Study Guide

The Handmaid's Tale Freedom and Confinement

By Margaret Atwood

Freedom and Confinement

I know why there is no glass, in front of the watercolor picture of blue irises, and why the window opens only partly and why the glass in it is shatter-proof. It isn't running away they're afraid of. We wouldn't get far. It's those other escapes, the ones you can open in yourself, given a cutting edge. (2.4)

The narrator reminds us that there are different kinds of freedom, which the people in the Commander's house know about. She's not just forbidden from jumping out of the window or running out the door—they've actually removed all possibility of suicide.

We used to talk about buying a house like one of these, an old big house, fixing it up. We would have a garden, swings for the children. We would have children. Although we knew it wasn't too likely we could ever afford it, it was something to talk about, a game for Sundays. Such freedom now seems almost weightless. (5.4)

The freedom that the narrator and Luke used to take for granted is practically ridiculous now. Their fantasies are common enough: buy a house, raise a family, make a life. But these banal things are impossible now. The narrator says it "seems almost weightless": it's intangible, imaginary.

Now we walk along the same street, in red pairs, and no man shouts obscenities at us, speaks to us, touches us. No one whistles.

There is more than one kind of freedom, said Aunt Lydia. Freedom to and freedom from. In the days of anarchy, it was freedom to. Now you are being given freedom from. Don't underrate it. (5.10-11)

Despite all that the women have lost, Aunt Lydia and Gilead argue that they are free now. They have "freedom from" things like sexist catcalls and potential abuse from strangers. They would argue that the women of Gilead should be grateful for such freedoms rather than mourning the other freedoms they've lost.

We are fascinated, but also repelled. They seem undressed. It has taken so little time to change our minds, about things like this.

Then I think: I used to dress like that. That was freedom.

Westernized, they used to call it. (5.33-35)

The hits just keep coming as the narrator is continually reminded of the freedoms she has lost. Here, confronted with a group of Japanese tourists, she remembers that the way she "used to dress" wasn't just about personal style; it also represented freedom. Being forced to wear the Handmaid uniform represents all the autonomy she's lost.

As long as we do this, butter our skin to keep it soft, we can believe that we will some day get out, that we will be touched again, in love or desire. We have ceremonies of our own, private ones. (17.6)

Another kind of freedom or potential to escape exists here too. By stealing butter and using it as a pathetic sort of lotion, the narrator and the other Handmaids "can believe that [they] will some day get out." Here the potential of freedom lies within an ordinary household staple.

Moira had power now, she'd been set loose, she'd set herself loose. She was now a loose woman.

I think we found this frightening.

Moira was like an elevator with open sides. She made us dizzy. Already we were losing the taste for freedom, already we were finding these walls secure. In the upper reaches of the atmosphere you'd come apart, you'd vaporize, there would be no pressure holding you together. (22.45-47)

This shows how successful the Center is at brainwashing women and teaching them to believe in this new regime. It hasn't taken long for the women there to "los[e] the taste for freedom" and "find […] these walls secure." So while once Moira would have been seen as a motivating force—a fantasy of an escape made good—the women in the Center are already retreating from their old notions of freedom and rights.

It occurs to me that she may be a spy, a plant, set to trap me; such is the soil in which we grow. But I can't believe it; hope is rising in me, like sap in a tree. Blood in a wound. We have made an opening. (27.46)

The narrator's desire for freedom and escape is so profound that it makes her careless. Although Ofglen "may be a spy," the narrator can't keep herself from confiding in her. Ofglen has reminded her of her capacity for hope.

It's strange to remember how we used to think, as if everything were available to us, as if there were no contingencies, no boundaries; as if we were free to shape and reshape forever the ever—expanding perimeters of our lives. I was like that too, I did that too. (35.22)

The narrator feels so separate from her life before, when freedom and autonomy were rights, not privileges. Now she recognizes them as the precious things they were, almost marveling at how little they were appreciated when people had them, and how they seem worlds away from the life she has now.

Yet there's an enticement in this thing, it carries with it the childish allure of dressing up. And it would be so flaunting, such a sneer at the Aunts, so sinful, so free. Freedom, like everything else, is relative. (36.18)

Given her limits, the narrator has to find freedom where she can. As she says, "it's relative." Here, she's "dressing up" not to recover her own identity but to temporarily reject her status as Handmaid and to "sneer at the Aunts." It's a false freedom, though. It can't last, and ultimately it doesn't get her anywhere.

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. (41.37)

Probably the worst thing about Nick is the way he makes the narrator complacent, lessening her desire to "escape, cross the border to freedom." Being with him, although it's dangerous and can't last, makes her life palatable. But even finding love and desire after a long drought shouldn't stop her from wanting to get out of a place like that.

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