Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale doesn’t just preach feminism – it inspects it, calls out its failings, and shows how gender politics keep us all in line. Here are four ways of reading the text.
1. Rebooting Nineteen Eighty-Four
Of George Orwell’s nightmarish dystopia, Nineteen Eighty-Four, 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, there are many similarities between the two novels, with Atwood playing homage to and re-imagining the earlier text.
- Fahrenheit 451 and 1984
- Orwell’s Notes on Nationalism explained
- The race problem in the Handmaid’s Tale TV series
The Handmaid’s Tale compared to 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, for example, becomes “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 purely a procreative act. Sex is therefore also the weapon Winston and Julia choose (futilely, because their act of subversion – of privacy – can only ever be transient).
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: now 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) is a weapon. All the while, brutality is excused by the language and phoney rituals of love – specifically, of Christian love and scripture.
- The Handmaid’s Tale gives a physicality to Orwell’s ‘two-minute hate’. While Winston and the others abuse unreal enemies on a big screen, the handmaids must take part in the execution of an alleged rapist.
- The secret police set Winston up, then watch him through telescreens. Offred can’t be sure who is an ‘Eye’, or who may betray her to them. Meanwhile, 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 fiesty but ultimately dull-headed sex toy. His wife Katherine is shown as little more than a frigid and controlling shackle.
The Handmaid’s Tale, in contrast, is about women exactly like Julia and Katherine. They only exist to serve men through sex and sexual response. Surprisingly, that doesn’t mean Atwood’s novel is a ringing endorsement of female society.
2. Feminism under fire
In the novel’s dystopian future, sisterhood is a risk. In fact, this new society puts torture and degradation in the hands of 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 mistreated. They’re happy to usurp pregnancy and erase the handmaids from their own bodies. They steal their children, then use them as tokens. “Maybe I could get something for you,” Serena offers:
“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 blames her daughter for choosing the traditionalism of marriage and motherhood.
Offred’s mother fights for women’s rights, but refuses to coddle (or cuddle) her own child. She rejects Offred in similar way to Gilead, only accepting her if she complies. 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 political, professional or domestic equality. It’s purely 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
Life in Gilead is the fruit of religion – and their reading of the Bible makes inhumanity excusable. Torture, rape, and death are all excused as tough love or necessity.
Some see this a warning about the rise of right wing thinking, or the hypocrisy and failings of Christianity in the West. Others see it as an allegory for Islam (interestingly, both religions spring from the same 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 terrorization of women, and how resistance can take place underground and inside the body. Yet gender is a restrictive costume for all of Atwood’s characters.
The commanders have “come in contact with a sterility-causing virus”. By their own actions they are and will always be childless. But rather than be thought of as lesser men, they punish all women.
Having done this, the commanders promptly recreate the past. Jezebel’s, a gentleman’s club and brothel 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.
Gilead’s past is our present. Handmaids, wives and commanders look back on sexual liberation as a false freedom. Subjugation isn’t just in extremes like ritualised rape, but also in constrictive beauty norms and consumerism. It’s pervasive yet invisible, and hard to fight back. Perhaps this is how Gilead begins.
Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale (1985)
- The Handmaid’s Tale. Atwood, M. Vintage Books, 1996
- Nineteen Eighty-Four. Orwell, G. Penguin, 1989
- My hero: George Orwell by Margaret Atwood. The Guardian, 2013
Picture credit: The Haughty Culturist