Human relationships in The Handmaid's Tale

The centrality of relationships

Throughout The Handmaid's Tale we find recurring instances where Atwood focuses on the vital importance of human relationships. Of course, virtually every work of art in almost every medium could be said to explore human relationships, but in The Handmaid's Tale Atwood specifically depicts a society where such relationships have been altered, undermined and in many ways forbidden. She asks her readers to consider what has been lost in the Republic of Gilead, whose leaders seem to see themselves as protecting a society which they have, in essential matters, destroyed. Even the detached academic, Professor Pieixoto, reviewing Gilead hundreds of years later (in the section ‘Historical Notes'), admits that, ‘the human heart remains a factor.'


The key word in the issue of relationships is love. Atwood specifically distinguishes this from sex. As Offred says (in chapter 18): 

‘Nobody dies from lack of sex. It's lack of love we die from.'

In chapter 34, when the Commander, trying to justify the régime, outlines its actions and then asks Offred, ‘What did we overlook?', Offred tells him the answer in one word: ‘Love.' In the same chapter, Offred recalls Aunt Lydia saying, ‘with distaste,' that, ‘Love is not the point.' But for Offred it is.

In her room at the Commander's house, Offred finds a cushion on which is embroidered the word ‘Faith'. She wonders if there were once three cushions, remembering as she does the words of Paul in 1 Corinthians 13:13

‘And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.' TNIV

The obduracy of love

Gilead expects its citizens to have faith in its commandments, but has removed love and hope - or tries to. But love cannot be quenched. Offred's feelings for Luke, and for her mother, her friendship with Moira, her growing affection for Nick, and above all her passionate love for her child, all show the importance of love. (See also Themes and significant ideas > Mothers and children.) In addition, self-sacrificing love can still be found even in the tyranny that is Gilead:

  • Ofglen kicks unconscious the man who is to die a horrible death (chapter 43), to shorten his suffering
  • She later takes her own life, rather than risk compromising others under torture
  • Moira is helped by Quakers who know they risk their lives, and indeed those of their children.


From the very beginning of the novel, Offred tells us how she values affection and contact with other people. The word ‘exchange' becomes significant throughout the novel, summing up these moments of human warmth, or at least communication:

  • The women at the Red Centre ‘exchanged names' (chapter 1)
  • Offred thinks nostalgically in chapter 2 how good it would be to ‘exchange' ideas with Rita and Cora as she used to do with her women friends years before.

In Gilead, however, such verbal exchanges are severely limited, and the platitudes with which Handmaids are expected to greet each other stifle the real exchange of ideas and feelings. The Commander, too, lacks the ability to explain to Offred what he wants: the ‘terms of exchange' (chapter 25). His ‘motives and desires... had not yet reached the level of words.'


Touching one another is a way in which humans manifest love, and consequently such contact is strictly controlled in Gilead. But Offred is acutely aware that touch is a vital sign of warmth and affection. In chapter 9, exploring her room, Offred finds stains on the mattress and comments that these may be the remains of ‘old love', adding ‘there's no other kind of love in this room now.' However, she is aware that she has seen evidence of ‘at least touch between two people'.

When the household meet for prayers before the Ceremony (chapter 14), Offred is immediately aware that Nick is ‘so close that the tip of his boot is touching my foot.' Even if this is accidental, and although both are wearing footwear, she welcomes the fact that ‘we are touching.' And when Nick moves close to her in the darkened sitting-room (chapter 17), she tells us, ‘It's so good to be touched by someone.' In chapter 15, her brief conversation with Moira in the lavatories at the Red Centre is made more valuable because Moira puts her fingers through a hole in the wall and Offred ‘touched my own fingers to them, quickly, held on.'


The ability to trust another human being is also an essential part of love. In totalitarian régimes, those in power work specifically to undermine such trust (see Social and political context). This is well illustrated in George Orwell's dystopian novel, 1984, which The Handmaid's Tale echoes in several ways.

In Offred's account of Gilead, we see how difficult it is for anyone to trust anyone else. Even Offred herself - although she has no choice - is involved in a betrayal when the Commander uses his wife's cloak to conceal Offred as he takes her to Jezebel's. However, ultimately Offred has to trust Nick. This trust is first of all symbolised by her telling him her real name, which she does in chapter 41:

‘I tell him my real name, and feel therefore that I am known.'

(See also Themes and significant ideas > Individualism and identity.) Later, in chapter 46, when she has no idea where she is being taken, Nick tells her, ‘Trust me' and she must ‘snatch at it, this offer. It's all I'm left with.'

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