The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

Margaret Atwood’s popular novel “The Handmaid’s Tale” published in the year 1985 portrays the story of a totalitarian state and its populace. The Republic of Gilead has policies that control the social order of the characters’ environment, which they inhabit, their information, behaviors, cultural values, and movements. The control approach is largely efficient since its mechanisms are designed in a way that ensures complete participation of the populace even though some characters such as Offred still manage to rebel against the repression. In this paper, the theme of the need to balance individual liberty against social order will be discussed based on the pre-Gileadean and Gileadean times.

One of the most preferred values that those in power in Gilead used is individual liberty. That can be attested from Aunt Lydia’s references to the values when she said “there is more than one kind of freedom … Freedom from and freedom to, in the days of anarchy, it was freedom to, now you are being given freedom from…”[1]

Aunt Lydia points out how in the Pre-Gileadean times most emphases was placed on social order whereby “freedom from” offered the citizens a chance to do what they desired and had the freedom to choose unlike the Gileadean times where “freedom to” was the norm, which limited the people’s freedom of doing anything.  For instance, during the pre-Gileadean times, Offred’s mother managed to give birth to her daughter at thirty-seven years of age and brought her up as a single mother in spite of the opposition from some family members and friends. In the pre-Gileadean times, she shows how everyone had the right to do as they pleased as long as their actions did not interfere with the rights of others. The difference is seen in the Gileadean times whereby she goes to the street to demonstrate against “Freedom of choose. Every baby, a wanted baby. Recapture our bodies…”[2] In this period, she protested against the strict rules that limited women’s reproductive rights. Offred’s mother is a strong figure in the book; she represents the individualistic freedom. 

The government of Gilead enacted individual liberty value in its rule to deal with many failures of the previous age. As Aunt Lydia points out about the previous period in her sentiments, “the days of anarchy”[3], that suggests that during the pre-Gileadean times, the society was fuelled by chaotic, disordered and lawlessness actions of the state as compared to the Gilead regime that was efficient, disciplined, and orderly. Thus, in an effort of restoring an orderly world, the state had to resort to reforms and iron-fist leadership that involved the use of “a higher self-state ruling over, lower self-individuals” to assist them in achieving what is best for the country’s prosperity.

Effects of Valuing Individual Liberty more than Social Order in Gileadean Times

Implementation of the value of individual liberty in Gileadean citizens as opposing to maintaining the social order not only led to new bans in the society, but also legislation, new words, and regulations which create constraints on both the mentality and actions of the people. The powerful individuals viewed themselves as much more knowledgeable and equipped with the necessary skills to make decisions for the lower individuals, and this can be seen in many scenarios, for example,  when the new ‘higher’ state commences prescribing, i.e. enacts legislation, which dictates the types of temptations to the nation. The state passed laws portraying women as a non-thinking entity, which easily responds to temptations that come in their way and dictated the type of clothes they should wear, for instance, Offred states, “I sit by the partly open window … in my nightgown, long-sleeved even in summer, to keep us from the temptations of our flesh…”[4]

Not only was the legislation prescribed by the state, but some other things were also proscribed too. Some items that were viewed as frivolities such as fashion magazines and leisure, skin care items and make-up were proscribed from particular individuals such as the Handmaids. The “higher self-state” also banned reading amongst the Gileadean women.

Preference of individual liberty by the Gileadean government also focused on using a primary psychological tool that made the populace complicit in the control of their lives and punishment of rebels. The republic supplemented the paranoia induced in the society by the “Eyes,” which is the expectation that every citizen will report people going against the norms that Gilead has imposed. That can be clearly shown by the Handmaids who walk everywhere in twos. They are made to believe that it is for their protection; however, as for Offred, she believes that the norm violates their liberty. She states, “The truth is that she is my spy, as I am hers. If either of us slips through the net because of something that happens on one of our daily walks, the other will be accountable.”[5]

Individual liberty also resulted to a paternalistic-nurtured, patriarchal, chauvinistic regime whereby men were seen as the “higher self” while women “the lower self” that ought to be redeemed from their ignorance even though segregation was also in place among the women. For instance, in the Red Center in Gilead “the rules are numerous, and the Aunts are merciless in their upholding of the laws for your good, but more than that, the girls at the Center are ‘hers to define, we must suffer her adjectives.”[6] Nevertheless, men dominated women’s lives as compared to the pre-Gileadean regime. They packaged women into various groups such as the wives, the Marthas’, and the Handmaids as per their abilities asserting that citizens had to rid themselves of their personal desires for the prosperity of the state and conform to religion that guided them. Handmaids are made into baby making machines that produce soldiers to protect the country. The men persuade the Handmaids by using religion, for instance, they drew parables of Leah and Rachel in convincing them that God preordained their presumed role. When the Handmaids conduct their prayers, they are informed that they should pray for their emptiness, semen, grace, and children, “Oh God, obliterate me. Make me fruitful. Mortify my flesh that I may be multiplied. Let me be fulfilled.”[7] The men intrude the women’s private lives such as prayer and even in their sex lives.


Margaret Atwood’s novel is successfully shows the effects of a society preferring individual liberty over the social order. In the Gileadean government, where individual liberty is preferred, the higher self-state rule over the lower self-individuals thereby limiting their freedom. The Gileadean state utilized this approach after the pre-Gileadean government failure in leadership that was comprised of chaos and disorderliness. The book is appropriate and useful for political science students in equipping them with governance, social order, and individual liberty.


Atwood, M. The Handmaid’s Tale. New York: Anchor Books, 1998.


Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale (New York: Anchor Books, 1998), 24

[2] Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale, 120

[3] Atwood, 24

[4] Atwood, 191

[5] Atwood, 19

[6] Atwood, 144

[7] Atwood, 194

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