In The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood introduces the reader to The Republic of Gilead, a dystopian society in which women are dehumanised, silenced, abused and treated as vessels for conception. This dystopia is built upon patriarchal control and values, an ideology that The Handmaid’s Tale is often used to critique. But the novel’s portrayal of women as powerless and submissive does more to reinforce the very patriarchal thinking that it supposedly denounces.

Feminism in fiction walks a fine line between constructivist and essentialist narratives, and Atwood crosses this line. 

In a setting as conspicuously oppressive as the Republic of Gilead, The Handmaid’s Tale explores various expressions of feminism as extensions of those that existed pre-Gilead. Which is to say, forms of feminism that exist today. In doing so, the novel produces a paternalistic construction of its narrative, discrediting active resistance and leading its readers to share in the fatalistic passivity of the protagonist. 

Professor and author Judith Newton has argued that many feminist critiques, while acknowledging the skewed power dynamics between genders, often implicitly portray these dynamics and relationships as “unchanging, universal, and monolithically imposed.” This draws readers away from the reality of these relations being constructed and instead creates a sense of their “inevitability and tragic essentiality.”

Offred, the novel’s protagonist, embraces this tragic essentiality. She accepts society and her role of sexual servitude within it, pessimistically describing any other methods of resistance. She longs for the freedom of the days before Gilead, but is resigned to her fate and her duty. When she initiates small acts of resistance, they are carried out with the desire to make her position in society more bearable, such as using butter to moisturise her face to stay pretty. None of her so-called rebellious acts are meant to remove herself from the position of a victim. When she meets and starts sleeping with a man, she renounces any desire to resist, at one point even stating “I no longer want to leave, escape, cross the border to freedom,” and is perfectly content “to be here, with Nick, where I can get at him”

While some critics say that in recording the tapes that constitute the novel, Offred challenges the status quo and presents herself as “a creative non-victim,” the importance of her actions is undercut by her constant and contradictory statements of helplessness, and her refusal to exercise any agency. In her own words, she has “given [herself] over into the hands of strangers, because it can’t be helped.” Her escape at the end of the book is the result of a change in her circumstances, which were completely disconnected from her own efforts, and hardly the result of a change in her mindset or a triumph in the face of oppression. 

This being said, there is no trivialising the severity and dangers of Offred’s situation. To rebel would be to condemn herself to certain death and public humiliation. In a sense, the constant threat of surveillance and capture makes readers sympathise with Offred and understand her decisions and choices. 

That is the genius of Atwood’s writing.  

To tell a story through an unreliable narrator, and to make this narrator an “everywoman” is to firmly situate the reader in their perspective and impose the narrator’s views onto them. In this instance, Offred’s perspective is one of conformity and a general cynicism towards active rebellion. Even if the reader were to be horrified by the regime’s cruelty while simultaneously rejecting Offred’s passivity, her narration leaves little room for the formation of another viewpoint. The portrayals of feminism in other characters offer alternatives to Offred’s complacency, but their individual plotlines all work to delegitimize their choices and beliefs, reinforcing the idea that rebellion is futile. 

Offred’s mother, who is an obvious caricature of radical feminism, is absent and an alcoholic. She partakes in book burnings, renounces male relationships and alienates her daughter by trying to force her views onto her. She deviates from traditional expectations of femininity and motherhood, for which she is condemned to a life wasted away cleaning radioactive waste. 

Moira, Offred’s best friend before the regime, tries to escape from the handmaid’s training centre, but each of her attempts fails and is met with immense brutality. She is beaten and tortured and eventually, her persistence and stubbornness fade away as she becomes a prostitute. 

Ofglen, another handmaid who was part of a resistance effort, kills herself. Only Offred is able to escape this regime, but her success is credited to Nick; his actions, and his generosity. 

Through this depiction, Atwood highlights the impossibility of female heroes and feminist thought before, during, and after Gilead. Even after the resistance supposedly triumphs and brings down the regime, the historical notes are proof of the continuity of patriarchal and misogynistic thinking. In them, the professor repeatedly minimises the handmaids’ subjugation and glorifies their oppressors, calling the resistance the “underground frailroad” and the commanders “gentlemen.” The paradigm of oppression hasn’t ended, it has simply evolved. Once again, Atwood illustrates gendered power dynamics as unchanging, and in doing so, relegates women’s oppression to the idea of tragic essentialism. It begs the question: if we’re doomed to a cycle of oppression and futile resistance, where do we go from here? 

Some might argue that The Handmaid’s Tale recognises and reflects the perilous state of gender relations across the world today. That it highlights existing gender dynamics, and showcases the dangers of the commodification of women caused by male entitlement. All of these claims are true. However, the introduction and subsequent devaluation of alternative forms of feminist advocacy which are not supported or driven by men, paired with the hopelessness that is perpetuated by the narrator all lead to the formation of the conclusion that these skewed dynamics are inescapable and natural. Society was, is, and continues to be oppressive, and according to The Handmaid’s Tale, the only viable option for women is to accept it. 


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