Themes in The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

Categories: Margaret Atwood

Resistance narrative is a story about an individual who is resisting showing that they do not agree with a social or political view. In this novels case we have Offred who is trying to resist the tyrannical society she is in. This is a recurring theme in "The Handmaid's Tale" by Margaret Atwood as we see Offred battle to survive and cope in an oppressive society where she is the victim. Resistance is used by many different people and for many different purposes throughout the course of this novel.

I believe that it is more than just Offred's resistance that makes her tale a "resistance narrative" but in fact a resistance of most characters connected to her and the ways in which they carry out this. Each caste in Gilead has its own group of rebellious people and share of rebellious doings.

"It must have been a Martha who got it for her. There is a network of the Marthas, then, with something in it for them.

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To all these rebellious acts there are of course consequences. Consequences such as being scolded, beaten, tortured, being exiled as an unwoman sent to live in the colonies, even death. Ofglen, who was part of the Mayday resistance, Serena who acquired cigarettes and the photo of Offred's daughter off the black market, the Commander who visited Jezebel's and Nick who formed a relationship with Offred, all of who resisted of their own accord, each with their own specific motive that drives them on. In fact there are very few individuals in the novel that obey the law of Gilead precisely.

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However there are two very obvious distinctions from those who resist. This being the fact that some only resist in order to make their life more tolerably. However characters like Moira and Ofglen are more concerned with not just themselves who are suffering, but also all the victims of the society as a whole.

For example Serena breaks the rules in order to manipulate Offred and also to be able to smoke. She makes her life more tolerable by being able to access such luxuries such as cigarettes, however she does not care about how the handmaid's are being used in order to further the society. I feel however that Offred is not easily classified into either of these factions. She is not an obvious rebel however she does care about how others have suffered like her.

Offred has many unique reasons and ways of resistance as she goes about what has become her everyday life. Some of these ways are deliberate and some however, naturally occur as her mind is reminded of something. One strategy that she uses to her advantage is her memories of the past. She hangs on to her old name to be able to relate to the past more effectively. Read about the language of oppression in The Handmaid's Tale

"I keep the knowledge of this name like something hidden, some treasure I'll come back to dig up, one day."

This is Offred's most powerful form of resistance, as she cannot be caught physically doing something wrong. Her thoughts are her own and she retains memories of her life before Gilead to take refuge in. By living in the past she is secluding herself from the present, where she does not want to be. This technique is most obviously seen in Chapter Sixteen where the Ceremony takes place.

"One detaches oneself. One describes."

The language used by Atwood when describing the Ceremony is very satirical and ironic, however the way she uses these comparisons are quite chilling. She compares the rhythm of the Commander to a "regular two-four marching stroke, on and on like a tap dripping." Using this metaphorical language Offred can disconnect herself by means of making fun of the situation that she is in. She also uses another technique of removing herself by referring to herself as "one", Offred is reinforcing how she detaches herself away from that scenario. Offred also uses another technique in order to cope with life in Gilead. She often makes a mockery of situations in order to cope with them. For example during the ceremony she mentions:

"He nods, then turns and leaves the room, closing the door with exaggerated care behind him, as if both of us are his ailing mother. There's something hilarious about this, but I don't dare laugh."

There is also the subconscious memory that is triggered by Offred comparing part of her life in Gilead to her life before. These flashbacks give the reader a sense of double vision, as we are seeing Offed in her old life but also the same time the situation that triggered her flashback in the present. This narrative technique is used very effectively and explores the way the subconscious and conscious mind works.

"You'll have to forgive me. I'm a refugee from the past, and like other refugees I go over the customs and habits of being I've left or been forced to leave behind me."

The image of a refugee is very emotive and contains a lot of powerful language. The image of a refugee is very powerful as it parallels with the situation that Offred is in as it conjures thought of isolation and exploitation of a person. Atwood is also trying to explain to the reader that the mind is never self-contained but instead relates to memories of other times that compare to the current situation in the present.

Another form of Offred's resistance is her way of retaining hope. This type of resistance is directly linked to that of her memories. By remembering things such as Luke, she is able to generate hope by thinking that he may be in a better place and not dead. She also clings on to the idea that he or someone will come and save her from the terrible regime. This is a constant resource of strength for her during the novel, however towards the end I believe that she starts to give up hope of ever escaping or being rescued as she talks of making a life for herself.

"I have made a life for myself, here, of a sort."

By saying this Offred has given up hope of ever leaving Gilead and accepts that this is all she ever will have and has to make the best of it.

Along with mental resistance Offred does physically resist the situation she is in. There are many instances in the novel where Offred is aware that what she is doing is wrong and if caught would be punished, however she carries on.

Chapter twenty-three is the first chapter in which we, as readers, witness a secret meeting between the Commander and Offred. In this meeting they play Scrabble, I believe that Atwood is trying to create a sense of irony that playing a game could be so rebellious and could result in punishment. This event is also very like another form of resistance by Offred when she steals butter: she is conscious of her external appearance to others and as she lacks cosmetics she has to settle for whatever she can get her hands on. This is butter rather than moisturiser, however as her secret meetings continue with the Commander she is given pleasures such as being able to use real moisturiser. These pleasures are another variety of resistance from Offred. By resisting once she is able to do it more often with less concern for herself.

"Having broken the main taboo, why should I hesitate over another one, something minor? Or another, or another; who could tell where it might stop?"

These encounters help build up Offreds confidence and hope in that she will survive these taxing times. She is given freedoms to do things that she should not be allowed to do when with the Commander.

"there's an enticement in this thing, it carries with it the childish allure of dressing up, and it would be so flaunting such a sneer at the Aunts, so sinful so free. Freedom, like everything else, is relative."

The language used in this section of the novel is very powerful. Words such as allure are very sensuous and sexual. Even the slightest freedom, such as dressing up is very sensuous for Offred as she is deprived of a lot. Freedom is undoubtedly resistance in Gilead's eyes but also in Offred's. Freedom is what Offred is trying to acquire however she only seems to get small glimpses that the Commander provides. I feel that this is what draws her to him and to keep playing his games as he can provide things that other characters cannot. However the relationship between them is more of a father daughter rather than a husband and wife. The Commander treats Offred like a child by allowing her to do things that she would not normally. The language and vocabulary used is very simplistic and the tone is not very serious or formal between them.

Offred's resistance is very different from that of other people. Moira has quite the opposite approach to resistance, instead of being discreet like Offred she is very overt and was punished while in the Red centre. I feel that Offred wishes to be more like Moira as she looks up to her. She even admitted herself that she lacked the courage to be more like Moira. However even though Offred wants to be more like Moira her attitude towards Gilead and their regime end in defeat. Offred knows this and notices when they finally meet at Jezebel's.

"She is frightening me now, because what I hear in her voice is indifference, a lack of volition."

During the novel Moira is a constant source of strength for Offred. Offred senses that Moira has been changed by the system and this is a severe blow to her. I believe that Offred's rebellious qualities where stemmed from being around Moira. After having seen Moira admit defeat, "You'd have three or four good years before your snatch wears out," Offred wants her to exit in some sort of farfetched act in order to keep her memory of Moira true to what she believes her to stand for. Many characters battle with the society that they in to try and defeat it, another character very similar to Moira is Ofglen. Being part of the Mayday resistance she is an active rebel who wants to demolish Gilead and everything it stands for.

She sacrifices herself in order to not betray her friends who are in the resistance under interrogation. However contrasting to these is Ofwaren or Janine. She is a typical female victim. Raped by a gang of thugs in her previous 'life' and also in the life of Gileadean system. Her only moment of success was getting pregnant by a doctor that is considered wrong, however this was tainted as the baby was considered an "Unbaby" and was destroyed. She and the society that she lives in blame her for this tragedy. In all her efforts to be a good citizen she is still victimized even though she did nothing wrong except try and follow the ways of the society she was in. Her resistance cannot be compared to either Serena or Ofglen. She is in a class of her own.

Atwood portrays the human instinct of resistance very actually, compared to that of similar situation that have occurred throughout history. In numerous invasions of countries the reaction of the citizens that live there have been studied. The most prominent example of this is the Second World War. There were many different resistant groups opposing the Nazi's, all of whom were unsuccessful in destroying their oppressors. There are many similarities to historical events throughout the novel and I believe this to be no coincidence.

"Every single practices described in the novel are drawn from historical records."

I feel Atwood was heavily influenced by her trip to Afghanistan; the idea that the handmaid's wear veils I feel is a parallel to that of the women in Afghanistan who wear 'chador'. She even admitted that the book would not have been the same if she had not visited Afghanistan.

"Would I have written the book if I had never visited Afghanistan? Possibly. Would it have been the same? Unlikely."

As we progress through the novel we come to realise that one major part of the plot is how Offred survives rather than how she escapes and resistance is undoubtedly how she achieves this. Hence, this is why I believe that "the Handmaid's Tale" is a "resistance narrative" as there are many types of resistance other than openly being a rebel or being part of a rebellious group. Offred carries out her own unique types of resistance to help her cope with the burden that the totalitarian society, that she is part of, bears on her making this novel the story of her resistance.

Updated: Nov 01, 2022
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Themes in The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood. (2020, Jun 02). Retrieved from

Themes in The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood essay
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