A Woman for All Seasons: What The Handmaid’s Tale Can Teach Us About Personality Type

“I wait. I compose myself. My self is a thing I must now compose, as one composes a speech. What I must present is a made thing, not something born.”

Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale

When we at 16Personalities talk about fictional characters, we usually try to assign a personality type to them. Many characters tell us enough about themselves that we can do so. Offred, the main character from Margaret Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale (both the novel and the Hulu series), isn’t one of them.

This doesn’t mean that Atwood’s character hasn’t given those who study personality typology something to think about. The dystopian society of Gilead is perhaps the real focus of the story, and, in that way, it’s the main character. Offred serves as the vehicle used to help us understand Gilead’s horrors. In the Hulu series, which we mostly rely on here, we get more information about the handmaid as they expand the story beyond Atwood’s original novel. But still, it’s somewhat hard to sort out her personality.

Atwood, in her class at Masterclass.com, says, “A person is what happens to them.” She points out that the characters’ reactions to the events of their lives define them. In Offred, we have a character who is having extreme things happen to her. Aside from a few glimpses from her past, most of our exposure to her reveals a woman surviving in extreme conditions. It’s hard to categorize the personality type of this handmaid because we understand that her circumstances demand unusual adaptive behaviors. What we see may not be who she is.

Offred does what she must to survive – as we all do on some level. Make no mistake. We’re not saying our specific experiences compare to the horrors of this fictional character’s life, and we don’t want to diminish the book’s message and the theme of the streaming series. In the end, we all adapt just to “survive,” and often that can be healthy and necessary. Other times, perhaps that’s not so much the case. But adaptation for survival is universal.

Few people have the luxury of expressing their preferred personality traits full-throttle in every moment of their daily lives. There are few monastic opportunities for Introverts, for example, and most must go out into the noisy world to make a living, buy groceries, and survive. Turbulent personalities must sometimes step away from what reassures them and accept those assignments they may not feel ready for.

The show’s writers have given us three Offreds so far in two seasons, as does Atwood’s book, but perhaps in a less detailed way.

The first is June: wife, mother, friend, daughter, and book editor. As the “before” society (as they refer to the pre-Gilead times) crumbles around her, we get glimpses of a doting mother caring for her daughter. June honored her responsibilities and loved her family. As a contrast, her radical feminist mother offered June an uneasy relationship – her mother’s zealotry being perhaps a bit much for her.

Next, in the same person, we have Offred, the subservient handmaid. With her new name and place in society, she realizes that to survive, she must play the sick game that Gilead is forcing upon her. She loses all the touchstones she once knew and is unaware of the fate of her daughter and husband. She does as she is told. Harsh punishment or death itself are the only alternatives.

Interestingly, in the Hulu series, Aunt Lydia, the trainer and overseer of the handmaids, describes her process as vanquishing signs of the old life. According to her, June and all the “girls” faced too many choices “before,” and those choices kept them miserable. Aunt Lydia’s job is to eliminate choices from the handmaids. So, Offred complies as she must... Sort of.

We, the viewers, are privy to Offred’s thoughts. While externally she behaves like an obedient slave and concubine, internally, she has all manner of rebellious thoughts and ideas independent of the Gilead dogma. Despite Aunt Lydia’s best efforts, a lot of choices persist and churn within the handmaid’s mind. This spirit is perhaps a legacy left to her by her mother.

And – apologies for the mild but predictable spoiler – Offred’s rebel side emerges more frequently and obviously as the story progresses. Which leads us to the third Offred – Resistance Offred. We see tiny sparks of this Offred as she figures out subtle ways to manipulate her Commander. As her character develops, her rebelliousness occasionally becomes more public. By the end of the second season, we find her a woman on a mission who’s willing to make great sacrifices for her cause.

So, which is the real June? Subservient Offred is a full-on adaptation. She obviously hates all parts of her handmaid’s life. It would be an understatement to say that the way she must behave is a bad fit for her. This behavior probably has little to do with her genuine nature – outside of her being highly resourceful.

Pre-Gilead June could be an Advocate (INFJ): working alone, caring about others, loving ideas... Others have thought she is a Sentinel personality: accepting large amounts of personal responsibility, doing the meticulous work of an editor, placing a high emphasis on family... But what about the persistent juxtaposition with her more bohemian mother? In the show, her mother plays a prominent role in the June flashbacks. How much of June’s “before” behavior is an attempt to balance what she clearly felt was an extreme childhood?

Remember: we all adapt, all the time, but for different reasons.

As Resistance Offred grows into more of a social warrior, it’s tempting to think that this version is her true self emerging: a social Wonder Woman in a red habit. There is something heroic and romantic to admire there. But we don’t know. Is she evolving, Diplomat-like, into the more socially conscious, mission-oriented woman she always was underneath? Are we seeing some Analyst-like strategic thinking? Are these signs of her true self? Or are these just more adaptations? Does she finally understand that survival depends upon fighting back, and that fighting back is dependent upon her being someone who goes beyond whatever she considers “normal?” Or is she finally growing into her own skin?

Like June, we are all several people, and we adapt constantly to survive and, better yet, thrive. 16Personalities determines personality type through the stated preferences of those who take our tests and read our material. Because of adaptation, we wouldn’t dare label their type by simply observing their behaviors (if we could observe them). We let our community tell us who they are.

This brings us to larger questions about being true to our core selves and genuine in our approaches to life. We shouldn’t confuse adapting with being phony. Adaptation has much to do with practicality and little to do with deceit. To succeed, you probably need to give yourself full permission to adapt. If you remember who you are and are generous with yourself when it comes to taking care of and nurturing your basic personality, you’ll be fine.

Think of adapting like traveling to an unfamiliar land. It can be exciting and fulfilling. Sometimes, it’s painful but necessary. But isn’t it great to know there’s someplace you call home that you can go to recharge and to replenish yourself? Consider your traits as a warm hearth and your personality type a place for nurturing yourself and your spirit.

The art of understanding your personality isn’t designed to foster denial of anything in your life that doesn’t fit your personality. It’s understanding where your core identity lives and how that informs your decisions and behaviors as you adjust to a world beyond your traits – as we all inevitably must.

The more ways you can find to use your native characteristics as you go into the world, the better. For some, that may be a luxury. For others, they may find work and live lives where they can enjoy their preferred characteristics more frequently. But looking for ways to express that unique person – who is you – is always a worthy pursuit.

One of life’s important questions might be, “How do we balance our lives so we are adapting enough, but not too much?” June gives us an interesting example of how we might think of such things. And while our fate isn’t likely to be as difficult as June’s, each day presents each of us with a new challenge to adapt to in a practical way, while maintaining our own personal inclinations, to the degree that we can.

What do you adapt to? Where do you refuse to adapt? How is your life better or worse for it? Let us know in the comments below. We’d love your input.

If you’re interested in learning more about exploring personality traits through fiction, check out some of the links below.

Personality Theory in Fiction Writing Series

Are You a Mulder or a Scully?