Agency is the ability to possess free will. The characters in Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” demonstrate a lack of agency through terrible oppression in Gilead. However, certain characters in the novel the novel seem to be able to withstand the tyranny of this system through a sort of quasi-agency and through little victories that make their existence bearable. These characters include Offred, Moira, and Serena Joy. The Republic of Gilead is surely aware of and could prohibit the limited agency these characters find in their everyday lives, but it does not do so because the subjects are still under control. “The Handmaid’s Tale” demonstrates how the inhabitants of Gilead justify their oppression as habitable through limited, but purposefully not absent, agency. Atwood achieves this through Offred’s internal monologue.
One of the clearest examples of oppression through limited agency occurs when Offred finds her best friend, Moira, employed within the Jezebel’s brothel. Moira finds freedom in a time when pleasure is limited, mediums to escape reality are prohibited, and handmaids steal butter to use as lotion.
"So here I am. They even give you face cream. You should figure out some way of getting in here. You'd have three or four good years before your snatch wears out and they send you to the bone-yard. The food's not bad and there's drink and drugs, if you want it, and we only work nights."
"Moira," I say. "You don't mean that." She is frightening me now, because what I hear in her voice is indifference, a lack of volition. Have they really done it to her then, taken away something-what?-that used to be so central to her? And how can I expect her to go on, with my idea of her courage, live it through, act it out, when I myself do not? (Atwood 249).
This quote comes directly after Moira finishes telling Offred about her escape from the Aunts, hiding out in the house of a Quaker, her eventual capture, and her placement in the brothel. To Offred’s surprise, Moira actually enjoys life as a Jezebel and tries to convince Offred to join. However, Offred still feels caged by the oppression of Gilead and wishes to be a part of the Mayday resistance. Thus, she is horrified at the idea of Moira, the one who embodied embodied resistance against the system, becoming a compliant member of society, even if it is a broken part of society. Moira values the sexual and personal freedom she is allowed in Jezebel’s. She is not condoned (but actually rewarded) for her homosexuality, and she is able to enter a world far removed from Gilead through alcohol and drugs. Offred sees this lack of activism as dying hope for her friend, for Luke and her daughter, and for herself. Moira’s “lack of volition” symbolizes a dying need for progress and improvement of her own situation, and a lack of hope for future generations; future generations that includes her daughter. Atwood is comparing Moira and the people in Jezebel’s to those in America today that have what we might call “first-world problems”. Moira’s life at the present fulfills her wants and needs, so she does not recognize the oppression that is happening to people outside Jezebel’s.
Serena Joy, the Commander’s Wife, finds little comforts within her garden and by attending ‘sick days’ for fellow Wives, as she does in this quote.
Sometimes, however, Serena Joy is out, visiting another Commander's Wife, a sick one; that's the only place she could conceivably go, by herself, in the evenings. She takes food, a cake or pie or loaf of bread baked by Rita, or a jar of jelly, made from the mint leaves that grow in her garden. They get sick a lot, these Wives of the Commanders. It adds interest to their lives. (Atwood 154).
Serena Joy and the other Commanders’ Wives find agency in the little victories they allow themselves. This quote comes after Offred constructs an image of Serena Joy gardening. She is down on her knees, carefully trimming the “fruiting bodies” of her precious flowers. Atwood uses the metaphor of a garden in relation to Serena Joy a lot throughout this book. The garden is an outlet for Serena Joy’s pain, but also a representation of life-giving structures, structures which Serena Joy has lost. She has been devoid of sexual pleasures, she has been repressed into the Wifely duties of gardening and knitting, and she lost her former celebrity status when the Republic of Gilead indoctrinated her into their system. Serena Joy is able to bear the oppression through her own agency of “getting sick” and finding the companionship of other Commanders’ Wives. This quote focuses solely on Serena Joy’s happiness outside of the home. The wives use “feel-good” food to help each other, as well as themselves, survive the unspoken oppression they are experiencing. In the first line of quote, Offred adds “a sick one” almost as an afterthought. She is obviously implying that the Wives are not sick. In the last line Offred almost sympathizes with the Wives saying “it adds interest to their lives”. She knows that the only way most people can get by these days is if they allow themselves a bit of freedom.
Offred is talking directly to her audience in this next quote: the people listening to her voice on the cassette tape and trying to make sense of what she is going through.
I would like to believe this is a story I’m telling. I need to believe it. I must believe it. Those who can believe that such stories are only stories have a better chance. If it’s a story I’m telling, then I have control over the ending. Then there will be an ending, to the story, and real life will come after it. I can pick up where I left off (Atwood 39).
Offred is breaking the storyteller-audience barrier by bringing us into the conversation. She wants us to realize that she is still human, and that she is still subject to the temptations of the world and to her own feelings. However, she uses this moment to begin to convince us that she is searching for agency even within her own telling of the story. The phrase “control over the ending” shows that this yearning for some sort of agency is what allows her to keep living. This quote is also very repetitive; it uses the word “believe” four times, the word “story” five times, and the word “I” eight times. The repetitiveness of these words means that she is having trouble convincing herself of this idea; the more she says it, the more likely it is to come true. It is as if she has to convince herself before she can convince her audience. By giving herself control over the ending she will feel as though she had some sort of agency in the process.
Near the end of the book we see Offred’s ideas about her oppressive life in Gilead change with her newfound sexual freedom in Nick.
I can't, I say to Ofglen. I'm too afraid. Anyway I'd be no good at that, I'd get caught.
I scarcely take the trouble to sound regretful, so lazy have I become.
We could get you out, she says. We can get people out if we really have to, if they're in danger. Immediate danger.
The fact is that I no longer want to leave, escape, cross the border to freedom. I want to be here, with Nick, where I can get at him (Atwood 271).
This quote is preceded by a walk with Ofglen past gardens of daisies and black-eyed Susans; flowers normally grown in late summer that lead Gilead on the “downward slope to fall” (Atwood 270). Atwood precedes it with the downward slope because Offred subconsciously feels that is where her life is headed. Nevertheless, when Ofglen asks her to spy on the Commander for Mayday, Offred objects because she finds her life bearable with the little bit of agency she has been granted. She notices her own laziness as she says this and realizes that she does not actually want to escape as she once did; Gilead has achieved control over her by granting her what she believes to be agency.
The republic of Gilead is able to maintain control over its people in this novel through limited agency amidst oppressive laws and regulations. Offred’s narrative depicts her distress as she witnesses Moira and Serena Joy becoming unknowingly controlled by these higher powers, and then her own realization as she succumbs to Gilead’s control due to her relationship with Luke. Offred is telling this story from a present-self looking back at her past. This means that she is now aware of the control Gilead had on her. Thus, we can use her narrative as a warning about the dangers of settling for what is comfortable rather than what is progress.
Atwood, Margaret. The Handmaid’s Tale. New York: Anchor Books, 1998. Print.