Positive and Negative Liberty and The Handmaid’s Tale

By Kate Ringer

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood is a novel dating from the late eighties that I read recently with my book club. I’ll be honest, it wasn’t the most fantastic book I’ve ever read, but it certainly made me think. It tells the story of Offred, a middle aged woman who is struggling to find her place in a society in transition. This novel was fairly dystopian, but what made it different than other dystopian novels that I’ve read is that I felt like this is something that I could see happening in my lifetime, practically at any moment. It was realistic, and it said something about American culture that scared me.

Handmaids staring enviously at a pregnant handmaid while they wait in line for groceries

Offred is a woman who grew up surrounded by liberated women, in fact so liberated that they were almost pressured not to have children or husbands, as it threatened their independence. Naturally, as what happens to all feminist movements, there was an extreme societal backlash, leading to the highly religious society that Offred is a part of now. In this society, everyone has a specific role, and women’s roles are determined by their wealth and fertility. Once a woman is no longer fertile, unless she happens to have a position of wealth and status, she is exiled. The idea of a man being infertile did not exist. Offred is a Handmaid, meaning that her role is to live in the house of a high status male and his wife, have ritualized sex with the husband while she is ovulating, and bear a child for the family. If she failed to get pregnant with more than two families, she would be exiled.

What I found most interesting about this book was Offred’s comparison between her old world and the new world. Atwood wrote,

“Women were not protected then.

I remember the rules, rules that were never spelled out but every woman new: Don’t open your door to a stranger, even if he says he is the police. Make him slide his ID under the door. Don’t stop on the road to help a motorist pretending to be in trouble. Keep the locks on and keep going. If anyone whistles, don’t turn to look. Don’t go into a laundromat, by yourself, at night.

I think about laundromats. What I wore to them: shorts, jeans, jogging pants. What I put into them: my own clothes, my own soap, my own money, money I had earned myself. I think about having such control.

Now we walk along the same street, in red pairs, and no man shouts obscenities at us, speaks to us, touches us. No one whistles.

There is more than one kind 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.”

The idea of freedom from and freedom to is known by philosophers as Positive and Negative Liberty, respectively. Positive liberty refers to the external source of control, such as government, that decides what someone can do. Negative liberty is the internal state of choice without obstacles. Here’s a simple example. If you subscribe to the idea of positive liberty, the idea of institutionalizing a smoke free campus would probably sound like a good idea to you, because it means that you will no longer have to deal with cigarette smoke being blown in your face. If you subscribe to the idea of negative liberty, the idea of institutionalizing a smoke free campus would seem like a bad idea to you because you would believe that a person should have the right to decide whether they want to smoke or not, and they shouldn’t have to deal with the obstacle of smoking in the Tri-State parking lot across the street instead. Personally, I can’t decide where I stand. As adults, I think that we should have the right to do what we want, but I also understand why many would desire an environment where there are more limits on people’s behavior.

When reading the above passage from The Handmaid’s Tale, I can’t help but feel like Atwood is putting into words a fear that I have had my entire life. I almost never get nightmares anymore, but when I do it is always myself or someone I love being kidnapped. I wake up panting and I can’t fall back to sleep without distracting myself. I almost never walk alone in the evening, but when I have to, I run as fast as I can to get home, heart racing and adrenaline pumping. I am terrified of any car that drives by or person that I see, imagination running wild of what could happen. This may be a bit extreme, but last week one of the clowns on campus followed a friend of mine with a knife. To some this may seem like a hilarious prank, but to me that is literally my worst nightmare.

Offred sitting in her room

The fear that I am describing is what drove Offred’s society into its extreme control of women. In order to protect them from objectification and sexualization by men, they were forced into submissive roles surrounded by shame. The society followed the idea of positive liberty to the extreme, protecting women by strictly controlling them. Due to my extreme paranoia of walking alone in the dark, I can see why women would want a society that has more control to prevent bad things from happening. But, Atwood’s novel is a reminder that positive liberty can come with a price. I don’t have the answers, I just know that the battle between positive and negative liberty will be waged in my mind and in our society for a long time.


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