The Handmaid’s Tale

by: Margaret Atwood

Is Offred a rebel?

In The Handmaid’s Tale, Offred’s passivity in the face of the Gileadean regime is contrasted with the active resistance of other women in the novel. While Offred submits to her abusive re-education at the Red Center, her friend Moira rebels by attacking an Aunt and escaping. Similarly, Ofglen, introduced as Offred’s “double,” (Chapter 5) turns out to be anything but: while Offred remains passive, Ofglen reveals herself to be a member of the rebel group Mayday. Offred’s political passivity pre-dates the Republic of Gilead. The main thing we learn about Offred’s mother is that she was a committed, active feminist, and that Offred did not approve of her mother’s politics. Unlike her mother and Moira, Offred chose to make a family with a man. She did not rebel against gender norms and expectations in the twentieth-century United States, and she does not rebel against the more extreme gender norms of Gilead. The Handmaid’s Tale is a study of an ordinary, non-heroic person’s response to severe repression.

On the other hand, the novel shows that even in her fearful passivity, Offred does manage to resist her oppressors in the small ways that are available to her. Her lingering descriptions of the world around her, and her elaborate reflections on what she sees, can be described as a form of resistance. In preserving her interior life, her thoughts and feelings, Offred maintains her autonomy as an individual. She refuses to become the object that the regime wants her to be. In the same way, Offred’s nighttime recollections of her past are a way of preserving the old identity she is supposed to have lost along with her name. Finally, by allowing her attraction to Nick to eventually blossom into a sexual relationship, Offred sets herself at odds with the regime. Although this is a passive rebellion, since it only requires her to give in to the force of reproductive desire (her own and Serena Joy’s and Nick’s), Offred’s relationship with Nick is still a rebellion. By focusing on Offred’s story rather than Ofglen’s, or Moira’s, The Handmaid’s Tale argues that passive, and even invisible acts of rebellion have their own value, and deserve to be celebrated.