her. Tess indeed has the freedom to attend the May Dance, whereas Offred is forced to take part in the monthly “Ceremony” and “Particicution”.

Tess and the inhabitants of her world, on the other hand, totally accept the control that society has enforced upon them, but the recurrent leitmotiv in the novel is one of control imposed more by complete unfairness and injustice, over and above merely “taking certain casually held attitudes about women… to their logical conclusions”, (Atwood). Unfairness dominates the lives of Tess and her family to such an extent that it begins to seem like a general aspect of human existence. Tess stands throughout the novel “helplessly looking on”. Her unfair blame over the death of Prince controls her entire fate.

She has to bear the consequence of her rape (“that bastard gift of shameless Nature who respects not the social law”) in a world not of “Christian justice” at all, but controlled by whimsical and uncaring pagan injustice. Sexism in society overrides even the controls imposed by destiny and ignorance in both novels. In ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’, sexism is much more than “just another crummy power trip”. Women are reduced to mere lowly generic terms such as “Handmaid” and “Martha”, whereas Men are “Commanders” or gun-toting “Angels”. The Gileadean revolution was motivated almost entirely by a desire to (re)oppress women.

This is made explicit by the Commander: the takeover was necessary, he explains, because there was nothing left for men “to do with women”. Sex, he says, patronisingly, was part of the problem. As a result, “There was nothing (for men) to work for”. The entire regime seems organised to subjugate and silence women. The oppression is so absolute and so otherwise unmotivated that it could be the result only of an innate and virtually universal need by men to oppress women. Even Luke, it turns out, “doesn’t mind it at all” when the revolution takes away his lover’s independence; “(maybe) he even likes it”.

Furthermore, the “Historical Notes”, rather than mitigating this situation, reinforce it, by presenting the regime that follows Gilead as quite as misogynist as the original. Professor Pieixoto only really seems to be interested in the Commander (“What we would only give, now, for even twenty pages or so of printout from Waterford’s private computer! “) rather than the Handmaid and her suffering. What is remarkable is not that the professor says these things, but that they are accompanied by “laughter” and “applause” and that not a single voice is raised in objection.

Nobody, not even the female academics demonstrably present, speaks up to counter Pieixoto’s “unrepentantly sexist”2 comments. The misogyny of the new regime suggests that Gilead has in fact not “ended”, at least not in any satisfactory sense; the forces underlying it have merely taken on a new form of control. Both Angel and Alec, who has chauvinistically appropriated the name of D’Urberville, exhibit a sexist double standard, but whereas Alec, who exercises his ‘droit de seigneur’ without a qualm, flippantly remarks, “that’s just like you women.

Your mind is enslaved to his”, Angel is troubled by obeying conventional rules contrary to his real feelings: he is vexed that he cannot help but see Tess as ‘spoilt goods’ and is therefore not free of the prejudices and controls of his sex in the context of his own time and culture (“who was the moral man? Still more pertinently, who was the moral woman? “). Yet he tells her of his moral slip(s) before their marriage first, and expects her to understand fully his one “mistake” only due to the fact that he was born as a man.

Similarly, the (male) Priest will not even give “Sorrow the Undesired” a Christian burial. As a ‘Fallen Woman’, Tess has to endure humiliation in which the confines of her sex induce a “wretched sentiment” almost of Original Sin: “in inhabiting the fleshly tabernacle with which nature had endowed her she was somehow doing wrong”. Like Janine, who confesses to being gang-raped, sexism demands that she view it as her fault. Offred and her fellow Handmaids, ironically, are lauded precisely because they do the job of a ‘Fallen Woman’, constantly being “transferred from one house to another.

Their humiliation lies rather in being declared “Unwoman”, but the implication is clearly the same. The theme of control is also implicit in the way the characters, within every stratum and class, strive to gain control over each other and themselves. In ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’, this very often takes the form of seemingly insignificant actions by one character over another: Serena Joy likes to keep the Commander waiting outside the door (“It’s a little thing, but in this household, little things mean a lot”), and Rita withholds petty information from Offred.

Likewise, the banter between Offred and Rita concerning the match belies the fact that it signifies Offred’s newly-acquired superiority over the Martha – “Have I become, suddenly, one of those who must be appeased? ” Apart from the obvious cattle prods or grizzly corpses on the Wall, small objects take on a crucial implication in the way the characters can control each other.

Serena Joy shows Offred a photo of her child as emotional blackmail, Offred feels that to steal “some small thing” from the living room “would make me feel that I have power”, and the hand cream/scrabble/magazines from the Commander causes Offred to realise that “Things have changed. I have something on him now”. It is Offred who holds the Trump card on all counts; she can control those who seek to control her by using “collusion of a sort, betrayal of a sort”, most significantly with Serena Joy – “She does want that baby”.

In ‘Tess of the D’Urbervilles’ we are never quite sure whether it is sheer force of character or merely ‘Fate’ which controls the plot and motives of the characters and conspires to cause the emotional denouement. Rather than symbolic messages or objects, it is overwhelmingly the male characters that exert a power over the others. Alec’s act of abuse, the most life-altering event that Tess experiences in the novel, is clearly the most serious instance of male domination over a female (“Her views on life had been totally changed for her”).

Even more unsettling than Alec’s blatant cruelty is the fact that, after Angel reveals that he prefers Tess, Tess’ friend Retty attempts suicide and her friend Marian becomes an alcoholic. These girls appear utterly dominated by a desire for a man who, we are told explicitly, does not even realise that they are interested in him – they are the “homelier ones whom he ignored”. Even Angel’s love for Tess, as pure and gentle as it seems, dominates her in an unhealthy way.

He calls her “Daughter of Nature” and “Artemis,” seeking to control and sublimate her true self in favour of a mental image that he prefers. The crowd of male police officers who surround Tess at Stonehenge at the end of the novel is a final striking image of an almost suffocating desire for personal control (“They all closed in with evident purpose”) in a world where Fate seems to have the upper hand: “it was to be”. Although at first it might seem as if ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ is a purely passive account, we can see that the characters are all striving towards a common goal – active self control.

Serena Joy bursts into tears on every “Ceremony” night and knits everlasting scarves covered in pictures of children, but attains “her version of freedom” by withdrawing emotionally from the Commander. Offred sees the ultimate value of accepting that her life is not a “paranoid delusion”, that she is not “a missing person”, because she maintains the “my” in her personality (“my” room, “my” name) which is the most basic form of self-control, that of sanity: “I hoard it, the way people once hoarded money.

I save it, so I will have enough, when the time comes”. The imagery of mirrors in the novel reinforces the theme of characters striving for control over their own lives. Offred attempts to catch a glimpse of her face in the hallway mirror, but finds that it is “distorted”, and all bathroom mirrors are replaced by “dull metal” which reveals nothing. Offred and Serena Joy are together reduced to mere uncontrolled shapeless forms “in the brief glass eye of the mirror”.

Her collusion with Nick in Serena’s parlour is a self-limiting rather than a liberating exercise: “he can’t give me away, nor I him; for the moment, we’re mirrors”. In a metaphorical sense, Offred conjectures, on the night of the Ceremony, how it must feel for the Commander to ‘see’ himself mirrored in the eyes of others: “to have them watching him all the time… it must be hell”.

Significantly, it is only when Offred sees herself in the “ample mirror under the white light” in the hotel room at ‘Jezebel’s’ that she begins to appreciate the reality of an existence outside her own narrow, controlled life. Atwood uses the imagery of colour and objects from the natural world, such as flowers and fruit, as well as sexual imagery, to convey a nightmarish sense of control by the very environment surrounding the protagonists.

Offred appropriately compares the bright red tulips to “chalices” or sexual organs (“swelling genitalia of the flowers”) and sees them as representing her own proscribed existence as a “two legged womb”. In the same way, the barren “Wives” are forced to wear blue, a ‘cold’ colour, and are described in terms of decay (“her greying hair spreading like mildew over the rug”) and infirmity, such as Serena Joy’s “gradually crippling hands”.

Control by the circularity of life is a major theme in ‘Tess of the D’Urbervilles’ and Hardy’s imagery crucially underlines it as the natural order of things. First, the use of seasons to denote the passage of time implies continuity. Years are shown as repetitions with variations rather than as new creations. Tess herself views time in this way, and “philosophically noted dates as they came past in the revolution of the year”. In the novel, the past and the future are merely points on the cycle which nature controls.

Secondly, the plot itself is not only circular, but contains a myriad of smaller circles within it. The main circle of the plot is from the discovery of the D’Urberville Tombs to Tess’ death. Within this circle revolve others. The life and death of Sorrow is a small circle within the larger one. Alec D’Urberville’s repentance and recantation form another. Clare’s and Tess’ physical journeys towards and away from and back again to each other represent more circles, which is mirrored by the dominating image of the herons in a “passionless wheel” above them.

At the start of the novel Tess and her companions dance in a circle on the green; at its end, she stops to rest at Stonehenge. This pattern of circularity provides an “echoing dimension for the narrow folk-ballad tragedy in which Tess is trapped”3, and is particularly appropriate because the cycles of life which rule her externally mirror her own internal cycles over which she has no control (or as the Commander puts it to Offred, “you can’t cheat nature”).

In ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’, control of the first-person narrative is very firmly in the hands of Offred. Atwood forces us to hear her story from a very limited perspective, and even when we are given a ‘choice’ of scenarios, such as the fate of Luke or what happens during her encounter with Nick, we are never entirely sure of the truth. More than once, Offred says, “I made that up”.

It is not until we are allegedly given the ‘bigger picture’ by Professor Pieixoto that we can feel fully in control, “sitting up on a hill at the end”, as E. M. Forster puts it in ‘Aspects of the Novel’. The episodic nature of ‘Tess of the D’Urbervilles’, however, written in the third person, means that it is Hardy, rather than the heroine, who assumes complete omniscience, who has access to and can judge “the beauty or ugliness of a character” accordingly.

The omniscience of the narrator effectively gives the reader control: it allows us not to be influenced by the character in the interpretations of the character’s behaviour and feelings. Using such a narrative technique, Hardy allows himself to be somewhat detached from his characters, often appearing as though he himself does not sympathise with the tragedy that is Tess: at the end he tells us that “‘Justice’ was done”.

The effect of the novel not being narrated by Tess is that we as the readers are given an omniscient perception of the lives of other characters of which Tess herself is unaware, and allowed to interpret for ourselves the predicament in which characters other than Tess are placed. However, notwithstanding Hardy’s use of dialogue, this style of narration precludes total control by the reader, since by its very nature the characters can only ever be “(faithfully) presented”4.

This prevents us from having a ‘direct line’ into the thoughts, feelings and motives of the characters, so that their “inner life remains unknowable”5, and does not allow for the character to communicate directly in the way that Offred can by the continual use of the pronouns “I” and “we”: for example, Hardy tells us that Tess “in her misery” at the death of Sorrow, “rocked herself upon the bed”, but it is so much more poignant when Offred herself describes their attempted escape from Gilead: “the little girl who is now dead sits in the back seat… ith her stuffed rabbit, mangy with age and love… I can’t think about the rabbit too much though, I can’t start to cry”.

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The Handmaid's Tale and Tess of the D'Urbervilles. (2017, Oct 10). Retrieved from

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