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

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slcollins eNotes educator| Certified Educator

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. 

favoritethings eNotes educator| Certified Educator

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.