The essay is 1140 words long and covers the start – first five chapters – of the novel.

The Handmaid’s Tale is a dystopic fantasy set in the future of the USA, which has been renamed ‘the Republic of Gilead’. Atwood paints a brutal
nightmare centred on the status, roles and function of women as divided in Gilead, into biblical types: ‘Wives’, ‘Marthas’ and ‘Handmaids’ or ‘ambulatory wombs’. Individuality is removed, like possessions, including names. Offred, is in the possessive – ‘of’ ‘Fred’. No part of the name, like the room in which she resides, is hers. The narrator refuses to say ‘my room’ as if she refuses to belong to this world which allows her no belongings. In the ‘sitting room’, she may not ‘sit’. She exists on the edges of language, forbidden to read, hungry for meaning – to mean something. In the Red Centre, the women rebel by whispering ‘names’, seeking ‘touch’. Intimacy is dangerous. Offred says, there were ‘spaces’ deliberately so ‘we could not talk’. Later she says she won’t ‘tempt’ the Martha to friendship as if it were an evil, and describes the voice by comparing it to ‘a traveller coming from a distant place.’ The total lack of intimacy isolates the Handmaids completely, and is one of the most disturbing elements of the novel.

Even the smallest power is strictly controlled: there is little the women ‘can’ do and the word is rarely used, most noticeably where Offred uses it to describe suicide. Here, even the possibility of suicide is removed. She seems to accept Gilead’s dictates when she says to herself ‘Thought must be rationed’. Fear controls even thought, the most chilling form of control there is. Subjunctives for possibilities, like ‘could’ and ‘would’ are most commonly used in the negative. Here, possibilities are strictly controlled: there is only what ‘is’ ‘allotted’ and what is ‘forbidden’. What to us seems a ‘prison’, in Aunt Lydia’s teaching is reversed into ‘privilege’. Women now are allowed ‘freedom from’, not ‘freedom to’ as Aunt Lydia describes the new, oppressive regime. Freedom is prison, prison is freedom; words lose meaning and are reassigned as Handmaids are reassigned and women become ‘Unwomen’, babies, ‘Unbabies’, by a slight of language.

All women, but especially the Handmaids are dehumanized, relegated only to their functions, the limited biblical paradigms of what women should be, existing only in domestic spheres. The coloured robe ‘defines us’, concealing the ‘face’. Handmaids are to be ‘invisible’, fascinating and repellant in equal measur because of their dangerous sexuality. Offred recognizes its ‘power’ though it is ‘passive’ and she itches to use it on the border guards. In the Red Centre, she talks of escape, using it on the guards there with the semantic field of money: ‘exchange’, ‘deal’ and ‘trade’, all centred on their ‘bodies’ – as the only possession that remains.
The ‘Handmaids’ are fiercely ‘protected’ as a valuable commodity – as objects – even from the sight of others. Aunt Lydia says ‘to be seen is to be penetrated’. The irony is fierce. In this regime, to be seen as a person is more disgusting than the state sanctioned rape which Offred argues to herself isn’t rape because she ‘signed up’ to it. She says she had a ‘choice’ but it turns out, disturbingly, that wherever the word ‘choice’ is used – as by the Marthas – it is the choice to comply, or ‘starve’ with the ‘Unwomen’. Female fertility is highly ‘valued’ in a world where there are ‘no children’, but it is a reduced to an animal level. The women themselves do not seem precious. They are an ‘unwelcome necessity’. If fertility is valued though, female sexuality is feared. ‘Orgasms’ are considered frivolous and the ‘Handmaids’ are not to look attractive, or enjoy sex. Men are ‘assigned’ wives – or not – and if not, have no other ‘outlet’ as they are banned from any form of sexual pleasure. The Handmaids are often described in terms of being ‘nuns’ ironically, and the Interpreter tells the tourists that for ‘these women’ to be photographed is an ‘experience of violation’. This society is fiercely hypocritical – insisting that this rape be pure.

Immediately after the exchange with the Interpreter, Offred violates her own integrity by saying she is “very happy”. The only speech dignified by speech marks in Offred’s account, is public, ‘authorised’ pronouncements, often formulaic that express no feeling or individuality: as in the exchange with Ofglen when Offred repeats “Praise be”. The very rhythmic calmness of the exchange gives it a disturbing, dead quality. The words are empty of meaning or feeling. This mood of suspicion is a sharp undercurrent that surfaces in the Marthas italicized conversation where they talk of ‘jealousy’ ‘stabbed’ poison and needles – the fierce actions that underlie the artificially forced Handmaid system. Spies, are everywhere: the interpreter is an official ‘Eye’. Offred suspects Nick: ‘Perhaps he is an Eye’, and says of herself and Ofglen ‘She is my spy as I am hers’. Here the present tense, and balanced construction gives this statement of fact an especially shocking directness. Offred is her ‘twin’, as much a part of the system as any other.

There is an Orwellian quality to the officialdom of Gilead. At the ‘Red Centre’, where ‘Aunts’ are allowed names, and speak kindly of ‘honour’ and ‘respect’. In reality, neither of these are given – suggesting Orwell’s Newspeak and thought control. The Martha ‘disapproves’ as if Offred were a ‘disease’, and wouldn’t ‘degrade’ herself by doing the same. The contradictions of the regime are also shown in the strange juxtaposition of the friendly word ‘Aunts’ with the fierceness of ‘patrolled’, ‘electric cattle prods’, and ‘barbed wire’ fences.

The use of time in the novel gives the feel, that Offred is trapped in the past, guiltily breaking out when she thinks people are ‘looking’. Thought is dangerous. ‘The time before’ is distant ‘he used to’, and ‘once’ gives the quality of fairytale to such prosaic elements as the nineteen eighties pornography, gym class, storing up plastic bags, now freakishly rare. Here, ‘tourists’ visit America as Americans might once have visited other, repressive states, or stared at women in burkhas. The reversal is shocking, and as Offred herself says: ‘I used to dress like that. That was freedom. // Westernized they used to call it.’ Offred narrates the present of the novel narrowly in a present tense without verbs. Chapter Two begins tautly: ‘A chair, a table, a lamp’. Here, Atwood uses asyndeton to slice out the final, languid ‘and’. One of the next objects listed is ‘blank space’ which further darkens the mood. This is a world of absence, of things ‘forbidden’, women ‘allotted’ as if they were objects, of freedoms removed. In this key chapter, establishing her character and her world, almost all verbs are removed, symbolizing the narrator’s catastrophic lack of agency (power to act) in this twisted dystopia.