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Last Updated on June 4, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 896

Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale depicts a dystopian near-future New England where a radical religious group called the Sons of Jacob has overthrown the government. This totalitarian regime polices reproductive rights for both men and women, forces women to give up their bodies’ autonomy, and strips them of their rights...

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Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale depicts a dystopian near-future New England where a radical religious group called the Sons of Jacob has overthrown the government. This totalitarian regime polices reproductive rights for both men and women, forces women to give up their bodies’ autonomy, and strips them of their rights to work and possess money. 

The Sons of Jacob and their followers use the ongoing environmental crisis to defend their actions. They claim the state of the environment, low birth rates, and skyrocketing infertility threatens the future of humanity, and that it is immoral for women not to bear children if they are physically able to.

Though the novel is set in the future, its examination of women’s rights is meant to resonate with modern readers and reflect the double standards and hypocrisy that exist for women in today’s world. Much of this is accomplished through the novel’s first-person narrator, Offred, a Handmaid in the Sons of Jacob-led Gilead, who remembers the recent past when she was free. Through Offred’s account of her experiences, readers see how Handmaids are respected for their ability to birth children, but not respected enough to be recognized as independent people. Handmaids’ gender and ability to bear children is used against them, as they are told they are being protected from predatory men, but then forced to copulate with men they don’t choose. 

The regime forbids sex outside of marriage, making it punishable by death in some circumstances, but allows for commanders to have government-sanctioned affairs with Handmaids to produce offspring. This illustrates how the regime views Offred and the other as simply fertile wombs, vessels to bear the children of high-ranking men. Women who are not fertile and not part of the wealthy class are either turned into Marthas, if they’re compliant enough, or sent to the Colonies as Unwomen, where they clean up toxic waste. Since Offred was not an early supporter of the regime, she was separated from her daughter and is not allowed to raise any children she may have in the future. 

Offred’s memories throughout the novel of her feminist and activist mother contrast her present life in Gilead and situate the novel within the historical context of the feminist movement. The novel was published in 1986, 13 years after Roe v. Wade passed and shortly after second wave feminism of the 60s and 70s gave way to criticism of its efforts. In this sense, The Handmaid’s Tale serves as a warning against complacency and false security: Women thought they had secured their freedom, but their rights were still taken from them by the Sons of Jacob.

One way the regime maintains power over women is by dividing them. Women of different classes are encouraged to scorn each other and discouraged from being friends. Though Aunts tell the Handmaids that their duties are invaluable to society, that does not make other women perceive them less critically. Wives are encouraged to dislike Handmaids and see them as promiscuous. Wives, like Serena Joy, harbor deeper resentment toward Handmaids, because they are fertile and allowed to have sex with their husbands. Marthas, like Cora and Rita, tend to gossip about Handmaids and steer clear of them, while Handmaids are taught to look down on and pity Econowives. This dislike and mistrust prevents women from rising up against the regime and taking back their independence, as does the passive acceptance of the regime by women who have some power.

Unlike many dystopian novels, there is no single despot in The Handmaid’s Tale. Rather, the totalitarian regime is supported and furthered by a collective of powerful and wealthy people, mostly men. They secretly enjoy the privileges—like extramarital sex, drinking, going to clubs—now deemed immoral and denied to the rest of the population, women and men alike. The Commander, in revealing this secret world of pleasures to Offred, takes pride in it, but also explains that men must retain some of their vices as a necessary part of society. The hypocrisy of this statement reveals that the wealthy and powerful stakeholders in Gilead believe in the new society they’ve constructed, but are unwilling to fully commit to its values. Yet, the Commander doesn’t see this as ignorance or hypocrisy, which reinforces why the regime is so powerful: He and others believe they’re doing the right thing.

The novel also briefly examines the way history is shaped by the people who tell it, when the last chapter reveals that Gilead no longer exists and that the Sons of Jacob were eventually overthrown. When a male scholar, Professor Pieixoto, presents his findings about Offred’s narrative at an academic conference, he perpetuates a familiar rhetoric about women which echoes the story itself—women’s oppression at the hands of men is not believed—by questioning the validity of Offred’s claims. Though Pieixoto lives in a time when women are no longer viewed as property, his attitudes toward Offred’s tale hint that sexism still exists in the world. It’s a hint that reflects an underlying theme in the novel: No matter how far women think they have progressed in establishing women’s rights, they can never stop fighting, because there is always the possibility that someone will try to take their rights away again.

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