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To live in a country such as the United States of America is considered a privilege. The liberties that American citizens are entitled to, as declared in the Constitution, makes the United States an attractive and envied democracy. It would be improbable to imagine these liberties being stripped from American society. However, Margaret Atwood depicts the United States as a dystopian society in her novel The Handmaid’s Tale. The first society is modern America, with its autonomy and liberal customs. The second, Gilead, a far cry from modern America, is a totalitarian Christian theocracy which absorbs America in the late 1980s in order to salvage it from widespread pollution and a dwindling birthrate. The principal flaw in Atwood’s Gileadian society is the justification of human rights violations. This justification only limits the liberties citizens experience, and taunts their once freeing rights, such as the prerogative to explore sexuality. Gilead’s only freedom, is freedom from all other liberties, or as Aunt Lydia would describe, freedom from the anarchy that unveiled in the first society.
The novel’s protagonist, Offred, uses two sets of images to recount the vast difference between a “freedom to” society, and a “freedom from” society. She recalls to the reader a photographic clarity of her previous life as an American woman with liberties, and also those of her present life as a handmaid, or slave to the Republic of Gilead. Aunt Lydia, who is responsible for teaching the enslaved women of Gilead how to be handmaids, attempts to fill the women
with disgust for the dangers of outlawed practices, such as pornography, adultery, and abortion, while encouraging admiration towards the only reason for handmaid’s at all, fertility and
pregnancy. These outlawed practices that Gilead forbid however, are human rights that the citizens of the first society, modern America, were given “freedom to.”
Offred has the “freedom to” explore her sexuality in modern America. Though she would have been hanged in Gilead for her adulterous acts with Luke, Offred was able to be absorbed by passion and love in the former United States. According to Aunt Lydia, free love and lust however, are some of the reasons anarchy occurred. "There's more than one kind of freedom," she tells the handmaids: "Freedom to and freedom from.” “In the days of anarchy, it was freedom to. Now you are being given freedom from. Don't underestimate it" (Atwood, 24).
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Aunt Lydia and the Angels of the Gileadian society forced the justification of human rights violations by comparing the controlled, safe world of the Republic of Gilead to the outside world filled with war, anarchy, and problems. Offred did think she had problems in her days before Gilead. “In the afternoon, when Luke was still in flight from his wife,” before Offred was solidified, she worried what would happen if they were caught in their adulterous acts, or if they were ever going to be happy. It was only after her transfer into a totalitarian society that she realized she was truly happy then, and that her problems in the first society signified “freedom to” feel and experience. Then there was love. Now there are just stains on her mattress, “Like
dried flower petals. Not recent. Old love” (Atwood, 51). There is no other kind of love left in Offred’s room in the Commander’s house. The dried flower petals, Offred compares the stains on her bed to, indicate how times have changed and how sex is no longer out of love, but instead for reproductive purposes. Gilead oppresses love, and justifies the position of the handmaid’s by exploiting their fertility for the salvaging of a dystopian nation. By taking away human will and decision, the “freedom from” society was able to control and instill fear.
With Offred’s periodical sense of longing for the past, it would seem that her will and capacity for emotion would be stained along with her freedom. Offred vividly describes the Handmaid scene in which she is made to lie across the Wife's legs while having impassionate intercourse with the Commander. Offred's picture of herself and body changes drastically from her idea of sexuality in modern America. Her will to feel “freedom to” again however, has not passed. She attempts to evoke passion through sexuality as she had “freedom to” with Luke in modern America. She has a forbidden, but not-so-secret sexual relationship with the Commander’s gardener, Nick. In Gilead sex is no longer an act of pleasure, but of biological necessity. However, with Nick, the performance of sex is defiance against the rules of the “freedom from” society. Offred is risking consequence through her affair with Nick, inducing a “freedom to” choose her fate; inducing human rights. This instance of freedom, as was her affair with Luke in modern America, is when Offred thinks of her body as “an instrument, of pleasure...or an implement for the accomplishment of [her] will” (Atwood, 73). In the present society Offred says she is, “a cloud congealed around a central object [her uterus]” (Atwood, 73).
In The Handmaid’s Tale, it may appear obvious that sex and sexuality are limiting aspects that became a routine practice, or a ritual. However, Offred’s journey comes full circle, from her modern American relationship with Luke, to her affair with Nick in the Republic of Gilead. In modern America Offred has the “freedom to” pursue passion and love with Luke which is a freeing liberty especially because it is an immoral affair. Although her actions are immoral, they are not unlawful. In the Republic of Gilead, Offred wants to recapture that same sense of “freedom to” sexuality. Though her sex with Nick is unlawful, it instead sets Offred free. Her relationship with Nick finds her a way out of Gilead, recapitulating her “freedom to” liberties. The biggest flaw of the Gileadian society is its justification of human rights violations. Gilead could not stop the inherent will for “freedom to” rights. The freeing feeling of sex and the exploration of sexuality is a “freedom to” liberty that is too inherent to be broken. Gilead is flawed from the beginning in its attempts to force a “freedom from” choice, totalitarian society, and forces a resistance to recapitulate the freedoms of the days of anarchy.
Atwood, Margaret. The Handmaid's Tale. New York: Anchor, 1998. 24-73.