What Margaret Atwood’s ‘The Handmaids Tale’ can teach you about the human experience

“To me the human experience does involve a great deal of anguish. It’s joyful, but it’s bittersweet. I just think that’s life”- Amy Grant.

The human experience is defined as a term that incorporates all the realities of human life including the mental, physical and emotional characteristics. All elements of an individual’s life no matter how significant build up to form the human experience, for example birth, aging, fear or joy. When reading Margaret Atwood’s ‘The Handmaids Tale’ it demonstrates the full context of the human experience through not only the positive interactions but through the vast number of negative elements of the protagonist Offred’s life. But it’s through these negative interactions that a better lesson can be learnt and a greater individual mental and physical experience can be formed.



Margaret Atwood’s ‘The Handmaids Tale’ is an epistolary novel written from the protagonist Offred. She finds herself in the Republic of Gilead, which has replaced the United States of America, due to critically low reproduction rates. Offred serves as a Handmaid, whose sole purpose is to bear children for choice couples who have trouble conceiving. The handmaids are offered limited freedom as they are only permitted to leave the house on shopping trips, cannot sleep with the door shut and all their public moves are watched by the Eyes (Gilead’s secret police force). The novel continually visits flashbacks to the reassemble the events that lead up to the creation of Gilead. Through these flashbacks it is understood that the figureheads responsible for Gilead used the military to murder the president and members of the congress, before taking control of all power. Once they gain power they remove basic human rights away from woman such as owing a job, owning property or holding money. After attempting to cross the border into Canada with her then husband, Luke, Offred is captured and drugged before waking up in the Centre. At the centre the women are removed of their names, their voices, their rights and anything that made them individuals before being brainwashed into the religious ideologies of the new society they live in. As the book progresses some of the rituals that are run within the society are presented such as:

Pravvaganza: This is an event where all women in a district (Wives, Marthas, Econowives and Handmaids) congregate to view weddings for the Wives’ daughters, where young girls get married.

The Ceremony: Is a ritual performed by the Handmaids, a high-ranking male and their wife where the intention is for the Handmaid to conceive a child. More or less is a form of institutionalised rape.

Particicutions: This is a portmanteau on the word’s participation and execution, where the handmaids perform an execution. This is a compulsory event for all handmaids and can also be referred to as the Salvaging.


Physical Experience

Within ‘The Handmaids Tale’ the physical experience that the protagonist Offred experiences is quite clearly exhibited through Atwood’s depictive and graphic language use. By creating a highly visual novel Atwood is able to better represent the intense scenes that make up the physical experience Offred struggles with. She leaves the interpretation of these scenes up to that of the audience and allows readers to garner there own understanding of the events but manipulates her language to create a bland and passionless tone which can be interpreted as a distaste towards the events. The main way in which the differing physical experiences is shown is through the two titles that incorporate the sexual encounters that Offred has. One of these is within Chapter 16 of the novel where the idea of the ceremony is properly introduced to the reader. In this chapter Offred explains it as neither making love, copulating or rape as ‘nothing is going on here that I haven’t signed up for’. Although that is stated to the reader the idea of having forceful sex without being offered any form of saying no other than being forced into the colonies to die is classed as institutionalised rape. An author who discussed this issue of consent was Susan Estrich who released a book called,  ‘Sex and Power’ in 2000 talking about rape cases during the 1980s, which was around the same time that ‘The Handmaids Tale’ was written, deliberating over the definition of force and the line between consensual and non-consensual sex and how this wasn’t clear under the law and made for difficulties in rape cases. She goes on to explain that men wanted to haveJW1 consensual sex with a woman but somehow got interpreted as rape. This didn’t happen as a completely unknown but rather the male blurring the lines by remaining ignorant to the woman’s ability to say no as well as not listening to her instructions. This was linked back to how a woman’s voice was not trusted in a court of law because there was a belief that they would manipulate a situation and get an innocent man sent to jail. This social construction was obviously very flawed in the sense that a man could have sex with any woman and there was a very miniscule chance that he would be jailed for it. This removed all sexual autonomy from a woman and also a woman’s power to refuse a man. The time period this book discusses coincides with that of ‘The Handmaids Tale’ allowing Atwood to publish her thoughts on these issues in a more disguised manner. This helps to teach the readers about the difference between consensual and non-consensual sex.  Through this readers understand that chapter 16 is referring to rape due to the lack of sexual autonomy and how the negative language and the lack of engagement by Offred is demonstrative of a negative physical experience. Through the quotation, “Maybe I’m crazy and this is some new kind of therapy. I wish it were true; then I could get better and this would go away”, we as readers realise the truth of the situation Offred is living, how she doesn’t want to be there and how through a lack of love this is an emotionless torture. This whole negative experience is opposed in chapter 40 where Serena Joy arranges for Offred to have sex with Nick in the hope of conceiving a child. In this chapter Offred tells two different accounts of the events, the first of passion and the second more of uncertainty and awkwardness. Although readers can’t be certain of what happened it is clear that in this scene Offred takes more pride in this experience and is fully consensual to it. The main way that the scene distinguishes itself from the other is through the act of Nick kissing Offred as this is perceived as a sense of emotion and love in a sense. This chapter is a better reflection of how a positive physical experience is supposed to occur. By contrasting these two chapters it is evident that one identifies a negative physical experience for the protagonist and the other a more positive experience. Through these the readers learn the way in which a negative physical experience can lead to a more demonstrative show of positivity when experiencing a positive physical experience. It helps to further educate the readers on the way that rape can affect a person as well as the way that the person can feel trapped and how the line between consensual and non-consensual sex can be very limited at times. This novel demonstrates to the reader how a build-up of negative physical experiences can lead to a greater sense of enjoyment during a positive one.


Mental Experience

The mental experience alludes to the facet of intellect and consciousness experienced as a combination of thought, perception, memory, emotion, will and imagination. It takes into account all of an individual’s unconscious cognitive processes. Over the course of the novel the mental experience that Offred deals with is easy enough to comprehend as it is written in an epistolary format, which is where the novel is narrated through a series of document or in this case a series of tapes. Through this format we experience all of Offred’s unconscious thoughts, desires and emotions which help the reader to pick up a better understanding of her mental experience and how she progresses throughout the novel based on the different interactions and events that she is faced with. One of the toughest mental experiences that Offred goes through is the entire wiping of her previous life including her name. Now the relevance of not including her name is quite important in the context of the book as a name is something that characterises a person more than in a sense of individual identity but its one of the few things in the world that translates universally, even without the ability to properly communicate to an individual sharing your names makes communicating 10x easier. This idea that a name means a substantial amount to an individual is shown in the well-known play ‘The Crucible’ through the character of John Proctor when he states, “Because it is my name! Because I cannot have another in my life. Because I am not worth the dust on the feet of them that hang! How may I live without my name? I have given you my soul, leave me my name!”. This represents that no matter what you take away from someone as long as their name remains there is still meaning to their life as it is their legacy and is the only way people remember an individual. Noting all that with Atwood removing the original name of Offred she doesn’t allow the reader to resonate on a more personal level with Offred as a character. This means that the emotional response that the reader gives to Offred’s emotional trauma is less of a personal ‘I feel bad for you’ and more of a moral response where no one should have to live in a society like that. Through the removal of her name Atwood immediately creates a negative mental experience as she is wiping away the majority of the what consisted of Offred as a person. Then as the novel progresses the positive experiences that Offred receives when she goes back through unconscious memories points to how that sense of identity gives her something to hold onto and restore a sort of meaning to her life. The idea that Offred’s mental state inclines and dips based off her unconscious memories is further identified when she states, “I would like to believe this is a story I’m telling. I need to believe it. I must believe it. Those who can believe that such stories are only stories have a better chance. If it’s a story I’m telling, then I have control over the ending. Then there will be an ending, to the story, and real life will come after it. I can pick up where I left off”. This again implies that mental experience within the confides of Gilead is traumatic in a sense and doesn’t fill her with any form of emotion rather than negative ones. In this quotation we understand her will to believe she’s in a dream and none of it is real and that she’ll be able to go back to her old, happy life which we all know she can’t. This is another example of where she uses that past positive mental experience to negate the effect of the current negative ones she’s facing. This helps to educate the reader on the ways in which using past positive mental experiences can help you to get through the negative mental experiences that an individual may be struggling with. It demonstrates a simple and convenient way to deal with unfortunate situations and shows how one of the best ways to deal with a negative mental experience is to use prior positive mental experiences to help improve your current mental predicaments.


How the 2 link together

Both the mental and physical experience work together to make up the preface that is the human experience. By forming theses both together to create the singular experience which ebbs and flows purely based off a negative or positive experience. In that sense the idea that as someone’s mental health starts to decline their physical health will experience the same negative effects. While as someone’s mental health increases their physical health will also benefit. This is represented within Atwood’s novel as when Offred experiences that negative physical experience then her mental experience becomes more negative. Then as she would find a positive mental experience to hold onto then the physical experience which she endured wasn’t as bad overall. This novel helps to embody the ideology that as an individual has a positive mental experience then this will translate straight into a positive physical experience, and vice versa in the sense that positive physical experiences also cause an outlasting effect where the person’s mental experience will be enhanced.



Within Atwood’s ‘The Handmaids Tale’ the human experience is something that is relevant and is demonstrated in every scene or chapter. As the human experience integrates every detail and all the realities in a person’s life Atwood has made it easy to observe the human experience that the protagonist Offred goes through as she has written it in an epistolary form. The novel teaches to the reader’s how a build-up of negative physical experiences can lead to a better sense of fulfilment during a positive experience, and how one of the better ways to cope with negative mental experiences is to motivate yourself using prior positive mental experiences. It also furthers the readers education of how each intricate detail that forms the sole human experience are all linked and correlated to each in other in some way. Overall Atwood’s novel is able to provide a high level of teaching to it’s readers and helps to educate them on the human experience.


Categories of the Population (Gilead)

Marthas:  A class of women who serve as domestic servants to wealthy/ high-ranking families

Econowives: Are a class of women whom are the wives of the poor or low-ranking men.

Wives: Are among the highest-ranking women in Gilead and are married to high ranking men. The role is regarded as a high honour and only given to women considered ‘pure’ and ‘moral’.

Aunts: A class of women responsible for overseeing the training and indoctrination of handmaids, as well as overseeing births and presiding over women’s executions.

Handmaids: Are a class of fertile women who are tasked with conceiving children. They are assigned to a family if the wife is incapable of reproducing.

Unwomen: Are a class of women in Gilead. They are forced to live out their days in the colonies, as they no longer are considered important to society.

Jezebels: A class of women who refuse to follow Gilead’s teachings are offered a chance to serve out their lives as ex workers.

Commanders: Are a class of men in Gilead. They are the highest-ranking member and serve as politicians and law makers.

Guardians: Are a class of men in Gilead. They serve as peacekeepers in the cities, foot soldiers in the army and servants to Commanders.

Angels: Are a class of men in Gilead. Serve in the army and are second only to commanders.






3 thoughts on “What Margaret Atwood’s ‘The Handmaids Tale’ can teach you about the human experience

  1. Your excellent usage of “meme” which references William Jefferson Clinton draws me to this fantastic post. Bravo.


    • I agree with this “Breyton” man. I enjoy the Mr. Clinton reference. According to Mr Barton however, he is in fact NOT a rapist. As you can imagine, this came as quite a surprise! Ha-ha-ha!


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