The Handmaid’s Tale written by Margaret Atwood.

The Handmaid’s Tale is a dystopian novel by Margaret Atwood. It was originally published in 1985 and it is set in a near-future in New England. It’s a totalitarian, Christian theonomy that has been overthrown by the United States government that has had the power of freedom striped away in woman. It is seen through the eyes of Offred, the protagonist of the novel. There is Dictatorship over the whole country of Gilead and “BIG BROTHER is watching you”. This quote is stated in the novel of Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell. This means that there is a overly-controlling authority figure; power that attempts by the government to increase their surveillance. There will be a screen hidden in each individual’s home and they have the access to your privacy. This novel focuses on a Handmaid who is the main character in the story, named Offred. She had a normal life, then suddenly everything started to change rapidly with the events, activities and rules put into place.

“There is more than one kind of freedom. Freedom to and freedom from. In the days of anarchy, it was freedom to. Now you are being given freedom from. Don’t underrate it”. This shows the control of the regime over Offred and the other Handmaid’s lives. They have full rights over the women of Gilead, as well as the freedom of religion. The Handmaid’s will lose their identification and will forget who they were in the past and become a Handmaid who will be named after their Commander’s name as form of possession. Offred is derived from her Commander’s name from “Fred”, and it also contains the word red in her name. 

Due to the totalitarian nature of Gilead in society, Atwood, in creating the setting, drew from the “utopian idealism”. In the quote, “Red not only symbolizes menstrual blood or blood resulting from birth, but the red is a threat of death”. This quote contributes to the setting. In Gilead, everything is controlled, even yourself. The place becomes part of you, it’s not just a place where you reside to be.

People run for their lives as heavy-duty weapons and is discharged to be indiscriminate. Freedom of assembly and expression by protest are often suppressed in totalitarian regimes. In the new regime, there is no trusted people around. Offred must beware of the ‘Eyes’ who are constantly watching over them, and because the government spies secretly watches them and listens in for traitors. Initially, everything Offred says to Ofglen is guarded and neither knows whether it is safe to trust the others around. When they talk any certain of concepts like male sterility, because this is forbidden in the case when Offred says the word ‘gay’, she was being beaten. The State is surveilling the endanger of right of privacy, and enforced of taboos and is threaten from freedom of speech.

The Handmaids are prisoners in the States. They are denied of right to liberty, and security of person themselves. In the ‘training’ of becoming a Handmaid, they have to adjust to their new lives now. The Handmaids are threatened with violence and with physically abused if they do not submit to the new order and if they do not listen. At the home, the wife of Offred’s Commander is often cruel with violent to Offred. At times, it seems that Offred’s plight might break her spirit. The Severe physical and psychological abuse is an amount to inhuman with degrading treatment and torture in the States. In a flash back when Offred, “June” was a child and when she was with her mother, her mother burnt books into flames, before the existing of Gilead. Her mother burnt down the pornographic magazines to protect women in the society. She does this because she assumes it is the right way to protect women and give them freedom, and to not be seen as male objects.

The symbolic parts of the novel are seen through the Handmaids in their red costumes, this symbolises fertility and their primary functions represents the colour of blood and its the colour of sin. This symbolises the ambiguous and sinfulness of the Handmaids’ position in the Republic of Gilead in the story. The Handmaid’s belong to the men in the society and that they have control over them. The women in the society are being watched every single moment and don’t have their own privacy. They can’t even be out alone, they must have a partner to go with them, and can only be out in certain times. The Handmaid’s bodies are covered with long red dresses, this is to indicate their function in the Republic of Gilead. This is because they must have an intercourse with the Commander once a month to bear a child and give birth to a child that be handed over to the Handmaid’s Wives. The individuality and identity is removed from the Handmaids, which parallels with the nun’s habits and the clothing of Islamic women. “The white wings too are prescribed issue; they are too keep us from seeing, but also from being seen.” Red symbolises sexuality, the ‘scarlet women’, this is referred in the Jezabels as “A sister dipped in blood”.

The Wives of the Commander refer them as “sluts”, and are consider them to be a little more than animals, but more like a female servant and a slave instead. In the book of Genesis. Genesis 29:29, On the day of the marriage of Rachel and Jacob, Rachel was given a Handmaid, named Bilhah. In this Genesis, when Rachel failed to have children as she is unfertilised, so Rachel gave Bilhah to Jacob “to wife” and to bear him children for her. This is what Offred had to do with the Commander, this was consider as rape as she was forced. Before the creation of the Republic of Gilead, Serena Joy was a televangelist and is a talented singer, who advocated for women to return to ‘traditional’ family values and the role play being a real women. This supported and had became Gilead’s creation. From this point, she married a man called Fred, who became a high-ranking Commander in Gilead. However, after the the government changed, she was stuck at home all day and she had to rely on the Handmaid, “Offred” to conceive a child for her, and all she left was grief. “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal”. – Elizabeth Cady Stanton.

In the quote, “My name isn’t Offred, I have another name, which nobody uses now because it’s forbidden. I tell myself it doesn’t matter, your name is like your telephone number, useful only to others; but what I tell myself is wrong, it does matter”. In this quote we learn that the narrator is trying to distance herself away from her new identity with her given names that the new society has given her. Getting to use her “real name” is important and it “does matter”. When the females are kept away from using their real names, they become lesser versions of themselves and start to lose hold of their individuality and they become uniqueness. “Woman must not depend upon the protection of man, but must be taught to protect herself”. – Susan B. Anderson.

The main purpose Margaret Atwood wrote the Handmaid’s Tale was to make the readers critically think and understand an in depth understanding for us as the readers to think and feel the darkness of it. Margaret was to able to make this book so powerful that make us unable to forget its images and its forecast. It was set in the near future that describes the life from the women perspectives and how truant that the Republic of Gilead is. This book is sparing of giving details as to what exactly happened to the American governments and the current state of world affairs now, after it was called Republic of Gilead. With Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel written in 1985, The Handmaid’s Tale tells the story of Offred, and how she struggles to survive in the oppressive Republic of Gilead. This story is told from only from the point of view; “Offred” from a first person’s perspective. In an alternate reality, fertile women are forced to become ‘Handmaid’s’ as  well as reproductive surrogates through the powerful society leaders, and their barren of wives, (Serena Joy). Government spies lurk everywhere, women can’t control their own bodies. The traitors are to be hung out on the streets. From a women perspective, Atwood did not like the fact that pornography did exist in the first place, as it was wrong, she wanted to “protect” the women in the newly formed society. “You can’t really protect women or men from their choices, so let them have their own lives and trust the process. Given the history of society’s efforts to control women’s sexuality and reproduction, this remained a revolutionary idea. No wonder it disturbed and frightened some people so deeply”. -Stephen Singular

Join the conversation! 8 Comments

  1. A good quote to start your review with, Kiky.

  2. “BIG BROTHER is watching you”. – this is from the novel 1984, which you need to acknowledge, and maybe make further comparisons with/references to

  3. You will need to carefully check over word meaning and grammar when you are doing your editing, Kiky.

  4. Keep it all in the PRESENT tense, Kiky

  5. This is a restoration of full rights for women, and the freedom of the religion. – is restoration the correct word here?

  6. you dicuss the symbolism of the colour red in several paragraphs, you can possibly combine and condense them, Kiky

  7. There will be a screen hidden in each individual’s home and they have the access to your privacy. – relevance?

  8. People run for their lives as heavy-duty weapons are discharged indiscriminately. – where does this occur in the book?


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About Tracey Hames

Teacher of English at Mount Aspiring College, Wanaka, New Zealand.

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