The Handmaid's Tale Questions and Answers
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...

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