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The Handmaid's Tale

by Margaret Atwood

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Masterplots II: Juvenile & Young Adult Literature Series The Handmaid's Tale Analysis

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The Handmaid’s Tale is Margaret Atwood’s extrapolation from the debates about feminism and women’s roles in the 1970’s and 1980’s. In fact, Offred remembers her mother’s feminist activities in the days before the revolution that created the Republic of Gilead. Offred’s mother was a fierce opponent of pornography, which is the target of feminists who deplore its tendency to demean women. Offred’s mother participated in a book-burning of pornographic works—an event, the novel seems to imply, that displays the fanaticism that contributed to the reaction against feminism and the drive for women’s rights. Atwood apparently believes that even a good cause can be harmed by extremism that contributes to an antidemocratic atmosphere. If it is acceptable to ban or burn certain books that offend women’s sensibilities, then why is it not right to ban or burn feminists who offend other people’s sensibilities?

That Atwood intends to convey this judgment against both feminist and antifeminist extremists seems to be confirmed by her novel’s dedication to Perry Miller, the premier historian of American Puritanism, and to Mary Webster, one of Atwood’s ancestors hanged as a witch in Connecticut. Like the Puritans, the rulers of the Republic of Gilead believe in the literal word of the Bible. They also believe that they are establishing God’s kingdom on earth. Their religion governs their view of politics, of human sexuality, of the family—in short, of everything. Yet, like Reverend Dimmesdale in The Scarlet Letter (1850), Nathaniel Hawthorne’s great novel about Puritanism, the Commander cannot live by such strict and dehumanizing rules. What he wants is for Offred to kiss him—an act strictly forbidden. What is more, he wants her to kiss him with passion. In other words, the Commander wants not simply to rule or to dominate or to believe that he is in the right, but to feel passion and to create passion in others. Unfortunately, his human feelings are driven underground, and he must consummate his affair with Offred in secret, just as Reverend Dimmesdale can make love to Hester Prynne only clandestinely. In both cases, it is the woman who must submit passively and who also must conceal the secret of her love even at the peril of death or of ostracism from her own community.

Offred is a young woman searching for her own sense of herself—apart both from the strictures of her masters and from her memories of the past. She knows that she cannot be free, yet she persists in trying to define her own feelings. This is why she is telling her own story and why she turns to Nick. He is almost the only person with whom she can express herself without censoring her words.

Much of the tension in the novel is built on Offred’s dilemma. How much risk is she willing to take in order to exercise her will? How much can she trust Nick? Can she balance her desire to conform, so that she will not be punished (physically and mentally), with her need for an outlet for her emotions? Is the Commander’s wife beginning to suspect her? Offred must practice incredible self-discipline and perceptiveness.

Offred is not heroic. She is no Moira, who risks everything in order to be herself. In a way, however, Offred is more compelling because she compromises. She is an apt symbol for every man or women caught in a totalitarian society that demands absolute obedience and crushes rebels. Offred’s will and her imagination are not broken by this fundamentalist republic; on the contrary, her creativity and determination flourish as she insists on telling her own tale.

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