Compare and Contrast Margaret Atwood's the Handmaid's Tale and Daniel Defoe's Moll Flanders


Daniel Defoe and Margaret Atwood created more than two centuries apart, two fictional autobiographies of two women that were both victims of the societies they were either born into, as in the case of Defoe's heroine, Moll, or of the societies they happen to live in, later as adults, as in the case of Offred, Atwood's anti-heroine.

Both stories are told by the women themselves and their names are not their real names. The reasons for choosing not to reveal their names were to protect their families of the repercussions their actions may bring upon their descendants.

Moll Flander's early life iss revealed from the beginning of the story unlike Offred's whose depiction of her own life starts at a point where she was already an adult woman. Moll was born in a prison and her mother's pregnancy was the only reason the later was allowed to live the seven moths till she gave birth to Moll not having to suffer the harsh conditions of the prison. Offred's story, Attwood's main character, also starts in a set that resembles a prison, but she does not seem, as in Moll's case, to be there by chance, but rather as a consequence of some of her actions as an adult. Although not as explicit in the first chapters as Moll Flanders, Offred's account reveals some details regarding the things related to the women's ability to bear children that play a key role in the society she was living in. On the other hand, the same ability to bear children helped Moll's mother in being deported first, after having given birth to her child instead of being condemned to death. The atmosphere of Offred's life account is thick with fear from the very beginning. The description of the location she inhabits in the first chapter is that of a prison where women called "aunts" guarded the other women, the prisoners. The author chose names that are usually designated for family to describe the guardians in a prison. After having wondered with a group of nomad gypsies, Moll ended up in Colchester, in the care of a "nurse," by the good will of the town magistrates.

Both Moll and Offred are women that were forced to live apart from their families, in Moll's case, she was brought up by strangers, as her mother had to leave for the colonies as a consequence of a minor felony, while Offred's story begins with her apart from any member of her own family, inside some kind of prison, among complete strangers. The two women are subjects to circumstances and will fight for survival, most of their stories. While, Moll got the chance to use her free will some time and made use of it, Offred even when she was given the only chance to commit suicide, towards the end, near the conclusion of Atwood's dystopia, she hesitated and decided not to do it. Offred seemed to always be waiting for something outside her that would finally deliver her. She got affiliated with women who found means of fighting an implacable system that left no choice, but never actually followed the example, waiting for the others to change the order.

Moll's life was completely dependent of the strangers around her, from her life's early stages and so, at the age of eight, the grown-ups responsible for her decided she had the proper age to start working hard. However, Moll found the means to escape it, by making her nurse allow her quit working being impressed with the child's tears that showed deep suffering. Although the suffering of an eight-year-old child who is forced to labour is completely understandable nowadays, the way Moll managed to convince her nurse of her suffering shows her ability to manipulate people even from her childhood. The way she came into the world and her life until the age she first found a mean to impose her will on those she depended on are Defoe's tools of making one aware of the dangers society was in when allowing children to live in improper conditions, away from their families and at the mercy of some magistrates.

If Moll seems to be the heroine who gave all hope away since her very birth and action being her only way out of the worst, Offred is placed just in the opposite corner. She is always "hoping" the worst won't happen. Both stories are written in a naturalist style. The descriptions are very detailed and both Defoe and Atwood are carefully using physical appearances to create the right atmosphere: " I used to think of my body as an instrument, of pleasure, or a means of transportation, or an implement for the accomplishment of my will... Now the flesh arranges itself differently. I'm a cloud, congealed around a central object, the shape of a pear, which is hard and more real than I am and glows red within its translucent wrapping."(the Handmaid's Tale, Chapter 13).

Both, Moll, in the early eighteenth Century and Offred, in a dystrophic society are aware of the power their sexuality gives them over men and they use it. This signals that even if they are living in completely different worlds, basically they struggle against or suffer from the same consequences of a patriarchal society. A society where the women fear the system, fear the power their husbands, fathers and sons had over them.

The feeling of fear is omnipresent in Atwood's the Handmaids Tale. There is no doubt that it is another silent, but most effective character. Offred belongs to Fred, a Commander, lives in a totalitarian society and her only hope not to be deported somewhere where she would last mostly for three years, is to bear her Commander's child. Her sexuality, along with that of the rest of the women is recognized as one of the most powerful weapons since most of the means to keep people and especially women under complete control are directed to make them repress any thought that might be related to their bodies otherwise than in relation to its reproductive functions. In Moll's society women are also depending on men and their only hopes for a life without the constant fear of loosing the bear means of living is to find someone willing to take care of them as a husband: "made the offer of a good husband the most necessary thing in the world to me,"(Moll Flanders, Chapter 3, (

Atwood's central character in her dystopia is subject of a totalitarian society that represents all the evil that came out of the most important social and religious movements. Moll is born in an eighteen century England where the Puritanism was born and quiet ironically, created by many former students of the Cambridge University. Atwood does not spare any of the main movements in the history of the mankind: from Puritanism to Islamic religion, from the Old Testament to the feminist movements and racism. She is very careful in showing the dangers any form of extremism poses and the society she creates to place her anti-heroine in is very macabre. Moll, in the past and Offred in the future, are both women who can only think of one way to get what they need in order to stay alive and that is to find protection, someone who cares for them. Unlike Offred, Moll knew no other way of living. She was born in the most unfortunate conditions, never knew what maternal love meant and her conduct since she was a little child was aimed at manipulating those around her in getting the security she needed from them, even if it always meant she had to lye and pretend she was something else. Offred, on the other had lived an era of complete sexual freedom and she had the opportunity to be a women who could provide for herself and marry whomever she wanted (thanks to her mother and to others who fought for feminist views till they succeeded imposing them) without ever fearing to lose her life for the simple right she had in conducting herself just as she felt like. Moll lived in England and, for a while, in America, while the liberation movements of all kinds were just beginning to produce effects. Offred lived in an epoch past any freedom, that returned to a totalitarian state where people were completely dependent on their caretakers, as in the case of women, or on obeying the rules, as in the case of men and women alike. Theoretically, Moll was free, by comparing her state with that of Offred's, but life really gave her poor opportunities if any, to manifest this free will. Moll's main fear was that of finding herself poor and that drove her to deceive, steal, commit adultery, polygamy etc.

At one point she married a banker and for several years she got the chance to lead a life where she did…