The Republic of Gilead in The Handmaid’s Tale rules with words. The theocracy takes words and twists them to their own meanings so that it can justify the oppression that takes place. In the passage, the word “freedom” is mutated into a frightening, highly-structured ideal.
Aunt Lydia’s (as well as all the other Aunts’) constant insistences that the Handmaids are free and happy are sign enough that what they are saying is false. By constantly stating that Gilead is good, Gilead saved women from oppression, the Aunts themselves are oppressing the women (but especially the Handmaids) out of the freedom to feel unhappy. Aunt Lydia’s statement of “freedom to and freedom from” then takes on another meaning: Women now have the “freedom from” unhappiness. This is also illustrated at the end of the chapter when Offred and Ofglen encounter the Japanese tourists. When asked if the Handmaids are happy, Offred feels as if she has to answer yes because, “I have to say something. What else can I say?” (29.) For most modern readers, the word “freedom” connotes endless choices; however, Offred implies that the freedom offered by Gilead leaves no room for interpretation. No one in this society has a choice, not even the men. Everyone has their own place and their own function for the sake of Gileaden’s twisted freedom.
This idea that one word can be forcibly evolved to suit an agenda is chilling. The passage is the fast way for Atwood to show the terrifying power that Gilead holds – not over people’s bodies and places in society, but also their minds.