1. Discuss why Atwood has set her novel in Cambridge, Massachusetts, home of Harvard University. What does this add to the novel?
2. Atwood chose not to follow a strictly chronological pattern in the telling of Offred's story. Why do you think she did so? What does it add and what are its disadvantages?
3. Aunt Lydia says to the Handmaid-trainees, “We were a society dying of too much choice.” How does this relate to her distinction between freedom from and freedom to? What freedoms does Gilead claim to be providing its citizens? What freedoms are being denied?
1. Consider the naming of the Handmaids—Offred, Ofwarren, and Ofglen, for example. What does this reveal about the values and power dynamics of Gilead? What parallels can be made between the naming system of their society and the naming of women in our society?
2. Each category of women in Gilead is resentful of the others. Explain the reasons for this resentment and discuss its ultimate effect.
3. How does Gilead’s policing of language help to control the thoughts of its citizens? For example, why is Offred so shocked when her doctor uses the word “sterile” in reference to men?
1. Offred and Moira are very different people. Outline these differences and discuss what may nevertheless make them friends. What does their friendship do for the novel?
2. Offred’s narration is made up of a confusing mix of details from the present tense...
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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.” Blacks and Jews 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 women mustered strength and stopped complying, they would likely fail to make a difference. In Gilead the tiny rebellions of resistances do not necessarily matter. In the end, Offred escapes because of luck rather than resistance.
More main ideas from The Handmaid’s Tale