Heroine of the tale

The definition of a hero has failed to ever be determined, and as such is purely ambiguous. As well as this, the application of the term ‘hero’ is relative to the context in which it is used, and by whom. For example, The Talmud defines a hero as ‘one who conquers his urges’, which is the precise goal of the dystopian oligarchy within Gilead, portrayed in The Handmaid’s Tale. Conversely, Simon Weil said that ‘to be a hero or heroine, one must give an order to oneself.

‘ This is more in keeping with the traditional view of a hero as an individual, and is an idea that Offred feels will maintain her identity.

This is shown by her desire to systematically search her room in sections: ‘I divided the rooms into sections, in my head; I allowed myself one section a day. ‘ However, this may serve to actually weaken Offred’s position as heroine of the novel, as her actions pale in comparison to the dramatic and bold conduct of Moira when she escapes from the Red Center.

From a purely physical and measurable perspective, the reader is tempted to classify Moira as the novel’s heroine.

Within the setting of the novel, however, the heroine would be considered to be Janine: ‘she’s a flag on a hilltop, showing us what can still be done: we too can be saved’. However, this would only be from the viewpoint of the fully indoctrinated members of Gilead (who would concur with Joseph Campbell when he says that ‘a hero is someone who has given his or her life to something bigger than oneself’); and as such it would be wrong to say that she is a traditional hero extolling the virtue of freedom.

As no concrete definition of a hero is available, we must assume that the question refers to the traditional fairy-tale hero, who strives against the odds for the principle of benefiting others, often risking loss of their own freedom, or even their lives. However, this designation also presents a key problem – the question of acting in order to benefit others. By this same logic, Gilead was founded on the basis of extreme utilitarianism, that is to say, to achieve the greatest good for the greatest number of people.

Following this line of thought leads to the conclusion that the hero within the novel is in fact the dystopian society itself, the notion of which for the purpose of the question can be disregarded. Taking this into account, we could conclude that in order to be a hero within Gilead one must provide that which is not present: hope for a better future than that which is set by societal rule.

So, assuming that in the context of the novel and the question a heroine is one who offers and promotes the feeling of hope within others as a result of free actions inspired by their own principles; we must consider the candidates for the primary female hero to be Offred, Ofglen and Moira, and so will address each in turn. Firstly, Ofglen. Although not a major character in the first twelve chapters in terms of presence, she offers the first real gleam of hope in the entire novel. This is achieved in the form of her subtle plea for help: ‘It’s a beautiful May day’.

This, Offred notices, is derived from the French, M’aidez, meaning ‘help me’. This presents the very real possibility that there is a resistance group operating in Gilead, a solid opportunity for Offred to base her fragile hopes for a happier future on a far more tangible basis than those provided by her own rebellious thoughts. In this respect, she can be considered a hero for doing what Offred is too afraid to do – a seditious action founded on a delicate bond of assumed trust between the two handmaidens.

In comparison, the most rebellious of Offred’s actions was stealing a wilted flower that she intended to hide for the next handmaiden to live in the room. However, this does show that she lacks a sense of optimism and the expectation of an end to the Gileadean regime, instead wanting nothing more than the very human desire to leave a mark, a sign that she had once existed (once described as ‘the desire to carve one’s name into a block of ice on a hot summer’s day’).

However, this apparently small and wholly insignificant action must be viewed in context; as in Gileadean society this action is utterly forbidden and would be punished severely. This shows Offred’s dedication to the preservation of her identity, as well as the desire to leave a small (however insignificant in appearance) message to those who follow her, showing that free will existed in a place and time where it was not supposed to.

The Latin message left by a previous occupant of the room, ‘Nolite te bastardes carborundorum’, shows the impact of such a token, as it is frequently referred to by Offred as a form of inspiration for her personal struggle to retain her identity. In the first twelve chapters, other than very small discrepancies shared with other handmaidens in the Red Center, all rebellion on her behalf is only within her own mind; which only the reader is ever aware of because of the nature in which the story is being relayed.

She sees this, however, as freedom through anonymity: ‘We were the people who were not in the papers. We lived in the blank white spaces at the edge of print. It gave us more freedom. ‘ This supports the view of her unwillingness to openly rebel being a desire to not stand out and risk being punished as a result of it. In this respect, Offred is her own heroine, but not at all that of the story and the characters within it as she offers no physical or tangible suggestion of helping another to be free or happy (at least, not within the first twelve chapters).

The only times she does this even slightly are in the milieu of Gileadean expectations, such as her eagerness to inform those back at the house of the availability of oranges in Milk and Honey. This genuine desire for appreciation is the same which she later scorns when it becomes apparent in Janine, leaving the reader to entertain the possibility that Offred would eventually succumb to the dystopian ideals of Gilead, and then adopt them of her own free will.

This is in direct contrast to Moira, who is the obvious candidate for the title of ‘main heroine’ within the novel. She is later described as being ‘like an elevator with no sides’, a simile that reflects her unusual and often terrifying will to strive for nonconformity. She is Offred’s inspiration in the Red Center, and persists as an image of strength and hope, supporting Offred in her subtle rebellion against Gilead even when her fate is undetermined.

If the question’s focus was on the main heroine of the novel, then it is strongly debatable that it is a status that would be filled by Moira. However, within the first twelve chapters the reader is unaware of her various heroic acts whilst incarcerated within the rigmarole of Gileadean society, including her daring escapes. Instead, the question focuses on the ability of Offred to fulfil the role that has been allotted to her, to which the actions of Moira are in complete disparity.

With this acknowledged, it is apparent to the reader that within the bounds of the first twelve chapters, Offred is the hero intended by Atwood to demonstrate the strength of the human will in the face of indoctrination that aims to remove one’s identity as a person; turning them instead into nothing more than ‘ambulatory chalices’, whose sole purpose in society is to produce babies. What Atwood is trying to convey through Offred is the ideal of one’s mind being the final vestige of hope, and that when thoughts of rebellion are all that you are capable of, they can lead to greater things.

This is expressed well by Ayn Rand, who said: ‘Do not let your fire go out, spark by irreplaceable spark, in the hopeless swamps of the approximate, the not-quite, the not-yet, the not-at-all. Do not let the hero in your soul perish, in lonely frustration for the life you deserved, but have never been able to reach. Check your road and the nature of your battle. The world you desired can be won, it exists, it is real, it is possible, it’s yours. ‘

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