The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood tells a narrative where characters are thriving in a society that is both theocratic and patriarchal, but not remote from reality. In this, Atwood refers to the rise of the Moral Majority under Jerry Falwell in the 1980s, a conservative political force against the progress of the civil rights and feminist movements as it was believed to deviate from traditional values (Banwart, 2013). The fictional state, known as the Republic of Gilead, imposes strictures on mostly women, though unequally—class divisions exist within the initial gender division that society is structured around. The class of women, ranked in terms of power by the moral stance of their pre-Gilead occupations or past transgressions, though all subjugated to men, are distinguished into individual social groups: Wives, Aunts, Marthas, Handmaids, Econowives and Unwomen. One aspect is the representation of Commanders’ Wives; through the characterisation of Serena Joy, Atwood portrays that even the highest-ranking class of women are victim to the regime. The values that the Wives live by are fabricated by the regime, which is also what makes Gilead a dystopian state. Gilead’s decreasing population is counteracted by concentrating its policies upon reproduction, therefore any citizen that is sterile is devalued. However, Serena Joy was able to earn her ranking in Gilead because she was a vocal evangelist of domestic feminism in her previous life. Yet, like other wives, she embraces Gilead’s false values, and is thus also represented as antagonising towards her Handmaid.
As a sterile woman, Atwood represents Serena as desperate for a child, which is an implication of these false values. Without a child, Serena has no real purpose, lowering her status among the other Wives. The fact that she no longer makes speeches is Gilead’s oppression on female literacy and speech. In addition, Serena becomes occupied by traditional feminine activities, such as sewing and but because they are later unwoven, this is only to give her a false sense of purpose. The patterns on the scarves that she chooses are childish: as if she knits them for children, which shows that she wishes to have a child of her own. Furthermore, through her relationship with Offred and Nick, Atwood shows the suppression of women as a shared experience, despite their divisions, in the name of a patriarchy. Serena Joy’s desperation extends to her suggesting that Offred tries with another man. It is exceptional that she is willing to ally with Offred, not for selfless reasons, but in order for her to have a child to raise to occupy her time and for no reason other than because she sees it as her purpose.
Moreover, the imagery of her garden highlights the roles designated for Wives in Gilead. The flowers of her garden not only symbolise the development of life in nature, but its vitality stands in contrast to nuclear disastered Gilead. The theme of fertility and its importance is emphasised and is juxtaposed with Serena Joy’s situation, and in this, Atwood represents Serena Joy’s lack of control; the illusion of women in a position of power can be interpreted as intentional by the regime, as it shifts their focus to reiterating the oppressive laws of Gilead, which would prevent protest.
Throughout the novel are moments where Serena seems to suffer more than Offred, a Handmaid of lower-ranking class, sometimes under her own preaching. In the first instance, Serena is pitied by Offred during The Ceremony. The Ceremony is a sexual act in which the Commander tries to impregnate his Handmaid, but it also involves his Wife becoming. During The Ceremony, the protagonist ponders who it is worse for, even though it is not the Wife but the Handmaid that is, in a ritualised way, raped. However, the act conveys the hopeless role of the Commander’s Wives:. Thus, through certain obligations as such, Atwood communicates that having power does not free one from suffering.
In the second instance, Serena Joy’s suffering is a kind that is enforced upon herself. She harbours jealousy, as implicated by the regime’s suppression, rather than caused by the patriarchy or the actions of men, like the Commander. The author explores her mental state as lower than lower-ranking women rather than the man to convey the emotional toll of the regime. Serena Joy is in a better position than Offred on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, though not in terms of belongingness and love needs, which makes her jealous. Not only is it clear that Serena Joy is hurt by society’s polygamous relationships but she is also deluded into thinking that she is in a higher position, unaware of her oppression to the extent that Handmaids are of theirs, which ultimately makes her the larger victim.
Finally, Atwood presents contradictions in Serena’s characterisation. While Serena Joy is represented as a believer in the regime and once complicit in its formation, this is contrasted with her illicit actions, to portray that the regime is possibly failing more than it is succeeding as not even authority can be regulated from abusing their powers. Furthermore, part of Serena’s characterisation as more hostile towards Offred than a male character, the Commander, in a theocratic society, shows how Gilead is cleverly structured. Serena Joy’s resentment for Offred is Gilead’s way of separating the socials groups in order to prevent potential unions between women, which would make uprisings more likely.
Concluding, the representation of the Commander’s Wife as not completely adhering to Gileadean laws points out its clear flaw—not functional as a religious totalitarian state. Within political context, Atwood comments on the moral decline of her society and through Serena Joy’s complex character and motives, she points out that human nature forbids such a state, that regimes that try to reach utopian ideals do not last in the long-term.