The Handmaids Tale- Critical review, Greer Porter

“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”

Freedom the definition: The power or right to act, speak or think as one wants. The Handmaid’s Tale is a story of control, or as Atwood call’s it in the novel “freedom from”. Control and therefore a lack of freedom is shown in every aspect throughout the text. Whether it be control of speech, education, relationships, sexuality, bodies, and jobs. The government controls every aspect of one’s life, setting the rules and guidelines of Gilead from the bible enforcing this religious structure upon all its citizens. Control is not a new concept, throughout history a lack of freedom and rights has occurred in most societies, prompting Atwood to write the novel in 1985 saying she didn’t write about anything that hadn’t already happened previously in history. The sexual revolution of the 60’s and 70’s that were in response to fears that the strides feminists had made would be lost, would have also been a source of inspiration for the novel.

The storyline of the novel The Handmaids Tale is a newly formed dystopian America now called Gilead. The country is fighting the ever-receding birth rates in Gilead by living by a fundamentalist Christian faith, in a Theocracy. living by rules depicted in the bible. They blame the extremely low birth rates on birth control pills and abortions, women not choosing to reproduce thus forcing this extreme reformed society onto its citizens. It is focused solely on producing children and pushing many of its citizens against their personal wishes. In truth a large number of women and men left are actually left sterile due to the toxic spills that have been rampant across the nation, causing the low birth rates in the first place. This makes it mandatory for single women or women in marriages that are not legally recognised such as gay marriages, who are fertile to become Handmaids in Gilead. Handmaids serve the leaders and their sterile wives in order to bear children by them as the idea was presented in Genesis in the bible.

The novel presents ideas seen by many of us as impossible and just the work of a dystopian fiction novel, however the story is more than a work of fiction and presents realities that are seen in our world today. The idea control is one of the main concepts in the book and while it is shown in an extreme form it is not far-fetched. Atwood describing the novel as speculative fiction, which is writing about what could happen next in the future based on the past and the current state of the world, the novel having real-life historical precedent. Historically all throughout time societies have been fully or somewhat based on the writings of religious texts with many muslin countries today still following rules depicted in the Quran, using it to oppress women just like in The Handmaid’s Tale. They are not allowed to drive, must cover their bodies and their lives are controlled by men along with many other restrictions. This mirror’s the lives handmaids live in Gilead and highlights that the storyline of the book is not unrealistic. The novel mirrors ideas presented in George Orwells 1984, which was published in 1949 and is a similar dystopian society that oppresses its citizens through control of media and fear. It is another book that holds simar ideals that allows us as readers to see this theme of control is very prevalent in novels and in the real world and it is not something we should ignore.

Religion is also another means of oppression in Gilead. They live in a fundamentalist Christian society, using religion as its base to control both women and men. Enforcing religious saying such as “Under his eye”, “blessed be the fruit”, “praised be”, and “may the lord open” creates a control over one’s speech, this leads to lack of individualism and takes away ones personal voice. This control of speech limits not only speech but thought. When you can’t voice your opinions eventually it seems fruitless to think for yourself, this lack of thought reduces individual creativity, and limits self-potential. Gilead controls people through the control of language knowing that language is a key part of humanity and that by limiting it, it limits rebellion.

By limiting all inhabitants of Gilead to one religion it also further takes away personal freedoms by making everyone conform to one religion. This is unjust in many ways as everyone views spirituality and religion differently and no one should be limited to just one religion in a society. People’s views may not align with certain aspects of the chosen religion. This is another way Gilead controls it’s citizens by once again limiting freedom of thought and limiting way to express one’s specific beliefs, as everyone has differing opinions on religion.Offred as a character is forced into a religion she has never followed before the society of Gilead took over, and is forced to perform perverse acts that are supposedly are normal under this new religion that does not align at all with her opinion on god and spirituality. This takes away all of Offred’s personal rights and strips all of her basic human rights from her and makes her feel dehumanized.Ordinary, said Aunt Lydia, is what you are used to. This may not seem ordinary to you now, but after a time it will. It will become ordinary.” This is what Gilead tells to the Handmaid’s that if you just keep continuing like this it will be normal soon enough. This is an extremely powerful quote as it represents the lack of human rights handmaids have. It shows the oppression Offred experiences and how it is expected of her to just adjust and do what is told of her, in order to eventually get used to this new extreme society.

The Handmaid’s tale is relevant, capturing and thought-provoking read, that could be viewed as a warning for the future of what could be. In an interview with ABC news, Atwood said “were not living in Gilead yet but there are Gilead like symptoms going”  referring to Trump’s America. Now more than ever with the new Trump administration in the US, against gay rights, minorities and limiting women’s rights for things such as abortion and family planning. The issue is as prevalent as ever and warms us to never to be too comfortable in our lives with mediocrity and always fight for what we believe in, as we ever know when we can lose rights we take for granted. With the newly adapted TV show gaining a large following, women have taken to dressing up as handmaids in protests to symbolize that they will not be silenced as the handmaids are in the show and book. Oppression of women has been a cycle in the world all throughout history, for example in Afghanistan after the civil war under Taliban rule, women lost all their rights and were subjected to be under rule from men. This is another example of the novel not being unrealistic as this could happen again at any time and place. The controlling theme in the novel is extremely powerful to readers and makes us understand how privileged we are here in New Zealand with the rights we have.

“Better never means better for everyone… It always means worse, for some.” This quote sums us the whole problem with Gilead. In creating Gilead the aim was to improve society and fertility, however they missed the whole issue of personal freedom, so while there are better birth rates, the human lives forced against their will do not feel the society is better than their past society. trying to perfect and eradicate all the country’s problems they missed on a crucial part that is necessary for human civilization, freedom. 

Statement of intent

My intention of this critical review is to discuss the novel the Handmaids tale by Margot Atwood and specifically explore the idea of control in the novel, and how it impacts the characters. I also will discuss the real-world influences that would have inspired Atwood to write the novel. Finally I will discuss the impacts the novel has on the readers and how it relates to our world today. The review will be a positive review of the novel.


Join the conversation! 1 Comment

  1. Good start, you could take some examples of rules from the Qu’ran which are similar to rules in Gilead. I have a list of rules imposed by the Taliban in Afghanistan which you can have a read over.


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About Tracey Hames

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

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