How is this development integal to Atwood's message to the reader? Examine how Offred changes as a result  of her experience in Gilead. How is this development integal to Atwood's message to...

How is this development integal to Atwood's message to the reader? 

Examine how Offred changes as a result  of her experience in Gilead.

How is this development integal to Atwood's message to the reader? 

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susan3smith eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In Margaret Atwood's dystopian novel The Handmaid's Tale, Offred goes through many changes throughout her experience in Gilead. These changes, of course, become important themes of the novel and serve as a warning to readers as to how quickly the freedoms that we take for granted can be taken away.

Offred's life before Gilead was not unlike the lives of a typical American woman of the 1980s.  She had a job, a child, a husband, a good friend, a liberal bra-burning mother.  She was strong and independent.  However, her life changed rapidly when her financial independence, her job, and finally her family were stripped from her, and she was forced into servitude as the Commander's Handmaid.

What follows is Offred's adaptation to a world of slavery, where any move or look could be interpreted as rebellion.  The Wall serves as a reminder as to what can happen to rebels.  Offred learns to be silent, to take what is offered to her without complaint, to follow the rules. She stands in stark contrast to her friend Moira whose rebellious actions were futile and severely punished.  Offred's rebellion is small but perhaps more effective--stealing butter to grease her legs, for instance, and subvertly trying to connect to the underground Mayday movement.

But Offred also learns the power of intimacy--the need to feel close to another, that sex alone is not gratifying to either male or female without communication and trust.  This intimacy is what the Commander craves when he asks Offred into his room to play Scrabble.  It is what Offred craves when she sleeps with Nick.  And what she so desperately misses about her old life.

She sees that "freedom from" is not "freedom to."  Gilead may be free from prostitution, vulgarity, pornography, but at great cost to personal liberties.  Even the most powerful people in Gilead--the Commander and his wife Serena Joy are far from happy.  Serena Joy is miserable in the very world that she herself created.  The Commander secretly flouts Gilead's rules and restrictions, searching for fulfillment in an otherwise ritualistic and controlled world.

She learns that power is fickle.  Power can entrap such people as Serena Joy; it can produce sterile relationships between a man and a woman when one enslaves the other; and it can be used by even the seemingly least powerful, even a Handmaid, who is well aware of her sexual appeal and can learn to bargain with it.

teachersage eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Offred moves from being an assertive, outspoken woman who takes for granted being in charge of her own life to a woman silenced and increasingly imprisoned by an authoritarian state. This happens in stages. Offred does not begin as a handmaid when the government of Gilead takes power, but the silencing starts immediately, as her money is transferred to her husband's bank account. She then loses her job for being woman. Atwood outlines how, realizing she is suddenly economically dependent on her husband, Offred becomes more careful in her speech to him. She knows the power dynamic has shifted, and it alters her behavior.

The process comes to completion during her training as a handmaid, when any unwanted speech or deviance from Gilead's ideology is severely punished. As a handmaid, she is completely silenced, her identity erased. Everything in her surroundings reinforces that she is nothing but a potential womb. She takes on the name of her household's patriarch, becoming "Of Fred" or "Offred." She wears the same clothing as the other handmaid's and is interchangeable with any of them.

An image Atwood uses to describe the change women undergo in this society is that of females in former times, such as the models Offred sees when Fred gives her a Vogue, striding with long-legged confidence down the street, heads held high. This is contrasted to the handmaidens, constrained in their long gowns and tending to look down to avoid trouble on the streets.

Atwood's point is that society strongly influences identity. We are not merely individuals, born "bold and assertive" or "meek and submissive." We are socially constructed. In other words, we are, to a large extent, only what our society allows us to be. Therefore, it is vitally important to structure our societies to ensure freedom and equality. Showing how one individual changes as a result of larger social forces is integral to her message.