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The Handmaid’s Tale covers many topics and through Offred’s discussion of events we see how Gilead has warped bible messages, torn apart families and condones legalized rape. The democratic society she once took for granted has been exchanged for a strict patriarchal fundamentalist dystopia, leaving her as nothing more than a “cloud congealed around a central object” the object of course being womb. I think that considering the depth in which Atwood explores the relating issues it would be impossible to only have message, so in this essay I hope to outline the ones that I can distinguish.
The first, and main, message I believe is to serve as a warning. Atwood makes many but sometimes subtle references to the ‘time before’ in which we currently reside. She is a Canadian writer but has given the narrator an American nationality, and states that the regime ‘hasn’t spread as far as Canada’, which I believe is relevant as the Aunt’s slogans out rightly twist and manipulate old sayings and bible references (“Blessed are the silent”) in order to make them conform to and reinforce their instructions.
The Aunts also create words such as “Prayvaganza” which seem to enter normal vocabulary without much hesitation. This mimics American society in that advertising campaigns and commercials do the same in order to sell their products, the way the Aunt’s ‘sell’ their beliefs to the handmaid’s. Canada is normally seen as a much more liberal country where as America is more known for their extremes showing that these could be the real danger that would result in such events occurring.
Using references such as these makes the reader see how this could be a natural progression for the extremists, and understand how the current direction of society could eventually lead to such a regime. Offred describes herself as “A Sister dipped in blood” which is referring to the uniform handmaids are required to wear, by both the colour and by the literal blood shed to enforce the new regulations that require she wears it. This is to signify the lengths such extremists will go to in order to have their (even if no-one else’s) ideal society met.
This gives a whole different feeling to the novel, as rather than just a story, it is more of a prophesy and an insight into what a group of individuals can achieve if vigilance drops while subtly critiscing American culture. Another way that this could be seen as a warning is in the situations that cause Gilead to begin the system, such as plummeting birth rates and other issues that are currently facing us, making this story seem ever more accurate. An alternative message could be to not take what we have for granted.
We are reminded throughout the novel that Offred and Luke “didn’t even know [they] were happy” in her old life. It is only now that she has been stripped of her identity, belongings and family that she appreciates her previous freedom. She reminisces about her affair with Luke, amazing herself at how casual they used to be in relationships and showing the contrast between the “time before” and the current situation where even kissing is forbidden and this deprivation “makes it bearable”.
This is a perfect example of the phrase ‘you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone’, which is highlighted well next to the aforementioned predictive nature of the novel. It inspires the thought that this could be what we will be thinking thirty years in to the future. Freedom is another issue that is covered in this novel. Two types of freedom are identified by the Aunts, “freedom to” and “freedom from”. In the new regime, the state has eliminated any ‘freedom to’ and replaced it in it’s entirety with the latter.
Offred acknowledges that in the democracy in which she once lived, there were rapes and there were attacks on women, but she also says she ‘hungers for the act of touch’ and shows that they not only have freedom from assaults, they have freedom from the most simple things in human nature. Even the commander who is meant to be a dedicated believer in the regime and even one of the instigators of it, breaks the rules he made by going to the Jezebels saying that “everyone’s human after-all” in a bid to justify the “club” he takes Offred to, and then saying ‘you can’t cheat nature’.
This completely contradicts the message of Gilead, as that is exactly what they are trying to do. They deprive women of everything, ranking them and identifying them merely by their allocated role. Everything once deemed as being ‘natural’ is now forbidden, except of course childbirth. However, even this is made unnatural by the process that is followed to induce the pregnancy. The lack of communication and touch over a long period of time, where defiance of this results in a public execution, deeply affects the handmaid’s making them find comfort in undetectable rebellion.
By this I am referring to the period Offred spent in the red centre, where they would pass messages from bed to bed and could “touch each other’s hands across space”, the space symbolizing the void in which they are to feel both emotionally and physically resulting from the only human contact to be the obligatory rape and ‘hopefully’ conception on which their life depends. This is similar to when Offred would touch Moira’s fingers through the hole in the wall during their secret meetings in the toilet.
Because of all these events stated in this novel and the way in which they seem to be sandwiched in-between Aunt Lydia’s slogans of the ‘perfect’ handmaid in Gilead, shows that one message being conveyed is that no matter who they are, everyone needs some sort of rebellion against such an oppressive regime. The previous Offred had the message carved onto the cupboard and even the Commander has his outlet for it, meaning that no-one can be completely controlled or dehumanised as aimed for by Gilead.
Human nature can’t be eradicated, however strict the punishment for it is. An example of this is when Offred takes a huge risk on her life by seeing Nick. She knows what would become of her if she was found out, but she needs the feeling of being genuinely valued to be able to cope, despite the irony that this could be the thing that resulted in her death. The theme of rebellion and defiance runs strong through this novel, and I think that the message of ‘rebellion is freedom’ discussed in the previous paragraph is highlighted by the character of Moira.
Offred directly associates reluctance to conform with her friend, and describes her as “defying fashion once again” when she see is reunited with her at the Red Centre. Atwood uses Moira to show another side of society, and can be interpreted to inspire a shimmer of hope within the reader as well as possibly Offred herself. She reminisces about Moira during the democratic leadership in a very fond manner as when she is trying to think of “something good” she immediately narrates a conversation between them illustrating the easy and comfortable way in which they converse.
This is a very distinct contrast to the scripted and restricted nature of conversation that is solely available now. Having the main character so closely involved with one representing the violent up rise against Gilead, allows Atwood to dangle the prospect of salvation in front of the reader in the form of a one-woman resistance with the possibility of freedom only inches away. This is the hope that Offred clings on to, the hope that is discouraged in Gilead but cannot be taken away.
Although this possibility of freedom is rethought when Offred is taken to the Commander’s “club” and sees her again after her second and seemingly successful escape as we meet a different Moira to the one so intent on breaking free and away from the regulations she hated so much. Moira has been beaten, but still attempts through her dialogue to convince Offred otherwise by calling her “the whore of Babylon” in a bid to replicate the playful banter they used to exchange in college.
She does, however, admit that “nobody gets out of [the Jezebel’s club] except in a black van” which is known to be the transport of the Eyes when they take away those not conforming with the system to their death. The contrasts greatly with the victorious speech that follows telling of her escape. Even Offred herself says that there was “indifference” in her voice and a “lack of volition” making the possible heroine of the book no more than another defeated soul trying to convince herself she’s got the best end of the deal.
It is my belief that Atwood was trying to convey the idea that in such an oppressive regime, such outright defiance could not go undetected and consequently could not go unpunished. However determined Moira once was, the sheer weight of the system is enough to crush her as she is after-all, just one person. Offred still wants to believe in her, though, and so ends this chapter with “I’d like to say she blew up Jezebel’s with 50 Commanders inside it”, making sure some hope is left that Moira once again defied “fashion”.
Rebellion is also found in the character of Ofglen, although in a different form. Ofglen doesn’t violently resist system, but instead takes the route of trying to break it from the inside. She gives the impression of an underground organization using code words like “May day” in order to detect if Offred is an Eye (a spy). This kind of information would only be available to those in power and so would have to be obtained through secret connections, forbidden by the establishment.
During the Salvaging, she describes the man they are meant to killing as “one of us” and knocks him out so as to not subject him to a painful death. This incident was used to highlight the lies being told by Gilead, as she points out he had not raped a handmaid as they were told, but was helping handmaid’s escape from the state. This gives another side to the way people attempt to break such a system but as the story of Ofglen ends sadly and abruptly it could have been used to show that this method too was risky and could only be left unnoticed for a short period of time.
Possibly this type of rebellion would be seen as worse than that adopted by Moira, as although Moira was potentially more dangerous physically, private talk and planning was forbidden in order to stop an organized uprising which was more hazardous to the establishment itself, rather than a few Aunts or Commanders. The message conveyed by this is that when there is such a totalitarian hold over the state, it’s hard to beat without succumbing to them one way or another.
Feminism plays a large part in this novel, and Atwood creates the character of Offred’s mother to take the role of a follower of the feminist movement of the 1970s as a way to convey their views and ideas in a direct fashion. As many references are made to this topic, it’s my opinion that there must be a relevance when discussing the messaged portrayed in The Handmaid’s Tale. Offred says almost a prayer to her mother, saying to her “You wanted a woman’s culture. Well now there is one. It isn’t what you meant, but it exists. Be thankful for small mercies.
The moral presented here may be that sometimes views can be taken too far, and that rather than women rising above as some extreme feminists believed should happen, equality is the essential ingredient to any regime that values the happiness of its people. This is why her relationship with Nick is so cherished because this egalitarianism which is so rare in Gilead is found in him. Atwood creates an aspect of escapism around Offred through her flashbacks during the description of unpleasant events or just merely trying to block out the unending torture that Gilead seems to represent for women, saying “Where should I go?
Somewhere good”. She blocks out any disturbing sights, such as the bodies on the wall and distorts this to seem less threatening. Instead of blood being the cause of the red smudge on the white bag over the latest corpse’s head, it’s described a “smile” and she even compares it to a flower. As Offred is the only female character who’s story does not end in a necessarily final manner such as Ofglen and Moira, it could be seen that this type of detachment is the only way to cope when confronted with such disturbing sights and circumstances. The way in which Offred rebels against them is the only method that cannot be detected.
She makes jokes about them in her head and twists what they are saying, diminishing any menace that may surround them. For example, rather than listen to Aunt Lydia’s speeches, she focuses her attention on the mole that “bobbed up and down as she talks” making her the subject of her joke rather than of her fear. Although the end is left ambiguous, as it is unclear if she is being taken away by the Eyes (in which case it would be safe to assume she would not return) or if it is a movement by an underground organization intended to rescue her.
After all, if it were the latter they would not be able to complete this operation without a disguise of some sort, and Nick would indeed be obliging to aid this escape rather than her execution. Without a definite conclusion to this story it is hard to interpret whether the message is that sometimes to survive certain situations you have to detach yourself from it and concentrate on staying sane in your own mind rather than necessarily trying to escape it, or that sometimes everything is futile if you’re on the wrong side, which Offred was indeed on.
In this case, Nick would have betrayed her showing that even the person she was relying on to get her through this was one of those she dreamed of escaping. In conclusion, this novel covers many issues, and works as a criticism of human nature as well as American culture (which has somewhat become synonymous with English culture also), an insight into rebellion, freedom and deprivation of it, but the real true message is masked by the indefinite end of the main character with which Atwood has made us empathize and understand.
This is intended to make us think, one freedom that Offred had took for granted, and to decide whether she does or doesn’t survive. Whichever we chose will alter out interpretation of the novel completely and thus will alter the overall message. Is anyone to be trusted? Is escapism sometimes the best method? Does rebellion really mean freedom, or just punishment? There are many questions that Atwood leaves us to answer, and so it is almost all up to the reader what the real ending is, and I believe the implications of this novel cannot necessarily be consistent with each reading of it.
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