Themes In Top Girls and Handmaid’s Tale




  • Top Girls pg 13 Nijo: ‘Over all the women you work with. And the men.’ Act 1: Celebration dinner ­ Nijo talking of Marlene’s new position of managing director.

HMT pg 243 ‘I left that old hag Aunt Elizabeth tied up like a Christmas turkey behind the furnace’ Moira telling the narrator how she managed to escape the Red Centre.

Caryl Churchill and Margaret Atwood use these moments to show how moments of personal success and triumph are possible over those who have previously held a character back, and we are given a sense that moving on to better things is possible.



  • HMT pg 291 ‘And so I step up, into the darkness within, or else the light’ final sentence in the narrator’s voice showing her finally escaping her position serving the Commander 

Top Girls pg 85 Marlene ‘America, America you’re jealous. I had to get out,’ Marlene arguing with Joyce about the choices they have made in life and their parents lives.

Caryl Churchill and Margaret Atwood both use these moments to show women’s success in managing to escape from what has oppressed them in the past, giving the characters and the audience a sense of hope for the future.


  • Top Girls pg 81 Marlene: ‘I just want…’ Marlene cries’’ Act 3 – Marlene and Joyce are arguing about Marlene’s decision to give up Angie. 

HMT pg 285 ‘You could have left me something’ Serena Joy annoyed and upset with Offred when she discovers about her relationship with the Commander.

Caryl Churchill and Margaret Atwood use these moments to contrast with the fleeting moments of success shown in the play to show how women’s success is impossible to attain and even the most seemingly high status female characters are miserable.


  • Top Girls pg 54 Angie ‘No there’s just me.’ Angie telling Marlene how she managed to get to London all on her own.

HMT pg 49 ‘Still, it was a message, and it was in writing, forbidden by that very fact, and it hadn’t yet been discovered. Except by me, for whom it was intended.’ Offred has found the message left by the previous handmaid to serve at the Commander’s house and is able to read it despite reading being forbbiden.

Caryl Churchill and Margaret Atwood use these moments to show moments of personal success when characters have achieved things they are not meant to be able to achieve showing free thought and independence.


  • Top Girls pg 3 Isabella ‘And I didn’t get married til I was fifty’ Act 1 Isabella telling other dinner guests how she didn’t conform to societies ideals

HMT pg 138 ‘I can ask for something. Possibly not much, but something’ Offred gaining confidence in meetings with the Commander and considering the possibility of being able to ask for something from her past life off him.

Caryl Churchill and Margaret Atwood use these moments to show how sometimes women can be successful in becoming more independent of the men in their lives and can gain power by not conforming.


  • HMT pg 49 ‘Nolite te bastardes carborundorum’ Words of the previous Offred but she does get ground down and resorts to suicide.

Top Girls pg 31 Marlene ‘so you won’t tell them you’re getting married then’ Marlene advising Jeanine not to tell potential employers of her engagement.

Caryl Churchill and Margaret Atwood use these moments to show failure and how women are being ground down by those around them, in particular patriarchal societies.


  • HMT pg 184 ‘I have not been the first then. To enter his silence, play children’s word games with him’ Offred discovering that the Commander has had a similar relationship with the previous handmaids.

Top Girls pg 3 Nijo ‘I never enjoyed taking other women to him’ Nijo talking of how the Emperor had other women as well as her

Caryl Churchill and Margaret Atwood use these moments to show how women are unsuccessful in their relationships with men as they have to share them with other women and make concessions to them, lowering their esteem.


  • HMT pg 133 ‘I hold the glossy counters with their smooth edges, finger the letters. The feeling is voluptuous. This is freedom, an eyeblink of it.’ Offred is playing Scrabble with the Commander and feeling power from the opportunity to read.

Top Girls pg 45 Win: ‘His wife was visiting her mother. It was like living together.’ Win is having an affair with a married man and enjoying the moments they spend together.

Caryl Churchill and Margaret Atwood use these moments to show how at times women are successful at gaining moments of freedom and release from their oppressed life.








1) Both the writers of Top Girls and Handmaid’s Tale use the characters appearance to symbolise how they’ve had to sacrifice at least part of their identity due to the roles society has forced them into.

TG –  Joan: “I dressed as a boy when I left home” / Marlene: “I don’t wear trousers in the office”

HM – Offred: “I never looked good in red, it’s not my colour” / “A sea of red”

2) In order to show the characters loss of identity, and how it can be status that defines you, Churchill and Atwood use their characters names and titles as a means of representing this.

TG – “Mrs Kidd / Joyce”

HM – “That is how you can get lost, in a sea of names” / “He called me by my real name”

3) Churchill and Atwood use the parents of the key characters to present how some of our identity revolves around what we have gained from them and their beliefs.

TG –  Isabella: “I tried to be a clergyman’s daughter”

HM – Offred: “I want her back”

4) The age of the characters is used by the writers to portray how our identity takes on different forms with age, and how our roles in the society and how we are perceived by others and can change”




Top Girls- A person’s career is usually an indicated as to their personality and state of being, usually it follows that the more ‘successful’ you are in your career the more content you are, however the protagonist of Top Girls Marlene disproves this theory.

‘Oh God, why are we all so miserable’

The Handmaid’s Tale- Having a career is often seen as a form of ‘freedom’ and individuality in a patriarchal society, therefore the fact that the women in ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ are not allowed to have a career shows their lack of freedom.

Perhaps the fact that Offred does not speak a lot about work shows her indoctrination by the world of Gilead.



Top Girls- in Top Girls, the fact that Joan speaks in Latin shows her freedom and personal identity with the fact that she has been educated, the fact however that Joan only has access to this education because she pretends to be male portrays the fact that even though she is able to access this education she has to pretend to be something that she is not which shows the injustice of the patriarchal society.

‘suave, mari magno turbantibus aequora ventis’

The speech which is used in ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ is prescribed by the state showing the control that Gilead has on the handmaids.

‘The lord has sent us good weather’

‘Which I receive with joy’

Giving up children


A child is clearly a huge part of a woman’s life and also of her personal identity, the fact that these women must give their children up shows the control which their societies have over them.

Top Girls- In Top Girls, the protagonist Marlene feels that she must give up her child in order to succeed in a patriarchal suppressing society. Despite this apparent success she is still clearly miserable and not successful in her life as far as happiness is concerned.

‘Oh God, Why are we all so miserable’

The Handmaid’s Tale- the theme of parenthood is an extremely important one in ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’, Offred (the narrator) has had to give up her child in order to fit in with the patriarchal extremist society of Gilead; she is clearly miserable due to this but she is miserable in a more obvious way than Marlene of Top Girls. Both women are forced to give up their children for the sake of ‘success’.




Food is obviously something which is needed in order to maintain life and also what a person eats can define them (religion, life choice). Due to the essential nature of the food, or absence thereof plays a huge role in the lives of the characters of the two texts.

Handmaid’s Tale- Offred is given an egg which she is allowed to eat, the image of the egg is used throughout the novel by Atwood in order to represent hope and fertility.

Top Girls- the women go to a restaurant in order to eat a meal in which they are allowed to order anything they want; this shows freedom of the women.




“Wouldn’t that be a worse sin than having it? / But a pope with a child is about as bad as possible.”- Pope Joan pg 15

“We smile too, we are one smile, tears run down our cheeks, we are so happy.” Pg 119

Caryl Churchill and Margaret Atwood create very different ideas of giving birth, Joan’s birth is thought of as a sin, whereas Janine is quite the opposite it is a great achievement for her and the other handmaids.

“Give me children, or else I die.” – pg 58

“I can’t stand this I’m going for a pee.” – pg 23

Contrasting ideas of motherhood are displayed in both texts, Caryl Churchill shows that Marlene can’t bear to listen to the subject of children; Margaret Atwood displays the narrator expressing how crucial giving birth is to her own survival.

“In the dim light, in her white gown, she glows like a moon in cloud”- Pg 119

“You really are exceptional Griselda.”- pg 25

Both Caryl Churchill and Margaret Atwood show similar ideas in the praising of women giving birth and both the narrator of The Handmaids Tale and Marlene show similar emotions of jealousy and seem to idolise the other character.

“Nobody gave me back my children”- Nijo 25

“she’ll be allowed to nurse the baby, for a few months, they believe in mother’s milk.”

Caryl Churchill and Margaret Atwood both show similar ideas to the fate of the children in the texts however Churchill displays it in a resentful way whereas Atwood almost makes us believe that the Handmaids have just accepted the fate of their birth child.

“If I have an egg, what more can I want?”-103

“”Because where do prospects come in? No kids for a bit?” 31

Margaret Atwood portrays as very important to the women in the Handmaids Tale by showing how it is the sole reason for their existence, unlike in Top Girls where motherhood is shown more as a hindrance o the other prospects in a woman’s life.

“I’ve had two abortions.” Marlene to Joyce 81

“The baby now washed and quiet, is placed ceremoniously in her arms.” 119

In the Handmaids Tale motherhood and therefore pregnancy is shown as something sacred and important in contrast to Top Girls where it is portrayed as something unwanted, shown by the character Marlene who has avoided motherhood.

“she does want that baby.” About Serena 200

“You couldn’t have one so you took mine.”

In both Top girls and HT traditional ideas of motherhood have been slightly twisted as women in both have in some ways been forced to give up their children meaning that a child has to recognise their mother that isn’t their real one; Marlene and Handmaids had to pass their children onto someone else.

“We didn’t know exactly what would happen to the babies that didn’t get passed, they were declared unbabies. But we knew they were put somewhere, quickly, away.”

“And Angie’s simple is she? She’s not simple”

In HT the idea of motherhood is depersonalised and the babies themselves are portrayed more as objects than human beings, therefore any that are faulty are disposed of, however in Top Girls although Angie is seen to be a hopeless character Joyce still defends and looks after her.






This is a prominent theme in both texts, as success for women in both societies often entails compromise. Gilead directly forces sacrifice upon its female population, whereas 80s Britain enforces the need for it more implicitly in a menacing undertone.

TG page 79- Joyce: “Turned out all right for you by the look of you. You’d be getting a few less thousand a year”- regarding Marlene giving Angie up to Joyce

HMT page 189 “We could give her away” I said.

            “I’ll take care of it.”

            “…because that little sacrifice, that snuffing out of love, was done for my sake

            as well.”- Offred and Luke killing the cat before they had to flee

Both authors present the need for sacrifice of something beloved in order to achieve success or a better quality of life.

TG Pope Joan: “I dressed as a boy when I left home.”

HMT “The red gloves…everything except the wings around my face are red: the colour of blood, which defines us.”

Both authors imply a façade adopted owing to clothing, which is forced upon both characters by their society to make them compromise their true identity and comply with what is preferred.

TG Lady Nijo: “ It was the men who’d always get so drunk. I’d be one of the maidens, passing the sake.”- in reference to serving the Emperor

HMT “Blessed be the fruit”

Both authors suggest that women are going against what they might naturally wish to say or do if it were that society did not enforce certain rules upon them in how to speak or conduct themselves.






Both authors present women as conspires of the patriarchal structures.

“So you won’t tell them you’re getting married?” Marlene page31

“Maybe you should try it another way.”  Serena Joy page199

Both authors present power to be dominated by a man.

“I think it’s different because he’s a man.” Mrs Kidd page 58

“The commander is the head of the household.” Narrator page75

Power is presented in both texts not to last long and to only be temporary.

“I longed to go back ten years.” Lady Nijo page 7

“He was once a guardian. He has disgraced his uniform. He has abused his position of trust.” Aunt Lydia page275

Both authors present power to be the opposite of a luxury and something that should not be desired.

 “It was depressing day after day” Lady Nijo page3

“Still, it must be hell, to be a man, like that.” Narrator Page83

 Both authors present characters with a large amount of knowledge to have significant power over others.

“She’s not going to make it.” Marlene page66

“He won’t come down this late, he never does.” Serena Joy page258

Power is shown in both texts to earn you instant respect.

“WIN and NELL cheer and whistle.” Page49




Top Girls: ‘It’s not bad you know. You’re what? Twenty?’- Marlene says this to Jeanine when they are having an interview. Jeanine tells Marlene that she is getting £100.

Handmaid’s Tale: ‘It’s not that bad. It’s not what you’d call hard work.’ – Cora and Rita are talking about being a handmaid.

Sentence: In both texts, there is no hope as women do not have enough power to achieve their aspirations and are expected to be satisfied with what they are given be it menial jobs or jobs that are less dangerous than others.

Top Girls: ‘You mean how I dress? I can dress different.’- Jeanine says this to Marlene when she tells her that the company is looking for something ‘glossier’ which she miss interprets as ‘more glamorous’.

Handmaid’s Tale: ‘ I rub some of the lipstick along my cheekbones, blending it in.’- Offred is getting dressed to go to Jezebel’s with the commander so that she can stay on his goodside.

Sentence:  Churchill and Atwood both display the lack of hope for women when they are so willing to change the way that they look for men. This highlights/ reinforces the fact that both texts are set in patriarchal societies where women must conform to the female stereotype to succeed.

Top Girls: ‘She’s not going to get a job when jobs are hard to get. I’d be sorry for anyone in charge of her. She’d better get married. I don’t know who’d have her, mind.’ – Joyce says this to Kit when they are talking about Angie.

Handmaid’s Tale: ‘I think of my mother, sweeping up deadly toxins, the way they used to use up old women, in Russia, sweeping dirt.’ – Offred is thinking about her mother who was sent to the Colonies and drawing comparison to previous events in history.

Sentence: Both authors are showing the way that societies discard and forget about those that are not useful. They show the way that women just accept the fate that other women are given rather than fighting to make all women equal, they just fight for themselves. They implicitly endorse the discarding of women.

Top Girls: ‘His wife was visiting her mother. It was like living together.’- Win is talking to Nell about the affair that she is having and she stayed with him for a while because the man’s wife was away.

Handmaid’s Tale:  ‘Maybe they’re clothes belonging to Luke’s wife, whom I’ve also never seen; only pictures and a voice on the phone, late at night, when she was calling us, crying, accusing, before the divorce.’ – Offred is dreaming about Luke and thinks about his wife who found out about the affair.

Sentence: The authors are showing the way that the basic idea of women working together to get equality is far from the truth as they still undermine each other and are ignorant of other women when they want something for themselves. This shows the way that there is no hope for equality if women don’t even see themselves as equals.

TG:  “I want to go to America. Will you take me?” Angie- Marlene

THT: “Every night when I go to bed I think, in the morning I will wake up in my own house and things will be back the way they were. It hasn’t happened this morning, either.” Offred

Both texts contain characters whose hope keeps renewing only to be defeated again and again by reality- be it Angie’s hopeless attempts at capturing Marlene’s attention and affection, or Offred’s hope of returning to her normal life.

TG: “I’d find out where they were going to drop it and stand right in the place…Better than walking round with your skin dragging on the ground” Kit to Angie regarding what she would do in the event of an atomic bomb.

THT: “You’d have three or four good years before your snatch wears out and they send you to the bone yard.”

In both texts, characters that were initially seen as a sign of hope for the future actually end up giving up without fighting for their beliefs or needs- they have no hope of success.


Win: I had to lie down in the back of the car so the neighbours wouldn’t see me go in

Nell: You’re kidding

Win: It was funny

Nell: Fuck that for a joke

Win: It was funny


THT: “The commander is the head of the household.” Serena Joy

Some women allow themselves to be controlled and used by men, endorsing the patriarchal societies of both texts and showing no hope for feminism. However, some others (Nell and the narrator) recognise that this is unjust- a sign of hope as women realize that they should not allow themselves to be treated this way by men






Whilst Atwood explores open oppression, Churchill presents the realities of the unnoticed oppression of women in everyday society.

“you can’t stop me”- Kit to Joyce

“We weren’t allowed out” – Offred about Red Centre

Atwood and Churchill present broken women forced to repress parts of themselves.

“It’s Aunty Marlene”- Marlene to Angie

“I told him…” Serena Joy to herself/Offred

Both Authors present characters who seem to have stereotypically masculine qualities to highlight the extent of oppression in their societies.

“decided to like women”- Offred about Moira in flashback

“I’m not going to play house”- Nell to Winn

To show the strength of oppression, both authors have presented weak rebellious characters.

“what’s the point” – Moira at Jezebels

“frightening” Angie’s last line






Top Girls: “I’m going to kill my mother, and you’re going to watch” Angie to Kit

Handmaids Tale: ’I left that old hag Aunt Elizabeth tied up like a Christmas turkey’ Moira to Offred

Atwood and Churchill both present hopeless and childish acts of rebellion.

Top Girls: ‘Why are we all so miserable?’ Marlene to the table in Act 1

Handmaids Tale: What I hear in her voice is indifference, a lack of volition’

Atwood and Churchill both present how acts of rebellion have failed because of the patriarchal influence.

Top Girls: ‘I dressed like a boy when I left home’ Pope Joan Act 1

Handmaids Tale: ’Butch paradise’ Moira when talking about jezebels

Atwood and Churchill both present gender rebellion as acts of feminism.

Top Girls: ‘I beat him till he cried out’ Nijo

Handmaids Tale: ‘Don’t let the bastards grind you down’ the previous Offred

Both Atwood and Churchill represent meaningless rebellion through minor characters outbursts.

Top Girls: ‘His wife was visiting her mother. It was like living together’ Win

Handmaids Tale: ’Neither of us says the word love, not once. It would be tempting fate.’ Narrator

Atwood and Churchill both present the theme of rebellion through the characters finding love in unexpected places.



In Top Girls and Handmaid’s Tale both Churchill and Atwood show a woman’s lack of freedom from men.
1) Handmaid’s Tale – during walk whilst in shop see a pregnant handmaid.
P25 “Who is it? I hear behind me / Ofwayne. No. Ofwarren.”
Top Girls – Act Two, Scene Three, argument between Mrs Kidd and Marlene.
P57 “I’m Rosemary Kidd, Howard’s wife, you don’t recognise me but we did meet.”
In Top Girls and Handmaid’s Tale both Churchill and Atwood show that freedom comes from small things such as the freedom to choose what you want to wear.

2) Handmaid’s Tale – during her introduction to being a Handmaid.
P5 “There are several umbrellas in it; black, for the Commander, blue, for the Commander’s Wife, and the one assigned to me which is red.”
Top Girls – Act One – Nijo talking about all the fancy dresses and luxuries she had when she lived with the emperor.
P8 “I don’t wear trousers in the office. / I could but I don’t.”
In Top Girl’s Churchill shows the audience that when you have freedom you take it for granted whilst in Handmaid’s Tale, Atwood shows that when freedom is not obtained it is greatly desired.

3)Top Girls – Act Two- Scene Two – Interview between Marlene and Jeanine.
P32 – “I’d like a job where I was here in London and with him and everything but now and then – I expect it’s silly.”
Handmaid’s Tale – Chapter seven – Offred in bed at night thinking about her life.
P38 – “If it’s a story I’m telling, then I have control over the ending. Then there will be an ending, to the story, and real life will come after it. I can pick up where I left off.”
In Top Girl’s and Handmaid’s Tale both authors show that Freedom is something that is indescribable as it means different things to different people and the situation they are in.

4)Top Girls – Act Two – Scene Two – Joyce asking Kit what she wants to be when she grows up.
P43 – “Nuclear Physicist”
Handmaid’s Tale – Offred is in her room awaiting her fate.
P288 “a bird stopped in flight, a woman made into an angel”
In Top Girl’s and Handmaid’s Tale both Churchill and Atwood show the reader that freedom is often hard to achieve.

5)Top Girl’s – Act One – During dinner party, Joan is talking about her success.
 P12 “Yes, success is very…”
Handmaid’s Tale – ending of chapter just before the ceremony chapter, Moira’s punishment.
P87 “I am still praying but what I am seeing is Moira’s feet, the way they looked after they brought her back”

We can see that Marlene ponders over the idea of success, which is freedom in a sense, and as the audience we wonder whether she is truly positive about her success in the freedom she achieved, as she has become mutilated through it.

6) Top Girls- Act One- Griselda is tellig the other women about her role as a mother, which Pope Joan cannot understand

P25 “I can’t forgive anything”

Handmaid’s Tale- Offred’s flashback of her mother bruised and beaten after taking part in a march with other women and her mother lashes out at the other side

P176“Fucking pigs. Fucking bleeders”

These two quotations show us that the freedom Joan and Offred’s mother are allowed mean that they don’t forgive, or more importantly don’t have to; they are stronger women who stand up for theit beliefs due to the freedom they’re allowed.

7) Top Girls- Act Two, Scene Two- Joyce argues with Angie and Kit when the two want to go to the Odeon

P44- “She’s not going till she’s done her room”

Handmaid’s Tale- Offred is remembering the freedom she had in the past, what she once could do and decides to walk down he hall to the sitting room to steal something

P93- “I want to steal something,”

The more child-like aspect of thes two quotations shows us how in both texts the lack of freedom in women presents itself in a quite childlike way, Joyce treats 16 year old Angie with the patronising tone you’d treat a small child, as Offred’s drive to “steal” is similar to that of a young child.

8) Top Girls- Marlene’s arguing with Joyce, drunk and over excited.

P84- “ who’s got to drive it on? First woman prime minister. Terrifico. Aces. Right on. / You must admit. Certainly gets my vote.”

Handmaid’s Tale- the last sentence before the Historical Notes, Offred has been arrested and Nick says she needs to trust her

P291- “And so I step up, into the darkness within; or else the light.”

These two quatations are very interesting in terms of freedom. We gain in these that there is some freedom to come, the word “terrifico” implying hope and optimism whilst the “light” implies a positive future, of which Offred will be allowed freedom again, as Marlene sees her country under Margaret Thatcher.

  1. james
    January 18, 2011 at 7:30 pm

    omg thank you so much, this is sooooooo helpfull

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