In “The Handmaid’s Tale” by Margaret Atwood, Offred’s past life is unveiled throughout the novel. Atwood uses Offred’s memories to contrast the once-free America with the now dystopian theocracy it has become. While there is much to fear for the female inhabitants of the new “Republic of Gilead,” the females reading “Handmaid’s Tale” have even more to fear. Striking parallels are made between Offred’s memories of her former life and the lives of women living in America today. This use of parallelism leads us to wonder: could our country really become like this in the future? Offred’s recollections of her best friend Moira and World War II documentaries are used to imply what could happen to people if freedom and humanity are stripped away.
When she is feeling especially unhappy about the way her life has changed, Offred remembers her rebellious friend Moira. Moira was an active feminist, and notably, lesbian. She typified everything that Gilead was trying to annihilate with her defiance of the norm. Whenever Offred felt opposed to something that was happening, she wished that she was as brave as her old friend. Yet, no matter how terrified she was by the public hangings, and the ever looming threat of Serena Joy and the women that kept her in line, she was still more terrified of the consequences that would befall her should she rebel. Despite the slogan “nolite de bastardes carborundorum,” (Atwood Ch 9) she could not find the courage to fight against her oppressors and continuously let the “bastards” grind her down. Towards the end of the novel, Offred discovers that Moira has become a prostitute for the commanders to maintain her life. Despite all of the sentimental memories of her friend’s nonconformity, Moira has also cracked under the pressure of the new regime. Atwood uses the broken spirit of a once strong woman to portray her themes: no matter how strong someone is, if there is no hope for free will, there is no hope for life. If fanatics are allowed to take over society, they will force their thoughts and ideas on everyone and freedom, happiness, and individuality will become obsolete and nonexistent.
Once the Government of Gilead and select few who have power take over, women are confined to their homesteads for a majority of the day. Rather than brooding over the prospect of the future, Offred’s thoughts tend to turn to history and how it relates to how she currently lives. At one point, she reflects over a documentary that she had seen in the past; it featured a Nazi guard’s mistress talking about their relationship. Offred takes this memory and compares her own relationship with the commander to it: “He was not a monster, to her. Probably he had some endearing trait… How easy it is to invent a humanity, for anyone at all. What an available temptation” (Atwood Ch 24). Throughout the novel, Offred justifies not only her own inaction, but the actions of others no matter how evil and wrong they are. Even though the commander selfishly manipulates her to break the government-imposed rules, she still allows herself to start having feelings for him. She justifies that he is really just as unsatisfied with his own life as she is with hers, even though the commander holds all the power and she has to endure the never ending presence of fear every day. Offred’s reflections lead us to ponder our own justifications in life: how long will we wait before we fight against the evils that others inflict on us?