The Laugh of the Medusa vs The Handmaids Tale: Compare & Contrast
The issue that is most conspicuously portrayed in Margaret Atwood’s novel ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ and Helene Cixous’ ‘The Laugh of the Medusa’ is that of the suppression of women and their inner and outer beauty and power. Cixous wants a woman to know her true self and to admire it; to know little things about her body and to know the power behind their sexuality.
Atwood undermines that power and writes about the hardships of all women in a male controlling society. However alike both the subjects might be, Atwood does exactly what Cixous is anxiously telling all women not to do; to write about themselves as the lower race. In other words, Cixous’s theory proves to be very much true.
Atwood’s novel disturbingly depicts a world where there is a Patriarchy running. It doesn’t stop at men having the upper hand but shows that the women are treated either as mating partners or a reproductive machine. They have no say in how the government is running and are a mere side to a man’s wellbeing.
It goes on further to show that many blame lies on women alone. For example, in the novel’s fictional world, a man cannot be infertile. If a woman is unable to reproduce, it is her fault and only her fault alone. Even if someone is suspicious of a male’s sterility, they are unable to say it out loud and are afraid to be punished.
On the other hand, Cixous writes about the female’s repression as well but in a very different context. She mentions how a woman is subjected to male dominance because she has never fully embraced herself as a whole or accepted that she is equally, if not more, capable of competing against males.
Cixous further goes to show, rather desperately, that this is partially a woman’s fault as well because throughout the years there has been absolutely no change in the society and they have rather been accustomed to their designated state. Going to a bit extreme though, she mentions that a woman who disgraces her counterparts and makes it easier for other women to live in a male’s shadow should be killed.
Interlinked ironically, Atwood and Cixous do not differ entirely on their accounts. Atwood’s protagonist Offred is a fighter. She is not the timid and beautiful woman one might expect but given her ridiculous circumstances and another part where she has to have intercourse with a man in front of his wife, she deals with it rather well. But given the secret relationships, she has with several men, it is again against Cixous’ wishes when she is letting herself be played with like a toy rather than take action on improving.
Most readers think that she had no other choice but after ‘The Laugh of the Medusa’, that is not true. Cixous encourages women to write because she feels that men have been writing all this time and have a lead on what is the turning factor of the millennium. She admits that there has been an increase in women writers in the nineteenth century but it is still minimal compared to that of men.
Although what Cixous says is not followed by Atwood, she has not contradicted it either. Cixous painlessly tells all women to be themselves in her theoretical writing. But she also points out their mistakes and blunders and how they react to certain situations that have led them here. Atwood concentrates on the latter part in the novel.
She does not make it out to be a blunder but her world is everything that Cixous out rightly detests. In other words, Cixous’s theory proves true. Women really do take the gun and put it to their own heads and no one else is to blame for that.
Cixous vividly defines what makes a woman a woman and has written it so beautifully and convincingly that a woman really does feel special after reading it. She also feels that a threat has been immobilized and is not planning to divulge in moving anywhere. Atwood does the exact opposite. She makes a woman feel threatened only and the rituals and customs she has created in her story.
For instance, Offred is made into a Handmaid and has to do things that would repulse even the most open-minded person. Having intercourse with someone’s husband in front of his wife is morally and ethically wrong. To even write such a thing is preposterous.
Furthermore, the wife goes forward to scheming by making Offred sleep with her driver because she thinks that her husband is sterile. Whatever the reasons, to want a child or to prove her husband’s misfortune, this act alone brushes aside all that Cixous is saying in vain.
And brushing all this aside, the most interesting part of Cixous’ theory is that of a woman’s guilt. That she has to feel that everything is her fault. That is a common thing between the two protagonists Offred and the woman generation Cixous writes about. Another common thing is the immeasurable giving power of a woman.
Cixous is extremely cynical about it and does not like the fact that a woman keeps on giving her entire life without having a balance sheet to take something back. Men do that and hence, their status.
Even in Atwood’s character Offred, she keeps silent about certain sins just so she can know about her own daughter. It cannot be decided whether it is cruelty or light of a mother’s love. The similarities end here.
At every stage of what she says, Cixous keeps telling all women to write. She mentions it after every possible example. She means for them to write well about themselves so that their sexes would feel good too while reading.
Atwood does not comply with those wishes. Her entire story is based around a harsh sense where a woman seems lesser than even an animal in the real world. This is exactly what Cixous is telling all women to refrain from.
Cixous, Helene. “The Laugh of the Madusa”. In Kearney, Richard, and Rasmussen, David (Eds). Continental Aesthetics – Romanticism to Postmodernism an Anthology. London: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011. Print.
Atwood, Margaret. The Handmaid’s Tale. Canada: McClelland and Stewart, 1985. Print.