Critical Essays Themes of The Handmaid's Tale


Central to The Handmaid's Tale is the failed attempt to produce stasis in the form of a one-dimensional, ultra-conservative society. Like the figures marching across Serena Joy's knitting or the Handmaids walking two by two to the meat market, Gilead's citizenry is the product of a fiasco: a mock factory system methodically installed to enforce traditional values — that is, the fundamentalist concept of godliness. Oddly, on all levels of this sterile, soulless theocracy, the dynamics of God play virtually no part. As a worshipper, the Commander locks away the family Bible, which he, as male family head, retrieves for a brief reading before the monthly mating ceremony. The only other worship outlet is the local computerized prayer scripting franchise, where phone-in orders result in "five different prayers: for health, wealth, a death, a birth, a sin." Atwood skewers this mechanized, voice-over performance by depicting the robotic Holy Rollers recycling paper printouts.

To assure consistency in the populace, the hierarchy either annihilates or exiles those who fall outside Gilead's limited needs. For women who aren't capable of producing babies or of working as matron, indoctrinator, spouse, guard, or dray, the Colonies await, promising death from radiation poisoning. Likewise, males like the Commander, Nick, and street guards must fit the tight pattern of role expectation or else suffer the consequence. According to the Twelfth Symposium, Commander Frederick Waterford is one of the many who fell short of the first cut. judged too liberal, despite his contribution to the conservative regime, he disappears during a purge, an internal political cleansing that parallels abortion. Like a "shredder" baby, Waterford is disposed of in order to make way for an even more stringent Gilead.

Ironically, Gilead's attempts to root out nonwhites and dissidents fail. The terroristic cabal that wipes out the world of Luke and Offred, like the Puritanism of seventeenth-century New England, collapses, leaving behind enough shards of its quirky idiosyncrasies to make it an attractive focus for Professor Crescent Moon and Professor Pieixoto. Like a pterodactyl fallen from the sky and left to fossilize, Gilead precedes a period of multiculturalism, as evidenced by the names, nationalities, locale, and studies of dignitaries at the Twelfth Symposium of Gileadean Studies. A weak, hopeful sign is the name of Professor Maryann Crescent Moon, suggesting both rebel novelist Mary Ann Evans and a sliver of night light in the waxing stage, an eternal symbol of fecundity and womanly powers.