Major Themes of the Handmaid’s Tale
How would you feel if you lost all your basic human rights and were forced to use your body for something you didn’t want to do? That’s how the Handmaids in the book and TV show, The Handmaid’s Tale, have to live their life. “A rat in a maze is free to go anywhere as long as it stays inside the maze.” (Atwood 165). The Handmaid’s Tale, written by Margaret Atwood in 1985, is a futuristic, yet modern day dystopia that Americans, especially women, can relate to. The book was made into a television show which was released in April of 2017 on Hulu, talks of fears that the audience has experienced, especially with the main character Offred as she is living in a world of chaos. She is full of emotions, ranging from anger to sadness to regret. She is angry over how she is forced to live the rest of her life. However, she is upset about her losing her rights. The Handmaid’s Tale takes the audience on a ride by bringing up the topic of gender equality and Feminism to Reproduction rights and a political voice. The show has had some backlash over females suffering as a form of entertainment. Though there is a bit of suffering and sadness in the book as well as in the seasons of the show, it serves as a form of insight as to what the world could be like.
In the book version of The Handmaid’s Tale, we encounter a woman named Offred, who was captured and forced to become a Handmaid in the Republic of Gilead, a totalitarian state which has replaced the United States of America. We learn from flashbacks that the ‘Sons of Jacob’ had assassinated the president and members of Congress and said that they were taking things over for a while. “There were marches, of course, a lot of women and some men. But they were smaller than you might have thought. I guess people were scared. And when it was known that the police, or the army, or whoever they were, would open fire almost as soon as any of the marches even started, the marches stopped. A few things were blown up, post offices, subway stations.”(Atwood 180). Under their rule, they basically took away women’s rights to do things like own land or to have a job. “…the director came into the discing room. ‘I have something to tell you, he said. He looked terrible; his hair was untidy, his eyes were pink and wobbling, as though he’d been drinking… I’m sorry, he said, but it’s the law. I really am sorry… I have to let you go, he said. It’s the law, I have to. I have to let you all go.” (Atwood 176). Since there have been low rates of children birthed and living because of pollution and chemical spills, they introduced Handmaids. Handmaids are assigned to have children for specific couples like the Commander and his wife, Serena Joy, who are infertile. Once a month when Offred is ovulating, she must take part in a ‘ceremony’ which is where the Handmaid has sex with the Commander while his wife sits behind her, holding her hands with her head between her legs. “I lie on my back, fully clothed except for the healthy white cotton underdrawers… Above me, towards the head of the bed, Serena Joy is arranged, outspread. Her legs are apart, I lie between them, my head on her stomach, her pubic bone under the base of my skull, her thighs on either side of me. She too is fully clothed. My arms are raised; she holds my hands, each of mine in each of hers…
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My red skirt is hitched up to my waist, though no higher. Below it the Commander is fucking. What he is fucking is the lower part of my body.”(Atwood, 94). The women are constantly monitored all day by the Eyes, Gilead’s secret police force, which watch their every public move. The book ends with a final chapter which is titled “Historical Notes” which takes place after Gilead fell in 2195. Professor Pieixoto, explains in a lecture about Gilead and discusses the significance of Offred’s life, which have been found in on cassette tapes in Bangor, Maine. The Professor suggests that Nick arranged Offred’s escape but that her fate after that is unknown.
The Television series of The Handmaid’s Tale basically follows the same plot as the book, however, the show displays events differently. The show kicks off with us meeting Offred who we learn at the end of the first episode is actually named June. In the book, we never really learn of her name. She is a Handmaid to Commander Fred Waterford and his wife, Serena Joy. Throughout the episodes, there are a series of flash blacks from Offred that range from the life that June and her family used to live before the Republic of Gilead to how she was taught to become a Handmaid. Other characters from the book are present in the show as well, like Moira, Janine, Rita, and Ofglen. However, some characters provide more to the storyline than they did in the novel. For example, Offred becomes really close to Ofglen who is actually named Emily. We learn more about her life than we did in the book. We are told Ofglen was trying to flee to Canada with her wife and son before Gilead started. Sadly, she was denied because their marriage license was no longer ‘viable’ because of the Gilead’s new rules. In the show, Ofglen is still a part of the Mayday, but she has not hung herself as she did in the book. Rita also plays a bigger role in the show. In the beginning, she keeps to herself mostly and is very short and a tad bit mean to Offred. However, throughout the show, Rita feels compassion for her and they bond and create a friendship. The Mayday also plays a part in the TV series.
Mayday is a secret resistance group who wants to take the Republic of Gilead down from the inside. We don’t know how many members there are exactly, but members can figure out who is a part of Mayday by speaking the words ‘may day’ in a conversation. Mayday members usually act as spies who gather information from high-ranked members in Gilead and use it to help political targets escape and reach safety. Offred learns of Mayday from Ofglen and wants to join. Ofroberts, also known as Alma, wasn’t too keen on letting Offred into Mayday, but accepts her and assigns her her first task. Offred was to get a mystery package from ‘Rachel at the bar’ in Jezebel’s. With the help of Moira, Offred is able to retrieve the package which turns out to be letters from Handmaids who tell their story. The Mayday eventually unsuccessfully try to help Offred escape while she was at the hospital getting a check-up. In the series, we learn of the “ceremony” that happens with Offred laying between Serena Joy’s legs with Commander Waterford trying to impregnate her. However, after a few attempts, they are not successful which leads Serena Joy to believe that Commander Waterford is sterile as their first handmaid did not fall pregnant either. Because of that, Serena Joy makes Offred have sex with Nick, who is an Eye, in attempts for Offred to become pregnant. In the season one finale, Offred takes a pregnancy test for Serena Joy that comes back positive. In the book, Offred never becomes pregnant. The series typically follows the book but displays events in a different timeline.
Both the film and book of The Handmaid’s Tale reflect fears of gender inequality, in class, suffrage, and sexuality. In The Handmaid’s Tale, there is a big divide among the genders and even within classes of people, the common theme that stood out was feminism and gender equality. “There are other women with baskets, some in red, some in dull green of the Marthas, some in striped dresses, red and blue and green and cheap and skimpy, that mark the women of the poorer men. Econowives, they’re called. These women are not divided into functions. They have to do everything; if they can. Sometimes there is a woman all in black, a widow… You don’t see the Commander’s Wives on sidewalks. Only in cars.” (Atwood 24). In the quote above, Offred tells us of all the roles in the society. The ‘Econowives’ were “divided into functions”, as shown as by their dresses. The women are put into categories by their dress color; the Wives wear blue, the Handmaids wear red, and the Marthas wear green. They have sort of lost their own individuality because of this. In Gilead, there is definitely a difference between genders. No matter what rank they are, the men are always in control of the women. The men are given ranks as well. These range from Commanders which are married leaders, Angels who are soldiers, or Guardians who are unmarried servants. While those are the main ranks of men, they are still available to become a doctor or be a part of the secret police which are called the Eyes of God. The old society was overthrown by a group who called themselves the Sons of Jacob who forced traditional Christian values on everyone. With this new lifestyle, women have lost the right to vote, read, write, own property, make money, or hold any kind of position.
Another main theme that is often addressed is women and reproduction as political voices. It was only in 1920 that women got the right to vote. It was in the 1960s that women had begun working in the professions, military, the media, and sports. Nowadays, there is still a divide with equality between genders, however, women are a lot more equal to men than they used to be. Women are afraid that they will lose their rights and go back in time where they just stayed at home, making dinner or cleaning for their husbands and kids. “I used to think of my body as an instrument, of pleasure, or a means of transportation, or an implement for the accomplishment of my will . . . Now the flesh arranges itself differently. I’m a cloud, congealed around a central object, the shape of a pear, which is hard and more real than I am and glows red within its translucent wrapping.”(Atwood 73). In the quote, Offred sits in the bath and reflects on how she used to think of her body and how she thinks of it now. She only sees herself as an object to bare children. She’s only important because she can have kids. Gilead treats women as objects and makes see themselves as important only to do a specific job.
The women are oppressed in every way possible. They are confiscated of their human and reproductive rights, which can be dehumanizing. They are stripped of their right to read and write, not even getting the choice to document what they are going through and express their feelings. In the Hulu series, Offred also known as June was actually an assistant book editor in the times before the Republic of Gilead. She helped publish novels and academic titles. Serena Joy was also a published author in episode six too. Having written one book, working on the second, and wrote freelance articles. However, her support of Gilead denies Serena Joy the right to do something she loves. Offred loves to read and write, which makes her long to do so. In minute 35:28 of the second episode called, ‘Birth Day’, Offred is walking in Commander Waterford’s private study, but can’t help but glimpse in longing at the books that sat his shelves. “This will sound funny, I’d like to play a game with you.’ Commander Waterford says. ‘A game?’ Offred asks. ‘Yes,’ The Commander says as he pulls out a box of Scramble, ‘know how to play?'”(Season 1, Episode 2, 36:38-37:00).
Once the Commander pulls out the box of Scramble, fear flashes over Offred’s face. She’s reluctant but walks over to the table where Commander Waterford has set up the game. In minutes 38:13-38:37 of the same episode, Offred slightly smiles, her thumb brushing over the letters; in disbelief that they were actually at her fingertips. In episode four, Offred finds the phrase ‘Nolite te bastardes carborundum’ etched into the bottom of her closet from the Handmaid before her. This is present in the book as well. She learns from Commander Waterford that the statement means ‘don’t let the bastards grind you down.’ This simple carving in the wall means a lot to Offred as it was a gesture to show she is not alone. Moira did the same before at the Red Center, writing ‘Aunt Lydia sux’ on the wall in the bathroom stall. They risked losing an arm to help others in their position know they aren’t alone in this journey.
Gilead is in control of all things, especially sexuality. They will kill anyone who is gay or lesbian, they will even kill abortion doctors. They follow a strict interpretation of the Bible, taken mostly from the Old Testament, which has insane rules that control the way they live their life. In season 1 episode 3 of the television series, the audience discovers that Ofglen had been arrested by the Sons of Jacob for having a sexual relationship with a Martha. They are both brought to court where they are charged with gender treachery in violation of Romans 1:26. We learn that Romans 1:26 says: “Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones. In the same way, the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed shameful acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their error.” The judge asks the prosecutor if what he saw was the truth, however, they never ask the Martha or Ofglen if that was the truth. “Martha 6715301, you are hereby sentenced to the common mercy of the state. Handmaid 8967, your existence is an abomination. True justice would see you sent to an eternity of suffering. But God has seen fit to make you fruitful, and by that we are bound. Handmaid 8967 you are sentenced to redemption.” (Season 1, Episode 3, 34:00-35:10)
We find out that the Martha is to be hung by a crane; the noose is placed around her neck while she is standing and then slowly pulled upward. However, Ofglen was seen as a handmaid so she was saved. (Season 1, Episode 3, 49:20-50:30.). While this scene does not take place in the book, it is still a valid example of the lengths that Gilead will go through to control things. In the book, Ofglen commits suicide by hanging herself to prevent Gilead from torturing information out of her regarding the Mayday resistance and its members. Her character makes a quick entry as well as an exit in the novel. The Handmaid’s Tale was set in 1985 and during that time, The Parliament of the United Kingdom created the Prohibition of Female Circumcision Act 1985. This made female genital mutilation a crime throughout the UK. I believe that this contributed to the book not adding this into its plot. Ofglen is seen as hard headed and strong in wanting to resist the government of Gilead. The writer and producer of the Hulu series, Bruce Miller, was very interested in Ofglen’s character and therefore wanted to expand more on her story as well as present more of the brutalities that were committed against women in Gilead.