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Explore the ways Atwood presents the ideas of freedom and imprisonment in The Handmaids Tale. “The Handmaids Tale” is set in a dystopia. This suggests a society where everything is wrong. However, this is clearly not the case in Gilead. There are aspects of the society, which are unjust, but equally there are certain facets that are an improvement over modern day society. This is shown quite clearly in Atwood’s depiction of freedom and imprisonment. One of the key expressions used within the novel is “Freedom to and freedom from”.
We are told that in Gilead you are given freedom from, as opposed to in our “days of anarchy” where we have freedom to. It is this significant difference that affects the whole of the Gileadean society, and through this the whole of Atwood’s novel. Does Atwood influence our views of the freedom and imprisonment through her use of words? Does Atwood have a feminist agenda and does this affect her views on freedom? How does Atwood portray Freedom and Imprisonment within “The Handmaids Tale”? In Gilead “freedom from” is taken for granted.
There is a strong state security force in the shape of the guards and the angels. The handmaids, as potentially young and attractive pairs of women feel safe enough to travel the streets just in pairs with no thought towards danger. As far as we are aware there is no serious crime. There are many small rebellions such as with the doctors, “Lots of women do it”. There is an almost complete freedom from that Atwood takes care to show. However, even with this protection there are still other meanings for “freedom from” that definitely do not exist within Gilead.
There is never freedom from surveillance. When walking through town Offred and Ofglen have to go through numerous security bars, “… two men, who stand at attention, stiffly, by a roadblock, watching our retreating shapes”. Throughout the novel Offred is wary of surveillance, often covert. She is also not totally protected from unwanted attention, ” As we walk away I know they’re watching, these two men who aren’t yet permitted to touch women. They touch with their eyes instead… “.
The very people who should be protecting the vulnerable women are the ones abusing, as is common in police states. The “freedom to” in our society is described in the handmaid’s tale in a number of ways. The Japanese tourists are wearing similar clothing and doing similar things to what they do nowadays. “The skirts reach just below the knee and the legs come out from beneath them, nearly naked in their thin stockings,”. This clothing would be considered perfectly normal within society and women have freedom to wear it as they please.
“Then I think: I used to dress like that. That was freedom. Westernized, they used to call it. ” Atwood uses Offred’s memories of before the insurrection to show how much the society has changed. There is a great lack of “freedom to” in Gileadean society. The leaders within society control all “freedom to” within Gilead. It is impossible for there to be complete lack of freedom, life itself cannot easily be forbidden, but within the society of Gilead they seem to come as close as possible to this limit.
As is common within the idea of a dystopia, the society even tries to control the thoughts and beliefs of its citizens. The red centre is an institute set up with the sole purpose of instilling the beliefs necessary for women to become handmaids and to train them for the work they will have to do. The law carefully governs all actions, all dress is uniform and even suicide is carefully prevented. The designers of Gilead wanted to have complete control of the population. Atwood makes some very feminist points.
Within the tale almost all women have at least some strength, ranging from Moira’s rebellion to Janine’s acceptance and eventual resilience, whereas the men are almost all shown with weaknesses, the commander’s difficulties within a society he seems to have helped create and the guardians weakness of the flesh. This is further shown in Atwood’s portrayal of imprisonment. It is mainly the women depicted as being imprisoned and restricted. Of the people sent to the colonies, most are women. This could be just the idea behind Atwood’s society but it could equally be Atwood’s own feminist agenda shining through.
In conclusion I believe that Atwood has carefully created these large contrasts of attitudes and values in an attempt to make them even more shocking. The choice of Offred as narrator further serves to heighten these points. Offred has memories of freedoms she has both gained and lost but takes no action. From our viewpoint this is weak-willed but in truth it is probably Offred’s only chance. Offred is impartial and gives us a viewpoint of one who has no control yet must still live with the consequences. This is the position most readers would find themselves in. Atwood gives a fair view of a society in complete control.