The Handmaid's Tale Themes
The main themes in The Handmaid’s Tale are the commodification of womanhood, power and hypocrisy, survival and rebellion, and storytelling and memory.
- The commodification of womanhood: In Gilead, the bodies of Handmaids are treated as property of the Republic.
- Power and hypocrisy: Powerful citizens like the Commander privately deviate from the rules they publicly uphold.
- Survival and rebellion: Though Offred does commit acts of rebellion, her primary goal is to survive. The ambiguous ending leaves it unclear whether her rebellion has furthered or hindered this goal.
- Storytelling and memory: In her narration, Offred calls into question the accuracy of her own memories and story.
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1939
The themes in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale focus on and around the dangers of restricting the social roles available to women to that of wives and mothers and denying them opportunities for independence and self expression.
The Commodification of Womanhood
In Gilead, men and women adhere to traditional gender roles: men are the providers, working and participating in politics, whereas women stay home and oversee the household.
The Handmaid’s Tale dissects these gender roles to examine the specific ways patriarchal societies commodify women’s bodies and labor. Rather than having individual women assuming all of the traditionally feminine roles, Gileadan women are divided into classes based on socioeconomic function: Marthas do the cooking and cleaning, Aunts oversee the education of Marthas and Handmaids, Wives control their households, and Handmaids produce children.
Women who refuse to pledge loyalty to Gilead or who are proven to be infertile are declared “Unwomen.” Unwomen are sent to the colonies to perform hard labor, suggesting that in Gilead one’s womanhood is conditional on male approval.
Offred’s story primarily concerns the plight of Handmaids. Their bodies are commodified because of their fertility in a world plagued by declining birth rates. They are not allowed to fraternize with men or form meaningful relationships beyond their carefully regimented communities. If they fail to produce healthy children after a set amount of time, they are declared Unwomen, highlighting how Gilead only values their reproductive capabilities.
Offred’s ruminating on her changed relationship with her body post-revolution suggests that Gilead’s focus on reproduction and strict gender roles estranges women from their bodies: sex is no longer an intimate or pleasurable activity, and a Handmaid’s body is the propety of the Republic. This is affirmed by the fact that Handmaid’s do not get to raise the children they produce.
In addition to the Handmaids, Atwood subtly reveals the widespread dissatisfaction of characters from all levels of Gileadean society. Wives have arguably the most luxurious circumstances and are the epitome of Gileadean womanhood, supporting their husbands and raising children in accordance with Christian fundamentalist beliefs. In return, they receive a limited degree of power over other women. However, Serena Joy, a vocal antifeminist prior to the revolution, is depicted as a bitter, scheming, and unhappy person. Though her unhappiness seems to stem from the cloistered lifestyle that the Sons of Jacob expect of Wives, she blames other women—specifically Handmaids—for her dissatisfaction. Ultimately, relative safety and luxury—the “pro-woman” policies that Gilead claims to uphold—can be bought at the price of complicity.
Similarly, the Commander makes clear to Offred that he craves meaningful female companionship that Serena Joy cannot provide. However, he doesn’t acknowledge that the totalitarian Sons of Jacob are responsible for his loneliness and dissatisfaction, instead blaming pre-revolution women for necessitating the coup. Serena Joy and the Commander are simultaneously victims and perpetrators of the Gileadean dystopia. Atwood uses these characters to highlight the ways in which power and relative privilege can be used as currency, allowing people to become complicit in their own oppression in return for status.
Power and Hypocrisy
Despite those in power in Gilead setting strict rules for how to uphold religious beliefs and morals, they themselves intentionally deviate. While the lower classes are expected to follow the rules and are punished severely if they don’t, the upper classes conspicuously break the rules largely without consequences. This reveals that the regime isn’t actually about religion or morality, but about power and maintaining control.
Similarly, under Gileadean law, only women can be infertile, and they therefore bear the brunt of the responsibility for rectifying the declining birth rates. However, both Offred’s doctor and Serena Joy believe that the Commander is the infertile one, and they offer Offred different means of getting pregnant. Those in power know that their system is flawed, but rather than attempting to amend it, they hypocritically work around the restrictions.
The Commander epitomizes Gileadean hypocrisy as he flagrantly breaks the rules he likely helped establish. He engages in illicit, intimate relations with his Handmaids, procures illegal reading material, and patronizes establishments like Jezebels, which seems to be an open secret amongst Gilead’s elite. However, when Serena Joy discovers his affair with Offred, she blames Offred rather than the Commander. Serena’s reaction suggests that the vulnerable members of society are often made to suffer for the excesses of the powerful. Offred is the only one in any real danger during her liaisons with the Commander—as evidenced by the fate of Offred’s predecessor—despite the Commander being the one who both suggests and orchestrates their affair. This imbalance in consequences speaks to the broader mechanisms of power and control in Gilead: those who make the rules don’t necessarily believe in them, but instead use them as a tool to enforce the rigid hierarchies that keep them in power.
Survival versus Rebellion
Rebellion is a difficult thing to pin down for the people of Gilead. Suspicions run high and are encouraged by those in power; this, along with fear, keeps people from rebelling. This is best illustrated in Offred’s paranoia. She’s afraid a few simple words or a look to the wrong person could give her away as someone who doesn’t support the current regime. Gradually, however, Offred’s rebellion grows. It starts internally and with small acts, like stealing butter to soften her skin. She becomes emboldened after the Commander encourages her to rebel: she reads, she talks with him about political matters, she accompanies him to Jezebel’s and sleeps with him. Then, with Serena Joy’s help, she sleeps with Nick. Still, her rebellion is different in that she isn’t interested in joining a rebel group or helping overthrow the regime. Instead, her goal is survival and to restore her personal freedom as much as she can.
Ironically, her ultimate rebellion—her relationship with Nick—threatens her survival the most. With him, she disobeys everything the Aunts taught her. However, this relationship placates her, giving her a reason to want to stay in Gilead instead of escaping. With the ambiguous ending of the novel, her rebellion either saves her, becomes her downfall, or perhaps both.
Offred’s survivalist mentality is not presented as cowardly. Instead, Atwood portrays her as an ordinary woman thrust into extraordinary circumstances. Offred was never a rebel or a radical like her mother and Moira. She has a loving husband and daughter that she retains a slim hope of reuniting with someday. Essentially, Offred has something to lose. Though she detests Gilead and her life as a Handmaid, she also understands her fertility and the appearance of conformity keep her safe. Her grief upon realizing that her daughter is alive but has likely forgotten her represents the dissolution of her hopes and sends her spiraling into risk-taking and rebellion.
For Moira, rebellion starts as a battle: she would rather risk her life for a chance at freedom than continue living in captivity. She temporarily achieves her goal, but when Offred reunites with her, Moira’s attitude has changed. She would rather survive as a prostitute, clinging to whatever semblance of Gilead-approved freedom she can, than risk dying in another escape attempt. The woman that Offred looked up to as a beacon of principle and resistance has been tamed by Gilead, highlighting the ways in which fear can suppress the human spirit.
The Commander and Serena Joy rebel in behavior but not intent. They break the law but without the purpose of challenging the regime. When Serena convinces Offred to have sex with Nick, she does so to ensure Offred becomes pregnant and stays a Handmaid, so they both can conform to the regime. When the Commander rebels, he does so purely for personal pleasure and never intends to leave the life of power he created for himself or to challenge the status quo.
Both Serena Joy and the Commander know that even if their rebellions were discovered, they are not the ones who will be punished. Instead, they put others at risk in order to pursue their own ends.
Through these different forms of rebellion, Atwood explores how motivation, circumstance, and power impact someone’s ability to resist oppression. For the privileged characters like Serena Joy and the Commander, small infractions are low-risk ways of satisfying desires for companionship or children. For Moira and Offred’s mother, rebellion begins as a necessity and a calling; as a lesbian and a single-mother, respectively, Moira and Offred’s mother know that they do not fit into the prescribed roles for women in Gilead. However, Moira’s spirit is subdued after her first escape attempt; rather than continuing to rebel, she complacently accepts life at Jezebel’s since it offers her the chance to pursue intimacy with other women and spares her the restrictions placed on Handmaids and Unwomen.
For Offred, survival is paramount. She knows that she must survive if she ever wants to see her daughter again, and her relationship with Nick gives her even more of a reason to stay in Gilead. The ambiguity of the ending captures the apparent stance of the novel on rebellion: all acts of resistance offer both risk and reward, and it is up to individuals to decide for themselves what—if anything—they are willing to risk.
Storytelling and Memory
Offred’s memories are interwoven with her present narrative, contrasting her happier past with her stark present and serving as both her refuge and torment.
Offred’s memories interfere with her new life when she begins having an affair with Nick. It’s the closest thing to love she has experienced since her marriage, and it brings up painful memories of Luke—who she starts having difficulty remembering. This troubles her, and as she loses the memories of him, she loses her faith that he survived and will find her. This uncertainty contributes to her ambivalence toward her fate at the end of the book.
The validity and truthfulness of both storytelling and memory is questioned throughout the novel. Offred contradicts her own narrative, conveying events one way and then claiming they actually happened differently. She tells the reader her story is a reconstruction, that it’s impossible to tell the whole story without unintentionally leaving parts out. When she becomes too overwhelmed by the present, she escapes into the past, like when she decides to tell the story of Moira’s escape. This, too, is a reconstruction, because she heard it from other people and she doesn’t know exactly how the conversation between Janine and Aunt Lydia went.
For Offred, storytelling is a power that can alter memory—or perhaps alter the future. She tells the reader that she wishes she were only telling a story, because then she would have the power to make it end however she wanted. In a way, her wish comes true: her fate is never known, so it’s easy to assume she did escape Gilead, especially since Professor Pieixoto talks about the regime as though it’s long since ended. However, it’s also equally easy to assume Offred was instead taken prisoner.
Whoever tells the story has power over it, and Offred recognizes this when she calls on future male readers to recognize the power dynamic between men and women in her story and the ways in which forgiveness affects that dynamic. It is then a male reader—Professor Pieixoto—who reinterprets Offred’s narrative and questions its accuracy as a story and as a collection of memories.