In the first half of The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, freedom is largely the issue of focus. This passage, “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 given freedom from. Don’t underrate it” (Atwood 24), suggests that freedom from such things as control and decisions is more of a luxury than Offred may think. This lack of control and decision-making is constantly shown in the first half of the book through simple, everyday occurrences such as what the individuals wear. What makes this passage so important is the way Aunt Lydia presents “freedom to and freedom from”. This differentiation presents a great contrast between Red Center and society outside of it.
This direct comparison of “freedom to and from from” is shown when Offred and Ofglen encounter Japanese tourists of Westernized society (that Aunt Lydia would refer to as “anarchy”), the society to which Offred once belonged. At one point, Offred is “mesmerized by the women’s feet” (Atwood 30) and continues to fantasize about what wearing open-toed shoes with polished toe nails felt like. She delves so deeply into this thought that she even says that “I can feel her shoes, on my own feet”. Something that is so simple, to people who have the freedom to paint their toe nails and wear open-toed shoes, is a daydream to an individual who has “freedom from” having to go through the complications of choosing a color and finding a way to paint their nails.
When Aunt Lydia says “don’t underrate it”, she is trying to convince Offred that giving all control to the Commanders of the Red Center is more liberating than having the ability to do whatever she pleases. She makes it seem that the freedom to do something was found only in the days of anarchy and chaos, implying that a place of stability and order provides an environment that requires no thought from the individual besides completing the task assigned to them.
This is main struggle for the first half of the book; despite every attempt by women of the house to show Offred that the “freedom from” is more valuable than the “freedom to”, quite often she still finds herself thinking about the way her life used to be and how badly she wants to return to it, flaws and all.