While on the surface Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale paints the picture of a time and place not far from our own where the utopic ideals of one group of people appear to be a dystopic hell for another, beneath these circumstances it is, among other things, a story about freedom and choice; the freedom to make your own choices, and the freedom from making your own choices. When freedom is at stake some choose escape, some choose to fight, and others adapt. In the end however, how can we know if we’ve made the best choices?
Some characters in Atwood’s story saw their freedoms being limited and chose to escape. They tried to escape their captors through means either physical, mental, or both. The handmaid Janine tried escaping mentally, escaping to insanity. Others, including Offred’s predecessor, escaped through suicide. Some escaped by leaving the country through covert means, as Offred and her family tried to do in the beginning of the story, and as she may have managed in the end. Even those within the Gilead regime had methods of escape, whether through an underground nightclub or the fantasy of motherhood.
Other characters chose to fight. This may have only been a stage in their struggle; Moira tried to fight the system but in the end chose mental escape, resigning herself to her fate and living out her days as an underground prostitute. The Mayday group chose fighting on a more obvious level, elevating their struggle to the level of a war. Throughout the story characters chose to fight in small ways, exchanging a forbidden glance or touch, stealing butter to keep the skin soft, or hiding a match just to entertain the potential for starting a fire.
Some chose to adapt, but not necessarily for the same reasons. The girls at the Red Center tried to adapt in order to avoid punishment or death. Nick and others in the Mayday movement tried to adapt so they could work from within, furthering the work of their group. To an extent, many within the Gilead regime tried to adapt; Serena Joy tried to adapt to the idea of sharing her husband with a handmaid. As Offred observed, it is amazing what one can get used to.
Offred is faced with her own freedoms and her own choices. As a handmaid the freedom from many choices is thrust upon her, but other choices hang over her head throughout the novel. Literally so, since the remains of a light fixture that looked like a big eye hung over her bed as both a reminder of the suicide choice another girl made there, and of the eyes that are watching her every move. She has to chose how to fill her time and thoughts, who to trust, how to act, what to say, and to whom she could say it.
It’s possible one message of the book is that if we don’t make our own choices, choices will be thrust upon us. In the time before this story takes place, the nation behaved in an irresponsible manner; it was quickly becoming a toxic wasteland in a state of moral decay. Without noticing, people were led closer and closer to a place where the Gilead regime could move in and take over. Often when we make poor choices someone or some group will step in and make other choices for us. By the end of the story Offred has taken very few stands and made few real choices, and the Mayday group makes a choice for her and plans her escape.
Another theme ran through the choices each character faced along the way, and that’s the question whether our choices are right or not. Is it best to adapt and live, or would death be better? If we trust someone, will they betray us? We can’t look into the future and see how things will turn out, so how can we really know what’s best? We never know how things will end up, and that’s why we are never told what becomes of Moira, what happened to Ofglen, what really happened to Luke, and in the end why we don’t really know what happens to Offred once she climbs into the black van. The results of real choices are not cut and dry.
When I sat down to write this essay I didn’t know what to say about The Handmaid's Tale. It moved me on several levels in many different ways, and like all similar circumstances these things cannot be easily reduced to a page or two of text. The movie version faced a similar task, trying to simplify the complicated textures of Atwood’s work and leaving details behind in the interest of time. It’s easy for me to say there could have been more, but like this essay, there is only so much you can say in a limited format. Like the characters in Atwood’s story, we have to choose what’s important to us at the time; other things have to fall by the wayside.