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The Handmaid's Tale

Main Ideas

Themes

Main Ideas Themes

Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.

Women’s Bodies as Political Instruments

Because Gilead was formed in response to the crisis caused by dramatically decreased birthrates, the state’s entire structure, with its religious trappings and rigid political hierarchy, is built around a single goal: control of reproduction. The state tackles the problem head-on by assuming complete control of women’s bodies through their political subjugation. Women cannot vote, hold property or jobs, read, or do anything else that might allow them to become subversive or independent and thereby undermine their husbands or the state. Despite all of Gilead’s pro-women rhetoric, such subjugation creates a society in which women are treated as subhuman. They are reduced to their fertility, treated as nothing more than a set of ovaries and a womb. In one of the novel’s key scenes, Offred lies in the bath and reflects that, before Gilead, she considered her body an instrument of her desires; now, she is just a mound of flesh surrounding a womb that must be filled in order to make her useful. Gilead seeks to deprive women of their individuality in order to make them docile carriers of the next generation.

Language as a Tool of Power

Gilead creates an official vocabulary that ignores and warps reality in order to serve the needs of the new society’s elite. Having made it illegal for women to hold jobs, Gilead creates a system of titles. Whereas men are defined by their military rank, women are defined solely by their gender roles as Wives, Handmaids, or Marthas. Stripping them of permanent individual names strips them of their individuality, or tries to. Feminists and deformed babies are treated as subhuman, denoted by the terms “Unwomen” and “Unbabies.” Black people and Jewish people are defined by biblical terms (“Children of Ham” and “Sons of Jacob,” respectively) that set them apart from the rest of society, making their persecution easier. There are prescribed greetings for personal encounters, and to fail to offer the correct greetings is to fall under suspicion of disloyalty. Specially created terms define the rituals of Gilead, such as “Prayvaganzas,” “Salvagings,” and “Particicutions.” Dystopian novels about the dangers of totalitarian society frequently explore the connection between a state’s repression of its subjects and its perversion of language (“Newspeak” in George Orwell’s 1984 is the most famous example), and The Handmaid’s Tale carries on this tradition. Gilead maintains its control over women’s bodies by maintaining control over names.

The Causes of Complacency

In a totalitarian state, Atwood suggests, people will endure oppression willingly as long as they receive some slight amount of power or freedom. Offred remembers her mother saying that it is “truly amazing, what people can get used to, as long as there are a few compensations.” Offred’s complacency after she begins her relationship with Nick shows the truth of this insight. Her situation restricts her horribly compared to the freedom her former life allowed, but her relationship with Nick allows her to reclaim the tiniest fragment of her former existence. The physical affection and companionship become compensation that make the restrictions almost bearable. Offred seems suddenly so content that she does not say yes when Ofglen asks her to gather information about the Commander. Women in general support Gilead’s existence by willingly participating in it, serving as agents of the totalitarian state. While a woman like Serena Joy has no power in the world of men, she exercises authority within her own household and seems to delight in her tyranny over Offred. She jealously guards what little power she has and wields it eagerly. In a similar way, the women known as Aunts, especially Aunt Lydia, act as willing agents of the Gileadean state. They indoctrinate other women into the ruling ideology, keep a close eye out for rebellion, and generally serve the same function for Gilead that the Jewish police did under Nazi rule. Atwood’s message is bleak. At the same time as she condemns Offred, Serena Joy, the Aunts, and even Moira for their complacency, she suggests that even if those did stop complying, they would likely fail to make a difference. In Gilead, the tiny rebellions or resistances do not necessarily matter. In the end, Offred escapes because of luck rather than resistance.

Complicity

The Handmaid’s Tale explores the ways in which ordinary people become complicit in the appalling acts of a totalitarian regime. Although the novel’s women are all to some extent victims of the Gileadean state, many of them choose complicity rather than rebellion. Serena Joy is miserable and has very little freedom, but she enjoys and exploits the power she wields over Offred. More seriously, the Aunts are not just complicit in the regime’s crimes: they are amongst the novel’s worst perpetrators, responsible for torture and psychological abuse. Offred’s place on the spectrum of complicity is ambiguous. She hates and fears the regime, and does not believe in its values. Being true to her own beliefs would require her to rebel, but she does not. Instead, she accepts her role without complaint. Even in her own head, she refuses to call the Ceremony “rape,” because “nothing is going on here that I haven’t signed up for” (Chapter 16). Offred’s choices invite us to wonder where passivity ends and complicity begins.

Seeing

The Handmaid’s Tale draws on the feminist idea that in a male-dominated society, the way men look at women is a form of control and even violence. Offred’s “white wings” (Chapter 2) severely limit her own ability to see. Meanwhile, she constantly feels observed—and threatened—by eyes. She sees the patch of plaster in her bedroom ceiling as a “blind plaster eye” and the convex mirror on the stairs as a “fisheye” (Chapter 17). The secret police of the Gileadean regime are known as the “Eyes,” and their emblem, a winged eye, is painted everywhere. Offred thinks of these eyes as male, even comparing eyes to penises and penises to eyes, for instance when she describes the Commander’s penis as a “stalked slug’s eye” (Chapter 15). However, while the novel endorses a feminist concept of the way men look at women, it also warns that feminist concepts alone don’t offer protection from male domination. The only character who outright states the idea that the way men look at women can be a form of violence is Aunt Lydia. “'To be seen—to be seen—is to be'—her voice trembled—'penetrated.'” (Ch. 5). Aunt Lydia’s quote suggests that even feminist concepts can be co-opted and used to oppress women.

Reproduction

The Handmaid’s Tale argues that legally controlling women’s reproductive freedom is morally and politically wrong. The suffering of Offred and the other Handmaids is directly caused by the Gileadean state’s desire to own and control women’s fertility. Certain details link Gilead’s goal of controlling women’s reproductive function with the political goals of the 20th century U.S. religious right. For instance, Gilead executes doctors known to have performed abortions. At the same time, one of the causes of the sharply declining birthrate in Gilead is the number of women who have chosen to become infertile. The Handmaid’s Tale argues that women’s reproductive function can be a form of wealth, a “national resource” (Chapter 12), in order to warn us that figures in power will always be tempted to control women’s bodies.