Social satire in The Handmaid's Tale

The ‘future' as a commentary on the present

Because The Handmaid's Tale is a satire, readers should be aware that Atwood is making demands on them. She asks them to consider current social attitudes and to reflect on the ways in which we view and treat other people according to similarities and differences between their backgrounds and beliefs and ours. She sometimes shows both sides of an issue: Gilead may be appallingly repressive in many ways, but Atwood suggests that such a régime could arise out of reaction to questionable areas of personal liberty. As Aunt Lydia says in chapter 5:

‘There is more than one kind of freedom....Freedom to and freedom from.'


There is currently much debate about abortion, as there was in the time of Offred's mother in The Handmaid's Tale. Abortion is legal in many countries - in chapter 6 of The Handmaid's Tale, when Offred sees the bodies of hanged doctors who have carried out abortions, she comments that ‘in the time before.. such things were legal.'

Pro abortion arguments

  • Many people feel that it is a woman's right to decide what happens in and to her own body, and - especially in cases of rape - her psychological state may be crucial. In chapter 13 of The Handmaid's Tale, we learn that Janine had an abortion at the age of fourteen after she was gang-raped
  • In any case, there is always the ethical problem of whom to save - mother or child - if the pregnancy is dangerous to the health of the mother
  • Also, pro-abortionists feel that making abortion illegal leads only to so-called ‘back-street abortionists', where surreptitious and often fatal attempts at abortion are carried out in unhealthy conditions.

These are the attitudes displayed by the feminists in chapter 20 of The Handmaid's Tale, who march with placards such as: 


Abortion dilemmas

  • There is debate about whether abortions should be allowed if an ultra-sound scan in pregnancy reveals that the baby has serious physical defects. However, campaigners against this suggest that even very minor deformities may lead to a child being aborted. Atwood raises this particular issue in chapter 19, where Offred tells us that, in Gilead there are no scans, and asks:
    ‘What would be the point of knowing, anyway? You can't have them taken out; whatever it is must be carried to term.'
  • Even for people who would accept the idea of abortion, there are continuing debates about the latest time in a pregnancy when abortion should be allowed, because it is increasingly possible to save premature babies at an earlier point

Anti abortion arguments

  • There is concern about the number of abortions - many millions each year - which some anti-abortion campaigners see as evidence that abortion is used too casually as a method of contraception
  • Many anti-abortionists feel that abortion is tantamount to murder. They see a foetus as being a full human being, with all the rights of a human being, from conception. Anti-abortion campaigners have targeted abortion clinics, especially in the USA and Canada, sometimes resulting in the murder of surgeons prepared to carry out abortions, because they themselves are seen as murderers by their attackers.

In chapter 8 of The Handmaid's Tale, Offred sees the funeral procession of a miscarried foetus. Healthy children are so rare are in Gilead that even a tiny foetus is accorded a full funeral. As Offred remarks in chapter 6:

‘No woman in her right mind, these days, would seek to prevent a birth, should she be so lucky as to conceive.'


Whereas Atwood often puts both sides of an argument, she seems to offer no excuse for Gilead's harsh treatment of homosexuality. This can be seen in:

  • Chapter 8, where Offred sees the bodies of those hanged for Gender Treachery
  • Chapter 38, where Moira tells Offred that other so-called Gender Traitors are sent to the Colonies.

Moira herself, who is in many ways Offred's model of heroic rebellion, is a lesbian, who tells Offred in chapter 28 that ‘she'd decided to prefer women'.

Attitudes to homosexuality

Attitudes to homosexuality have varied over the centuries and in different cultures:

  • In ancient Greece, a relationship between a man and a boy was often seen as an expression of a higher form of love
  • Homosexual love was also common in ancient China
  • However, lands where the Hebrew culture dominated condemned the practice.

There is an ongoing world-wide dispute about attitudes to homosexuality;

  • In some countries, notably in the West, homosexual practices are legal and protected by human rights legislation. Several countries have legalised same-sex civil partnerships or marriages
  • In others, especially Muslim countries, it is illegal and can be punishable by death
  • Even in countries where homosexuality is legal, the attitudes of the public towards homosexual practices are frequently divided, with disapproval or stronger opposition often depending on religious views.


In chapter 7 Atwood introduces the topic of attitudes to rape, a burning issue for a feminist such as Moira who has just written a paper on date rape. Offred teases Moira, suggesting that this is not an important problem:

‘You're so trendy. It sounds like some kind of dessert. Date Rapé.'

However, in chapter 13 Offred tells us about the deliberate humiliation at the Red Centre of Janine, whose dreadful experience of gang-rape was made to seem her own fault by Aunt Helena, telling the others that Janine must have ‘led them on'. ‘ But whose fault was it?' .. ‘Her fault... we chant in unison.' Atwood here indicates that rape is by no means a matter for laughter, nor is it an act allowed by God, as Aunt Helena insists, to ‘Teach her a lesson.'

Such attitudes are not, however, confined to Gilead. Countries such as Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Pakistan operating Sharia Law have often punished rape victims as responsible for their own plight. A survey in London by the Wake Up To Rape group in February 2010 showed that a majority of those questioned felt that there were some situations where women were responsible for a rape attack.

Adultery and divorce

Attitudes to sexual freedom, to adultery and to divorce vary throughout countries, cultures and societies. In Muslim countries where Sharia law operates, attitudes are strict and adultery is often punished by imprisonment, flogging or even death. In much of the western world, however, attitudes vary between extreme laxity and concern that standards are being eroded.

Edward VIII, photo belongs to Bundesarchiv, available through Creative CommonsIn the UK, soaring divorce rates have following changes in the law and consequent changes in attitude to the former social stigma attached to divorce. For example, in 1936 King Edward VIII had to abdicate because he wanted to marry a divorced woman, whereas currently three of the Queen's four children have gone through a divorce. The ease and frequency of divorce, however, has resulted in many more single-parent families, a situation which has social consequences.

Adultery explored in The Handmaid's Tale

In Gilead, adultery is a crime punishable by death, and couples who, like Luke and Offred, have married after a divorce are seen as corrupt, which is why their daughter is removed from their influence. Although Atwood leaves us in no doubt about the terrible suffering this causes Offred, and although Atwood also makes clear the passionate love Offred has for Luke, she also suggests the problematic issues surrounding their affair:

  • In chapter 9, Offred herself comments that:
‘at that time men and women tried each other on, casually, like suits.'
  • Later, in chapter 28, she hints that Luke's first wife was made miserable by his unfaithfulness, and did not want to let him go - it took two years for Luke ‘to pry himself loose'
  • In the same chapter Offred reveals that Moira saw her behaviour as immoral; she ‘said I was poaching, on another woman's ground.'

This question of personal freedom and of how far it should go is explored further in chapter 35, where, thinking again of her relationship with Luke, Offred remembers:

‘If you don't like it, change it, we said... And so we would change the man, for another one... as if we were free to shape and reshape forever the ever-expanding boundaries of our lives.'


The growth of pornography, especially that which depicts violence against women, is a cause of great concern to many people and perhaps especially to feminists such as Atwood. There are several instances in the novel where it is seen as horrific, and Atwood's mention of the proliferation of ‘Pornomarts' immediately prior to the take-over of the new régime of Gilead suggests a trend she deplores. In her later novel Oryx and Crake, she specifically attacks child pornography.

Pornographic violence

Violence against women depicted in pornographic films is most shockingly described in chapter 20 of The Handmaid's Tale, where Offred graphically describes the ‘movies' Aunt Lydia showed, to indicate the terrible way in which women might have been treated before the inception of Gilead. Aunt Lydia commented:

‘women tied up or chained... women hanging from trees... being raped, beaten up killed... cut into pieces'.

‘You see what things used to be like? That was what they thought of women then'

Offred's mother also fights against pornography. One of Offred's earliest memories (chapter 7) is of being taken to watch the burning of pornographic magazines. Yet the fact that the despicable Aunt Lydia also attacks pornography suggests that Atwood's readers need to think carefully about the issues:

  • Pornography may be vile but its suppression involves censorship - and this is another highly controversial issue
  • Some research in the USA even suggests that a growth in pornography has reduced the number of sex crimes.

Nevertheless, feminists see pornography as part of the ‘objectification' of women and a contributory factor in violence against women.


Discrimination on the grounds of race or colour has been a social evil in many ages and cultures:

  • For Atwood, growing up in North America, discrimination against black people of African ethnic origin would be a very obvious form of racism
  • She would also be aware that there had been discrimination against Native Indian tribes in Canada.
    • It is noticeable that, in the Historical Notes section, the Chair of the meeting is Professor Maryann Crescent Moon, from the Department of Caucasian Anthropology. Readers may imagine that she is of North American Indian descent, and that Caucasians - white people - are to her a topic of study rather than a superior race
  • In the USA, where millions of people were brought from Africa as slaves to work in the plantations from the sixteenth to nineteenth centuries, racial discrimination against black people continued long after the abolition of slavery. Though now illegal, it still exists in some areas and in the attitudes of some people today.

In the novel, the ‘Children of Ham' whom Atwood describes in chapter 14 as being transported to ‘National Homeland One', are traditionally black Africans. In Genesis 10:1 the three sons of Noah, who people the world, are Shem, Ham and Japheth. Ham is seen as the ancestor of African races since some of his sons established tribes in north east Africa.

Native AmericanThe idea of separating races into enclaves such as ‘National Homeland One' may remind readers of the system of apartheid (literally, separateness) which was enforced in South Africa between 1948 and 1994. It may also be in Atwood's mind that Native Americans were forcibly moved into reservations in the nineteenth century as colonists took over their lands.

The environment

Atwood is herself the daughter of an entomologist and spent much of her childhood in the Canadian backwoods. As a result, she is passionately keen on the protection of the environment and an active member of the Green Party of Canada. Her 2009 novel, The Year of the Flood, is a dystopian vision of the end of the world brought about by the unprincipled scientific experimentation already depicted in her earlier novel Oryx and Crake. In it she shows the frustrated hopes of a dedicated group of ‘green' believers, God's Gardeners, led by a man known as Adam One, who try to preserve plants and bees and to live in an ecologically sustainable way.

The damage done to the natural environment is a theme Atwood brings into her much earlier dystopian novel, The Handmaid's Tale, in which she shows the drastic effect that man-made pollution has on human life:

  • Travelling in the Birthmobile, in chapter 19, Offred remembers what she was told at the Red Centre about possible causes of birth defects in children:
    ‘The air got too full, once, of chemicals, rays, radiation, the water swarmed with toxic molecules.'
  • In the Historical Notes, Professor Pieixoto reminds his audience how:
    ‘in the immediate pre-Gilead period … still-births, miscarriages, and genetic deformities were widespread and on the increase, and this trend has been linked to the various nuclear-plant accidents ... as well as to leakages from chemical and biological warfare stockpiles.'

When Offred goes shopping in chapter 27, she thinks about the other effects on the environment. Atwood's dystopian vision suggests that ‘the sea fisheries were defunct several years ago' and that many kinds of fish may ‘all be extinct, like the whales'.

  • Currently, whales are not extinct but are under threat. Although there is an international moratorium on commercial whaling, some countries - especially Norway, Iceland and Japan - refuse to implement it
  • In addition, many species of animals and plants have become extinct in recent times, and scientists continue to debate how far this is due to human activity and to climate change brought about by humans.

Freedom of speech

The freedom to say what one likes and to criticise whatever one wishes has often been seen as desirable. The First Amendment to the Constitution of the USA states that:

‘Congress shall make no law... abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.'

Yet in practice such freedom is often restricted, in America itself and elsewhere in the world, even in countries which seem liberal:

  • State security involves limiting what may be published
  • Laws governing libel and slander prevent - or punish - defamatory remarks
  • The need for personal privacy has to be weighed against the wishes of the media
  • Standards of public morality or decency may limit personal activities, words and publications.

The ethics of censorship

The question of whether there should be censorship at all is closely tied to the question of who should impose it. Who has the right to take on themselves the role of guardian of the nation's morals? And how easily can a government's well-meaning laws of restraint become the repressive clamp-down of a tyrannical régime?

These are matters which Atwood explores in The Handmaid's Tale, particularly in the chapters where Offred goes to play Scrabble with the Commander. The second time she goes, in chapter 25, the Commander shows her one woman's magazine from a collection which he has had hidden away. When she questions the Commander, asking how he happens to have publications which were ‘supposed to have been burnt', he puts forward the argument which suggests that people in power will not be corrupted by material they ban others from seeing:

‘What's dangerous in the hands of the multitudes....
is safe enough for those whose motives are...
Beyond reproach, I said.
He nodded gravely.'

In chapter 27 Offred reminds us that it is no longer possible, in Gilead, to question orthodoxies. When Ofglen, looking at the prayer machines in Soul Scrolls, asks Offred, ‘Do you think God listens... to these machines?', Offred muses that:

‘In the past this would have been a trivial enough remark, a kind of scholarly speculation. Right now it's treason.'

Atwood suggests to us by the very fact of writing, and being able to publish, The Handmaid's Tale, that the ability to question and challenge is key to a healthy society.

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