One of the most important themes of The Handmaid’s Tale is the presence and manipulation of power. On the one hand, Gilead is a theocratic dictatorship, so power is imposed entirely from the top. There is no possibility of appeal, no method of legally protecting oneself from the government, and no hope that an outside power will intervene. One of the characteristics of this kind of power is that it is extremely visible. Power imposed from one direction must always be displayed. Unlike a democratic society, where the people consent to be governed and therefore have an interest in maintaining the structures of society, in Gilead, the government must cover the streets and even individual homes with guards and guns. The possibility of surveillance must be constant. The only place that people are free is in their own heads, creating a significant amount of isolation between individuals.
Despite the Gilead regime’s success at imposing order, Atwood’s characters demonstrate that even if any substantial power is taken from people, they will still find a way to maintain control over themselves and other individuals. Offred manipulates her sexuality in the subtlest ways, aware for the first time of how much power she has simply because she is a woman. Though she has absolutely no ability to follow through on her suggestions, she knows that she is awakening ideas in men’s heads, and that she is communicating with the Guardians under the Angels’ very noses. Offred learns that Handmaids kill themselves in order to maintain some final sense of power over their bodies and decisions, and indeed, the thought of suicide is always in the back of her mind. Through her relationship to the Commander, Offred gains real power, but she is afraid to test its limits. Ultimately she discovers that her powers over him were useless, as he will do nothing to save her from the wrath of his wife.