22/04/16 – Comparison on the ways the writers present the theme of power and social hierarchy in ‘Frankenstein’ and ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’


Power, to whom it is allocated, and what represents the power we have, constitutes as a main theme within both novels. The social hierarchy and how it applies itself to an individual on the basis of economic wealth, education, physical power, and most importantly for the formidable feminist figures of Shelly and Atwood, gender, is critical in readings of both novels. Both of these authors assess the use of power and social hierarchy to question its acceptance in society but also to provide criticism to those fighting the structures of the time, such as the political and sexual revolutions of nineteenth and twentieth centuries respectively. However whilst Shelly faces the problems within the boundaries of classes, in what is now frequently linked to Marxist ideas, and through science’s destruction of the social systems built into humans, Atwood instead uses religion not as a pre-established system in which characters can fit into its Milltonian structure, but as an instrument of oppression, and asks us to question the oppression of women within our society.

The authors question the power a woman holds in their relative societies; Shelly presents the reader with members of Victor’s family at home, Elizabeth and Justine in particular fill classical female roles of the time. Elizabeth is “presented to me[Victor] as a gift” and appears to be the perfect homemaker in passivity and being “a possession of my own”. Elizabeth seems to be the ideal feminine figure of “sensibility and intellect” who suffers due to be physically powerless against the Monster, Victor’s creation, that murders her. Infact Elizabeth is constantly held below not only Victor as a possession, but even beneath Victor’s scientific endeavours, which follows into the theory that Mary Shelley, gave Elizabeth, as with many other of her characters, traits of her own life, and used her to explore her own emotional trauma at Percy Shelley’s reluctance to create a family with her. In A Handmaid’s tale Atwood also deals with a woman’s place in a family in a time of rapidly changing family values, between the opposing forces of feminist movements such as the Equal Rights Amendment, and right wing christian wives such as Beverly La Haye, of whom the character of Serena Joy serves as a satire. Whilst Frankenstein uses science to erode moral standards, The Handmaid’s tale sees organised religion as taking an impact on the ethical code of living. One of the ways the Gileadean regime controls its subjects is through the removal of family, Offred is a direct victim of this and feels to have lost power by being outside of the traditional family, she claims to “have been obliterated” by losing the role of motherhood for her child.

Offred’s power, and what keeps her from becoming “unwoman” is only her fertility. Philip K Dick’s dystopian novel “The Game Players of Titan” dealt with the theme of fertility through the removal of traditional family values, the wife only being a traded role to increase chances of conception, Atwood has built on this through the removal of all sexual power that woman held. The commander states that the sex was too easy” and Gilead persecutes any non-reproductive sexuality, including executing gay and lesbian people, and doctors who take part in abortions, this is an extrapolation of the political opposition to the growing sexual activism, which the character of Moira represents. Infact Atwood also warns against the exploitation of sexual freedom in the use of “Jezebel’s” where Moira finally gains her goal of outright sexuality, but at the same control and oppression by the patriarchal society as Offred herself receives. The other aspect of female activism comes in the form of Offred’s mother, who, to the anger of her fellow feminists, reproduces. Offred’s mother however only allows men power within the act of reproduction, where they can “just do the job, then bugger off”, adding that she can “afford daycare” and thereby uses women’s newly found power to be socially accepted as a working mother as a way to place herself above males. Shelly approaches the idea of single-parenthood from the opposite angle, Victor’s scientific advancement removes women’s biological purpose in procreation, Anne Mellor states that Frankenstein is “what happens when a man tries to have a baby without a woman”, Victor himself has been claimed to show homosexual tendencies in modern readings, and many critics claim that The Creature’s monstrosity is due to the lack of maternal input. Mary Shelley would feature this to reflect the death of her own mother and its affect on her life, and to show how although a women’s role in motherhood is often . To add to this, it is only the monster that shows true sexuality, he holds the urge to reproduce and yearns for a wife to do this with, here we see the power of reproductive rights return to Victor as the embodiment of the patriarchy, who thinks only to the creation of “a race of devils” rather than the “sympathies” the monster seeks. Victor represents the male power who at the time set out social rules over when a woman can and cannot reproduce, such as when out of wedlock.

An audience finds within Shelley’s writing aspects of class representation, and many modern critics find it appropriate to include Marxist ideas within the novel, with Victor representing the bourgeoisie, owing to his admittance that his “family is one of the most distinguished”. Meanwhile the monster represents the proletariat, forced by his place in the social hierarchy to rely on the DeLacys and his own experience to gain education and class consciousness rather than an education financed through inherited wealth such as that received by Victor. Mary Shelley would include the stark differences between the lifestyle of the Frankensteins compared to that of the DeLacys, who suffer the too easily given out charges of treason of the time. Lord Byron and Percy Shelley both criticized the politics of the time used to ensure England didn’t suffer an anti-aristocratic revolution as was seen in France and the American Colonies, and Mary channelled these criticisms through the treatment of The Creature by its creator, and to reflect the bourgeoisie treatment of the proletariat they had created through the industrial revolution, even when The Creature achieves a high level of education and sophisticated language Victor lashes out at him for his circumstances of birth. Atwood’s novel also sees woman stripped of education and language as means of keeping them oppressed. Offred claims to be suffering from “pen is envy” as a freudian reference to the power of education granted to males, and infact Offred is only granted education by her oppressor in the Commander, who in an act of educational hyperbole and irony teaches her the latin phrase for “don’t let the bastards grind you down”. The idea of the role system employed in Atwood’s dystopia is the highest use of class separation, and many of the restrictions Offred suffers from reflect the activism of the twentieth century. Even the one power afforded to Offred over her own life is limited, and she envies the richer wives of the previous societies for their means to use sharp objects and have control over their lives, and lives nostalgically for the liberties previously afforded to her such as to have “money I had earned myself”.

Ultimately both authors interpreted the different strains of power in their own lives to interpret them to literature. Whilst Shelley saw injustice in the inherited wealth systems and use of science to destroy moral values,  Atwood instead understood religion to be the oppression tactic employed against her gender and generation. Both realise that it is through education that power and social hierarchy is established, and that the upper class often take for granted their right to be well educated. As strong feminist figures of the time Atwood and Shelley include powerful ideas about man’s overwhelming want for a patriarchy or even single sexed male societies, and the role of the mother and father within a family, although whilst Atwood’s Offred does not suffer from her single parentage, Shelley’s Creature shows the reader the impact of the loss of the matriarchal figure. Overwhelmingly the idea that the holder of sexual power is more powerful in the social hierarchy is prevalent in both novels, the strive for reproduction whilst an ingrained human desire is highlighted within the books to question our over reliance on the value we give to sexuality and more importantly the reproduction seen to be vital to give us a purpose within life


22/04/16 – Comparison on the ways the writers present the theme of power and social hierarchy in ‘Frankenstein’ and ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’

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