Professor Sarah Stein
Agency in The Handmaid’s Tale
In her novel The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood describes life in the Republic of Gilead, which was formed after the fall of the United States. Gilead is a patriarchal society where reproduction is the primary concern, due to high infertility rates. The story is told from the perspective of Offred, a woman who is training to become a Handmaid. The people of Gilead must fit into very specific roles based on their gender and social status. In Atwood’s novel all of the characters are limited in their agency ; they have the ability to make choices but only according to the strict societal roles in Gilead.
Agency is defined as “the capacity to act or make a difference; to have agency means to feel or to believe that you can change things that matter to you” (Foss, Foss and Domenico 16). Essentially, agency is the ability to exercise free will. In Gilead there are many characters, with some having more agency than others. In this story Offred has been assigned to become a Handmaid at the Commander’s house.
Gilead is a patriarchal society and is set up so that the Commander has the most power in the house, and therefore he has more freedom and more choices available to him. However, the Commander also has some specific duties that he must perform in order for him to maintain his position in society. For example, he must perform the Ceremony with a Handmaid while his wife observes. The Ceremony is performed strictly for reproductive purposes because pregnancy and birth rates in Gilead have fallen in recent years. This is one instance where the Commander is given fake agency; he could theoretically choose not to participate in the Ceremony, but that would jeopardize his whole life, so he really has no choice at all.
The novel is written solely from Offred’s perspective, so the Commander’s thoughts and emotions remain somewhat of an enigma. It is difficult to determine how he perceives his agency, but it is apparent that he is does not have unrestricted free will. While the Commander is reading the Bible to the women in the house Offred states:
“But watch out Commander, I tell him in my head. I’ve got my eye on you. One false move and I’m dead. Still, it must be hell, to be a man, like that” (Atwood 88).
Here Offred is remarking how, even in a position of power, the Commander is still subject to constant scrutiny from those around him. She also recognizes that if the Commander makes a mistake then she would also face the consequences. The line “One false move and I’m dead” implies that the Commander is the one making the decisions for both of them; if he makes a mistake she would also face the consequences. In this manner the Commander has agency over the women in his house, but only so far as society allows.
Women in Gilead are much more oppressed and more restricted in their free will due to the patriarchal nature of the society. The Handmaid’s role is akin to indentured servitude; they are not allowed to leave the house or do anything that is not condoned by the Commander or his wife. Offred has “chosen” to be a Handmaid, but as her only other option was to become an Unwoman, her choices were extremely limited. At one point in the story the Commander asks her to meet him in his study at night. Here Offred is given two choices: to go or to refuse, and both choices could have serious consequences, as shown in this quote:
“But to refuse him could be worse. There’s no doubt about who holds the real power” (Atwood 136).
In this quote she is saying that the Commander is the authority in the house and denying a request from him would have more dire consequences than breaking the after-hours rule. This is another example where her agency is limited; she may think that she has a choice, but in reality it is just the illusion of choice.
Offred must participate in the Ceremony because it is part of her responsibility as a Handmaid. During the Ceremony she thinks to herself:
“What he is fucking is the lower part of my body. I do not say making love, because that is not what he’s doing. Copulating too would be inaccurate, because it would imply two people and only one is involved. Nor does rape cover it: nothing is going on here that I haven’t signed up for. There wasn’t a lot of choice but there was some, and this is what I chose” (Atwood 94).
Here Offred is expressing how the Ceremony is just another part of being a Handmaid, which she “chose” to become. Atwood describes this whole sex scene in a completely non-sexual way; Offred just lies there and describes what is happening in a very impersonal manner. She even admits that arousal and orgasm are not a part of the Ceremony. This writing style is used in order to reinforce the idea that neither Offred nor the Commander is participating in it for pleasure. In this case, neither of them has any agency; they must both perform the Ceremony regardless of what they want.
Gender performativity is an agentic act; people possess the ability to dress, speak, and behave in certain ways. However in Gilead everyone must conform to very rigid gender performances. For example, the Handmaids are required to wear the same red outfit every day, thus eliminating their freedom to dress as they please. Offred is reminiscing about the past when she says:
“They wore blouses with buttons down the front that suggested the possibilities of the word undone. These women could be undone; or not. They seemed to be able to choose. We seemed to be able to choose, then. We were a society dying, said Aunt Lydia, of too much choice” (Atwood 25).
She believes that women were able to choose how to dress and how they wanted to represent themselves before the time of Gilead. Women had much more freedom of expression before, now their gender performances are greatly restricted. Gilead is a strictly heteronormative society so homosexuality is also condemned and anyone found to be homosexual is taken away or executed. In this way the characters’ entire agency in terms of gender performativity is reduced or even nonexistent. Even the Commander is required to wear his uniform during the Ceremony; his uniform is his identity and serves as a constant reminder of his specific gender performance he must embody.
The Handmaid’s Tale emphasizes how the oppression and the patriarchy in Gilead restrict the characters’ agency. The society is structured so that women have less agency than the men; the women in the house are dependent upon the Commander. Throughout the novel Offred is faced with choices, but often this is just an illusion of choice, thus reducing her agency. While the Commander may exercise more free will, he too has his agency limited due to the socially constructed performance he must act. All of the people of Gilead must fit into very specific roles and gender performances, and are constantly limited in their agency by the oppressive nature of Gilead’s society.
Atwood, Margaret. The Handmaid’s Tale. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1986. Print.
Foss, Sonja K., Mary E. Domenico, and Karen A. Foss. Gender Stories: Negotiating Identity in a Binary World. Long Grove: Waveland Press, Inc. 2013. Print.