The Handmaid's Tale depicts a world in which women are highly subservient to men, some even to the point that they only exist to fulfill the biological process of reproduction necessary for the survival of the species. Such is the lot of our protagonist Offred, and it is from her we get our entire perspective of the civilization of Gilead, a society in which she and many other women are very much prisoners and slaves. This society is very strictly controlled and repulsive to our modern ideals of freedom and justice within a nation, and shares some striking points in common with Nazi Germany. Even more striking and frightful is Atwood's claim that most of what was written, the trends, the occurrences, the injustices, was grounded in real events of her modern era, the 1980s.
The parallels with Nazi culture are prevalent and plentiful. Gilead is a very homogenous society in which everyone is Caucasian, a somewhat lessened version of Hitler's Aryan Master Race, but continues to exclude further down by relegating its citizenry to those of a single Christian (I believe it's Christian, I may be wrong) faith. We even find persecution of Jews in Gilead, where was composed "the Jewish repatriation scheme, with the result that more than one boatload of Jews was simply dumped into the Atlanticâ€¦ from what we know of [those in charge], this would not have bothered [them] much," (307). Much like Hitler's rallies and grandiose speeches, Gileadean subjects are sometimes called to mass gatherings to listen to propaganda and further entrench themselves in the customs and offenses of the nation as a whole. At a Prayvaganza, the Commander "ascends the steps to the podium, which is draped with a red cloth embroidered with a large white-winged eyeâ€¦ 'Today is a day of thanksgiving,' he begins, 'a day of praise'â€¦ a speech about victory and sacrifive. Then there's a long prayer, about unworthy vessels, then a hymn," (218). Now, political rallies and the like are by no means a strictly Nazi practice, but the effects and levels of participation observed in those of Gilead do hold similarities. In Nazi Germany, such rallies were used to brainwash large amounts of people to accept the oppression and eventual slaughter of countless Jews and minorities, making them accessories toÂ¬ the commission of crimes against humanity. "I've leaned forward to touch the rope in front of me, in time with the others, both hands on itâ€¦ then placed my hand on my heart to show my unity with the Salvagers and my consent, and my complicity in the death of this woman," (276). In one instance they even go as far as to rend a man to pieces with their bare hands upon provocation by their superiors. One common argument coming out of Nazi Germany after the war was that people had essentially brainwashed themselves or had been brainwashed to accept the genocidal efforts as something that had to be done, much at the behest and influence of the state, and that they weren't entirely sure how they could have done such things, but such can be the power of speech and gatherings.
A final real point I want to make is that, at least in this early Gileadean culture, women don't seem to be the only captives. Granted they've got it much worse off, but from the sparse scenes we are given that include males that are a part of the culture, it seems that they too are very much prisoner to their own system. The Commander, obviously rather high in the social strata, finds the need to escape the rigidity of the world he helped to craft, smuggling Offred, his newfound mistress to a not so secret brothel. "'Well?' he says. 'What do you think of our little club?' 'I thought this sort of thing was strictly forbidden.' I say. 'Well, officially,' he says. 'But everyone's human, after all,'" (236-7). The commander admits need for change and the enactment of behaviors not allowed in Gilead, and it appears many other high ranking officials (all male of course) feel the same way, as the brothel is extremely busy. Nick, a servant to The Commander, similarly has his vices in this highly controlled society, conducting frequent trysts with Offred that could cost him his life, then going to the ultimate illegal lengths by not only being part of the Gileadean equivalent of a secret service, The Eyes, and a rebel faction known as Mayday at the same time. It is even speculated in the epilogue that this double life caused his downfall, for as "Ofglen's association with Mayday had been discovered, he himself was in some jeopardy, for as he well knew, as a member of the eyes, Offred herself was certain to be interrogated," and so he helped Offred escape, when "he could of course have assassinated her himself, which might have been the wiser course, but the human heart remains a factor," (311). Both the commander and Nick help create and enforce the system that entraps and removes the freedoms of womankind, but as we see, their own emotions and humanity is similarly imprisoned to drastic degrees.
As a last little aside, I'd just like to call to everyone's attention the passage on page 186, in which Offred thinks, "The pen between my fingers is sensuous, alive almost, I can feel its powerâ€¦ Pen Is Envy, Aunt Lydia would sayâ€¦ I envy the Commander his pen." Seriously, "Pen Is Envy?" Yeah, that's not obvious at all.