In Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, the reader is presented a vision of a quasi-religious, totalitarian society where women have been turned into property in which the government decides how they can contribute. Some women live as “Wives” to high ranking men, some are nursemaids, and some have been forced to serve as nothing more than human incubators. These women are known as the Handmaids. It is through these Handmaids that we learn that the group in power believes in a controlled version of negative freedom above positive freedom; that is, the “freedom from”, as opposed to the “freedom to”. When negative and positive freedoms do not exist in balance within a culture, however, one can argue that freedom is elusive. In the case of Atwood’s Gilead Regime, negative freedom as defined by Aunt Lydia is, in fact, not freedom at all.
When positive and negative freedom are discussed, it is important to note that this is different than the perception of free will, although not exclusive. Free will, or the illusion of it, is a concept that we hold unto ourselves. In contrast, freedoms are granted or taken away by an external authority through societal norms or laws, for example. This can be explained in The Handmaid’s Tale by the choices the Handmaid, Moira, makes when she endeavors to escape, choosing to use the Aunt’s dress as a disguise and carefully selecting her path through the city, and then again how she reacts when caught; to give no useful information to her captors. The fact that she decided it was worth the risk to escape are all actions that Moira, herself, chose. Offred, as well, made choices for herself when she chose to stay and fulfill the obligations of a Handmaid. The difference between free will and freedom is that free will is a matter of agency of an individual and not determined by the rules and norms of society-at-large.
An authoritative source for defining positive and negative freedom that scholars refer to is political theorist and philosopher Isaiah Berlin’s 1969 essay, “Two Concepts of Liberty”, Negative freedom, “the freedom from”, is the notion that a person is a slave to no other person or institution; they have freedom from external influences. Positive freedom, or “the freedom to”, is defined as a person having the ability to exercise their free will. Berlin describes it as such: “The ‘positive’ sense of the word ‘liberty’ derives from the wish on the part of the individual to be his own master” (Berlin).
A classic example is that of a freed slave. As a result of President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, the government granted “freedom from” institutional constraints; they declared that a man or woman is no longer a slave and can live freely within American society. That is “negative freedom”. However, in order for the former slave to possess “positive freedom”, they must have the resources to achieve their goals and exercise their will. Perhaps they wished to be a cotton farmer, however they possess no land, money or education. In comedian Trevor Noah’s autobiography, he provides an excellent example when describing a cellmate’s circumstance in 1990’s South Africa:
The man grows up under apartheid, working on a far, part of what’s essentially a slave labor force…He’s paid a pittance but at least he’s paid. Then apartheid ends and he doesn’t even have that anymore. He finds his way to Johannesburg, looking for work, trying to feed his children back home. But he’s lost. He had no education. He has no skills. He doesn’t know what to do, where to be. (Noah)
The theme of positive and negative freedom in The Handmaid’s Tale can be summarized by the character Aunt Lydia whose role was to direct the Handmaids to become Handmaid’s in the Gilead regime. Atwood writes, “There is more than one type 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” (Atwood). Aunt Lydia defines this theme of freedom in terms of what the regime believes; however, this does not necessarily mean that there is actual freedom even in a negative sense. In Gilead, women are treated as property whose purpose is to fulfill the roles and functions that are assigned to them. Examples of these predefined roles are the Handmaids who are used for breeding, the Marthas who are to perform domestic duties, and the Wives who are merely companions to the male influencers of the regime. Gilead’s negative freedom extends to the Handmaids as their control over her purpose, her denial of access to culture, and their power over their social circles and relationships. This is not freedom at all, as Penn State’s John Christman writes in his paper “Saving Positive Freedom”. He summarizes, “To see freedom as nothing more than the removal of certain interferences blinds us to the need for such resources… central reference to positive freedom (or autonomy) is far from using ‘too many’ concepts, rather it is a crucial component of the articulation of principles of justice and the resistance to certain forms of oppression” (Christman).
Atwood uses Moira as an example of what positive freedom may look like. She is rightly summarized by Harold Bloom as “Offred’s best friend from college, her confidant, and her hero, unafraid of the consequences of speaking and acting against Gilead” (Bloom). Moira is presented through Offred’s eyes who experiences multiple flashbacks of Moira often showing her to be a free-spirited personality who lives her life in a way that makes herself happy. Moira dresses differently, with “purple overalls, one dangly earring, the gold fingernail she wore to be eccentric…” (Atwood) and she throws an “underwhore party” where women’s sexy undergarments are sold. While in the Red Center, Moira refusal to accept the “freedom from” philosophy is evidenced by her escape attempts, which alludes to the exercise of her will and positive freedom.
In contrast to Moira, Offred succumbs to Gilead’s idea of negative freedom throughout most of the story. She describes to us in numerous ways how the regime has imposed their version of “freedom from” onto the Handmaids. The freedom to which they subscribe, is not really even freedom at all. The Gileadeans have gone so far in their methods to even trample her desire to think. She says, “I try not to think too much…thinking can hurt your chances, and I intend to last” (Atwood). They have taken away the opportunity to take one’s life, as Offred tells us when she describes the shatterproof glass in her room: “It isn’t the running away they’re afraid of…It’s those other escapes, the ones you can open in yourself, given a cutting edge” (Atwood). Yet, in their view, they have kept her safe from being noticed, from dressing as they wish, engaging in willful sexual desires and birth control, as well as other vices, which resulted in the decline of birthrates. Offed says of Aunt Lydia, “Things, the word she used when whatever it stood for was too distasteful or filthy or horrible to pass her lips.” Aunt Lydia was convinced that by revoking a woman’s freedoms to dress or do as they like, including reading and having jobs, that she was actually saving them.
The Commander offers Offred small bits of what might be considered positive freedom as their relationship progresses. If the Commander is viewed as the institution from which negative freedoms are allowed, then Offred’s choice to endeavor to take advantage of them would be examples of her exerting positive freedom. For example, when the Commander offers her a magazine to read, she recalls a time where such things were seen as disposable, however, now in the Republic of Gilead, they were priceless. Offred recalls, “Staring at the magazine, as he dangled it before me like fish bait, I wanted it…They suggested rejuvenation…This is what he was holding, without knowing it” (Atwood). Eventually, carefully, she took the magazine from the Commander, asserting her small amount of positive freedom, despite knowing it was something she should not have been doing. In the Republic, reading was disallowed, so when the Commander removed that barrier and granted Offred negative freedom, the freedom from censorship, she acted on her will, her positive freedom, to indulge in the temporary suspension of censorship. Ultimately, Offred’s relationship with the Commander brings them to Jezebel’s, which introduces a reunion with Moira.
It is at Jezebel’s where Moira and Offred reunite. In the brothel, the Gilead Regime has lifted certain sanctions which allows for the pursuit of certain positive freedoms. Offred finds her friend to still be under the watchful eye of the Gilead regime. She finds that Moira has been repurposed as a lady of the evening, yet she is allowed to choose to smoke cigarettes, do drugs and engage in lesbian sex. Although the regime has captured her and put her in a controlled environment, she is free to pursue the vices that she had previously enjoyed before the regime had taken power. Her negative freedom is impinged upon by becoming a sex worker, however, she is not forced to become a Handmaiden and serve the cause of Gilead. At the same time, she is able to pursue her positive freedoms by pursuing her various vices. She is both a slave and a master concurrently. Offred, as well, is allowed to engage in those freedoms, but only as the Commander allows within the space of Jezebel’s.
Margaret Atwood expresses her views on freedom through the use of the Gilead regime and affected characters in The Handmaid’s Tale that is stark and absent in a totalitarian environment. The idea that Gilead provides “freedom from” as opposed to “freedom to” is, however, different than what political theorist Isaiah Berlin proposes. Gilead does not, in fact, offer “freedom from”, negative freedom, because they offer no freedom at all except in small amounts at a brother. In an article for the Scottish Journal of Arts, Malaysian scholars Cheong Pui Yin and Wan Roselezam Wan Yahya describes this: “…we see an abrupt shift in the meaning of freedom. While in pre-Gileadean times, freedom meant having individual choices that might cater to one’s own freedom…here freedom comes to an end – one is required to sacrifice one’s desires for the sake of achieving ‘true’ freedom” (Yahya and Yin). They, too, see that Gilead offers no freedom at all to the women who live within it. What Aunt Lydia offers is freedom from choice, and not the classic concept of negative freedom as written by Berlin for, in Gilead, no woman is a master, and all are slaves in one way or another.
Atwood, Margaret. The Handmaid’s Tale. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1986.
Berlin, Isaiah. “Two Concepts of Liberty.” Four Essays on Liberty, Oxford University Press, 1969.
Bloom, Harold. “Moira”, 2003, Bloom’s Literature, April 2019, online.infobase.com/Auth/Index?aid=97333&itemid=WE54&articleId=49185.
Christman, John. “Saving Positive Freedom.” Political Theory, vol. 33, no. 1, 2005, pp. 79-88.
Noah, Trevor. Born a Crime. London: John Murray (Publishers), 2016.
Yahya, Wan Roselezam Wan and Cheong Pui Yin. “Freedom in Margaret Atwood’s Novel the Handmaid’s Tale.” Scottish Journal of Arts, Social Sciences and Scientific Studies, vol. 15, no..2, 2013, pp. 14-26.