Themes in the novel 'The Handmaids Tale'

Gilead takes environmental control to an extreme, and controls almost all aspects of it’s inhabitant’s lives. The handmaids are controlled within society by means of the self worth lowering ignorance, de-humanizing abasement, and the fear instilled by strict consequences to illegal actions.

‘Control’ is a major theme throughout the novel – whether it be by the regimentation of life, the strict communication laws or the way in which people are stripped of their individuality. The whole environment in Gilead is carefully monitored and observed to ensure the ‘smooth’ running of society.

Suicides appear to be a major threat to civilization as they serve as an ‘escape route’ out of the oppressive lifestyle – therefore precautions are taken to ensure that suicide never becomes an option. Offred states that ‘they’ve removed anything you could tie a rope to’ to prevent hangings there is also a mention that there is ‘no glass’ in picture frames.

Razors and any other potentially harmful objects have been removed to ensure that an urge to ‘escape’ is never satisfied.

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These arrangements, although seemingly severe, were seen as necessary after many handmaids took their own lives after poor adaptation to the new regime. Handmaids are not permitted to leave their ‘home’ except for their daily walks and their shopping visits. During these expeditions the handmaids must walk in ‘twos’ – with a mirror image of themselves. It is during these walks that we notice how surveillance is used as another form of control.

It is believed that anybody living in Gilead would have no logical need to leave the state – unless they are trying to escape.

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The borders are therefore heavily guarded with gun- wielding security guards, there is also the added precaution of a ‘chain link fence topped with barbed wire’ to further ensure that physically escaping becomes practically impossible. To be permitted into the centre of Gilead, an identification pass is needed which is checked at designated ‘barriers’ – only if you are permitted may you enter the town centre. Failure to produce the pass quickly and efficiently may lead to the injury or death of a person, as guards often mistake people searching for their passes as people searching for a weapon. Handmaids can also be identified by a ‘small tattoo’ on the ankle showing ‘a four digit number and an eye – a passport’.

Gilead’s government has taken away “freedom to” and given “freedom from”(Atwood, 33) to the handmaids. They regulate what they can and cannot know, forcing them into ignorance, and call it freedom. Reading has been forbidden, and “even the names of shops were too much temptation, [and are] known by their signs alone”(33). The only word that Offred is given to look at is “FAITH in square print”(75) on a small pillow in her room. Even looking at this she wonders, “If [she] were caught, would it count?”(75). They are so used to not being able to read, that even at the sight of words and letters, they take precaution, and fear consequence. It was at the red center that the handmaids are first pumped full of the brainwashing propaganda that makes them think in this manner, “Once a week [they] had movies”(151), “old porno films from the seventies and eighties”(152).

These movies are used to make them hate the role women had played “in the days of anarchy”(33), and turn them against their past. They are successful in this, and make women believe that “[they] are containers, it is only the inside of [their] bodies that count”(124). Handmaids are “kept on some kind of pill or drug, that [was] put in the food”(91), so that “after a time [the unordinary] would become ordinary”(45), and they will have conformed to the Gileadian lifestyle. Freedom of speech has also been taken away. They are only allowed to speak at certain times with “accepted greetings [and responses]”(25) that have been created for them. Additionally, people cannot sing songs “in public anymore”(71), especially ones that “use words like free, they are considered too dangerous”(71). It is in these manners that the government of Gilead uses ignorance to control the handmaids and successfully forces them to “not want things they can’t have”(151).

On the surface, The Handmaid’s Tale appears to be feminist in nature. The point-of-view character and narrator is a woman and thus we see the world through a woman’s eyes. There’s much more to the story than that, though. Atwood doesn’t show us our world. She shows us a newly created world in which women lack the freedoms that they currently take for granted. This dystopian society is completely controlled by men. Of course, the men have help from the Aunts, a crack team of brainwashers that run the reeducation centers and teach the handmaids how to be slaves. These characters really
don’t speak well for womankind for two reasons.

First of all, it’s difficult to tell who their real life counterpart is, assuming that this novel is supposed to be a satire. They clearly bear some resemblance to the conservative, Bible-thumping, old maids that love the old way of doing things and constantly rally for a return to family values. The aunts constantly quote the Bible and encourage to women to be genteel and unmasculine. These women are in many ways the antithesis of the feminist. In other ways though, they fall right in line with feminist dogma. Their constant derailment of men and their bitter, hate-filled demeanors make them almost caricatures of hard-line feminists. In fact, they fit quite nicely into the stereotypical way that that anti-feminist men often portray feminists, as bitchy, man-hating lesbians.

Another function of the aunts in the book is to undermine the sense of female camaraderie shown other places in the book. While claiming to hate men, the aunts side with the men, pushing their agenda on the handmaids and treating them as much like objects as the men in the story do. Another group who seems to do this is the wives, most notably, Serena Joy. Instead of siding with the handmaids in their battle against a male-dominated society, the wives treat them with little to no respect and continuously show petty jealousy towards them. In fact, most or all of the women in The Handmaid’s Tale are portrayed in this manner.

While the handmaids themselves show solidarity on some occasions, they too exhibit petty jealousy and backbiting in other scenes in the book. They also take part in the most shocking scene in the book. The handmaids rip and tear a young man to shreds like lions released on the Christians in a Roman coliseum. Instead of joining together to fight back against oppression, the only time they seem to be almost completely unified is in this one display of blood lust. Each group and even each individual woman in the novel has her own agenda and no one can really be trusted. Surely, this is not the image of women that the feminists would like to portray.

Feminists themselves are most clearly represented in the novel by the characters of Moira and Offred’s mother. The narrator’s mother provides a picture of the 60’s era women’s libber while Moira represents a modern, lesbian feminist. At first, these characters seem to be the strongest of the novel and portray feminism in a flattering light. Offred speaks highly of her mother. She tells of her mother’s rallies and pickets, but also shows her softer side. Although never married herself, Offred’s mother is able to accept Luke and trade barbs with him without taking offense. She seems to have raised Offred well and by all accounts appears to be caring and nurturing. The character of Moira has slightly more of an edge. She’s tough, determined, and seemingly as capable as any man. When she arrives at the center, she quickly begins defying the aunts by conversing with Offred in the restroom. Eventually, she escapes the center using a piece of a toilet to kidnap an aunt and then stealing the aunt’s clothes for a disguise. With this, Offred is left wondering what has become of Moira, hoping that somehow she managed to escape into another country or at least strike some great blow against their captors.

It’s not until late in the novel that the reader finally finds out what became of Moira. First, Atwood lets the reader in on where Offred’s mother ended up. Offred discovers that her mother was labeled an unwoman and watches with sadness as the former radical cleans up toxic waste, a broken, dying woman. Moira has a somewhat less gruesome ending, but one that is no less tragic. Offred meets up with her at a secret club for high-ranking officials. Moira has become a prostitute, dressed in a degrading mock Playboy bunny costume and sleeping with decrepit old men in exchange for a tiny slice of freedom in cigarettes and lesbian sex with her fellow whores. The proud, self-assured feminist has become the antithesis of all she once stood for. By recounting these fictional events and several others in close succession, Atwood systematically destroys all of the hopes of the female sex in the novel. The two strongest female characters falter under the pressure of the dominant males. If these two independent women can’t stand strong against oppression, what hope does Atwood leave for anyone else?Obviously, the novel hinges on Offred. The Handmaids Tale is told through her eyes and she is the most developed of all the characters in it.

Atwood allows the reader to go inside the mind of a woman and see just what thoughts populate her existence. Offred represents a sort of everywoman in a lot of ways. She’s not extremely strong or confident, but she’s not overly weak either. Atwood seems to be saying in the novel that Offred is reacting the same way as any woman would to the situations she encounters. Sadly for the feminist, these reactions aren’t always flattering. Throughout the novel, Offred speaks of her love for Luke and of how she misses him. While she may have been overly dependent on him during their marriage, not many feminists could complain about her missing her husband. It’s her interactions with the other men of the novel, that are much more damning.

About midway through the novel, Offred begins a different kind of relationship with her commander, the man who owns her. She begins to see him in his office. Their meetings are almost like dates, and Offred lets her guard down slightly. The commander becomes a sort of father figure for her. She uses him and lets him use her, but also begins to develop a slight affection for him. Through the commander, she meets Nick, a young guard assigned to the house. Offred manages to begin seeing him regularly as well. Nick and Offred make love, which satisfies her libido, but there’s much more to their relationship than sex. Offred starts to tell Nick things.

She talks to him for hours each night that they’re together while he just lies beside her and listens. Like Luke and, to some extent, the commander before him, Nick makes Offred feel safe and protected. She clings to Nick and lets him fill the void that Luke can no longer fill. Atwood could have chosen to create Offred as an independent being, but instead she chose to shape her into a woman who needs men. On her own, Offred seems lost, but once she has that strong male figure to hold her and tell her that everything will be alright, she is much more content. One would be hard pressed to find a feminist that would admit to such utter dependence on the opposite sex.

Though many feminists would like to claim Atwood as one of their own, her writing is ultimately quite different than that of the purely feminist writers. It’s obvious that Atwood intentionally set herself apart from these writers with The Handmaid’s Tale. At times, she seems to disagree with them completely, such as when she shows pornography in a favorable manner. At other times, she portrays feminists themselves as the powerful women they would like to be seen as, but it’s always with full disclosure of their human frailty. Atwood never bashes feminism. Instead, she shows both sides of it. Like everything else in the novel, feminism is shown to have good and bad elements. Even in Atwood’s brave new world, there is no black and white.

The language of “protection of women” could slip from a demand for more freedom into a retreat from freedom, to a kind of neo-Victorianism. After all, it was the need to protect “good” women from sex that justified all manner of repression in the 19th century, including confining them to the home, barring them from participating in the arts, and voting. Contemporary Islamic women sometimes argue that assuming the veil and traditional all-enveloping clothing is aimed at dealing with sexual harassment and sexual objectification. The language is feminist, but the result can be deeply patriarchal, as in this novel.

Genesis 30:1-3 is one of several passages that make clear that in patriarchal Hebrew times it was perfectly legitimate for a man to have sex and even beget children by his servants (slaves), particularly if his wife was infertile. It is unknown how widespread was the custom described here, of having the infertile wife embrace the fertile maidservant as she gave birth to symbolize that the baby is legally hers. Atwood extrapolates outrageously from this point, as is typical of dystopian writers: it is highly unlikely that the puritanical religious right would ever adopt the sexual practices depicted in this novel; but she is trying to argue that patriarchal traditions which value women only as fertility objects can be as demeaning as modern customs which value them as sex objects. She makes clear that this is a reductio ad absurdum, a theoretical exercise designed to stimulate thought about social issues rather than a realistic portrait of a probable future


Atwood, Margaret Eleanor. The Handmaid’s Tale. New York: Random House Inc, 1998.

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Themes in the novel 'The Handmaids Tale'. (2016, Jul 25). Retrieved from

Themes in the novel 'The Handmaids Tale'

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