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The Handmaid's Tail by Margaret Atwood Analysis

Updated on June 18, 2013

The Handmaid's Tale

The Handmaid’s Tale, written by Margaret Atwood, is a thought provoking book with great philosophical importance. What is meant by this is that the novel can easily be associated with philosophy. To understand the philosophical meaning, there must be a general knowledge of the novel. With the understanding of the novel comes the ability to link examples from the book to its philosophical meaning.

First of all, The Handmaid’s Tale is a novel about a young woman’s journey through a period of her life. The world she is living in is greatly different from today’s world. Offred, the character in the novel, is a woman living in the Republic of Gilead, where women have been stripped of their rights. There are different tiers of women, each tier giving women different rights. Handmaids are dressed in red ankle length dresses with long sleeves, and white winged hats that disguise their faces from others and limit their vision. As a Handmaid, women are only valued for viable ovaries, and the possibility to conceive a child with the Commander (the man/head of the household). The night Offred has sex with the Commander is called The Ceremony. The Ceremony consists of the household gathering and listening to the Commander pray and read stories from the Bible. Then the Commander, Offred, and Serena Joy (Commander’s wife) proceed to the bedroom. This is where Serena Joy holds the hands of Offred while her husband has sex with Offred. This is not considered to be making love; there is no kissing or holding each other. Each person is solely there to conceive a baby only, not to make love. Month after month of no conception triggers the brainstorming of Serena Joy, she wants the pleasures of a household with a coveted baby. Serena Joy sets up for Offred to have sex with Nick, the household chauffeur, which Offred eventually starts secretly sneaking out every night to make love with Nick. Unbeknown to Serena Joy, Offred is also having secret meetings with the Commander. These meetings between the Commander and Offred differ greatly from the meetings between Offred and Nick. The Commander and Offred spend this time talking about the world; this being something Handmaid’s are not permitted to do. The Commander gives Offred lotion; Handmaid’s are not privy to accessories, lotions, make-up, or perfumes. The Commander allows Offred to read, another right that has been stripped from women. He even takes Offred out for an evening, which eventually leads to the discovery of Offred and the Commander’s secret meetings. Serena Joy confronts Offred about this excursion and the authorities take Offred away, with the help of Nick, it can be assumed that Offred might actually have been secretly delivered to freedom from the Republic of Gilead.

After a general knowledge of The Handmaid’s Tale is obtained the novel can be easily linked to philosophy. Philosophy is a Liberal art; liberal meaning freedom and book. Ironically The Handmaid’s Tale is a book about freedom. The women and men of Gilead follow these gender specific rules out of fear. Fear is a rational limitation on their freedom. Throughout the novel there are stories of women and men being punished or killed for disobeying the laws. There are Eyes (which are related to spies) that are watching, and wire taps and surveillance in town; where the Handmaids travel to the market. Offred travels to the market daily with Ofglen, another Handmaid, and there is a great display for placing the fear into the people, called The Wall. The Wall displays dead bodies on hooks. The bodies have bags over their heads and placards hang around their necks, displaying their crimes. Some of these people are killed even for crimes that were committed before Gilead had its strict sets of laws, such as the outlawing of abortion. This example links the novel to philosophy by showing how fear can control a person’s knowledge. All the people of the Republic of Gilead can remember the freedom they once had. Women worked, had money, raised their own children, loved who they wanted, and read, but this fear controls their knowledge and restrains them from using it to free themselves again.

Throughout the novel there are individuals rising above their fear and obedience to authority which can sometimes lead them to The Wall, but one great thing was the formation of May Day; a group of individuals using their knowledge of the outside world to regain their freedom. This underground group is introduced by Ofglen who kills herself to prevent her torture, which would lead to the reveal of other members of Mayday. This is just one of many individuals throughout the novel that use their knowledge to try to create individual freedom.

One more example derives from when the Commander takes Offred to a secret club formed by the Commanders. Before leaving the house Offred dresses in lingerie and puts on some make-up, all provided by the Commander. She is nervous but when she arrives at The Club all is revealed. It is a huge room filled with women in little clothing, some even in see through lingerie. This particular part of the novel contains a very important quote. It is the Commander’s response to Offred’s question of places like The Club being strictly forbidden.

“…you can’t cheat nature,” he says. “Nature demands variety, for men. It stands to reason, it’s part of the procreational strategy. It’s Nature’s plan. Women know that instinctively. Why did they buy so many different clothes, in the old days? To trick the men into thinking they have several different women. A new one each day.” (Page 237)

This quote means that no matter what the government might do to change their country, there are always going to be the natural forces and instincts that lead their citizens to break the laws. The Commander doesn’t realize how close he is to this, but these “natural forces” are the individual’s ability to use their critical thinking to obtain knowledge and eventually obtain their freedom. Perhaps this little club is foreshadowing of the Commanders using their knowledge to form their own political freedom.

In conclusion, there are many examples that link The Handmaid’s Tale to philosophy. All these examples can be linked together to demonstrate the power of knowledge. If philosophy is an art of freedom then it is assumed that freedom of knowledge leads to individualism. No group of peoples can liberate themselves from a government without the power of knowledge; this meaning individuals cannot be free without the power of philosophy.

“Freedom is not an empty abstraction, haunting the marbled halls of political institutions or courts of law; freedom is an internal state, a state of mind, which begins within each individual. Where individual minds are not free, political freedom is impossible; where political freedom exists, it can be destroyed only from within the individual minds of the populace. We may conclude, therefore, that philosophy-as one of the arts of freedom-is an intellectual art engaged in the defense of freedom against ignorance, fear, and intellectual complacency or laziness.” (Dr James Pearce, Learning To Think) In the end, this quote sums up the theme of the entire novel fairly well, without philosophy there may be no freedom.

Further Reading on the subject....


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