Margaret Atwood suggests that women’s freedoms in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries may not be as secure as modern women would like to think. In interviews given around the time of the publication of the novel, Atwood pointed out that all the oppressive social practices she describes in The Handmaid’s Tale have historical precedents. She is suggesting that people must be on their guard to make sure that we do not allow these retrograde practices to gain a foothold again.
In The Handmaid’s Tale, an ultraconservative religious movement has obliterated women’s rights, but Atwood is troubled by threats to freedom from any group, even feminists. Offred’s mother had fought for a society in which women would be safe from male violence, but she had no qualms about taking part in book burnings of pornographic books and magazines. Although Atwood is no supporter of pornography, she finds troubling any attempt to enforce a rigid ideology of any kind. Atwood also notes that the pre-Gilead state is a society much like that of the United States at the time of the novel’s publication. It is a society in which Offred is a “liberated” woman with an equal relationship with her husband, her own interests, and financial independence. However, Gilead’s citizens are passive in the face of threats to freedom, not fully comprehending what is happening to them until it is too late.
Although the rulers of Gilead have established a theocracy and claim to have based their laws on biblical decrees, it is clear that they are motivated more by the desire for power than by religious fervor. They claim to have made society better—indeed Offred’s Commander seeks assurance to this effect from Offred—but they routinely flout the rules they establish for others. Taking Offred with him, the Commander visits a nightclub maintained for the governmental elite in which women who have rebelled against their prescribed roles are forced to serve as prostitutes.
The Commanders rule over a rigidly hierarchical society. Men can be Angels, or soldiers, who fight the regime’s enemies—Baptists, Quakers, Catholics, and so forth—or they can be assigned to groups that provide other necessary functions. However, they have no personal freedom, and Gilead is, in effect, a police state with an elaborate spy system and complete censorship of information. The novel presents a terrifying picture of a repressive society in which attempts to learn and speak freely or to love as one chooses are punishable by death.
Women are particularly victimized by the regime. According to the ideology of Gilead, women exist only to fulfill gender-related functions. First and foremost, their function is to have children. They also serve men as wives and household servants, or Marthas. The lives of Handmaids, especially, are so regimented and so lacking in human contact that elaborate measures must be taken to prevent suicide attempts.
Atwood, however, is careful not to portray women simply as victims. First of all, many women in Gilead support the regime and help to keep other women in line. Wives control Handmaids, and female government officials, called Aunts, enforce discipline on other women. Atwood may be reminding her readers that women have traditionally served to enforce the rules of a patriarchal society, from bearing responsibility for the socialization of young girls to the policing of adult nonconformists through ridicule or ostracism. In a way, The Handmaid’s Tale is about the present as well as the future, suggesting that until there are significant changes in women’s and men’s understandings and social practices, society will continue to be in danger of this kind of repression.
While Offred has admirable traits, including a deep love for her daughter and a powerful will to survive, she also exhibits some weaknesses. She herself often points out that she wishes she appeared in a better light in her story. Unlike her friend Moira and her shopping partner Ofglen, she makes no efforts to overthrow the regime. After she begins her affair with Nick, her existence is totally ruled by her romantic feelings. Even the romantic notion that sexual love can justify one’s existence is called into question in the novel. Offred is living in a dream or a fantasy, lulled into a passive state, not just by her desires but also by a romantic ideology that women are taught by society.
Atwood’s compelling and horrifying picture of a possible future, her suspense-filled narrative, and her penetrating analysis of the psychology of women have made The Handmaid’s Tale one of Atwood’s most admired works. The recognition the novel received solidified her position as one of North America’s foremost novelists.