Women’s Position in the Society. Issues of Sexuality, Gender and Desire in “Handmaid’s Tale” by Margaret Atwood

The novel The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood covers the events in the imaginary Gilead republic, where sexually transmitted diseases and toxic pollution proliferation have led to widespread sterility and few births. The story is told from the first person by the main protagonist, Offred, a handmaid, whose only existence depends on the potential of her uterus. The Eyes, Angels and Guardians are used to enforce a strict moral code of the country. The position of women in the society leaves them with no rights. They are forbidden to work, own property and read. The only value they have is the ability to give birth. Moreover, women are divided into different subgroups depending on their fertility and marital status. Handmaids, as in the case of the main heroine, were supposed to be unmarried and fertile. Their sole role is reproduction, and they would have sex with the commander-in-chief in his wife’s presence. The second subgroup, econowives, is a lower one than the handmaids. They wear striped dresses and are the spouses of men from the lower class. The remaining infertile and unmarried women are Marthas, Aunts and Unwomen.

The novel is mainly a story by Offred, who is put into the handmaids’ category by force after several attempts to flee to Canada with her family. She is assigned to a Commander Fred and Serena, his wife. Offred tells her life story of how she lost everything that was dear to her. Moreover, she had lost her freedom and her identity, as well. Further, she indulges herself in an illicit relationship with Fred for letting her play scrabble and giving her old magazines, which is illegal as women are supposed to be illiterate. He even takes her to Jezebel, a club visited by Unwomen to please men. As the story evolves, all the devices used by the author demonstrate terrible sufferings of women illustrated through the life stories of all female characters in the novel.

The author, through Offred, the protagonist, uses striking imagery to describe the two different societies by describing her life before having been enslaved by the male-dominated world. Atwood portrays a vivid picture of the objectification of women in modern society. Through Offred’s eyes, the readers can discover the system of oppressing women. According to the book, they are only supposed to procreate, and it is their main role. On the whole, it is a feminist story focusing on women as the main characters and making just a few mentions of men. Males, in their turn, have group identities such as the Eyes, Angels and Doctors. The only men mentioned are Nick and the Commander because they have a direct relationship with Offred. From the story, of the unlimited power that men possess is enough to enslave Offred and other heroines.

In this society, created by men and for men, women are presented as vulnerable victims by the writer. Handmaids are not allowed to use their real names and are instead supposed to use names related to their masters, for instance, Offred and Ofglen. Nevertheless, Offred finds hope in Moira, her best friend. “If Moira thought she could create Utopia ….men were not just going to go away…” (Atwood, 1986) Despite the total oppression of women, they find ways to express their sexuality. For example, Moira tries to rebel against the tyranny by having lesbian manifestations. In her turn, Offred starts to enjoy her sexual relationship with Nick, her master’s driver, even though it is being initiated and enforced by Serena.

Gender inequality imposed by the government of Gilead republic leads to the formation of the feminist movement by the Unwomen. However, the demonstration reveals that for women to enjoy sexual freedom and moral freedom it had to come at a price. The women march against pornography and in favor of abortion.

Throughout the plot, women of this community are perceived as objects. They are denied all societal rights and are only supposed to give birth. Objectifying of women deprives them of desires, emotions and feelings. Offred feels sad for being torn apart from her first love, Luke and her daughter. She dearly loves them, but now her life depends on how well she conceives. The community values the body functions of women but not their personhood. Women are made to lose their identity after becoming handmaids. During Jasmine’s birth, the Commander-in-chief’s wife is forced to pretend to be giving birth. The community clearly undermines women as they treat the pretense birth as a better one. In addition, the society is portrayed as inhumane as the handmaids are not allowed to bond with their children.

The change in language is used by the author to expound the theme of gender in the novel. For instance, women were referred as waitpersons before, but they became waitresses consequently. Roles changed too depending on the gender of a person. During the existence of Gilead, it is evident that the language is dominated by men. “Man” and “he” is being extensively used to refer to people in general. All these instances in the language reveal men empowerment, even when it comes to controlling the language.

The regime has divided men and women, as well as women between them. The different classes of women have conflicts. Wives hate handmaids although knowing it is not their fault and that nothing can be done to change the situation. Relationships are difficult, all in all, whether they are between genders or across genders. Nick’s relationship with Offred is different as sexuality, gender relations and desire are harmonically combined.

A point that should also be taken into consideration is that Luke, Offred’s lover, is not saddened much by the separation, which is also a significant aspect in the theme of gender and sexuality in the story; men will always be men. The Gilead community is gender insensitive as it does not even allow women to choose clothes to wear. The society institutionalizes evil rights such as adultery and rape. The women are highly mistreated.

Sex and sexuality have been revealed in the novel by different stylistic devices. Atwood uses figurative language to emphasize that people will result to anything if sex is denied to them. Nevertheless, the freedom of desires is being judged. They execute gays and lesbians; abortion doctors are being killed, and pornography is banned together with sexual clothing. The community goes ahead to outlaw divorce and second marriages. It exhibits a fear of sexuality and in the same time underestimates it. Apparently, the regime’s fear of sexuality is based on the suggestion that illegal sexual practices would undermine it. Thus, it tries to separate sex from sexuality by engaging its citizens in standardized sexual relationships. The power of sexual acts and desire is demonstrated by Offred when she continuously risks her life by being in a relationship with Nick. It is also clear that the Commander Fred has many illicit relationships with his handmaids. This aspect of the novel’s plot shows that sexual acts and desires cannot be shunned by threatening people with punishments. However, as the story approaches to its end, the reader understands that the regime destroys itself after all.

Although the community pretends to protect women from abortion, rape, adultery and other sexual evils, it objectifies them depriving of freedom and identity. Total gender discrimination is a topic resonating throughout the book. The government encourages people in power to act out by declaring such activities illegal, especially when they are commonly practiced in the society, and it fails to achieve its goal. The story line indicates that sexuality and desire cannot be banned by the authority, no matter how tough the law gets when it comes to sexual acts. People will always rebel and find a way to please their wishes as they seek love and tenderness. It is clearly completely hard to shun sexuality or split sex and sexuality from a community.

Margaret Atwood in her novel illustrates different problems of the society and how they affect its members. The author uses characterization, themes and stylistic devices to expound the above themes. In the story, the aspects of gender, sexuality and desire are strongly connected and revealed by the use of the above techniques.


  1. Atwood, M. (1986). The handmaid's tale. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company.