Offred

Offred's real name

In chapter 1, Atwood tells her readers about a group of young women held in the Rachel and Leah Centre (which they call the Red Centre). She gives their names as Alma, Janine, Dolores, Moira and June. All but June feature later in Offred's ‘Tale' - so is Offred's real name June? We are never told, and this anonymity is significant. Offred herself tells us (in chapter 41) how important her real name is to her, and how telling it to Nick is a moment for her of commitment and trust. (See Themes and significant ideas > Individualism and identity > Her name.) But because she remains unidentified, she can remain a representative of all Handmaids oppressed by Gilead's theocracy.

External identity

We know very little about Offred's appearance. In chapter 24 she tells us that she is ‘thirty-three years old. I have brown hair. I stand five seven without shoes.' But her appearance is not important; it is her personality which gives her a unique identity and makes her real to us.

In the Historical Notes, Professor Pieixoto comments that he and his collaborator felt that:

‘If we could establish an identity for the narrator ... we might be well on the way to an explanation of how this document ... came into being.'

However, not only does Pieixoto ignore the many signs of her unique identity which Offred has shown us in her narrative (see Themes and significant ideas > Individualism and identity) but it is also quite clear that the repressive régime in Gilead has set out to destroy individualism, with rigid hierarchy and coded uniforms, and, for the Handmaids, a tattooed identity number and the removal of their real names.

A survivor

Nevertheless, Offred is very much an individual with her own attitudes and strong, though necessarily suppressed, feelings. She is, and fully intends to remain, a survivor, telling us of:

  • Her determination in chapter 2 - ‘I intend to last'
  • Her intense relief (at the end of chapter 27) that ‘It wasn't me' who was arrested
  • Her desperation ‘to keep on living, in any form', in chapter 45. (See Themes and significant ideas > Survival.)

This determination to survive makes her both cautious and yet willing, finally, to take a chance on Nick's trustworthiness, since he offers a hope of escape.

Internal freedom

Offred has other ways of surviving, one of which is her constant retreat into her own mind. Seven of the fifteen sections of the novel are entitled ‘Night', and it is here that Offred finds within herself a form of freedom. It is freedom even though it entails reliving times of desperate sadness as well as times of love, shut in the room that she at first refuses to call ‘hers', since that seems to acknowledge her acceptance of her position.

Gilead does not manage to take over Offred's mind, although Atwood's dystopia (see also Social / political context > Atwood's use of actual historical events > The real dystopia) has many echoes of Orwell's 1984, and she herself feels (chapter 45) that under torture she would succumb to the loss of mind and soul which Orwell depicts in his notorious ‘Room 101': ‘I'll say anything they like, I'll incriminate anyone.'

Opposition

Offred asserts her opposition to the régime in the tiny but significant ways which are open to her. In chapter 17 we read how she takes and conceals the butter which she uses as face-cream - a forbidden indulgence - and steals a dead daffodil to show that she has the power to act illegally. Perhaps more significantly, Offred laughs at those in power: returning from the Commander's office, where she has been asked to play Scrabble, the absurdity of the situation strikes her and a great surge of laughter erupts, which she has to stifle by covering her face with the cloak hanging in the cupboard.

Offred admires Moira, whom she sees as a determined fighter against the regime. Her escape from the Red Centre seems to offer hope to all those who would like to rebel against Gilead. But when Offred discovers (in chapter 37) that Moira has become a sex-worker at Jezebel's, and realises that even the resilient Moira has been forced to succumb, then Offred has only her own resources to fall back on.

Offred's need for relationships

Both Moira and Offred's mother are ardent feminists, and reject male love. (See Themes and significant ideas > Gender significance and feminism.) Offred, on the other hand, welcomes it, needing the sense of touch and the ‘exchange'. (See Themes and significant ideas > Human relationships.) She has had an affair with Luke, whom she passionately loves, has married him after his divorce from his first wife, and had a child, a daughter whose name we never know, but whose loss (she was taken away from Offred after her arrest) is a constant source of anguish. (See Themes and significant ideas > Mothers and children > Offred and her child.) She wonders desperately what has happened to her child and to Luke, but accepts her need for physical contact and even (in chapter 41) that desire for Nick overrides her desire to escape.

A unique voice

Atwood does not allow us to know what happened, finally, to Offred, but the Historical Notes suggest that she got at least some of the way to freedom. Yet she had, of course, retained an essential inner freedom throughout her time as a Handmaid in spite of all her sufferings, and her ‘voice' is clear and unique. This is Offred's significance - that she is a timeless assertion of the importance of the individual, of mental freedom and of the need to place human relationships above oppressive power.

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