Example research essay topic: Critical Analysis Of “the Handmaid’s Tale” – 1,924 words

The Republic Of Gilead is an oppressive regime
which relies on fear to control its inhabitants.’
With reference to the first twelve chapters,
discuss the methods of control used and the ways
in which the narrator struggles to survive.
‘Oppression’ can be defined as ‘the exercising of
power, arbitrarily and often unjustly.’ A regime
refers to the ‘mode or system of rule or
management; character of government, or of the
prevailing social pattern.’ In ‘A Handmaids Tale’
by Margaret Atwood, the Republic Of Gilead is an
oppressive regime. It is a social system where
cruelty and power are used as a means of
authority. Gilead is a highly military state in
the USA in which social agendas are dictated by
the male hierarchy and the residents are
permanently threatened by an overshadow of fear
which is used as a method of control. The novel is
narrated by the female protagonist – a Handmaid
known to the reader as ‘Offred’ whose purpose is
to act as a surrogate Mother for her Commander and
his wife. It is through her that we are introduced
to the strict control methods which inhabitants
have to abide by. ‘Control’ is a major theme
throughout the novel – whether it be by the
regimentation of life, the strict communication
laws or the way in which people are stripped of
their individuality.

The whole environment in
Gilead is carefully monitored and observed to
ensure the ‘smooth’ running of society. Suicides
appear to be a major threat to civilization as
they serve as an ‘escape route’ out of the
oppressive lifestyle – therefore precautions are
taken to ensure that suicide never becomes an
option. Offred states that ‘they’ve removed
anything you could tie a rope to’ to prevent
hangings (often by stockings), there is also a
mention that there is ‘no glass’ in picture frames
– even glass in the windows is ‘shatterproof’.
Razors and any other potentially harmful objects
(such as ornaments) have been removed to ensure
that an urge to ‘escape’ is never satisfied. These
arrangements, although seemingly severe, were seen
as necessary after many handmaids took their own
lives after poor adaptation to the new regime.
Handmaids are not permitted to leave their ‘home’
except for their daily walks and their shopping
visits. During these expeditions the handmaids
must walk in ‘twos’ – with a mirror image of
themselves. It is during these walks that we
notice how surveillance is used as another form of

It is believed that anybody living in
Gilead would have no logical need to leave the
state – unless they are trying to escape. The
borders are therefore heavily guarded with gun-
wielding security guards, there is also the added
precaution of a ‘chain link fence topped with
barbed wire’ to further ensure that physically
escaping becomes practically impossible. To be
permitted into the centre of Gilead, an
identification pass is needed which is checked at
designated ‘barriers’ – only if you are permitted
may you enter the town centre. Failure to produce
the pass quickly and efficiently may lead to the
injury or death of a person, as guards often
mistake people searching for their passes as
people searching for a weapon. Handmaids can also
be identified by a ‘small tattoo’ on the ankle
showing ‘a four digit number and an eye – a
passport’. Not all security guards are as easily
noticeable, there are also undercover surveillance
teams known as ‘Eyes’ who disguise themselves to
see whether everybody is behaving acceptably and
abiding to all the set rules.

The uncertainty and
fear of these ‘Eyes’ stops alliances from forming.
Trust becomes practically nonexistent,
understandably, because in that situation, nobody
can be trusted as nobody is sure of one anothers
true identity. The previous identity of all the
handmaids have been removed, they all now have
different names and different lives – however
their past could literally ‘come back to haunt’
them. If a person is discovered to have committed
a now ‘serious crime’, such as gender treachery
(homosexuality) or abortion – they would be
salvaged and hung on a ‘Wall’. In the Gilead
society it is seen as inhumane to kill a child (by
abortion or any other means) and to be involved in
a relationship where procreation is often not an
option (gender treachery) therefore the people
that committed such acts are punished. The
killings are brutal executions. After the death,
the bodies are covered in a white cloth and have
placards round their neck which reveal the ‘crime’
they committed.

The Handmaids are expected to look
at the bodies hanging from hooks on the ‘Wall’ as
a public spectacle and show ‘hatred and scorn’
towards these ‘criminals’ – this in itself is a
control method as it promotes conformity and
terrifies people into adhering to rules. The
fundamental pressure that the Handmaids are under
is to conceive – failure to do so means that the
so-called ‘unwomen’ are sent to the ‘Colonies’. In
the first twelve chapters of the novel, we do not
learn what happens at these Colonies, all we do
know is that those who go there never come back.
This is an obvious control method used – the
Handmaid’s start to crave a child as much as the
Gilead authorities do as there is a constant
threat that they too will never return from the
Colonies. So little is known about this dreaded
place, because communication is practically
forbidden. The women of Gilead do not sororize
outside their peer groups and there is even less
communication allowed between individual
Handmaids. They speak in low tones, with furtive
glances during shopping or other duties.

While all
women in Gilead wear veils and wimples, the
Handmaids wear white wings around their eyes, to
disguise their identities and discourage any
conversation. However, some forms of communication
are permitted, but only in controlled
circumstances. For example, a Handmaid’s language
is restricted and they must only acknowledge each
other in biblical language such as ‘May the lord
open – the accepted response.’ On one occasion
Offred is approached by a gardener/chauffer who
attempts to talk to her – this, however, is
forbidden. Singing is also forbidden as it is seen
as an unnecessay, and sometimes influential, form
of communication. The interaction between two
people is no longer allowed. Not just verbal
communication is forbidden, physical interaction
whether it be ‘touch’ or even a ‘nod’ or a ‘smile’
is very restricted to prevent bonds or
relationships from forming.

This is one major fear
of the society, potentially, alliances could form
who could revolt against the new practice –
leading to the breakdown of society. To stop such
events happening, communication is restricted to
just the necessities. Aside from physical and
verbal communication, ‘reading’, ‘writing’,
‘films’ and ‘magazines’ have also been outlawed as
they may produce opinions and ideas which could be
lethal to the running of society. Even
communication between doctor and patient is very
much restricted (although Offred’s doctor rebels
against the accepted rules). Handmaid’s are made
to cover themselves up with a sheet so that the
doctor does not see who he is inspecting. Certain
words have become illegal even for a doctor, such
as ‘infertile’ when speaking about a man – it is a
word many people do not like to think even exists.
There is minimal daily intercourse and interaction
between individuals, this ensures that friendships
do not form which could be fatal to society.
Communication is totally controlled by society.
The only kind of communication that appears to be
accepted is simple pictures.

Shops are labelled
and categorized by drawings to show what they
sell. For example, in Gilead there is a sign with
milk and honey on. This is another biblical
reference as the name is taken from Matthew 6:28
‘A Land Flowing With Milk And Honey’. In Gilead
there is no longer any currency, instead simple
tokens with ‘pictures on’ are used as a
substitute. These tokens control the eating habits
of individuals and also control the economy – in
the Gilead society, money is no longer needed.
However there is still an illegal ‘black market.’
This becomes apparent when Offred spots her
Commander’s wife with cigarettes, an illegal
substance. This is particularly important in the
novel as it shows that although there are strict
rules and regulations, there are still the rebels
who challenge the views of society which gives
Offred some hope of escaping her present

The women of Gilead are segregated by
their dress and function into highly rigid social
and biological roles. “There are the Martha’s, or
domestics (who wear green); the Wives, or social
secretaries and functionaries (who wear blue) and
the Handmaids (who wear red).” There are varieties
of colour-coded occupations available for women in
Gilead, but in every case the roles are
pre-assigned. As a Handmaid, Offred has the most
demanding role – but yet has no control over her
life. A Handmaid’s uniform is much like that of a
nuns, except in red – she must wear ‘red gloves’,
‘red shoes’, a red ‘ankle length skirt’ and ‘white
wings’ to disguise the face, thus ensuring
communication remains difficult. This uniform
defines the role that the person plays in society
but its also strips away a persons individuality.
The Handmaid’s name is also changed so that they
are more easily identified. Their name is the name
of the Commander they are ‘working for’ – Offred
is the Handmaid Of Fred.

This is also a control
which strips the individuality of a person. The
women of Gilead are barred from education and
socialization to ensure that their energies are
saved for their individual tasks. The Handmaids
therefore become emotionally incomplete robots who
lack individuality. This is another way of
controlling the inhabitants of Gilead – by taking
away their individual personalities, they are
controlling the way people think and live. This
idea was forced upon the Handmaid’s by a process
of brainwashing. This brainwashing was undergone
at the ‘Red Centre’ – a training scheme for all

It is here that the Handmaids learn
the accepted norms of society, the restrictions
they must recognise and the rules they must abide
by. The Red Centre was designed to cement the
ideas of the new society and to help Handmaid’s to
change the view of themselves. It eased them into
the idea of taking on a new identity. The Red
Centre obviously had an impact on Offred as it is
mentioned many times in the novel and,
inparticularly, her teacher Aunt Lydia. It was
from her that she learnt the way in which she
should behave and conduct herself. Although there
is not much to be thankful for, Offred appears to
be secretly grateful to Aunt Lydia for teaching
her this.

If she had not done her job properly,
Offred may have unsuspectingly done something
wrong which could have led to her death. The Red
Centre helped Offred prepare for her new life and
taught her what would be expected of her in the
new society. She would have been told in advance
of the complete regimentation of life that she was
to expect. The Handmaid’s life is controlled and
fully scheduled by a series of bells throughout
the day telling them when to eat, go shopping,
wake up e.t.c – there is also assigned ‘bath days’
and monthly checkups at the doctors. This ensures
that the Handmaid’s lives remain predictable. Each
inhabitant of Gilead has a certain role to play in

Research essay sample on Critical Analysis Of the Handmaids Tale