In the Handmaid’s Tale we thrown into the debilitating and ever present fear of a totalitarian patriarchal regime that is omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent. A reality where one is afraid to even think let alone hope. Women are divided, classified and color coded by their clothing; blue for high status wives (of regime officials), red for handmaids (surrogate mother), green for domestic help (Marthas), and striped clothing simple women without social status. Women who are destined to be handmaids, are mere chattel, to be used and thereafter discarded when no longer fertile.
In sections I and II, the main character, protagonist and narrator Offred (“of fred” or belonging to Fred), is evaluating her new role as a (traditional) surrogate mother, in a post-revolutionary period when a Christian fundamentalist movement has taken control of the U.S.A. Fertility rates have plummeted due to sterility from pollution. Offred has reluctantly agreed to be the biological mother of a baby that will be fathered by the “Commander” (and master of the house in which she now lives), and adopted by him and his aging wife Serena Joy (a former televangelist). Offred accepts her role as a surrogate mother as the lesser of two evils, the alternative being very much less palatable: banishment to work in servitude in an agricultural or polluted area. When first introduced to the Serena Joy, Offred is reminded of her true value: “This is your second [attempt at surrogacy] , isn’t it?” (Atwood 15), Offred is asked by the Commander’s wife at their first meeting “Third ma’am I [Offred] said…..Not good for you either, she [Commander’s wife] said” The aging Offred’s worth in this heartless society is already quickly trickling away at the very opening of the novel.
Initially, Offred has definite hopes for/expectations for emotional fulfillment in her new role. Offred has hopes for a sisterly relationship with the Commander’s wife in her new role: “I wanted, then, to turn her into an older sister, a motherly figure, someone who would understand and protect me.” (Atwood 16)”. However the Commander’s wife has no such intention: she resents the imposition of Offred in her life and views Offred as a threat: “I want to see as little of you as possible, she said. I expect you feel the same way about me…….As far as I am concerned this is a business transaction. But if I get trouble, I’ll give trouble back. You understand? ” (Atwood 15). “ As for my husband she said, he’s just that. My husband. I want that to be perfectly clear. Till death do us part. It’s final.” (Atwood 16). Offred can expect no empathy from the Commander’s wife
Offred hopes that the sexual component of her new role will be emotionally fulfilling. When, at the very beginning of the book, Offred was housed in the gymnasium with the other handmaids (surrogate mothers), we read: ”There was old sex in the room and loneliness, and expectations, of something without a shape or name. I remember that yearning, for something that was always about to happen and was never the same as the hands that were on us there and then in the small of the back or out back, in the parking lot….…” (Atwood 3). Offred hopes that the sexual contact with the Commander will not be a mindless and disappointing activity like sex in the parking lot in times past; an activity to achieve mere release of physiological tension, and no more. Offred wants the act of procreation to be meaningful, if it’s intention is to create new life. This is not to be: “My red skirt is hitched up to my waist, though no higher. Below it the Commander is fucking. What he is fucking is the lower part of my body. I do not say making love, because this is not what he’s doing. Copulating too would be inaccurate, because it would imply two people and only one is involved. Nor does rape cover it: nothing is going on here that I haven’t signed up for” (Atwood 94). The procedure or “ceremony”is stripped of any and all emotion. Even passion is removed. It is as if Offred is not really there, though her body is. Offred as a person is not acknowledged in any way.