Symbolism of Freedom in the Handmaid’s Tale

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Symbolism of Freedom in The Handmaid’s Tale

        The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, is written through a lens that entails a nightmare of inequality, oppression, violence, and ignorance towards women resulting in the loss of freedom for women. This is presented through a dystopian society, the republic of Gilead, where freedom for women is restricted because of the new Christian government’s extreme policies. In this ultra conservative theocracy, woman are stripped of their past lives in which they had the freedom of choice as they became controlled by a higher power in which they lost the right or ability to live their lives free of control. The symbolism of freedom drives the novel as it transforms the society into a state of oppression for all women, especially the handmaids.

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In the Republic of Gilead, a revolution takes place in which women are given specific roles in the society such as handmaids, wives, econowives, martha, or aunts and these such roles become their purpose for living. Women who can produce and bear children become handmaids resulting in the loss of the prior freedoms they once had as they are forced to become the property or possession of a military commander and his wife in which the handmaid’s sole purpose is to produce and bear healthy babies for their commanders. Once this revolution has taken place, women’s rights become minuscule. For example, women’s bank accounts are frozen, prohibiting them from the rights to access and use their money for their own personal gain, and the husbands are granted full sole access to the accounts and money.

The protagonist of the story is a handmaid called Offred, as she is robbed of the freedom of her name and renamed to signify her status as a possession to her commander. As a possession, handmaids lose their freedom to own their bodies in the way that they become the property of their commander and are treated as possessions to men resulting in the oppression of women as they become victims of sexual assault and violence as they are forced have sex and bear children with men that they do not love. These childbearing laws were a key aspect in the restriction of women, Fear of rape shapes women’s behavior from girlhood, restricting their movement and limiting their freedom.(Violence Against Women p. 492). 

The Gilead society defends this violence, sexual assault, and loss of freedom to the higher power by claiming that conditions for women prior to the revolution were worse. This violence held a higher effect on women, … it is a label that appears to strip us of dignity, to deny that there has been any integrity in the relationships we are in (Violence and Intimacy pg. 503). Even in our society, the effect of violence and sexual assault holds much more ground in the way that it alters a woman’s dignity in the way that it strips woman of the ability to trust a person of the opposite gender which influences future relationships for all.

In the Gilead regime, woman lost their freedom and rights to male power and gender inequality in the way that women were denied their rights to an education, voting, chances to work for pay, and holding property. Instead, handmaids were forced to move into their commanders home and their lives transform into a restrictive, repetitive regime as they are robbed of all freedom in the way that apart from their roles in society, handmaids were confined to their bedrooms that resembled cells and lost the freedom to have personal belongings. Handmaids lived a restrictive life of confinement and  as they were only granted the opportunity to leave the house to do shopping, childbearing ceremonies, and executions of the women. If a handmaid were to choose to not cooperate, she was to be robbed of the freedom to live and be hanged to be executed. A woman could be executed if they were to be caught deviating from the set laws defined by the anarchy of the revolution.

During this revolution, the women are consistently watched and spied on by the eyes, angels, and guardians whose main job was to keep women to cooperate and identify those who were not, 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(29). This restricted women from doing anything that did not fall under the guidelines of their set role description in the society, resulting in the terror of every woman to follow these set rules.

An important contribution to the loss of freedom of women and resulting oppression was the misuse of power and control by the higher power. This misuse of power created a society where gender equality did not exist and women became tools to to be used by the more powerful male gender. Males were placed on a pedestal in society as women are forced to suffer as victims of control under men. The male gender then proceeds to misuse this level of power over women and treat women as their property or possession with the intent of using then just for their personal gain.

Throughout the book, Offred is highlighted as one of the women that is most trapped by this control of hierarchy. This is  partly due to that she is unable to get pregnant with her commander, even though it is Fred that is infertile, not Offred which could lead to her own personal demise. When Fred’s wife, Serena Joy becomes aware of this, she secretly arranges for Offred to sleep with Nick, a guardian serving Fred so that she may become pregnant. Following this secret arrangement, Offred and Nick begin to continue their secret affair. Nick proposes an offer to Offred that she may be granted limited freedom like reading in exchange for a kiss at the end of each meeting, which could lead to her execution if discovered by one of the aunts. Although Offred was being granted limited freedom, it did not come freely. During this time, the handmaid’s learned that their only aspect of freedom was their thoughts and the quiet conversation they could have when no one was watching, “We learned to whisper almost without sound. In the semi darkness we could stretch out our arms, when the Aunts weren’t looking, and touch each other’s hands across space (10). 

Throughout the entirety of the novel, the symbolism of freedom places a large role in  shaping this society into an ultraconservative theocracy. This in turn, transforms this theocracy into a society where women, especially handmaids, fall victim to oppression through the misuse of power and hierarchy of men over women. Women are forced to succumb to the pressure of men as the high power and serve as slaves to their needs as they turn into property or possessions of men as they become victims of rape, sexual assault, and control. This regime could also be related to today’s society in the way that many women fall victim to male dominance, When we say that harassment isn’t about sex but about power, we mean that some people gain a sense of control and power by making others feel out of control and powerless (Sexual Harassment pg. 201). Women are forced to accept these restrictions and give up their rights to read, write, own property, work for pay, and anything that would allow them the freedom to live theirs lives as they please. This creates a world where the only freedom the handmaid’s have is the freedom of thought as the eyes, aunts, and guardians are unable to restrict this, although they demonstrate the power to influence thought.

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Symbolism of Freedom in The Handmaid's Tale. (2019, Jul 26). Retrieved December 5, 2022 , from

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