As the architects of Gilead knew, to institute an effective tolitarian sytem or indeed any system at all you must offer some benefits and freedoms, at least to a privileged few, in return for those you remove. In a tolitarian state, Atwood suggests, that people would endure oppression willingly as long as they could receive some slight amount of power or freedom. If any substantial power is taken from people, they will find a way to maintain control over themselves and other individuals. One of the most important themes in 'The Handmaid's Tale' is the presence and manipulation of power.
Offred remembers her mother saying that it is “truly amazing, what people can get used to, as long as there are a few compensations. ” Offred's complacency after she begins her affair with Nick shows the truth of her mother's words. Being a handmaid restricts her compared to the freedom she had in the pre-Gilead times, but her relationship with Nick allows her to gain the tiniest fragment of her former life. The physical affection and companionship become compensation that make her restrictions amost bearable.
After Offred began her affair with Nick, she didn't find the need to escape anymore and she became “beyond caring” about wether she got caught or not because she thinks that she is living a normal life with Nick; “I no longer want to leave, escape”. “In this house we all envy each other something” even though none of the women have any freedom, they still find something to envy from one another and to feel jealous about. For example, Serena Joy envies Offred for being able to give birth to a child, and Rita envies Offred for being able to go out and do the shopping.
The handmaids don't have any freedom, they aren't even allowed to talk and Offred says “such freedom now seems almost weightless” but the regime tries to make people think that they have some freedom. For example, when Offred flirts with the guardians because she wants have some control over something; “I enjoy the power; power of a dog bone, passive but there. She also wants to provoke them which makes her feel more in control and that why she “dropped my pass and let him pick it up for me. ” When Offred is alone in the sitting room she “would like to steal something from this room” to at least have control over the object being stolen.
As the historal notes say “when power is scarce, a little of it is tempting”. In Gilead there were many women that were willing to be Aunts; either for traditional values or for the benefits they would require. They would be given a position of command over other woman. Even Serena Joy, who has no power in the world of men, wants to feel that she is in control over something, her household and her tyranny over Offred, to make her feel important, even though her power doesn't really exist; “She likes to keep him waiting”.
Serena Joy also wants to have control over the handmaid; “if I get trouble, I'll give troube back. She jealously guards what little power she has and wields it eagerly. Offred’s affair with Nick and her meetings with the Commander give her some sense of freedom as they help to break the boring routine of her life as a handmaid; “I'm happier than I was before. ” However, to escape the oppressive regime all Offred really has is her thoughts since only her thoughts are private and can’t be controlled by Gilead. Offred has learned that, “Freedom, like everything, is relative. ” offred thinks that Serena's way of freedom could be if Serena withdrew from the commander.
The past was not much better than the Giladean days because women still needed to fight for their rights. The handmaid's tale is, without a doubt, patriarchial, it is also, so some extent, matriarchal because women had control over other women; Serena joy had control of the handmaid and the Matha's and the Aunts had control over the handmaids. Atwoods message is bleak but at the same time as she condemns Offred, Serena Joy, the Aunts and even Moira for their complacency. She says that even if these women mustered their strength and stopped complying, they would make no difference.