The Role of Fear in The Handmaid’s Tale

Fear is ever-present in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. The republic of Gilead uses fear to force the citizens of Gilead to be obedient. Each citizen gets a label that specifies what their role is, the rules they must follow, and what they have to do in order to remain a part of their society. If they fail to follow these rules or fulfill these roles, the result can be alienation from society or being brutally murdered or tortured.

All the women in Gilead are forced to succumb to labels that represent various traditional female roles, such as wives, housekeepers/Marthas, or handmaids. The fears of women in this society are failing to get pregnant and not being able to repopulate. To society, these women are not people, but just mere parts of the machine that focuses on birthing new citizens.

Throughout the novel, women are depicted to serve no purpose other than to give birth. If you are a handmaid, your primary goal is to increase the birth rate.

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In return, you are provided with food, shelter, and safety. If a handmaid fails to become pregnant or rebels, she will be hung or alienated from society. To a handmaid, the ability to carry a baby is a life goal, similar to how population growth has become Gilead's goal. When Offred and Offglen are walking to the market to buy meat, a handmaid named Janine from another house walks in, with a huge baby bump not even trying to conceal it because she was so happy.

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Jenine was a symbol of hope for all the women. From that moment until the birth of the child Jenine had value, something Offred craved. She wants to be seen like this, she to be important, she wants people to stare at her and be jealous of her. Birthing a child is the only chance Offred has at being validated in Gilead’s society. Humans crave acknowledgment and the feeling of fitting in and being accepted. Her fear of having no children and therefore no worth is reminded by her menstrual cycle, “each month I watch for blood, fearfully, for when it comes it means failure. I have failed once again to fulfill the expectations of others, which have become my own” (Atwood 73). Offred’s need to fit in is born from the fear and societal pressure of not being able to conceive.

As if being treated like a birthing unit isn't bad enough, imagine having the underlying intentions of your government be to control every single aspect of your life in every way, shape, and form allowing you no control. As humans, we are impacted by what surrounds us. If we have no control over our surroundings, our thoughts become what they want them to be, so we begin to feel powerless and unable to escape, “I wait, I compose myself. My self is a thing I must now compose, as one composes a speech. What I must present is a made thing, not something born” (Atwood 66). When Offred says “myself” she means the version of her this society has forced her to become, not her old self. Right now, she is not a person, she has no value, she is something that has been shaped and manipulated by society, not the person who she was before. The only way for the new version of her to feel any value is to do exactly what the government wants her to do, which is birth children. This system and the very high pressure that comes with it makes breaking the vicious cycle very difficult. Any attempt to rebel will result in alienation, torture, or being hung in front of everyone as an example of what not to do. As long as the government stays in power, she will have no choice but to conform to that label and birth a baby. Only then will she find temporary worth and happiness that will only last until the baby comes and then she will have to try all over again until she dies.


Updated: Dec 12, 2023
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The Role of Fear in The Handmaid’s Tale. (2020, Sep 22). Retrieved from

The Role of Fear in The Handmaid’s Tale essay
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