A-Level header

if you decide to copy my essay instead of doing your own writing, more fool you

Module One

Write an essay about the characters and attitudes of Offred's mother and Moira in The Handmaid's Tale.
Pay particular attention to the ways in which each of them interacts with Offred herself

There are many similarities between Moira and Offred's mother, both in their personalities and in their relationships with her. Both are strong, independent characters, and unconventional when compared to 'normal' society. Not surprisingly, therefore, Offred's relationships with both have characteristics in common.

Offred's mother did not follow a conventional lifestyle, and indeed did not behave conventionally at all. She was a happily single mother, by choice, at the age of 37, at a time when this was neither so common nor so easily accepted as it is today. Without bearing any grudges, she said goodbye to the man who had fathered Offred, and had no regrets at his departure.

She is depicted as a woman who has little interest in traditionally 'feminine' matters. She did not knit, for example, and refused to dye her greying hair. However, there is a little ambivalence remaining in her response to some 'feminine' things: Offred notes that her mother was half-grudging, half-admiring of the ex-mistress of a Nazi who appeared on television, and still took pains to apply makeup.

As a mother, she continued not to follow the traditional pattern—she gave her daughter a detailed sex education when the child was young; she took her along to a book-burning event. In addition, her mother's behaviour is described as breezily casual, almost that of a teenager, as though the two women had swapped roles. She delighted in being more outrageous than her conservative, conventional daughter. Indeed, Offred's mother is not obviously maternal at all, and it is clear that she never centres her world on her daughter, having other concerns of importance.

Moira is similarly uninterested in the trappings of femininity, although her attitudes tend to be more abrasive. She "defied fashion as usual", Offred observes when Moira arrives at the Rachel and Leah Centre with short hair. And when Offred sees her at Jezebels, Moira's absurd Bunny costume tellingly does not fit her. However, Moira's rejection of males is more decided than that of Offred's mother: Moira is a lesbian by choice, and professes distinct scorn for men, whereas Offred's mother is clearly heterosexual, and dismissive of men rather than contemptuous.

By contrast, Offred herself comes across as far more traditionally feminine than either of these women, even in the days before the institution of Gilead. She makes herself pretty for Luke; she saves butter to apply to her hands; she is aware of her own hairy legs and armpits, and it is clear that in her previous life, she took care to remove the hairs!

The contrast between personalities does not prevent Offred and Moira from being real friends. It is clear that, although Moira is the dominant personality with the glamour and charisma that come from self-confidence, both take pleasure in the friendship. Moira takes the lead, whether in flinging water bombs at the other students or in instigating illicit meetings at the Red Centre, but it is clear that here, she is eager to make an opportunity for private conversation with the narrator. As Offred says, "We could fight and wrangle and name-call, but it didn't change anything underneath. She was still my oldest friend."

Both these women have a kind of authority over the narrator. With Moira it is a matter of personality, whereas in her mother's case it is the natural relationship created by motherhood and superiority of age. The maternal relationship, and the disparity of age between the narrator and her mother, make this relationship more awkward. The narrator refers to the feeling that she was a disappointment to her mother, who, she felt, "expected me to vindicate her life for her". Offred rebelled against this idea, in her own mind and in her choice of lifestyle, if not more explicitly. Although her mother referred to her as a "wanted child", there was a suggestion of regret attached to this, as though things had not quite worked out as intended. The relationship had its awkwardnesses, and neither was quite the other's ideal mother/daughter. Offred comes eventually to the understanding that "we did as well as most", regretting that she cannot now let her mother know that she has understood this; but with Moira, there is no need to come to an understanding, as the understanding already exists and is implicitly accepted by both.

Moira and the narrator's mother are both very definitely rebels. Their lack of conventional femininity is an aspect of this, but both are rebelling against their surrounding societies in a more profound way. The most obvious manifestation of this is their feminism, another thing they have in common.

These two women represent different generations of American feminism. Offred's mother was an early feminist, of the generation which read 'The Feminine Mystique' and later 'The Female Eunuch' and demanded the right to work. Her presence in the film of the abortion rally makes it clear that she was an activist with very strong beliefs. She is irritated by Offred's lack of awareness of the achievements of the feminist struggle—her taking for granted her right to a job, and Luke's willingness to 'help' with household chores he enjoys. "You don't understand at all what I'm talking about," she insists, and she is quite right.

Offred herself has no great interest in feminism. It seems to be something she observes in others, rather than something she feels herself. Moira chides her for her "head in the sand" attitudes, and disapproves of the initially illicit relationship with Luke.

Like Offred's mother, Moira is a staunch feminist, but from a younger generation. Her practical commitment takes the form of working for a women's publishing collective. Moira explicitly recognises the similarity between herself and Offred's mother ("We sound like your mother"), and also, plainly likes her.

There are flaws within the feminist attitudes of both women, however. The narrator's mother takes her child to an organised book-burning (or pornographic magazines); there is a clear similarity between her attitude to pornography and that displayed by the brutal collaborator, Aunt Lydia. However, there is a warning here: perhaps Margaret Atwood is demonstrating the dangers of making allies in the wrong places. The Gileadan female authorities (insofar as they have authority) also hate and despise such images, and use them and their tales of abuse of women to justify the strict repression that women in Gilead are forced to endure. It is not what Offred's mother would have intended, but it is logical in its way.

It is hard to imagine the occasionally foul-mouthed Moira, she who talks of underwear parties and refers to Jezebels as "Butch heaven", as a vehement anti-pornographer—her attitude to sexuality is much broader, and it is quite easy to imagine her reading it! However, she does display another kind of rather distasteful extremism in her attitude to men. She seems to collect anecdotes of man's inhumanity to woman with a kind of bitter glee. Offred describes Moira's collection of misogynist incidents as a kind of "grudge-holding against the past". It is a recognisable aspect of modern feminism, and not at all attractive.

Moira continues to be a rebel long after any hope of feminism has vanished. Almost her first act on arrival at the Red Centre is to have a secret meeting with Offred. She attempts escape, and although she is brought back, she tries again, in a clever, cunning and ruthless attempt which in fact succeeds in getting her away from that place, although not, unfortunately, out of Gilead. Her subversive wit is not repressed—Offred remembers Moira saying "There is a Bomb in Gilead" during the prayers.

Offred's mother, too, continues to rebel, but this takes the form of a quiet stubbornness rather than Moira's flamboyant defiance. Ultimately, Offred's mother seems to refuse to die—even though we do not see her in Offred's present, Moira is able to convey the news that she is working in the sinister Colonies. The narrator cannot bring herself to belive in her mother's probable death, even when Moira advises her to hope for it. But Offred admits to herself that she is "passing the buck, as children do to mothers".

This is a vital difference between Offred and the other two women: Offred does not take responsibility for herself in the way that they do. She is apolitical, wilfully ignorant of many things, and willing to go along whichever path is easiest. She is uncomfortable when the sudden loss of her job and her bank account make her completely dependent on Luke, but does not address the situation—unlike Moira, who has made arrangements to get round the restrictions suddenly placed on women. She does not attempt to escape from the Red Centre—and indeed, is reassured by Moira's arrival there, feeling safer in consequence— or from her life as the Commander's handmaiden, and even when she is sure of disaster she cannot do what Ofglen does, and kill herself, but puts herself in Nick's hands and hopes that he will save her.

This is a strong contrast to both her mother and Moira, activists with strong beliefs and a willingness to follow through. During Offred's teens, her mother participated wholeheartedly in the feminist struggle. She was able to take on responsibilities without hesitation, for her self, for her child, and for the way she believed the world ought to be.

Moira is not quite so generous, but is similarly able to take responsibility for her own life. "You can't help what you feel," she says, "but you can help how you behave."

It seems that both these women are seen by Offred in a heroic light, although this shines brightest on Moira. She is very definitely a hero, to Offred and to the other women in the Red Centre. She "made us dizzy", she "was our fantasy", cutting the terrible Aunts down to size and becoming almost a symbol for the repressed Handmaids-in-training. Moira's resourcefulness is something Offred thinks of almost wistfully—Moira, she thinks, could disassemble her electric fan without a screwdriver, something Offred has no hope of doing for herself. She may even be right, as the account of Moira's eventual escape from the Red Centre is magnificently daring and ingenious. And when Offred finds her friend at Jezebels, indifferent and with "a lack of volition" she is truly frightened. She wants Moira to continue to play the hero, to fulfill her own lack of heroism. ("Moira is right, I am a wimp.") She wants Moira to escape from Jezebels, from Gilead—or failing that, to achieve a spectacular and destructive death, because that is for her who and what Moira is—a heroic figure. Yet she, and we, never find out what happens to Moira. It is ironic that Offred's staunch mother is left to rot in the deadly Colonies, and Moira ends, as far as we can guess, in much the same situation, whereas the pliant Offred manages to escape.

Finally, it is interesting that Offred usually refers to her mother in the present tense, although all the interactions between them which are mentioned in the book take place in her own past. Moira is generally referred to in the past tense, yet it is she who actually appears within the narrator's new life. Perhaps Offred's mother is too fundamentally a part of the person that is Offred to be consigned readily to the past, whereas Moira is a vivid symbol of everything that Offred's previous life was.



Back to Module
A-Level Module Index