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.
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...
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