“There is more than one kind of freedom,” said Aunt Lydia. “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 and equality are perhaps one of the most underrated human rights that we take for granted today. A person without freedom is a person without purpose or meaning, a life without freedom is not a life at all.

The theme of freedom is a key theme in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. This text is very thought provoking, it provided insight into a world where patriarchy is taken to the extreme. There are many themes in the text surrounding the ideas of oppression and patriarchy but the theme that I believe is the most alluring and interesting was the theme of language. The Handmaid’s Tale is a patriarchal text set in Massachusetts and Maine around the general area of the Harvard University, this setting is important as the new government are anti-education as they would rather that Gilead be uneducated and easier to control. Because of this, Atwood ironically uses the university as a place to execute people, this foreshadows America’s switch from being an educated society to a barbaric religious society. The Handmaid’s Tale describes a religious totalitarian society that is created when the president was assassinated and the citizens stripped of their freedom. The text is told through a first-person narrative by the protagonist “Offred” as we are told about her accounts in the newly formed state of “Gilead”. Throughout her ordeal Offred has flashbacks of her old life before Gilead, this allows us to compare Gilead to the normal world.

This text was written in 1985 Canada. It would have been written as the second wave of feminism ended in Canada and the third wave started. The second wave feminist movement campaigned for women to be allowed to do what they want with their bodies and they pushed for equality, third wave feminists on the other hand are more complacent and politically correct. It is clear to me that this text highlights many of the ideas second wave feminists were fighting for, for example, second wave feminists campaigned for education and employment of women and the ability for women to use birth control. All these ideas are opposed by the state in Handmaid’s Tale to degrade the women and strip them of freedom.

Margaret Atwood doesn’t believe our society is heading in the direction of becoming Gilead, she is just trying to shake our generation up to make us realize the importance of these second-wave feminist ideas by taking the opposition of these ideas to the extreme, shown in a patriarchal society. To often these days Margaret Atwood’s text is considered a feminist sacred text, a text that feminists can use to illustrate their predictions of society if men don’t concede to their ideologies. However, in a recent interview the New York Times did with Margaret Atwood she admits that the Handmaid’s Tale was not created to be a feminist text. She says that the Handmaid’s Tale was created to show women in a situation of little power and illustrate how women are humans just like men, not to victimize women in a way that makes men look bad. In my perspective, Margaret Atwood has created a text that is neither man hating or women victimizing but instead illustrates the need for education, employment and freedom for women.

The theme that I enjoyed the most in this text was the theme of language, in particular the theme of language as a tool of power. In the Handmaid’s Tale, language is the most powerful control that the government has over the citizens of Gilead. The government creates a new vocabulary that ranks men by military rank and women by their gender roles in a household. This new hierarchy places women against each other, this stops women from working together for the common interest of equality. As Margaret Atwood said in the recent interview with the New York Times, “Yes, women will gang up on other women. Yes, they will accuse others to keep themselves off the hook: We see that very publicly in the age of social media, which enables group swarmings. Yes, they will gladly take positions of power over other women, even — and, possibly, especially — in systems in which women as a whole have scant power: All power is relative, and in tough times any amount is seen as better than none.” This new vocabulary also includes neologisms and enforced religious sayings. The neologisms are mainly words describing events, for example a prayvaganza is a mass prayer meeting attended by all women and led by a commander, and a salvaging is an event where an enemy of the government is executed by the handmaids. Enforced religious saying are one of the main ways that the government controls the citizens, such as ‘Under his eye’, ‘Praise be’, ‘Blessed be the Fruit’, ‘I Receive With Joy’ and ‘May the Lord Open’. These enforced saying prevent any personal communication between women. On top of this, the handmaid’s don’t know who is for or against the government and therefore participating in any personal communication is a risk as that person may tell authorities. In chapter 23 Offred illustrates to us just how much she is deprived of the freedom to communicate when she is asked to meet the commander in secret. When Offred first walks in she is surprised by a simple word such as ‘hello’, a word now banned and replaced with the saying ‘blessed be the fruit’. The commander then asks Offred to play scrabble, as she plays scrabble she is overjoyed with the ability to form words and she strokes the playing pieces.

The Handmaid’s Tale is a powerful work of fiction, it is very powerful as it conveys a message that is very topical today. It is one of the greatest patriarchal text in history that is interesting and thought-provoking. I enjoyed the themes and messages of this text that, combined together, produce a compelling text that illustrates the need for a society that is equal and just no matter your sex, race or differences. In conclusion, the handmaid’s tale is  a great text that I would recommend to others. It was neither man-hating or women-victimizing but instead showed women in a position of little power and how they respond just as anyone else would. I thoroughly enjoyed the themes of this text, especially the theme of freedom of language.

Sam Dougherty





Join the conversation! 5 Comments

  1. The text is told through a first person narrative by the protagonist “Offred” as we are told about her accounts in the newly formed state of “Gilead” – also mention the structure of the narrative here.

    Avoid saying – I think, I believe.

  2. When you discuss the text, use present tense, as it still exists, so it IS thought-provoking…

  3. The Handmaid’s Tale is a patriarchal text set in Massachusetts – can you discuss the relevance of this setting?

  4. Does the reader understand what the second and third waves of feminism are, Sam?

  5. the need for education, employment and freedom for women. – and if we don’t have that…?


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About Tracey Hames

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

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