What is the most effective way that Atwood creates a repressive atmosphere in these chapters?
I think Atwood effectively creates a repressive atmosphere through her portrayal of the identities of women and the relationship between them. Firstly, she clearly divides women into different roles and classes, including wives, handmaids, Marthas, econowives and widows, whereas none of them have their own identity as a female. For example, Serena Joy, who was once a famous singer, has become “Commander’s wives”, an ordinary powerful woman like the others in the society. She has completely lost herself, her glory, and her pride. This reflects a very disciplined and almost suffocated societal environment which doesn’t allow women to have their own identities, so the context already makes the readers feel repressive. Although the Commander’s wives and handmaids have a higher social status than the others, they still don’t have much freedom and are being treated like an object, a byproduct of the powerful men, especially the handmaids: When the Commander’s wife first saw Offred, she said: “so, you are the new one” (p.20). “new” suggests that she is an object which can be replaced at any time, or there might once already been a handmaid or several handmaids being sent to the Commander who failed to born children at last. There is a strong sense of purpose assigned to the handmaid’s role – giving birth, which can be seen from their daily prayers of “Blessed to be the fruit”. Atwood applies religious fundamentalism to show how religion has oppressed women and restricted their freedom instead of redemption.
The key element to describe the women’s relationship with each other is “envy”. The Marthas envy the handmaids, the commanders’ wives envy the handmaids, while the handmaids envy the ones who got pregnant. In Chapter 2, the Marthas were talking behind Offred’s back saying that “If I haven’t got my tubes tied, it could have been me” (p.17). To them, being a handmaid is like getting the power, because they have the ability to give birth, which is the most precious thing for women in the Gileadean society. The Commander’s Wives also envy Offred for her “divine” ability, which indeed is ironic to us as readers, because we live in a society where women are not only valued for their reproductional function. Nevertheless, even among the handmaids themselves, they envy each other for pregnancy, which can be seen from Chapter 5 where Offred met the pregnant Janine and described her as “swelling triumphantly” and “an object of envy and desire” (p.32). It’s almost like the whole purpose of the women’s lives is to give birth, and if they have a baby, they have achieved the most important thing of their lives. This reflects how the Gileadean society’s rules have deeply impacted on the women that even they once had freedom, their minds have been altered to a Gileadean mindset now under the strict regime, which is even more repressive because they are the ones being oppressed, whereas even themselves do not notice the oppression and have numbly accepted it. This sense of numbness will eventually lead to a more desperate and dark society.