The Handmaid’s Tale


Margaret Atwood

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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.
Fertility Theme Icon

Fertility is the reason for Offred’s captivity and the source of her power, Gilead’s major failing and its hope for the future. Inhabitants of Gilead give many reasons for the society’s issues with creating viable offspring: the sexual revolution and birth control, pollution, sexually transmitted diseases. And the book hints at other, more subtle problems: in a society that restricts women so much, treating the potential child-bearers alternately as precious objects, bothersome machines, and prostitute-like sources of shame, how could anyone conceive? Similarly, though Offred knows her life depends on a successful birth, the atmosphere of extreme pressure and fear can’t be as successful a motivator as the hope, love and liberty that characterized life with her first daughter and Luke. Despite the sterile atmosphere, markers of fertility, such as flowers and worms, throng in the Commander’s Wife’s carefully tended garden.

The Commander and his wife host Offred for her proven fertility, and they even rename her as Fred’s possession—her body’s functions are valued, but her personhood is not. This division is highlighted in Janine’s Birthing Ceremony, where Janine’s Commander’s Wife pretends to give birth at the same time, and the faked birth is treated as the authentic one. In this way, Gilead manages to strip away even the Handmaid’s connection to the babies they bear in a version of a sharing, collective society gone totally wrong.

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