The Handmaid's Tale is a warning about what might happen if extreme religious ideology is followed as a solution to societal problems. It suggests that allowing religious fundamentalists to run a government is a recipe for injustice, cruelty and oppression. The specific targets of the novel are fundamentalist Protestants in America, sometimes known as the Christian right because of their conservative views on social issues such as abortion, women's rights and gay rights. Atwood wrote The Handmaid's Tale during the height of the Reagan era in the United States-the presidency of Ronald Reagan, from 1981 to 1989-during which political and religious conservatism was on the rise. The novel takes some of the positions advocated by religious conservative and exaggerates them. For example, many conservatives, both then and now, wish to re-criminalize abortion. So in the novel, doctors who performed abortions, even when such practices were legal, are hanged at the Wall. Conservatives also tend to oppose gay rights; in the novel gays are hanged for "gender treachery." Another conservative position was that women should stay at home and raise their children, so in the novel, the first thing the Gilead regime does is to ban women from possessing money or owning property and to value them either as domestic companions for powerful men (the Wives), or as producers of babies (the Handmaids). A leading campaigner for the conservative view of a woman's role was Phyllis Schlafly, who is believed to be at least in part the model for Serena Joy in the novel.
Although the Christian right is mainly what Atwood had in mind, the same stricture might be applied to fundamentalist religious thought of any stripe. The uniforms of the Handmaids, for example, which hide the body and most of the face from view, resemble forms of dress for women in theocratic Islamic societies where women have few rights. The cruel punishments in Gilead, such as amputation, resemble the practices of the more extreme Muslim states today.
The novel presents a totalitarian society. Totalitarianism is defined as "A governing system in which a ruling elite holds all power and controls all aspects of society. No opposition is allowed, and power is maintained by internal terror and secret police" (Dictionary of American Government and Politics, by Jay M. Shafritz, Harper Collins, 1993, p. 482). In Gilead, all power is in the hands of the male elite who call themselves Commanders. They enforce their rule through paramilitary groups known as Guardians of the Faith, and through spies and secret police known as Eyes. The Eyes are everywhere, and are equated by the theocratic Gilead regime with the Eye of God. "Under His Eye," for example, is a stock phrase used by the Handmaids to remind them that God is always watching what they say and do. There is no difference, in the ideology of Gilead, between the needs of the state and the will of God.
One of the ways a totalitarian regime controls the populace is by restricting access to knowledge. So in Gilead, women are not allowed to read. Even the signs identifying the stores are in pictures, not words. Old books and magazines, both pornographic and otherwise, are banned and burned. The purpose of the regime is to keep people ignorant. In the Commander's household, even the Bible is kept locked up, so the regime can interpret it in any way they please. It would be dangerous for them to let the people read it freely. As Offred puts it, "[The Bible] is an incendiary device: who knows what we'd make of it, if we ever got our hands on it?" (ch. 15).
During her time at the Red Center, Offred becomes very aware of the regime's strategy of keeping people ignorant. "Knowing was a temptation," she writes, and remembers that Aunt Lydia used to say "What you don't know won't tempt you" (ch. 30). The elevation of ignorance to a prime purpose of the regime is ironic since the story takes place in what is probably Cambridge, Massachusetts, the home of Harvard University. Harvard is where the Prayvaganzas, the Salvagings and the Particicution take place. A bastion of learning and civilization has been turned into the seat of oppression, fanaticism and deliberately enforced ignorance.
In totalitarian societies, the individual has no importance. Individual rights are sacrificed in favor of the goals of the ruling group, which are falsely equated with the welfare of the whole society. Gilead takes this even further, denying the integrity not only of the individual person, but of the human body. The Handmaids, for example, are valued only for their reproductive capacities. They are simply wombs waiting to be fertilized. Other parts of their bodies are disposable. After Moira is beaten on the soles of her feet, Offred is reminded of what Aunt Lydia said: "For our purposes, your feet and your hands are not essential" (ch. 15).