Margaret Atwood‘s “The Handmaid’s Tale”

From The Lecture Series: Great Utopian and Dystopian Works of Literature

By Pamela Bedore, Ph.D.University of Connecticut

The Handmaid’s Tale reflects the perspective of Offred, the narrator. She lives in a deeply color-coded society. Thus, we might interpret her name as Offred, given that she is reluctant to wear the handmaid’s red garb. Curiously, this isn’t her birth name. It is instead, a sign of her subjugation to her Commander, who is named Fred, making her Offred.

A portrait of a woman wearing a red hood.
Offred is a handmaid, one of the few precious women who has the power to bear children and thus, wears red for fertility. (Image: veryulissa/Shutterstock)

Margaret Atwood makes the narrator‘s name deliberately unsettling. She ensures that the readers are constantly stumbling linguistically over the main character’s name, which serves to embody the irresolvable complexities of the society that has tried to reduce her to that difficult-to-pronounce name.

Indeed, The Handmaid’s Tale is full of linguistic pressures. The context is terrifying. Offred—before she becomes Offred—is a happily married working mother who goes to the ATM one day and is refused cash. She soon learns that it isn’t a problem with her bank. It’s a new regime that restricts women’s access to money. 

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Power, Sexuality, and Language

This is not really a problem for Offred, fortunately since she has a husband who can manage their money. To Offred’s surprise, her loving and progressive husband isn’t nearly as appalled by the antics of the new government as she is. For him, it’s easy to slip into a position of power. Like Butler and Le Guin and many other feminist utopian writers, Atwood provides an analysis of power in The Handmaid’s Tale that is nuanced and complicated. She suggests that it’s very hard for someone who holds power to accurately assess how that power functions.

But that’s the old world. In the new military theocracy Gilead, Offred is a handmaid, one of the few precious women who has the power to bear children after a nuclear disaster. As a handmaid, Offred wears red, for fertility. And after her training, she is placed in the home of Fred, where Fred’s barren wife, Serena Joy, wearing blue, runs the household and makes Offred feel very small.

The Handmaid’s Tale offers the handmaid’s perspective on the many suppressive practices of the society, such as both sexuality and language. The mechanisms of language, in Gilead, has a direct relationship to both power and sexuality. Women aren’t allowed access to the written word, not even the Bible.

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The Game of Scrabble

Offred, who used to work in a library, longs for writing, any writing. She even reads a cushion embroidered with the word Faith over and over again. Which brings us to the most creepily erotic Scrabble game in all of literature.

Commander Fred goes against the rules, as powerful men in dystopian society, and maybe in any society, are wont to do. He asks Offred to come to his office, an impossible position for her, as she is not allowed to be alone with him or to refuse his commands.

Of course she goes, and of course, she expects that he wants sex. And that she will, however unwillingly, provide it. Instead, he wants Scrabble. Here’s how Offred describes it:

We play two games. Larynx, I spell. Valance. Quince. Zygote. I hold the glossy counters with their smooth edges, finger the letters. The feeling is voluptuous. This is freedom, an eyeblink of it. Limp, I spell. Gorge. What a luxury. The counters are like candies, made of peppermint, cool like that. Humbugs, those were called. I would like to put them into my mouth. They would taste also of lime. The letter C. Crisp, slightly acid on the tongue, delicious. I win the first game, I let him win the second. I still haven’t discovered what the terms are, what I will be able to ask for, in exchange.

Manipulating Language

There’s sensuality in this passage, but also its rebellion. Somehow we can feel Offred’s luxury in having access to words, in being allowed to manipulate letters, to use her intellect. And she is smart, probably smarter than he is. Not only is she in control of who wins each of the games, but she also understands the socio-political dynamics well enough to be strategic.

An image of Scrabble, the board game.
Somehow we can feel Offred’s luxury in having access to words, in being allowed to manipulate letters. (Image: nothingdoing35/Shutterstock)

And look at the words she uses. Larynx, quince, valance, and zygote—all high-value Scrabble words, and we can relate each of them to her situation. But look especially at the words that aren’t high-value, limp and gorge.

Clearly, Offred is spelling out her emotions right there on the game board in plain sight but where the insults could be taken as accidental, and where, either way, the choice of those words is no more subversive than the act into which the commander has invited her.

Historical Notes

The final chapter of The Handmaid’s Tale is called Historical Notes, and it recasts the entire preceding narrative as an object of study at the ‘Twelfth Symposium on Gileadean Studies’, held in 2195.

It is now in The Handmaid’s Tale that we find out that Offred’s story wasn’t written. Of course, it wasn’t—she had no access to the tools of writing. Instead, it was dictated into a tape recorder, but the tapes were out of order and have been transcribed and ordered by a male historian who may or may not have been accurate.

A Historical Figure

Offred is no longer a fictional character who acts as a point of absolute identification for the reader. She is now a historical figure whose narrative is distant, an object of curiosity and academic study.

She is at once brought close for scrutiny and also distanced by the very act of scrutiny. The very fact that we are reading this document shows that the dystopian period is now over.

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Subversion and Rebellion

Thus, The Handmaid’s Tale unequivocally suggests that subversion is always possible. The novel clearly underlines this point which is subsumed in the dystopian document that emerges alongside the official historical record.

Atwood situates Offred in a complex position in The Handmaid’s Tale‘s post-apocalyptic dystopia forcing us to see her as both, a victim and a rebel. Offred might not be a hardcore rebel nor a hardcore victim compared to some, which might make her, to some degree, a participant. But still, the mechanisms of power—and of disempowering, are explored way too deeply to allow us to place Offred in a single power position.

Common Questions about Margaret Atwood‘s The Handmaid’s Tale

Q: In The Handmaid’s Tale, what color does Offred wear?

In The Handmaid’s Tale, Offred is one of the few women who can bear children after a nuclear disaster. Thus, she wears red, for fertility.

Q: In The Handmaid’s Tale, what does Offred long for?

In The Handmaid’s Tale, Offred longs for writing, any writing. She even reads a cushion embroidered with the word Faith over and over again.

Q: Was Offred’s story written?

In The Handmaid’s Tale, Offred’s story wasn’t written. It was dictated into a tape recorder.

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