Senior Theses

Publication Date


Document Type

Thesis (Open Access)

Degree Name

Bachelor of Arts in English



Faculty Advisor(s)

Barbara Seidman

Subject Categories

English Language and Literature


Although her novel falls within the 20th century dystopian fictions such as Aldous Huxley’s A Brave New World and George Orwell’s 1984, Margaret Atwood refuses to label The Handmaid’s Tale that way, believing it minimizes the real focus of her work: the struggle her protagonist, Offred, must go through in order to maintain her individuality in a totalizing society. Instead, Atwood regards this novel as a work of speculative fiction, as all aspects of the narrative were inspired to some degree by events that have occurred throughout the course of human history.

The goal of this thesis is to defend Atwood’s protagonist, a woman temporarily renamed Offred, as evincing more agency then critics often accord her. Her gradual defiance against the state shows her desire to regain her individuality by the conclusion of the novel. The three chapters of this thesis address the socio-political obstacles that challenge Offred, the ways in which she defies the system to assert her subjectivity, and critiques of Professor Pieixoto’s perspective on Offred’s oral account of her transformation in the final Historical Notes section of the novel. In the first chapter, I apply Michel Foucault’s theory of panopticism and Isaiah Berlin’s two concepts of liberty to deconstruct Gilead’s power structure, highlighting how the society maintains its dominance and yet how its weaknesses enable Offred to use them to her advantage. The second chapter offers an analysis of Offred’s emergent agency during her third posting, with particular focus on her sexual transgression, manipulation of language, and willingness to authorize herself through her own account. Finally, I conclude with an analysis of the controversial Historical Notes section in which I argue that, despite Professor Pieixoto’s dismissal of the significance of Offred’s narrative, Offred remains the most memorable aspect of the novel.