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The Handmaid’s Tale

Margaret Atwood
Main Ideas Themes
Main Ideas Themes

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.