Through the Lens of Marxist Theory- Jenna Reeve

Marxist theory, based off of the social and economic theory of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, is constructed on the idea that within a society, social conditions are determined by the society’s economic and political conditions. Power dynamics and tension between classes of people are critical to observe in order to draw conclusions through a Marxist lens.

“You know the rules for a Particicution,” Aunt Lydia says. “You will wait until I blow the whistle. After that, what you do is up to you, until I blow the whistle again. Understood?”(p.261 White ed.)

The opening of this passage invokes a vivid image of a power dynamic with which we are all familiar—the teacher- student dynamic, in this case, a young student in primary school. The clever blending of the words ‘participate’ and ‘execution’ call to mind the government initiative that was highly prevalent in Canadian elementary and middle schools with a similar portmanteau: Participaction. This allusion effectively develops the atmosphere of a school ground where Aunt Lydia is the teacher who possesses the power to control her students with the blow of a whistle. For myself, this allusion calls to mind a gym class full of rowdy children who will run wild until the ominous whistle whose commands we all unquestioningly obeyed. Atwood is hard at work crafting this image of Aunt Lydia much before this scene. When we first meet her in the Red Center, a transformed high school, Aunt Lydia is the ‘teacher’ figure for all of the handmaids and she refers to them only as “girls”. Therefore, it is much before this scene that the reader comes to know Aunt Lydia as an authority figure. The extended allusion to Participaction, through the imagery of this passage, compares Aunt Lydia to the gym teacher in charge and thus compares the handmaids to children by extension.
It is the comparison of the handmaids to children by extension that proves to be quite ironic. The role of the handmaids in the novel is to produce children, therefore they are clearly women and comparing them to children demonstrates the extent to which they are oppressed in their society and depicted as the lower class compared to the Aunt’s and Commander’s ruling class.

What has determined this power difference within the Gileadian society? From Offred’s accounts we know that it was not always this way... women had jobs and held an income, however, with the fertility problems affecting Gilead, children became more valuable than other material things once were. Children are thus the source of power comparable to wealth in our society. Those who have children earn higher ranks in society and politics. Children are now being produced and exchanged for societal or political power, which can be observed when the girls are married off to the Angels. The handmaids who have these babies do not get to keep them, which is comparable to the situation of the working class who manufacture products but do not keep the profits or play a part in deciding to whom they are sold. The imbalance in power is maintained through propaganda from the ruling class which is demonstrated very well in this passage. Aunt Lydia justifies the legitimacy of the ‘particicution’ through the manipulation of the women’s feelings of powerlessness. She says:

I might add that this crime involved two of you and took place at gunpoint. It was also brutal. I will not offend your ears with any details, except to say that one woman was pregnant and the baby died.”(p.261-62, White ed.)

Ofglen later reveals that He wasn’t a rapist at all, he was a political. He was one of ours.” (p. 263, White ed.) Since babies are the only source of hope and power that the handmaids have, the ruling class, represented by Aunt Lydia, is able to manipulate their sense of desperation and use this as a means to eliminate threats to the ruling class. The desperation of these oppressed women leads them to beating up an innocent man whom they have been told has robbed them of the one thing that gives them power in this recently established society- a baby. The desperation is evident in Offred’s reaction to Aunt Lydia’s speech: despite myself I feel my hands clench. It is too much, this violation. The baby too, after what we go through.” (p.262 White ed.)

It is in this passage that the tension between the social classes reaches its highest point, what a Marxist would view as building towards a crisis point where the oppressed lower class over throws the ruling class. In the newly established Gileadian society, the handmaids have not forgotten the society of the past where they were free to hold jobs. The handmaids recognize the oppression they are subject to from the ruling class of Commanders and Aunts tension has been building through acts of rebellion throughout the novel, such as the Underground Femaleroad or Offred speaking to Ofglen. It is evident that the handmaids are moving towards the crisis point in this passage since Aunt Lydia’s whistle does not have the power to control many of them. This loss of control or power is observed at the end of this passage: “Aunt Lydia blows her whistle again, but they don’t stop at once… ‘You will find our partners and re-form your line,’ Aunt Lydia says into the mike. Few pay attention to her.” (p.263, White ed.) This loss of power by the woman who represents the ruling class in this passage demonstrates the rising tension between the two classes and the power shifting as the handmaids do not follow orders. Therefore Marxism would predict that the ruling class will soon be overthrown, foreshadowing the fall of Gileadian society.

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