Throughout Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale an imagined place or state in which everything is unpleasant or bad, typically a totalitarian or environmentally degraded state is created through the use of multiple themes and narrative techniques. In a dystopia, we can usually find a society that has become all kinds of wrong, in direct contrast to a utopia, or a perfect society. Like many totalitarian states, the Republic of Gilead starts out as an envisioned utopia by a select few: a remade world where lower-class women are given the opportunity interact with upper-class couples in order to provide them with children, and the human race can feel confident about producing future generations with the potential to see past divisions of classes. Yet the vast majority of the characters we meet are oppressed by this world, and its strict attention to violence, death, and conformity highlight the ways in which it is a far from perfect place. Atwood is tapping into a national fear of the American psyche and playing with the idea of American culture being turned backwards and no longer standing as the dominant culture. Atwood engages the reader by recreating events that have previously happened making the ‘dystopian’ world more relatable and, therefore, more frightening.
Two of the most important themes of The Handmaid's Tale are the presence and manipulation of power and freedom. The ideas of power, freedom and confinement are closely entwined and constantly on Offred’s mind. It is often the case, however, that these can be muddled with what is free and what is bound. Auntie Lydia thinks ‘there is more than one kind of freedom… Freedom to and freedom from. In the days of anarchy it was freedom to. Now you are being given freedom from. Don’t underrate it.’ This suggests the belief that; despite all that the women have lost, Aunt Lydia and Gilead argue, they are free now. They have "freedom from" things like sexist catcalls and potential abuse from strangers. They would argue that the women of Gilead should be grateful for such freedom rather than mourning the other freedoms they've lost. On the one hand, Gilead is a theocratic dictatorship, so power is imposed entirely from the top. There is no possibility of appeal, no method of legally protecting oneself from the government, and no hope that an outside power will intervene which suggests that the people of Gilead are not free at all and have no power to break away from the regime. The confusion between boundlessness and restraint continues as Offred reminisces of Moira – Offred’s symbol of freedom: ‘Moira had power now, she'd been set loose, she'd set herself loose. She was now a loose woman. I think we found this frightening.
Moira was like an elevator with open sides. She made us dizzy. Already we were losing the taste for freedom, already we were finding these walls secure.’ The repetitions of “loose” shows the prominent idea of freedom – what all people would surely desire but the regime has made them frightened of this. The pattern of three gives the impression that she is now so loose that there is nothing to hold her together and she will not survive in the world she has escaped to. This shows how successful the Center is at brainwashing women and teaching them to believe in this new regime. So while once Moira would have been seen as a motivating force – a fantasy of an escape made good – the women in the Center are already retreating from their old notions of freedom and rights. With no freedom to think, the manipulated women question whether they even need any power. It soon becomes clear, however, that Offred is frivolously trying to hold on to the few memories she has left – as she feels these giver her power. Offred tries to still recognize the fact that this regime is wrong and she desperately tries to hold onto the idea of wanting to escape. She constantly reminds herself that she ‘intend(s) to last’, but she is morally and literally becoming ‘undone’....
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