Women Issues in The Handmaid's Tale

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The book narrates about a woman; Offred who is portrayed as inhabiting a dystopian world characterized by a theocracy of the US government setting, where women have been stripped off of all their rights. Offred is depicted as having been forced into becoming a Handmaid and is continually dreaming and contemplating of escape. In the end chapters of the book, the author does not indicate where she was later arrested or rescued (Atwood 23).

Nonetheless, a revolution interchanged and replaced the United States government, which was featured by a theocracy, the Bible-founded Republic of Gilead. The book is recited or narrated by a woman who has been understood to be around 30 years of age; who was separated from her young daughter and spouse – and later was sent to a brainwashing center, referred to as the Center throughout the novel (Atwood 33). There, she was taught to be a Handmaid, indebted to serve members of the higher social status, the hierarchy and as birth-mother of her children.

In the novel, there exists a struggle to define and maintain social identity based on the context of gender and culture; which is the central theme of the tale. The battle of determining women identity is intertwined with individuals' membership in different, gender groups, roles, and cultures in the society (Atwood 37). The illustrations beg the query aimed at inquiring how a person like Offred can define herself in the such an environment, which only see her as a mother, a wife and ultimately a Handmaid. Does the law, the government, govern and shape the society concerning fulfillment and definition of individuals? Consequently, the tale’s underlying message is not in agreement with people who opt for suicide as an alternative to difficult struggles. Conversely, the novel advocates and champions individual like Offred who are mindful of constructing or rather reconstructing their own stories. Consequently, this paper seeks to discuss the issues and treatment problems which affect the women in the society.

Women issues and treatment problems

Identity. The novel portrays the Gilead community in such a manner where markers of peoples’ identities are reduced, and the people residing in that area interact in adherence to strictly controlled and defined social roles. Everyone belonged to a certain caste or class. The classes are categorized by color, through which particular groups of people must dress in clothing resembling their color (Atwood 78). For example, red signified sexuality, while blue symbolized purity, these aspects represented individuals according to their class; and were considered to be of more significance that the person's individuality or name. Unlike the other classes, the Handmaids were completely stripped off of their names – they were renamed under their commanders' first names, for example, Offred. Of- is a prefix which indicated that Fred owns her, meaning Ofglen was a Handmaid owned by Glen. Similarly, Offred was owned by Fred.

The themes were highlighted in the introductory chapter of the book, where a Handmaid secretly told another her name privately, at the Red Center. Also, the subject of identity can be established from the fact that the narrators' real name was not revealed throughout the tale. Even Offred, her substitute name was discovered later in the text, in chapter fourteen. In another instance, is during execution of criminals, those convicted for crimes committed are executed with a bag over their heads, concealing their faces although a sign indicating their crimes are placed wrapped around their necks as they hand on the walls. As such, their true identities are hidden, and they are known for their crimes. 

Language is an influential tool employed in Gilead. Language is used to oppress and control the inhabitants, and itself it is restricted. For example, while greeting each other, the Handmaids use formal language. In chapter eight, Offred was surprised when Nick spoke to her freely (Atwood 102). Written language is also more stringently controlled, for instance, through the novel, symbols have been used to replace shops names. Reading materials are not allowed for women, even though the cultures of the society indicated that they should be built on the Bible. Accordingly, the text is changed in instances where they are quoted while supporting the Gilead's laws. Consequently, people cannot verify the accuracy of scripture quotes as a majority of the population are not allowed to access the Bible. In other words, people are at the mercies of the few who are charged with the mandate of reading the Bible.

Therefore, it can be asserted that language is both a tool for freedom and oppression, in an exciting way. A good instance is when Offred commander invited her into the Clandestine meeting. The commander's private study was full of books, and that is where they played scrabble, amongst the books. Offred was offered a magazine to read among other readable materials. Although the commander broke the rule, he experienced the pleasure of becoming a benevolent master, which aroused him sexually (Atwood 133). Moreover, Offred is depicted to continually reflects on numerous words together with their meanings. Amazingly, she describes over and over again of how she uses the words to reconstruct and create herself and her story. In this context, a language is a tool of oppression and freedom at the same time.

Gender Roles. Men and women living in Gilead society partake strictly defined functions and roles. The males can take up positions in the military ranks, such as Guards, eyes, angels, and commanders. They also have the responsibility of fathering children, guarding and punishing them. On the other hand, women are entirely stripped of their liberties and rights. They are perceived only to be useful for their physical abilities like cooking and doing housework. In essence, mothers do the cooking and house chores, while aunts are supposed to oversee training activities and to brainwash of other women (Atwood). Wives are supposed to manage households and serve their spouses, while Handmaids bore children. In Gilead's society, sexual expressions are not permitted and are only allowed for procreation (Atwood 201). According to the law, homosexuality, masturbation, pornography, and birth controls are outlawed. The marriage union between Luke and Offred were considered to have existed before Gilead was established; therefore, such were unrecognized and illegal. 

Liberty and Captivity. Real liberty was challenging to achieve because people lived according to certain restrictions. Nevertheless, people found other ways of gaining some form of freedom, though they had to break the rules. They occasionally met behind closed doors, frequented brothers and accessed the black market where they bought cigarettes.  Lack of liberty can also be termed to be captivity, and the theme was introduced in chapter one when the author portrayed the prison-like setting (Atwood 184). Offred also narrates how she went to places in her mind, which were prohibited in the real physical world. Form a broader viewpoint; she was also able to construct this narrative as she pleased, employing different imageries and interchanging details of how things occurred, contemplating of forbidden thoughts and flashing back to past happenings.

As the narrative progresses, the theme of defining liberty increased. For example, the women are told that something better has replaced their freedom to make personal choices – liberty from happenings like violence and rape. In this context, language is also manipulated to misrepresent the reality of the Gilead’s society while offering a security illusion (Atwood 264). Conversely, the ideology that a lesser degree of control or liberty can be used to keep people who are oppressed from rebelling or rising for themselves is also explored in the text. For example, hierarchical ranks allow women with a higher social class to exercise power over lower ones; and wives were depicted to have their garden which they work on. The theme was also demonstrated through the affair between Nick and Offred; she lost her interest of helping and joining the resistance, just because she inconsiderately preferred holding on to the little sense of control over her life (Atwood 302).


The literature has managed to raise awareness of the issues and treatment problems which women face in the Gilead society. The tale can be perceived to be cruel; however, it realistically depicts the future while emphasizing on its potential of turning out to be like the Gilead's society. A society characterized by social issues that are overlooked or are not adequately addressed. All the details highlighted in the book have a corresponding reality either from the historical facts or contemporary living. Therefore, the book is useful in enlightening the audience about the influences and contrast of our real world through the Gilead setting.

Works Cited

Atwood, Margaret. The handmaid's tale . Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 2006. Document.

August 21, 2023




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Literature Review

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