The Loss of Choice and Free Will in The Handmaid's Tale and The Yellow Wallpaper

Jean Paul Sartre once said, “We are our choices”. Without choices, that makes us nothing, nobody. The value of the ability to choose and judge, our free will, is our humanity and independence. It is what separates humans from animals and plants and machines. Our ability to judge and to make decisions leads each person on their own individual path. When the freedom of choice is taken away, we are left with nothing that is our own. We become less than human.

This debilitating loss of choice and free will is the worst thing that can befall humanity and can be seen in The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood and The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman.

In the Great Chain of Being humans lie under angelic beings, followed by animals, then plants, and lastly minerals. When humans no longer have the quality that gives them humanity, they fall down the chain. A. Spierkin who wrote Dialectical Materialism relays how Kierkegaard defined the human condition, “[Giving] priority to the act of will, in which the individual, by making a choice, “gives birth to himself”, ceases to be merely a “child of nature” and becomes a conscious personality, that is to say, a spiritual being, a being that determines itself”.

The lack of free will is the lack of humanity, creating a fall down the chain to between animals and plants. Alive without the capability to make decisions and determine themselves, which even animals can do, placing them above plants who do not have the same movement capacities that animals and humans possess.

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Free will is “…Nature’s norm” (232, Atwood) for the human race, making those who lack the ability to make choices less than human and more like machine programmed externally on what to do.

The dystopian society of Gilead in The Handmaid’s Tale by structure and purpose eradicates the freedom of choice. They cannot leave the community and must do exactly as told, they are “A rat in a maze free to go anywhere, as long as it stays inside the maze” (174). It was not always this way though. Readers can assume that the society before it was reconstructed was like a modern society, free to be an individual and do and go where one pleases with laws that did not restrict a person’s desire to make what they wanted of themselves, to define themselves. “We seemed to be able to choose, then. We were a society, dying, said Aunt Lydia, of too much choice”(35).

The reason the society was constructed in the new and severe way is unknown yet effective in it’s success to drastically limit a person’s choice. Rather than living as one would in normal society, each person is given a name represented on what their function must be now. This eliminates the individuality of names and choice of occupation. Women are either Martha’s, Econowomen, Handmaid’s, Unwomen, Aunts etc. Their only identity by that name and the household they work in. Men are either Angels, Commanders, Eyes, or Guardians. If a person rebels from their set role in society, the consequences are dire and often fatal. Their real choice being either to live without free will under tyrannical control and fear or to go against Gilead’s ways and be taken away and killed in some kind of a public display, keeping fear instilled in the people abiding by the rules.

Gilead is known through the writings of a Handmaid, Offred. Offred is one of the first generations of the new order of Gilead. The Red Center is where she was taught to be a Handmaiden which she complies and leaves to serve her duty as the baby carrier for Commanders and their wives. She must not have a child of her own nor a husband nor a friend.

She must be a “vessel” (75). A human being, but cannot live up to her humanity. She is forbidden to such luxuries as reading, wearing clothes other than what is given to her, leaving the house when she is not told to do so and go to the markets, she must only talk when it is appropriate. What she must be is not a person able to make something of herself. As she wrote, “What i must present is something made, not something born” (76). She is, “…Like a room where things once happened and now nothing does, except the pollen of weeds that grow outside the window, blowing in as dust across the floor” (114). Her fall from being allowed to make her own decisions and keep her humanity makes her stationary and a prisoner in her mind. An empty thing. A victim to the worst thing that can happen to a person, the restriction of being a person.

To rebel against her newfound restraints Offred writes down her story. Something that is not allowed since reading is against the law, only Commanders can read the bible aloud to the people working in the household on certain occasions. She writes anecdotes of her past life intertwined along the journey of her day to day experiences as a Handmaid. Her writing gives her hope, something that Gilead does not promote. Her writing is the closest thing she can get to identity.

When she is done as a Handmaid under Commander Fred, she will lose her name Offred and become “Of” the next commander. Her writing is the only thing that will ensure that she ever existed. Handmaid’s have come and gone before her, she know this from the engraving, “Nolite te bastardes carborundorum” which she finds in the room she inhabits, meaning there had to have been at least one handmaid before her. But there is no way to know who wrote it. The point is, she existed, as well as the rest that may have came before and/or after her. Now Offred writes her story, ensuring her own individual existence. Her writing is not under Gilead’s laws. It gives her complete control, it is a thing that she can make of her own free will. The only thing that allows her to be human.

She can choose to disobey the laws and choose to write. “I would like to believe this is a story I’m telling…If it’s a story I’m telling, then I have control over the ending” (49). Her own ending under Gilead’s laws are to do her job as a Handmaid and retire or else become an Unwoman and if she is caught doing something she shouldn’t she faces draconian circumstances, usually ending in being hung on the wall or in some public ceremony. Her story, what will live on after her, that lets readers understand who she is and what she is going through, her only identifier, is hers to make up.

Something that without her way of writing would make her like the others. Defined not by her own life but by what she should be in the eyes of her teachers, the Aunts at the Red Center, “We are hers to define, we must suffer her adjectives” (124). Her rebellion is written. Her decision to hold on to who she used to be. To remember her own child whom she has no way to know what happened of her. To reminisce on her old life with her mother and her husband and her friend Moira before they went to the Red Center. “I didn’t want to live my life on her terms.

I didn’t want to be the model offspring, the incarnation of her ideas” (132). She chooses secretly, on her own, to not let her humanity and her free will to be lost completely. She holds on to her identity as tightly as she can. For her identity is no longer a name, it is the desperation to not let the destruction of humanity overtake her.

Another woman who uses writing to free herself from domination and loss of humanity is Jane, the narrator from Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story, The Yellow Wallpaper. She is diagnosed with slight hysteria by her physician brother and husband, the treatment is the rest cure. In this treatment she is not allowed to do anything but stay in her room where she may look out the window to see her garden outside. With only her husband for company periodically throughout the day, she secretly takes to writing, something she is “absolutely forbidden”(3) to do. she is withheld from simple freedoms such as writing.

Her husband will hear none of her grievances such as the ugly yellow wallpaper that disturbs her or even the reality of her sickness as she is left on her own to talk about her experiences. This lack of freedom to be among society and to express her thoughts leads her to establish her humanity on paper. As she rebels against what is forbidden of her, leaving her with no choice in how she spends her vacation in the house or which room or even the choice to get the wallpaper changed. So, she resorts to putting her life, her humanity into the “dead paper” (3). As she goes on with her writing it becomes apparent that the woman she sees in the yellow wallpaper is a figure of herself. Just as she is trapped in the room, the woman in the wallpaper is trapped as well. “The faint figure behind seemed to shake the pattern, just as if she wanted to get out” (11).

The pattern in this case can be seen as the everyday monotony her husband has prescribed for her. Even further, the way the woman in the wallpaper is described as “creeping” (11). further shows the nature as she becomes animalistic rather than human. Her loss of free will and choice to leave and do as she pleases reduces her from humanity. She continues until she goes mad and becomes the woman in the wallpaper herself. This becomes her way of gaining her free will, of doing not what she is told but she wants. “I kept on creeping just the same, but I looked at him over my shoulder. ‘I’ve got out at last,’ said I, ‘in spite of you and Jane?” (19). In her struggle to keep her free will and regain her ability to choose is what restored her from the worst thing that could befall a human. The very thing that drove her to madness.

There is a difference between “freedom to and freedom from” (34, Atwood). The freedom to be a part of a community or a family, but a family from being more, being an individual, someone able to make their own choices. Actions that people choose to do, make up who a person is. If that freedom is stripped away, then the individuality is stripped away too. What is left is the mechanical functions that people do with their actions controlled by an outside force.

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The Loss of Choice and Free Will in The Handmaid's Tale and The Yellow Wallpaper. (2023, Feb 19). Retrieved from

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