Survival in The Handmaid's Tale

State survival

The Republic of Gilead, as we see throughout the novel, is literally fighting for survival. It is engaged in a series of wars and has to fend off insurgencies. It is also fighting for survival in that it has few healthy children, which is its justification for its oppressive and tyrannical methods.

Individual survival

However the focus of the novel is on the survival of one individual - Offred. We do not know what happens to her after she leaves the Commander's house in the black van. By the time she is the subject of the conference at which Professor Pieixoto speculates about her (in the section Historical Notes) she will in any case have been dead for a very long time. Yet throughout her tale, the Handmaid known as Offred is characterised by her determination to survive - both physically, and in her personality, as an individual. (See Themes and significant ideas > Individualism and identity.) Almost at the beginning of her narrative, in chapter 2, she says, ‘I intend to last,' and comments, with relief, that: 

‘I am alive, I live, I breathe.'

Threats to survival

Despite her determination, it is clear that Offred's chances of survival are bleak:

  • She is already on her third ‘posting' to a Commander. Presumably she is allocated about a year to succeed in producing a child, as it is three years since she was arrested
  • The previous Offred hanged herself, and it is clear that other Handmaids try to commit suicide, since there are stringent measures to prevent it - nothing sharp in the room and nothing from which one could easily hang oneself
  • Penalties for misbehaviour are severe and it seems all too easy to end up hanged, with one's body displayed on the Wall, or sent to the Colonies to endure a living death before actual death follows
  • Even the women given the choice of being sent to Jezebel's do not live long; after suffering sexual abuse for three or four years, Moira reveals, they are sent, ‘to the boneyard', by the powers that be.

Outward conformity

Although Offred greatly admires the rebellious Moira, from the beginning we see Offred herself conforming at the Red Centre - or at least doing nothing for which she is found out and punished. Offred is a rebel in her head, but not overtly. As she tells us in chapter 44: 

‘Keep your head down, I used to say to myself, and see it through.'

Although she says that she would like to steal a knife, and although she does secrete a match, she is always aware of the need for caution if she is to survive. She is always cautious in her dealings with Ofglen, and terrified when she fears that their conversation may have been overheard (chapter 28) and sees a black van draw up; then she feels intense relief when she realises that the victim ‘wasn't me'.

Taking a risk

Finally, Offred takes the risk that she can trust Nick and that, by entering freely into the black van that comes for her at the end, she will escape. Whether she does so or not we never know, but the tapes that she has supposedly made (see the section of the novel Historical Notes) suggest that, if genuine, she did at least for a time enjoy enough freedom to tell her story.

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