Is "The Handmaid's Tale" ultimately a feminist work of literature, or does it offer a critique of feminism?
"The Handmaid's Tale" is a feminist work by Margaret Atwood, who is famously liberal. But the book does contain a critique of feminism. In an interview with Randomhouse, Atwood states, "This is a book about what happens when certain casually held attitudes about women are taken to their logical conclusions." It emphasizes how far we have come as women and how easily we could lose it all.
Not only is this book about what can happen if we become too complacent (there's your critique of feminism), it makes the point that societies like Gilead exist and we're not so far removed from them. In a letter to her readers, Atwood shares her concerns: "I found myself increasingly alarmed by statements made frequently by religious leaders in the United States; and then a variety of events from around the world could not be ignored, particularly the rising fanaticism of the Iranian monotheocracy... There is nothing new about the society depicted in [the book] except the time and place."
Atwood shares that there are those in the US who would welcome a Gilead-like theocracy: "If you were going to take over the United States, how would you do it? ...You would ... say, 'I have the word from God and this is the way we should run things.' That probably would have ... a chance of working, and in fact there are a number of movements in the States saying just that, and getting lots of dollars and influence."
According to Carol Ann Howells, the novel is a critique of 2nd wave North American feminism (Betty Friedan, NOW, and basically the legal battle for equality). 3rd wave feminism allows for diversity among feminists, which the 2nd wave ignored, thus alienating many women.
In The Handmaid's Tale Offred defends love as an important human emotion, one that the leaders of Gilead have forgotten in their restrictive patriarchal legislation. In similarity to Sharia Law, the commander argues that women are safer in Gilead; they are protected, don't have to put up with pornography or fear being raped on the street. Everyone has her role to play, so there is less confusion about sexual relations. But orderly life and security are seldom equated with freedom or any kind of human emotion.
2nd wave feminists did not allow for ambivalence. The complexity of gender roles and romantic relations are briliantly problematized in Atwood's novel.
I believe Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale can be thought of as a feminist parable of a repressive pseudo-Christian regime of the near future. I’m intentionally calling it a pseudo-Christian, and rather fascist, theory because Atwood, who studied under the famous historian Perry Miller (and dedicated the novel to him), one of the most influential commentators of Puritan culture, doesn’t pretend to construct a novel offering the critique of Christianity’s complex history. What she writes is satire, or a novel that illustrates the dangers (in her mind) of a particular ideological component of Christianity (not patriarchy) if it were to hold authoritarian power.