The Handmaid’s Tale and the Creeping Threat of Extremism

Written by Margaret Atwood and published in 1985, The Handmaid’s Tale is a work of speculative fiction. It’s a dystopian “what if” narrative, set in the near future, in the Republic of Gilead, a fictional country rising within the former US in which women are denied any human rights.

The book tells a story about the life of Offred, a woman who becomes entrapped by the new regime. Offred once had a real name, a daughter, a husband, and a job, but all that was taken away by the oppressive Republic of Gilead in the name of a new reproductive doctrine. 

The new country developed as a result of declining fertility rates and recurring environmental hazards, giving rise to a wave of extremism and misogyny. Due to destabilizing circumstances, the Republic of Gilead restructures society by applying and manipulating the notions proposed in the Old Testament. 

In the Republic of Gilead, women are treated and regarded as slaves. As such, they must serve their male masters. Since Offred is one of the remaining fertile women, she’s coerced into being a handmaid, which is basically a euphemism for a sex slave who’s purposed to be a womb to her masters. 

Like all other women, Offred is regarded as property. She is banned from writing, reading, and she’s denied every possible human right. As a handmaid, she serves the household of Commander Fred Waterford (hence the name Offred), doing the choirs and running errands. 

But the most crucial role Offred must fulfill is that of a “womb”, so she is ceremonially raped by Waterford and his wife to conceive a child. What is more, if Offred rebels against her masters, she risks being sent away to The Colonies, where a death sentence awaits.   

The Republic of Gilead is a theocratic dictatorship – a form of government in which religious beliefs are the source of authority, which is inflicted without the consent of those that are being governed. In other words, the state can do practically anything without answering to anyone. 

And the most concerning element of The Handmaid’s Tale is the one pointing toward quiet mechanisms that prey upon fundamental freedoms. Countries and nations don’t degenerate into extremist systems overnight, nor is there a singular thief of essential human rights to be accused.

Therefore, this novel stands as a warning of how the normality of living is fragile, demonstrating it’s slow overtaking through a sequence of minor hits until agents of oppressive force finally come into power, turning the reality of life upside down. The change unfolds, undetected, and by the time we take notice, it can already be too late.

[1] “The Handmaid’s Tale: A Story about Extremism and Complacency.” San Diego Free Press [online] Available at: [Accessed on: 31 Mar. 2020]