Concept of Second Sex in Atwood and Shelley's Works

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Feminism is defined in the Oxford Dictionary as, “the advocacy of women’s rights on the ground of the equality of the sexes.” Feminism in today’s society, has been misconstrued into this perception of man-hating. The whole proposition of this global act is to not discriminate men, or a movement to discourage men, or to disregard any male influence in out community and strip them of their power. But it strives, to find the resolution to the simple act of equality; to gain equal opportunity for women and to be considered at the same intellectual level of men.

“We still think of a powerful man as a born leader and a powerful women as an anomaly.” Margaret Atwood described this quote as the simple- mindedness of our societies perspective. She analysis this generational problematic notion and uses advanced literature to metaphorically critique the ignorance our community possesses.

Breaking Gender Norms by Shelley and Atwood

Her infamous novel, the Handmaid’s Tale, delivers a melancholy tone to readers about Gilead’s reconstruction in order to degrade women to only objects of sexual procreation. However, the novel supplies a critical analysis of the North American feminist movement, which is contextually relevant due to the novella’s publishing date (1985). The narrative voices of the women in the novel represent historical figures that stand in traditional and newly founded feminist positions from the Women’s Liberation movement. An example of one of these famous historical figures that was altered and recreated to fit the aesthetic of the novel was Offred’s mother. She was described to be a passionate activist that campaigned for women’s “sexual freedom, pro-choice rallies and pornographic magazine burnings.” This quote signifying Offred’s ruefully comments towards her mother, ‘We lived as usual, by ignoring. Ignoring isn’t the same as ignorance, you have to work at it” shows that although we have the capability to change, the mental capacity to adapt to those changes is a far greater obstacle. This ties into the same intentions of Mary Shelley’s active feminist views.

“Nothing is so painful to the human mind as a great and sudden change.” This quotation expresses the deep feminist views that Mary Shelley had obtained. During the time the novel was established, publishing was a male dominated profession making it impossible for a woman to succeed in that specific industry. Mary Shelley’s feminist views could be considered innate, or inevitable with her father being a radical philosopher who believed in the equality of the sexes, and whose mother was a pioneering vindicator of women’s rights. She is an inspiring women, especially for the feminist culture because in an era where women were valued for their inheritance and their ability to procreate, she was unique. She was a nonconformist towards conventions, following her political views through literature and passion.

Therefore, both these authors are not only inspiring but they have strong views towards feminism to make women equally accepted as men in society. Referring back to the question, both these authors represent freedom, equality, passion, uniqueness and ardour, giving a wider contextual understanding on the way they present women in their literary classics.

Contrasting Characters in The Handmaid's Tale

In the Handmaid’s Tale, Atwood has intentionally used a female narrative voice that is being projected through the protagonist’s, Offred, mentality and physical being. Offred belongs to the class of Handmaids. The most pivotal social ranking in the whole book that situates the reality of these women’s derogatory standings. The Handmaids are a class of women in the Republic of Gilead. They are perhaps the most important class of women in Gilead, as the main provider to sort out this population stabilisation issue. The portmanteau of the ‘handmaiden’ has been cleverly selected by the novelist herself. By dividing the word in half, ‘hand’ has hard toned connotations such as: power, strength, protection and possession, or soft toned connotations such as: maternal care, generosity, hospitality and stability. The word, ‘maid’ has connotations to domestic servant, unmarried young woman, and inexperience. If we combined the word together we have this image of a young, inexperienced women that has the potential to be this warming motherly figure but is naïve to the possessive nature she is consumed by. By breaking down this word, we unravel the depiction the author intended the protagonist to be, and then see the distorted corrupt vision that Gilead is. Therefore, the author’s representation of the Handmaids to be derogatorised sexually, reflexing the unlawful nature these women are enduring. The creation of these characters automatically sparks the controversial topic of feminism and with the protagonist being a female narrative it enhances these effects.

In Frankenstein, the focus of the novella is the immorality of humans actions on the pureness of nature and how far Victor Frankenstein is willing to go to disrupt the balance of nature. However, in the Handmaid’s Tale the focal point of the novella is to use women’s bodies as a political tool to solve their population imbalance. To reduce their identity to a matter of fertility, treating them as nothing more than a set of female genitalia. The difference in female social importance in both novella’s is divergent, they are at complete opposite sides of the spectrum. The Handmaid’s Tale is a violation of the human body whereas the character of Elizabeth Lavenza is depicted as this image of idyllic perfection. The female lead of Frankenstein is Elizabeth Lavenza. She was adopted by the Frankenstein household with the intention of an arranged marriage between Victor and herself when they are older. When presented to Victor, she was described as a “gift” and “present” that he has total control over. His possession. When creating the character of Elizabeth, Mary Shelley adapted her character around the poem called, “The Angel in the House,” published in 1854 by Coventry Patmore. The poem idealised Patamore’s relationship with his wife and held her up as a “paragon of female virtue”.

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Referring back to the question, in some respects their is an overlap between the two significant female characters due to their domestic and fertile purposes in society. However, the treatment of these women is completely different. Elizabeth is seen as this item of perfection, idolised by Victor and his family. The sense of acceptance and wanting is the key underlying factor that differentiates the two characters. Whereas Offred is separated from her child and husband, stripped down of her identity, and then her body is violated to be this baby capsule for nine months, and then told to give up after giving birth. The tone, the depiction, the identity and the society are all factors that distinguishes these women’s lifestyles.

Context of the Novels

Referring to the context of these novellas, there are two contextually relevant theories that can be influential to the understanding of these literature classics: The Idea of Otherness and The Second Sex.

The Idea of Otherness

The Other is an individual who is perceived by the ‘group’ as not belonging, as being different in some fundamental way. The ‘group’ sees itself as the norm and judges those who deviate from these social norms as the Other. They are perceived to lack essential characteristics possessed by the group. The Otherness concept is relevant to both books as the social standards of human society are not rigid to the acceptance of non-conformists.

In Frankenstein, Justine is considered the “Other” in society due to her social and financial status. She was the Frankenstein’s family servant, however she was never treated cruelly or degradingly. She had been living with the family, since she was twelve years old and therefore, a significant figure in Victor’s childhood. Justine is described as an innocent and righteous girl, who has taken the hearts of everyone in the household. However, when she is next mentioned she had been blamed for the murder of Victor’s brother William, despite any clear evidence. This is a clear example of ‘Otherness’ although she seemed to be sheltered by love and care by the Frankenstein family household, when it comes to protecting themselves from the law, they will take any action necessary, even if that means blaming an innocent young women to do so. Justine is a victim of ‘Otherness’ as she has now been disowned from her social group due to power and wealth.

In the Handmaid’s Tale, the unwomen are considered the “Other.” These women are characterised to be either sterile women, unmarried, widows, feminists, lesbians, or nuns. All women who are incapable to provide any use within the Republic's strict gender divisions. Gilead exiles UnWomen to the Colonies, which are highly exposed to radioactive waste. The failure to conceive a child after a specific time, the Handmaid’s will also be exiled there as well. The author purposely used the simplicity of a two-letter prefix of ‘un’ to dehumanise and degrade these women from any further purpose due to their beliefs, sexuality or lack of fertility. As a reader, this is particularly effective as it sets the tone of the social pecking order and accentuates that two simple letters that are most frequent in the English dictionary can be used to disintegrate and demolish someone’s self worth and pride rapidly. This is another prime example of ‘Otherness’ because due to their biological incapability they are exiled from any social group to an area where they are guaranteed to die by toxic ventilation.

The Concept of Second Sex

The Second Sex is a concept that’s focal point is to critique global history from the eyes of a feminist perspective. The main idea that De Beauvoir’s initiating is that “men oppress women by characterizing as the concept of Other”. The Other is an individual who is perceived by the ‘group’ as not belonging, as being different in some way. The ‘group’ sees itself as the norm and judges those who deviate from these social norms as the Other. They are perceived to lack essential characteristics possessed by the group. The man occupies the role of subject whereas woman is the object. “He creates, acts, invents; she waits for him to save her. This distinction is the basis of all de Beauvoir’s later arguments.” This is contextually relevant to both books. In the Handmaid’s Tale, the women are seen as the “other” compared to the Commanders. The Commanders are able to continue in their line of profession where the women are incarcerated in their household waiting for the man to come home. In Frankenstein, Elizabeth Lavenza is seen as fragile piece that has been waiting her whole childhood to be married to Victor, and her sole purpose is to remain beautiful and continue with her domestic duties. The Second Sex proposal is a concept that widens societies constricted view of the world to see how limited their observations are.

However, the omission of these contextual themes adds a contrasting element. This is due to the focal point of the novel. In Frankenstein, the focus of the novella is the immorality of humans actions on the pureness of nature. Whereas, in the Handmaid’s Tale the focal point of the novella is to use women’s bodies as a political tool to solve their population imbalance. However, there is one contextually relevant theory that is omitted in one of the two books due to their theme: Roe vs. Wade. Court Case.

Relevance of Roe vs Wade to The Handmaid's Tale

“Roe v. Wade” case is only contextually relevant to The Handmaid’s Tale. The case was a pivotal decision constructed by the US Supreme Court. The court outlined a rule to make abortions legal. The decision said that “a woman's right to privacy extended to the fetus/unborn child she was carrying.” In court stated that, “during the first trimester an abortion was no more dangerous than carrying the fetus/child full term.” This ruling was so controversial that it divided the country. People were categorised into pro-life and pro-choice groups. Pro-life people said that “abortions should not be allowed because it is the killing of unborn babies.” Pro-choice people said that “ a woman had the right to to choose whether to have an abortion or not.”

The Handmaid’s Tale is exploring a dystopian future that is created around “forced reproduction and criminalized abortion, giving creative outlet to cultural anxieties.” The Handmaid’s Tale is representing the harsh reality of being impregnated without full- consent due the corrupt ruling of the Gileadean society. Margaret Atwood is an activist for safe, legalised abortions as she suggests that abortions will happen regardless if they are legal or not legal, as there has been many cases where young women that have been raped or were impregnated unintentionally now have to seek the black market to liquidise the fetus. Not only is this awfully risky and dangerous, but these women have to demolish their bodies because of unnatural circumstances. The Roe vs Wade case is omitted from Frankenstein as women bodies aren’t being used for political tools to stabilize the population. But, the men are creating sub-humans to prevent women from giving birth.


In conclusion, The Handmaid’s Tale and Frankenstein have both similarities and differences towards the subject of women. The Handmaid’s Tale overall is a diabolic approach to the acceptance of women in society, the use of their bodies for political tools is barbaric and the emotional scarring they are enduring due to their gender is corrupt. Whereas, Frankenstein’s attitude towards women is a more muted concept. Elizabeth Lavenza may be trapped in a male dominated society but she is not experiencing any physical violation or mental scarring, except the dismissal of her gender. However, the authors have a similar political view on the acceptance of women’s equality and the definition of feminism as a whole. 

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