4 ways of reading The Handmaid’s Tale

Red and white symbols mimic an eye, a pyramid and a circle

From Fascism to Feminism, here are four interpretations of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.

1. 1984: the reboot

Of George Orwell’s nightmarish dystopia, Nineteen Eighty-Four (1984), Atwood writes: “I read it in paperback … when I was in high school. Then I read it again, and again.”

She goes on to say:

“Orwell became a direct model for me much later in my life – in the real 1984, the year in which I began writing a somewhat different dystopia, The Handmaid’s Tale.”

Unsurprisingly, then, there are many similarities between the two novels, with Atwood playing homage to and re-imagining the earlier text.

The Handmaid’s Tale and Nineteen Eighty-Four

In Nineteen Eighty-Four, faceless Party members police the thoughts, words and even facial expressions of Oceania’s citizens. The middle classes wear uniforms and sashes, and are stripped of meaningful identity (narrator Winston Smith is “6079 Smith W”).

People are kept apart by class, gender and loyalty to the Party. Only the working classes – considered ‘unpeople’ – are left to their own devices. Everyone else is under scrutiny from telescreens and neighbours. Even a poster on the wall proclaims: “BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU”.

Sex in this world is a joyless act controlled by the Party. Free of love and intimacy, it’s is purely about procreation. Sex is therefore also the weapon Winston and Julia choose (futilely, because their rebellion of privacy and intimacy can’t last).

In the Handmaid’s Tale, Atwood’s heroine, like Winston, writes for an unknown future. A fascist government now controls the citizens of Gilead (formerly the USA). Status is conferred by religion, with non-conformists terrorised or ‘disappeared’. Most notably, fertile women are indentured to Party officials as breeding machines.

These so-called handmaids are also unpeople. Clothing and behaviour strips each one of power, position and individuality. Even the narrator can’t use her real name: she’s Offred (‘Of Fred’).

Those who resist are branded ‘unwomen’ and sent to the colonies … or hanged. Reproductive sex has been stripped of consent and privacy and so, for Offred, intimacy (of self, thoughts and clandestine sex) becomes a weapon.

All the while, brutality is excused by the language and rituals of love – specifically, of Christian love and scripture.

How The Handmaid’s Tale extends Orwell’s dystopia

  • The Handmaid’s Tale gives a physicality to Orwell’s ‘two-minute hate’. While Winston is groomed to abuse unreal enemies on a big screen, the handmaids must help execute an alleged rapist.
  • The secret police set Winston up, then watch him succumb to treason. Similarly, Offred can’t be sure who is an ‘Eye’ or may betray her to them.
  • Stock handmaid responses such as “Under His Eye” are a reminder that God (like Big Brother) sees all and controls everything.
  • Winston’s fate lies in the place where there is no darkness. For Offred, there’s an equally ambiguous ending: “And so I step up, into the darkness within, or else the light.”

In Nineteen Eighty-Four, the female characters are merely props for Winston’s narration. Julia is a feisty but ultimately dull-headed sex toy, while wife Katherine is little more than a frigid and controlling shackle.

The Handmaid’s Tale, in contrast, is about women exactly like Julia and Katherine: they too only exist to serve men through sex and sexual response.

Surprisingly, this doesn’t necessarily mean Atwood’s novel is a ringing endorsement of female society.

2. A critical view of feminism

In the novel’s dystopian future, sisterhood is a risk. In fact, this new society puts torture and degradation in the hands of other women.

The Aunts use terror and torture to teach the handmaids, and encourage them to despise each other:

“It’s Janine, telling how she was gang-raped at fourteen …
But whose fault was it? Aunt Helena says, holding up one plump finger.
Her fault, her fault, we chant in unison.”

The commanders’ wives are complicit in this abuse. They usurp pregnancy and erase the handmaids from their own bodies. They steal their children, then use them as tokens. Hence Serena’s deal to Offred:

“A picture,” she says, as if offering me some juvenile treat, an ice cream, a trip to the zoo. I look up at her again, puzzled.
“Of her,” she says. Your little girl. But only maybe.”

Elsewhere, Offred’s mother flits in and out of the narrative. She’s a feminist activist who judges her daughter for choosing Conservative marriage and motherhood.

Offred’s mother may fight for women’s rights, but she refuses to coddle (or cuddle) her own child. She rejects Offred like Gilead does, only accepting her if their politics match.

Later, Offred muses:

“Mother, I think. Wherever you may be. Can you hear me? You wanted a women’s culture. Well, now there is one. It isn’t what you meant, but it exists. Be thankful for small mercies.”

Sisterhood in Gilead isn’t about achieving equality or celebrating femininity in all its forms. It’s about breeding. With women reduced to the sum of their biological parts, there’s only one way in which they may be useful – for producing and rearing children.

3. Religious extremism under fire

Life in Gilead is the fruit of religion, and the commanders’ interpretation of the Bible makes inhumanity excusable. Torture, rape, and death are all excused as tough love or necessity.

Some readers see in this a warning about the rise of right-wing thinking, or the hypocrisy and failings of Christianity. Others see it as an allegory for Islam. Interestingly, both religions spring from a shared root.

Writing in that same Guardian article, Atwood says:

“As Orwell taught, it isn’t the labels – Christianity, socialism, Islam, democracy, two legs bad, four legs good, the works – that are definitive, but the acts done in their names.”

In their extremes, all religions morph into one. Dig away at the plurality of texts and teachings and robes, and they all seem to say the same thing, want the same ends, hold the same shiny objects up for veneration.

In Gilead, the Ceremony makes rape acceptable through ritual. They even believe it’s necessary for the continuation of the species. It’s easy to see how cloaking such practice in religion could make it more palatable.

Whatever the label, one thing is clear: the rules can be broken, but only for those who make it to the top.

4. Gender rules hurt everyone

The Handmaid’s Tale is about the destruction of female agency. It shows the terrorisation of women, and how resistance can take place underground and inside the body. And yet gender is also a restrictive costume for all the characters.

The book’s afterword reveals the commanders have “come in contact with a sterility-causing virus”. Hence by their own actions they are and will always be childless. But rather than be thought of as lesser men, they punish all women – pushing themselves up by pushing others down.

Having created the future they want [for others], the commanders then promptly return to the past.

Gentleman’s club and brothel Jezebel’s is a hollow pastiche of old-time desire. Commander Waterford even implies his infidelity is because his wife doesn’t understand him. When he asks Offred to kiss him – as if she has a choice – he adds:

“Not like that,” he says. “As if you meant it.”

This kind of sexual manipulation and guilt is nothing new. But in Gilead, both men and women are under the thumb. Each has a defined role in the hierarchy, and must stay true to its course.

For Nick, this means being at the Commander’s beck-and-call, or playing his sexual stand-in. Even Offred gets revenge on the Guardians by taunting them with her hips, because they’re not allowed handmaids of their own.

In the book, Gilead’s past is our present. Handmaids, wives and commanders look back on sexual liberation as a false freedom. Subjugation isn’t just the extremes of ritualised rape of handmaids; it’s beauty norms and consumerism. It’s pervasive yet invisible, and hard to fight back. Perhaps this is how Gilead begins.

The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), by Margaret Atwood

Quoted edition published by Vintage Books, 1996

Nineteen Eighty-Four, by George Orwell. Quoted edition published by Penguin, 1989

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Picture credit: The Haughty Culturist