The Handmaid’s Tale

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Themes and Colors
Gender Roles Theme Icon
Religion and Theocracy Theme Icon
Fertility Theme Icon
Rebellion Theme Icon
Love Theme Icon
Storytelling and Memory Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The Handmaid’s Tale, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Gender Roles Theme Icon

Gilead is a strictly hierarchical society, with a huge difference between the genders. As soon as the Gileadean revolutionaries take over after terrorism destroys the US government, they fire all women from their jobs and drain their bank accounts, leaving Offred desperate and dependent. Luke, however, doesn’t seem so furious at this turn of events, a subtle suggestion that even good men may have embedded misogynistic attitudes, and that Gilead merely takes these common views to the logical extreme. Soon Gileadean women find all liberties taken from them, from the right to choose their clothes to the right to read.

Even women in positions of power, like Aunt Lydia, are only allowed cattle prods, never guns. The Commander’s Wife, once a powerful supporter of far right-wing religious ideas about how women should stay in the home, now finds herself unhappily trapped in the world she advocated for. Gilead also institutionalizes sexual violence toward women. The Ceremony, where the Commander tries to impregnate Offred, is institutionalized adultery and a kind of rape. Jezebel’s, where Moira works, is a whorehouse for the society’s elite.

Though the story critiques the religious right, it also shows that the feminist left, as exemplified by Offred’s mother, is not the solution, as the radical feminists, too, advocate book burnings, censorship, and violence. The book avoids black-and-white divisions, forcing us to take on our own assumptions regarding gender. We may blame Offred for being too passive, without acknowledging that she’s a product of her society. We may fault the Commander’s Wife for not showing solidarity to her gender and rebelling against Gilead, without understanding that this expectation, since it assumes that gender is the most important trait, is just a milder version of the anti-individual tyranny of Gilead. These complicated questions of blame, as well as the brutal depictions of the oppression of women, earn The Handmaid’s Tale its reputation as a great work of feminist literature.

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Gender Roles Quotes in The Handmaid’s Tale

Below you will find the important quotes in The Handmaid’s Tale related to the theme of Gender Roles.
Chapter 2 Quotes

Waste not want not. I am not being wasted. Why do I want?

Related Characters: Offred (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Eye
Page Number: 7
Explanation and Analysis:

Having recalled the time she spent sleeping in the gymnasium of the Red Center, Offred has moved on to describe a second room, which we later learn is her bedroom in the Commander's house. She has detailed the sparse furnishings and the plastered-over light socket in the ceiling, which reminds her of an eye socket. Offred notes that the rug looks like "folk art," reflective of a cultural preference for artifacts that are handmade by women. She observes that this reflects "a return to traditional values" and the principle "waste not want not." Offred's statement that she is not being wasted highlights the way in which women are used like tools or instruments in Gilead, treated as objects with no value beyond their designated function, which, for Offred, is her fertility. 

Once again, Offred invokes the moral disdain for desire, and particularly desire felt by women. She expresses the view that because she is "not being wasted," it is strange or illogical that she should "want." This reveals that Offred has internalized the idea that women are more like objects than people, and that it is abnormal or morally wrong for women to experience the most basic human emotions, including desire. Her use of a well-known saying highlights how deeply embedded this idea is within the culture of Gilead. 

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Chapter 4 Quotes

I enjoy the power; power of a dog bone, passive but there.

Related Characters: Offred (speaker)
Page Number: 22
Explanation and Analysis:

Offred has described a routine shopping outing with Ofglen, the only time the women are allowed out of the house. Nick has winked at her, which makes her worry that he is an Eye. Offred and Ofglen pass a checkpoint manned by two Guardians, one of whom looks at Offred's face; as she walks away, Offred swings her hips, hoping to inspire sexual desire in the Guardians and saying she enjoys the power of her desirability, which she compares to the "power of a dog bone." This scene reveals that the intense repression in Gilead has not successfully eliminated sexual desire and activity, but simply forced it to be expressed in more secretive and subtle ways. Similarly, although Offred's power and freedom are severely restricted, they cannot be erased altogether; her "passive" power remains. 

Although the particular situation described in this passage seems far from life in the contemporary United States, the fundamental questions it raises are nonetheless relevant. What does it mean to have "passive power"? Does this power ultimately make Offred more or less free? By comparing herself to a dog bone, Offred emphasizes that she is treated as an object. Yet at the same time, she illustrates that even sexual objects exert influence over others––indeed, it is precisely this influence that threatens the repressive and misogynistic ideology of Gilead. 

Chapter 12. Quotes

I avoid looking down at my body, not so much because it’s shameful or immodest but because I don’t want to see it. I don’t want to look at something that determines me so completely.

Related Characters: Offred (speaker)
Page Number: 63
Explanation and Analysis:

Offred is having a bath, which she has at regular times that are not chosen by her. The bath has been run by Cora, who sits outside, and items such as a mirror, razor, and lock are all forbidden. In the bath is one of the only times when Offred is able to touch her own hair, which she enjoys; however, she refuses to look at her body, resenting the fact that it "determines me so completely." This passage emphasizes the fact that Offred has been reduced from being a person to being a body, an object or tool appreciated only for its use. The fact that her bath is scheduled and controlled further confirms the way in which Offred is treated like a tool or animal, rather than a person.

Note that this treatment creates a different kind of body shame from the kind promoted by a religious mindset, but a body shame nonetheless. Offred's thoughts indicate that there is not much difference between being treated as a sex object and being "valued" for your fertility––both are equally degrading.

Chapter 13 Quotes

But maybe boredom is erotic, when women do it, for men.

Related Characters: Offred (speaker)
Page Number: 69
Explanation and Analysis:

Offred reflects on the fact that she has so little to do, and wishes she could pursue a hobby, such as weaving or knitting. She recalls paintings of harems that depict women looking bored, and suggests that perhaps men find boredom erotic, "when women do it." Out of context, this thought is fairly innocuous––all kinds of things can be erotic, some of them rather unexpected.

However, bearing in mind the way that women are treated in Gilead, Offred's words take on a particularly sinister meaning. The "boredom" that she experiences results from the fact that she has no freedom, independence, or access to resources. If men find this erotic, it suggests that men's sexual attraction to women includes the desire to control and belittle women.

Chapter 19 Quotes

A thing is valued, she says, only if it is rare and hard to get.

Related Characters: Aunt Lydia (speaker)
Page Number: 114
Explanation and Analysis:

Offred has been taken to Janine's house, where Janine is giving birth. As they wait to find out if the baby is healthy, Offred experiences a flashback to the Red Center, where Aunt Lydia taught her and the other Handmaids about the causes of infertility, including the history of sexual contraception. Offred resentfully recalls Aunt Lydia's statement that "a thing is valued... only if it is rare and hard to get." Aunt Lydia is referring to women's sexual availability, and once again, it is clear that in Gilead women are considered to be no more than "things." Aunt Lydia's concern over value is similarly degrading, by implying that women are not just objects but commodities whose value is conditional, rather than inherent. 

Although Aunt Lydia's words seem strikingly harsh in the context of the novel, in reality she echoes much of the kind of language used to promote abstinence among unmarried young people in the real world. Even at the most basic level, many young women are encouraged to play "hard to get" or otherwise not agree to sex too early or enthusiastically. By drawing this parallel with our contemporary world, Atwood once again emphasizes that the contemporary U.S. may not be as far from Gilead as we think. 

Chapter 21 Quotes

You wanted a women’s culture. Well, now there is one. It isn’t what you meant, but it exists. Be thankful for small mercies.

Related Characters: Offred (speaker), Offred’s Mother
Page Number: 127
Explanation and Analysis:

Offred is at Janine's house while Janine is giving birth, and has been recalling her time in the Red Center, when the women were shown videos of "unwomen." One of these videos showed Offred's mother at a feminist rally, and Offred then remembers the fights she and her mother used to have about feminism. At the Red Centre, she recalls thinking about her mother, who had "wanted a women's culture." The Red Centre––along with the whole structure of Handmaids, wives, and other castes of women––is, as Offred reflects in this passage, a "women's culture" of sorts. Socialization is segregated by gender, so women spend time almost exclusively with other women, engaged in "feminine" activities such as housework.

This passage suggests that Offred believes radical feminism was part of a chain of events that led to the establishment of Gilead. While she acknowledges that the hyper-religious, restricted world she now lives in is far from what her mother and other feminists intended, it seems that the backlash against radical feminist activity helped to bring about this new, ultra traditional era. Her comment "Be thankful for small mercies" is largely ironic, a reference to the religious imperative that Offred be grateful for the hellish world in which she now lives. On the other hand, we could perhaps read a note of sincerity in it, too – although the "women's culture" Offred now lives in is misogynist and oppressive, there are several moments when she finds strength and solidarity through her connections to other women, such as Moira, Ofglen, and the previous Handmaid. 

Chapter 24 Quotes

You can think clearly only with your clothes on.

Related Characters: Offred (speaker)
Page Number: 143
Explanation and Analysis:

Offred has secretly spent an evening with the Commander, playing an illicit game of Scrabble and then sharing a kiss. Back in her room, she sits on her bed with her clothes on, waiting before taking them off because she can't think clearly without them.

This observation reveals the complexity of the various forms of oppression to which women are subjected in the novel. In many ways, Offred's extremely modest and unwieldy Handmaid's uniform is oppressive––it robs her of individuality, and implies that her body is shameful. On the other hand, this quotation shows that nakedness can also be disempowering. Although her uniform is somewhat ridiculous and uncomfortable, Offred evidently feels protected by it. Her words suggest that concealing her body allows freedom and clarity in her mind. 

Chapter 26 Quotes

“Why expect one woman to carry out all the functions necessary to the serene running of a household? It isn’t reasonable or humane. Your daughters will have greater freedom.”

Related Characters: Aunt Lydia (speaker)
Page Number: 163
Explanation and Analysis:

Offred and the Commander have continued to meet in secret and their relationship grows friendlier; this then makes it awkward for both of them to participate in the Ceremony. Offred recalls Aunt Lydia telling her that, once the population has grown large enough, the Gilead regime hopes that every family will have a Handmaid. In this passage, Aunt Lydia explaining the reason behind such a policy, in terms that perversely echo certain forms of feminist rhetoric. As with her previous statement about "freedom to" and "freedom from," Aunt Lydia couches her logic in terms of freedom. Her words suggest that, even though the Handmaid system requires women to have a preassinged role not chosen by them, they will ultimately be more free because they will not have to run their household alone. 

There are, of course, clear logical and ethical problems in Aunt Lydia's argument. Most obviously, she fails to address why "the serene running of a household" is entirely the responsibility of women, without any input or responsibility from men. At the same time, Aunt Lydia's words relate to a criticism of certain types of feminism that exist in the real world. Some people argue that the American feminist movement of the 1970s and 80s created a system in which well-educated, middle and upper-class women were able to pursue the "freedom" of a career at the expense of domestic workers who then had to take on responsibilities such as cleaning and childcare. Although this situation is different from Gilead in many ways, Offred's role as a Handmaid is comparable to the experience of these domestic workers. 

Chapter 28 Quotes

He doesn’t mind this, I thought. He doesn’t mind it at all. Maybe he even likes it. We are not each other’s, anymore. Instead, I am his.

Related Characters: Offred (speaker), Luke
Page Number: 182
Explanation and Analysis:

Offred has finally explained how the United States turned into the Republic of Gilead, recalling the time when, like all other women, she was fired from her job and had her bank account drained. She explains that she considered protesting, but that Luke encouraged her not to for her own safety. Instead, she became a housewife, and in this passage she remembers suspecting that Luke might have liked this shift in power. This is a surprising and important moment in the narrative, when Offred's relationship with Luke is shown to be more complicated than it first appears. There is no doubt that Offred loves Luke––the memory of him and hope that she might one day see him again sustains her, allowing her to survive her torturous life as a Handmaid. 

On the other hand, even Offred and Luke's devotion to one another cannot remain untainted by sexism and by the wider political situation in which they find themselves. Although Offred loves Luke, she can't help but suspect that he doesn't mind or even enjoys the power that the new state of affairs gives him over her. However, she never asks him about it, implying that sexism creates a communicative gulf between men and women, even those who love and trust each other. It seems that only in a truly equal society would men and women be able to love and communicate with total honesty.