Themes and Meanings
Atwood’s central intention is to provide a warning about the danger of turning back the clock to a time when women were wives and mothers and no more. In The Handmaid’s Tale, she has constructed a fable which shows how dangerous it would be to deny women the opportunities for independence which have come in the last few centuries: gainful occupations, free choice in love and other personal matters, and political and economic power. To remove these rights for the sake of a religious ideal would be to depersonalize women.
Atwood points out that such a change could be accomplished only with the cooperation of a large number of women. The “Aunts” and the officials’ wives are essential to the new order. They accept their roles because to refuse them would mean torture and death. Yet their acceptance means that those in charge need not worry about a concerted resistance by women to these changes. Like all dictators, the officials use force, but they also use members of oppressed groups to control others in those groups.
The society depicted in The Handmaid’s Tale is most immediately menacing to women, but Atwood makes it clear that the threat is not limited to women. Any group in a society can be effectively controlled only if the entire society is subject to strictly applied rules. Men in this society may seem to have more freedom than women, but in fact they, too, have been deprived of virtually all the rights and privileges which have come to be taken for granted in the Western democratic nations. In Gilead, men must serve the state as “Guardians” who enforce the rules but who have no civil rights and are denied access to women. Some men serve as soldiers in the interminable wars against enemies, such as the Baptists in Tennessee, or as “Eyes,” spying on everyone for those in control. As the Commander shows, even those in authority have much power but find little satisfaction in it. A society which oppresses a large segment of its population oppresses everyone; it is mostly men who are hung like meat on “The Wall.”
Atwood is not completely pessimistic. An epilogue to The Handmaid’s Tale reports on a conference of historians 150 years after the events of the narrative, at which the narrative is discussed. It is clear from the discussion that Offred escaped, at least long enough to make a tape recording of her story; her ultimate fate is not known. Her escape, and the fact that the historians represent a more humane society (disturbingly, this society seems too complacent, as though there is no recognition that another revolution can always happen again), confirm an article of Offred’s faith: Even the worst of times will pass, although the individual may not survive to see the better days to come. Yet Atwood’s warning is that even the best of societies can be overthrown.