Critical Analysis Of The Handmaid’s Tale By Margaret Atwood

“The Handmaid’s Tale” by Margaret Atwood takes place in the dystopian society of Gilead, where a young woman named Offred serves as a “handmaid.” These “handmaids” are essentially female slaves who have the sole purpose of breeding for their masters (technically captors). In a world of heavy surveillance, strictly enforced regulations, and extreme and cruel punishment, the novel’s protagonist, Offred, attempts to get through each day while believing that one day she will be reunited with her family.

To carry on my numerous numbers of reading logs, I chose The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood as one of my reading logs because I personally enjoy reading dystopian novels. Besides that the author’s interpretation of the future because it gives greater insight on things I have never thought of before, or would never even bother thinking about when set in a place where totalitarian governments reign with supreme authority and just about control every single aspect of human existence. What interested me to this book, is Margaret Atwood, mentioning the fact about 1984 and her book, “The Handmaid’s Tale” is similar, so with this piece of knowledge, it ignited my curiosity to actually search for and read the book.

After I finished reading and examining Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” in my opinion, it became clear that Offred is a prime example of how a ruthless totalitarian society can cause the lives of citizens to live in such an extreme case futility and worthlessness. The novel treads through the issues within the Republic of Gilead face issues such as power, freedom and individuality within society. It is written in first person, in the perspective of Offred, who once had an identity and the freedom to live with her family in her own home, but is now living in a totalitarian society with very restrictive rules. In the novel, Offred talks of her daily life, which is just filled with monotony and emptiness as she is not capable of doing anything other than what is instructed for her to do but obey the rules and survive.

I felt that the Atwood wanted to put emphasis in order to convey to the reader on how devalued, and how worthless Offred’s life was, because the author writes in a deeply depressing tone, causing readers such as myself to be sympathetic towards the character of Offred.

Offred has her identity completely stripped away from her as she can’t even remember what she used to look like or even use her real name, as seen in the following quote, “My name isn’t Offred, I have another name, which nobody uses now because it’s forbidden”.

Her life in Gilead seems very unhappy due to the imposed restrictions on her daily routine that she is confined in, which mainly consists of only going to shopping trips, Ceremonies, Salvagings and meetings with the other women.

Margaret Atwood uses a variety of literary devices to convey to the reader the unhappy life that Offred lives, such as similes: “We would exchange remedies and try to outdo each other in the recital of our physical miseries; gently we would complain, our voices soft and minor key and mournful as pigeons in the eaves troughs”, and metaphors: “We are containers, it’s only the inside of our bodies that are important.”

The way that Offred describes everything in her life and relating it back to her past freedom causes me to really sympathize with the character and her view of the world, besides that it really conveys the fact about the Handmaid’s Tale and the totalitarian government’s rules and the society’s view of women, which I think is quite degrading, such disrespectful aspects and practices are enforced in this society which makes me sort of angry, “Is this how the world has come to, that we start to dehumanize and devalue women in society?” (back to the response).

Atwood uses the concept of flashbacks really well in the novel to show Offred’s desperation and longing for freedom. Offred often recalls her freedom from the past, in which she could go wherever she pleased, wore whatever she wanted and expressed herself the way she liked because now, she is chained by the restrictive rules and regulations of Gilead.

There are also instances in the novel in which she thinks about her child and husband, whom she was separated from, and the author provides the reader with in depth descriptions of these memories to show how much Offred misses her past life.

In the novel, Offred repeatedly asks herself how she can keep living like this and hopes that one day she can get out of it and back to her family, as seen in the following quote extracted from the novel,

“The message will say that I must have patience: sooner or later he will get me out, we will find her, wherever they’ve put her. She’ll remember us and we will be all three of us together. Meanwhile, I must endure, keep myself safe for later…It’s this message, which may never arrive, that keeps me alive”.

This piece of evidence conveys to the reader what keeps Offred alive, is simply the thought of freedom, effectively showing her sense of desperation and her longingness to be free. This allows me to sympathize and connect with Offred’s longing desire for freedom and be reunited with her loved ones.

Not only did the novel’s presentation of the topics of freedom and individuality connect with me, but it also reminded me of similar novels covering pretty much similar issues. When I was reading the novel, I was presented with a dystopian society similar to other novels I have read in the past such as George Orwell’s “1984”. I found myself comparing between the totalitarian authorities in Gilead to the government of Oceania in Orwell’s “1984,” because people who went against the ideals and beliefs of Big Brother were vanquished/banished as well.

However, while the government of Oceania was discrete, the government of Gilead are not and they try to get as many people to see the executed criminals. For example, in Gilead, there is a Wall where hanged criminals are displayed for all the citizens to see. When Offred went to the Wall, there was instance was there were hanging doctors who were brutally executed and had a placard with a human foetus around their necks to show why they had been executed. Atwood allows readers to infer and think after reading such parts of the novel because it is only implied that the doctors might have promoted abortion, which is against the ideals of the government, and plus the very reason why the Handmaids were Handmaids was because of the infertility crisis (due to women who couldn’t bear any children), disease and most talks of how no woman should prevent birth and that they are lucky to conceive.

There were also other criminals hung on the wall, for other reasons which serve as a reminder there are countless of other things besides abortion that is illegal and is also banned In Gilead.

Offred states in the novel that the hanging bodies were to serve as a reminder to the people so that they could hate them and scorn them for their atrocious acts, as seen in the following quote, “…this is a reminder to us of the unjustness and brutality of the regime…that we should remember to do what we are told and not get into trouble, because if we do, we will be rightfully punished.”

The “Handmaid’s Tale” also reminds me of the similarly themed Novel, “1984” in several different aspects as well. For instance, in the Republic of Gilead, there are The Eyes of God, who serve as the Republic’s secret police, which means that anyone could be a part of the citizens and nobody would know. The Eyes are responsible for maintaining law and order through spying and heavy surveillance, and similarly, in Oceania, there is the thought police, secret police force responsible for maintaining law and order through spying and again, heavy surveillance.

Another instance is when Aunt Lydia claimed that the Guardian the women were beating up, was a rapist, when in fact he was just part of the underground rebellion. The Republic of Gilead disposes of rebellions and bends the truth just like the Oceanian government to keep certain information away from the people, which also connects to the fact that, “Facts” are not “Reality” and reality can be changed on the whim of what totalitarian government is in charge, whether it may be “The Party” in 1984 or the one force that controls the Republic of Gilead in the Handmaid’s Tale.

They keep information about the war from its citizens and on TV,

“They show us only victories, never defeats. Who wants bad news?”

~ Who wants to make the government look bad, no one. ~

This is similar to the propaganda in “1984” in which the government only shows its citizens what they want the citizens to see. Atwood effectively shows just how ruthless and manipulative that Gilead can be, through these various acts and laws.


Overall, the “Handmaid’s Tale” by Margaret Atwood was an interesting read and I learned to really value my freedom and individuality after seeing how poor Offred’s life is without it. This novel is also relevant because it relates to controversial topics that still exist in society today, such as gender inequalities in the workplace etc. to perhaps the issues around the rights and freedoms as well as the mistreatment of women and their value in society itself. Through this novel, Atwood provides a thorough study of power and how it can deform the people living within that kind of totalitarian regime.

09 March 2021
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