By the time The Handmaid's Tale was published in 1985, Margaret Atwood had already been an internationally recognized figure in literature for twenty years. Her work has been characterized as having a "feminist" focus, and this novel certainly fits into that simple understanding; the story describes a society where dehumanization of women is not just a custom but actually the law.
What keeps the novel from being only a work of propaganda for feminist ideology is the complexity and roundness of all of the characters. Among the male characters, one is willing to fight with the underground against the oppressive government and another, who is at the top of this male-oriented social order, feels trapped by it and secretly breaks the laws in order to indulge himself in simple, meaningless pleasure. The female characters may be oppressed, but they are not portrayed as powerless victims. The novel's harshest judgements are applied to the Handmaid-in-training who sells out her own integrity by declaring her own guilt for being raped as a child, and to the narrator herself for lacking the nerve to help the underground resistance movement.
The Handmaid's Tale was a best seller at the time of its publication. It is possible that Atwood's reputation and the appeal of reading about contemporary social issues such as toxic waste, abortion and pornography helped its initial rise to fame, but its continuing popularity surely rests on its seamless, chillingly believable blending of modern religious fundamentalist attitudes with the historically proven methods of almost all totalitarian governments.