For those of you that don’t know, Offred is the main character of Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel, The Handmaid’s Tale. Set in a dystopian future where a Christian theocracy has taken over America, the plot follows various events from the life of Offred, a woman forced to become a concubine/surrogate mother to a high-ranking official and his wife. The book, which deals frankly with themes such as religious fundamentalism, female subjugation and variations on the theme of freedom, has become a modern classic and been studied and banned in equal measure. The Handmaid’s Tale cemented Margaret Atwood as one of the twentieth century’s greatest writers, became a feminist classic, and is increasingly heralded as a warning of what might come to pass. Offred herself is at the centre of all this, although whether she is a feminist heroine or a part of the system that oppresses her is still up for debate.
But does she measure up to the hype? Let’s find out – but watch out for spoilers!
- Does the character shape her own destiny? Does she actively try to change her situation and if not, why not?
One of the overriding themes of the novel is how Offred is not in control of her own life. When the dystopian government took over, and began slowly depriving women of their jobs and income, Offred tried to escape with her husband and child. However, she was captured, sent to a re-education centre and trained to be a Handmaid: a woman assigned to an official and his wife as what amounts to an extra womb on legs. Because her husband was married before he met her, she is now classified as ‘impure’ and forced into sexual slavery to give the official an extra chance at conceiving a child. As such, her every moment is subjected to a wide range of restrictions – whether that’s where she goes, what she does, or what she eats or drinks. She has nothing that has not been carefully monitored and regulated. Even her name is not her own: she’s assigned a new one that literally denotes her as a possession – Of-Fred. It’s every bit as disgusting as it sounds.
So as you can imagine, the deck is stacked against her. It’s very difficult for Offred to go where she wants and do what she wants, both because of her social position and the constant presence of violent secret police. But, like other characters in dystopian novels, she still has a choice: to obey or disobey.
Offred is very aware of what disobedience will mean for her: arrest, a beating, and being shipped off to ‘the Colonies’ to be worked to death. So on the outside, she does what she’s told. She makes a point of acting just as pious as she should be and never putting a foot wrong. She obeys every instruction her Commander gives her – even those which are, strictly speaking, illegal – because to disobey would be far too dangerous for her.
But unlike other characters in dystopian novels, what really marks Offred’s character is the small acts of disobedience she uses as a way of defying the society that enslaved her. She doesn’t orchestrate elaborate plots to blow up government buildings, but instead she steals small trifles that only matter to her. She meets a man’s eyes in public, when she’s not supposed to look at them. She steals butter and uses it as face and hand cream.
What’s more, as the novel goes on Offred is presented with more power. Her Commander wants to start an illicit relationship with her – treating her like a full-blown mistress, when the role of Handmaid is supposed to be centred around procreation and nothing else – so she uses this to her advantage, getting the Commander to give her black market goods. The Commander’s Wife wants her to give birth to a child, so arranges for her to sleep with their chauffeur – in return, Offred asks for a picture of her little girl, who was taken away from her when she was forced to become a Handmaid. Sleeping with the chauffeur becomes, in itself, an act of rebellion, because instead of feeling like a vessel that is only good for childbirth, Offred’s relationship with him is remarkably sensual, and she can finally meet her own sexual needs rather than being used for someone else’s. It’s this that also leads to her possible escape at the end of the novel, although this isn’t really made clear.
Even the act of her telling her own story is quietly subversive: in the ‘Historical Notes’ tacked onto the end of the novel, a professor from several hundred years in the future gives a lecture about her story. The reader is told that Offred’s story was secretly recorded on cassette tapes linked to a resistance movement, which would not have been allowed to happen. In telling her own story, she’s committing another small act of defiance – one that allows her to remain an individual, and not just a possession of another man.
In short, when you talk about the question of Offred’s wider destiny you have to look at it in a slightly different way. With her every move monitored so closely, she can’t just slip off into the woods like Katniss Everdeen – but just because she isn’t blowing up government buildings, that doesn’t mean she’s accepted her fate. Offred tries to reclaim her own destiny through small acts, made profound by the fact that she’s not allowed to do them, and in doing so she stops being a womb on legs and remains a person. That’s powerful stuff that shouldn’t be underestimated, so I’m giving her the point.
SCORE SO FAR: 1
- Does she have her own goals, beliefs and hobbies? Did she come up with them on her own?
Offred’s goals are simple: stay alive. Ideally, she’d also like to find out what happened to her husband and daughter, but seeing as she last saw them being taken away by the secret police, she’s understandably a bit apprehensive of what she might find. She also wants to have a baby as well – if only so she won’t get carted off to a labour camp on suspicion that she’s barren.
Her hobbies are a little hard to define. Offred, like all other Handmaids, is not supposed to have hobbies – she’s supposed to occupy her time by being chaste, devout and obedient. What she has instead are behaviours she indulges in to make things more bearable for her, such as stealing small objects. Her beliefs are much more clearly defined. She believes that she is more than just a Handmaid, wishes that she appreciated her freedom more when she had it, and considers suicide an acceptable way out of her situation more than once.
SCORE SO FAR: 2
- Is her character consistent? Do her personality or skills change as the plot demands?
Offred’s character is pretty consistent. She’s perceptive, intelligent, compassionate, but with a dark sense of humour, and she can be quite self-serving and is occasionally given to bouts of despair. She values small things, and spends a lot of time imagining how things might have turned out, often allowing her mind to wander.
What’s interesting about Offred’s character is that, much like many other characters finding their way through unfamiliar worlds, she is something of an Everyman – or in this case, Everywoman. She has her own personality, but it often takes a back seat to what she’s experiencing. This allows the reader to put themselves in her shoes much more easily. It’s a difficult trick to pull off, but Atwood does it very well, so I’m giving her the point.
SCORE SO FAR: 3
- Can you describe her in one short sentence without mentioning her love life, her physical appearance, or the words ‘strong female character’?
An intelligent, perceptive woman is forced into sexual slavery in a dystopian theocracy, and must hold on to her individuality in any way she can.
SCORE SO FAR: 4
- Does she make decisions that aren’t influenced by her love life?
Offred is another one of those characters whose love life isn’t just a question of romantic feelings. For her, the ability to bear children is the only thing that’s stopping her from being sent to a labour camp. Her sexual power is the only power she has – whether that’s power over the Commander or his wife, both of whom depend on her to give them a child. When you consider that this is pretty much the only thing that’s stopping her from being literally worked to death, that sets it in a completely different light.
One of the key things to remember is that Offred is not a willing participant in this arrangement. While she did sign up to be a Handmaid, she wasn’t left with any viable alternatives, and it’s made abundantly clear that the whole thing is making her borderline suicidal. As such, her feelings towards the Commander are very complex: she’s aware that he literally has her life in his hands, and she hates him for what he’s done to her, but his desire to have a more intimate relationship with her gives her a power she’s been deprived of for years and actively makes her life better. She doesn’t love him at all, but she does depend on him.
And then there’s Nick, the Commander’s chauffeur. Offred is incredibly attracted to him, and when their relationship becomes sexual all her boundaries come crashing down at once. She tells him her real name, and about her life before she was forced into becoming a Handmaid, and completely forgets about the burgeoning contacts she has made in the shadowy resistance movement she becomes involved with. This could be love – Offred isn’t sure, and neither am I – but it’s worth remembering that what matters to Offred the most is that Nick treats her like a human being. He doesn’t patronise her, he listens to her, and pays attention to her sexual needs, which no-one has done for a very long time. After years of being used, Nick reminds Offred of what her life used to be like when people thought that she mattered. It’s very easy to link Offred’s feelings for Nick with the freedom he represents.
The upshot of all this is that Offred’s love life is pretty central to the story, but love isn’t always the right word for it. It’s conflated with a lot of complicated feelings about oppression, power and freedom, and it’s rarely clear exactly what Offred really feels about the men she’s involved with. I’ll give her half a point.
SCORE SO FAR: 4.5
- Does she develop over the course of the story?
Offred’s character development is made very clear over the course of the novel. Before the story starts, she has grown accustomed to her position as a Handmaid, and is still struggling to deal with the grief and uncertainty over the unknown fates of her husband and daughter. As the story progresses, she becomes more defiant (albeit in small ways) and less cautious, finally realising that she has nothing left to lose. It’s some solid and well-thought out development, so I’ll give her the point.
SCORE SO FAR: 5.5
- Does she have a weakness?
Offred’s biggest weakness is her own cowardice, and she admits this herself. Her fear holds her back at every turn, whether she’s trying to get information from Ofglen or planning to steal something from the Commander’s Wife. Interestingly, this plays into another weakness of Offred’s: her self-loathing. She’s frequently disgusted by the choices she’s made, often haranguing herself from inside her own head – to the extent that there’s no other character in The Handmaid’s Tale who says nastier things about Offred than Offred herself. In turn, this feeds into her cowardice, as her self-loathing often leads her to go along with things she’s uncomfortable with, but isn’t brave enough to turn down – she just doesn’t think highly enough of herself to take the risk of saying no. The way these two weaknesses feed into each other is very realistic and very well done, so she passes this round with flying colours.
SCORE SO FAR: 6.5
- Does she influence the plot without getting captured or killed?
It has to be said that Offred isn’t really a huge influence on the plot. She’s a very passive character, and while part of this is due to the totalitarian state that’s oppressing her, a much larger part is due to Offred’s tendency to just go along with things in the hope that she’ll be all right. Most of the time, her actions don’t influence the plot – what usually happens is she thinks about doing something, but often doesn’t. In fact, she rarely acts at all: every morsel of her day is carefully regulated, and every action that she does has already been approved by someone else.
This is reflective of her position in society – like all other women in the novel, Offred is seen as not responsible enough to act of her own accord, so all the opportunities she has to do so are taken away from her. She does try and make her own decisions – such as stealing a match, beginning an affair with her Commander, and starting a secret relationship with his chauffeur – but these are all set up for her by other characters. The Commander’s Wife gives her the match, and she decides not to use it, but to hide it away. The Commander is the one who instigates the affair, and Offred knows that turning it down would be a dangerous thing. The Commander’s Wife is the one who sets her up with the chauffeur, as she’s so desperate for a child that she’ll do pretty much anything. Offred makes these actions her own through the way she thinks about them, but she literally wouldn’t be able to do anything if she didn’t have the co-operation of the other characters. I’m withholding the point.
SCORE SO FAR: 6.5
- How does she relate to stereotypes about gender?
What’s really interesting about Offred is how much gender stereotypes define her character within the context of the novel. The leaders of the Republic of Gilead – aka. the former United States of America – have clearly been working with gender stereotypes of Biblical proportions. Before she became Offred, she was married to a man who left his first wife for her after they had an affair. Therefore, she has been cast as a full-blown ‘shameless hussy’ and not fit to have the same preferential treatment as women who are ‘pure’.
But what about the gender stereotypes that implicitly influence her character – the ones that aren’t talked about in the text? To be perfectly honest, there aren’t many that apply to Offred. She desperately wants to have a child – but that’s because her own child has been stolen from her, she’s been brainwashed to want one, and she knows that having a baby is her ticket out of a labour camp. She’s quite passive, and is too afraid of the repercussions to change her position in society – but she is aware of that, she hates it, and resists their attempts to break her with small acts of defiance, even though she knows she’s not capable of heroics. She’s a woman socially defined by her sexuality – but she rarely gets an opportunity to define this herself, even though she knows that this is what keeps her alive and gives her a chance at freedom. She agreed to become a sex slave, but can’t decide whether her interactions with the Commander could be called rape, struggling to make sense of this all through the novel.
In short, Offred is a very complex character. Gender stereotypes have a very profound impact on her life – and, indeed, on the lives of everyone in the novel. However, they are not the cornerstone of her character. This is what makes the Handmaid’s Tale so well-written: the reader is allowed to see exactly how harmful gender stereotypes have destroyed Offred’s life, but the stereotypes themselves are not the building blocks of Offred’s character. They are external, rather than internal – so she definitely passes this round.
SCORE SO FAR: 7.5
- How does she relate to other female characters?
Offred has plenty of complicated relationships with other female characters. There’s the Commander’s Wife, a former TV personality instrumental to bringing about the Republic of Gilead: Offred can’t decide whether she pities her or hates her. There’s her fellow handmaid, Ofglen, a secret revolutionary: Offred is suspicious of her at first, but then comes into her confidence, and pulls away again at the end of the book. There are Rita and Cora, who are unpaid domestic servants called Marthas: Offred wants to befriend them despite their different social standings, and eventually develops a rapport with Cora, who might have been a Handmaid herself if she was still able to have children. There’s Janine, aka. Ofwarren: another Handmaid who almost disgusts Offred with her need to be accepted and desire to conform – even as she envies her for becoming pregnant, and occasionally pities her. There’s Offred’s mother, who we only ever see in flashback: a former feminist, they used to disagree before the Republic took over, but now Offred just misses her. And finally, there’s Moira, Offred’s best friend: she admires her, expects much from her, and wants her to be the hero that she isn’t – but ultimately, Moira can’t do that. That’s a wide range of different relationships which develop over the story, so she smashes this round.
FINAL SCORE: 8.5/10
Offred is a well-developed, consistent character with a range of strengths and weaknesses. She’s very complex in almost every aspect of her character – including her love life, relationship to the plot and autonomy – and she’s got a nuanced relationship with gender stereotypes and a wide range of different relationships. The Handmaid’s Tale certainly deserves to be called a classic with a character like her as the lead – she’s certainly passed my test!
Next week, I’ll be looking at another character who made it in comics. Harley Quinn, I’m coming for you.
And if you’re looking for all my posts on Strong Female Characters, you can find them here.