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The Handmaid's Tale

by Margaret Atwood

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What role does fear play in The Handmaid's Tale?

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Fear is a prime motivator in the world of The Handmaid’s Tale. The novel is set in near-future America, where a totalitarian government has taken power. The name for the specific sort of government resembled in The Handmaid’s Tale is a theonomy—a somewhat hypothetical system based around Christian values. Atwood explores a very dark, dystopian version of a theonomy that roots its philosophy in the subjugation of women and fundamentalist Christian values. In the real world, fear can often be (though is not always) a tool used by fundamentalist Christians to gain converts and keep their congregations in line—fear of the rapture or Hell for example, or in more diabolical churches, the fear of immigrants, other races, socialism, other religions, or the funding of social programs.

Offred and the other women are put down and kept in line by fear, with their sanity and physical safety constantly being threatened if they demonstrate the wrong behavior. The dystopian theonomy in The Handmaid’s Tale is designed to control its inhabitants from the inside as well as the outside, making large swaths of the population internalize that they are second-class citizens and matter less than the average (male) human being. It is important to understand the role fear plays in the novel not only as it effects the individual characters. The government Atwood describes in The Handmaid’s Tale can only exist built upon fear; fear is the engine on which a world like that runs. In a sense, Atwood’s novel is a warning to the modern world never to give into its fear.

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Fear is the main source of social and political control in the Republic of Gilead, the society of The Handmaid's Tale. Offred, the main character, is hemmed in by fear all the time. When she goes to market with a fellow handmaid, she confronts the dangling dead bodies of people who have been hanged for crimes such as sexual deviancy. When being trained as a handmaid, she lives in fear of the harsh physical punishments the smallest lack of obedience brings. Living in the commander's household, she lives in fear that if she does not get pregnant, she may be sent to the colonies to clean up radioactive waste: a death sentence.

Lack of any information about what is going on in the wider world also feeds the fear of Offred and the other handmaids. They simply have no information with which to orient themselves to a wider world, so must always assume the worst as a default position.

Offred and her fellow handmaids are under almost constant surveillance. Armed guards control the streets, and spies work undercover. Offred must stay in her own world and is afraid even to ask questions for fear that she will be denounced.

The highly restricted world that Offred lives in provides a backdrop of constant anxiety, especially as she often has nothing to do. The novel effectively shows that the everyday knowledge, mobility, and information...

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we take for granted are sources of power that are denied to the lower caste women in this society. Beyond that, the constant and ever-present threat of severe physical harm or execution keeps people in line in an inhumane environment that no normal person would tolerate if he or she had a choice.

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Offred also fears for her loved ones—for Luke and her daughter especially.  She constructs all kinds of conflicting narratives in her head to account for Luke: in one, he's escaped; in another, he's dead; she just hopes that he's not being tortured somewhere (fearing that he is).  Further, the fear of never seeing her daughter again also paralyzes Offred at times.  It is agonizing to her to think that she might never find out exactly what happened to her daughter after she was taken, and when she sees the photograph of her daughter, she fears that her new family has killed the girl she once was, forcing her into a role as a starched and stiff Commander's child.  

Offred also fears losing herself.  She has come to think of herself as a walking womb, a vessel waiting to be filled with the Commander's baby.  Since her uterus is the only valuable part of her (according to the community's values), it is easy for her to forget to value herself as an individual.

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Fear plays a central role in The Handmaid’s Tale. Offred is driven by fear – fear of not getting pregnant, fear of stepping out of line and being turned in, and fear of living her entire life in her current state. She fears not getting pregnant because she would face a future in the Colonies. Getting pregnant will secure her future and place in society. She also fears stepping out of line and having someone tell on her. It is obvious that the handmaid’, and everyone else in society, are conditioned to believe what they are told and report those who don’t act accordingly. That explains why the handmaids always travel in pairs. Offred also fears living her life like it currently is; inferences direct the reader to understand that suicide would be preferable to what life she has now. The Commander is able to give her a glimpse of how her life could be – black market magazines, lotion and clandestine trips to Jezebel’s are what he uses to tempt her. Even these are not enough to make her comply with the life she has been told to lead. Even though she is afraid, she still works for the resistance and believes in a greater cause. 

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