The Handmaid's Tale Analysis

The Handmaid’s Tale (Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

The parting “Historical Notes” clarify this tale’s supposed genesis as a series of cassette tapes found in a footlocker along the Femaleroad in Maine. Similar to the Underground Railroad that spirited slaves from the South to safety in Canada over 150 years earlier, this Underground Femaleroad led women out of their theological and social bondage in America to a free life in Europe. Now, these tapes have been transcribed and authenticated, with the results of this effort being presented to the “Twelfth Symposium on Gileadean Studies” in 2195.

As a thirty-three-year-old Handmaid, Offred had but one role in her society, one function to perform: produce babies. Her life was the ultimate denial of choice or, seen otherwise, the ultimate glory. This latter interpretation was that which enlivened her household world within the Christian theocracy that was America in the early twenty-first century. Hers was the Gileadean society.

Seizing power in the late twentieth century, the Guardians killed off the Congress, President, and Constitution, replacing them with a society built on strict biblical teaching and radical social adjustment. Working then across this tableau of upheaval, THE HANDMAID’S TALE is strongest when centered on Offred’s assignment and the household where she is expected to give birth. Here Atwood develops the personalities that enliven the novel: the Commander, with his urge for surreptitious Scrabble; Nick, the Guardian/chauffeur with the latter trade’s stereotypic roving eye; and Serena Joy, the gospel television starlet turned wizened hag.

Unfortunately, this novel flags because it lacks both a credible explanation for the abrupt collapse of constitutional government and a clear sense of the good which has been replaced by the present evil. Although Atwood makes a feeble attempt to supply this information, it is inadequate; we must take her usurpation premise on faith. She may expect such faith and understanding from readers who have followed her through five previous novels, but this assumption cripples a novel which will, thus, be variously labeled a feminist nightmare or a prescient statement of Christian Right extremism. It is neither.

Bibliography

Grace, Sherrill E., and Lorraine Weir, eds. Margaret Atwood: Language, Text, and System. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1983. Includes nine essays examining Atwood’s literary “system” and her development of style and subject matter up to the publication of The Handmaid’s Tale.

Greene, Gayle. Changing the Story: Feminist Fiction and the Tradition. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991. The author discusses Atwood and other contemporary women writers who employ narrative strategies that incorporate women’s perspectives and challenge traditional modes of storytelling. She sees The Handmaid’s Tale as less feminist in vision than Atwood’s previous novels.

Hammar, Stephanie Barbe. “The World As It Will Be? Female Satire and the Technology of Power in The Handmaid’s Tale.” Modern Language Studies 22, no. 2 (Spring, 1990): 39-49. The article discusses The Handmaid’s Tale as a work with satiric intent. Atwood warns of the abuses of technology, the domination of women by men, and the propensity to allow oneself to be trapped in a rigid role.

Kostash, Myrna, et al. Her Own Woman: Profiles of Ten Canadian Women. Toronto: Macmillan of Canada, 1975. Contains a biographical essay by Valerie Miner, “Atwood in Metamorphosis: An Authentic Canadian Fairy Tale,” that examines the evolution and maturation of Atwood’s writing.

McCombs, Judith, ed. Critical Essays on Margaret Atwood. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1988. This valuable volume contains thirty-two reviews, articles, and essays on Atwood’s prose and poetry. The essays are arranged in chronological order. The volume contains a primary bibliography to 1986.

Mendez-Engle, Beatrice, ed. Margaret Atwood: Reflections and Reality. Edinburg, Tex.: Pan American University Press, 1987. This selection of critical essays on Atwood’s work includes an interview with Atwood. The essays trace Atwood’s development as a writer and include a discussion of her use of fables.

Rigney, Barbara Hill. Margaret Atwood. Totowa, N.J.: Barnes & Noble Books, 1987. An analysis of Atwood as poet, novelist, and political commentator, all from a feminist perspective. Includes a useful bibliography.

Rosenberg, Jerome H. Margaret Atwood. Boston: Twayne, 1984. A concise literary biography of the Canadian novelist and poet that provides a useful introduction to her works.

Van Spanckeren, Kathryn, and Jan Garden Castro, eds. Margaret Atwood: Vision and Forms. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1988. This useful collection contains essays on Atwood’s works that are of uniformly high quality. Several essays deal with The Handmaid’s Tale.

The Handmaid's Tale The Plot (Critical Survey of Science Fiction and Fantasy)

In the late 1980’s, an ultraconservative religious group toppled the U.S. government and established a totalitarian regime called Gilead. The leadership is strictly Christian in nature and ruthlessly fascist in practice. Using the former society’s plummeting birth rates as an excuse, the Gilead leaders force women into restricted roles in society, with little freedom or power. Couples in the upper classes who are without children are assigned Handmaids, who essentially are legal concubines intended to bear their hosts’ children. These Handmaids are fertile women who were politically unsafe, divorced, or in second marriages.

The narrator is a Handmaid assigned to the family of a high-ranking commander. She loses her identity and original family, and she is renamed “of Fred” (the commander’s first name), or Offred. Offred is cared for by the family in exchange for having sex with the commander. In an elaborate ceremony required by the society, Offred lies between the legs of Fred’s wife during the act, making her resemble a substitute womb for the wife. This ritual enacts a literal translation of the Old Testament, in which Rachel says to Jacob, “Behold my maid Bilhah, go in unto her; and she shall bear upon my knees, that I may also have children by her” (Genesis 30:1-3).

Even this tightly controlled society has hidden rebellions. The commander arranges clandestine meetings with Offred. They talk and play Scrabble. Such relationships of Handmaids and their hosts are forbidden, as Handmaids are meant solely for procreation. Offred’s walking partner, Ofglen, reveals another rebellion, a resistance group called Mayday, of which she is a member.

The commander’s wife arranges for Offred to have an affair with Nick, the chauffeur, so that she might become pregnant even if the commander is sterile. Offred begins to fall in love with Nick and loses all desire for the rebellion encouraged by her friends in Mayday.

Offred’s tenuous situation becomes more precarious when the commander’s wife learns of Offred’s secret meetings with the commander. Ofglen is discovered to be part of Mayday and is killed. Offred’s story ends in a dramatic climax. The black death van of Gilead arrives at the house to take Offred. At that moment, it is unclear why the van came for her. To her surprise and dismay, Nick appears at her door with the military men and hands her over. As she passes him, he whispers in her ear to go with them because they are from Mayday and will take her outside Gilead. Offred goes into the van. Her ultimate fate, whether betrayal or salvation, is not revealed.

The final chapter of the novel is an epilogue set two hundred years after the story of Offred. The keynote speaker at a symposium on Gileadean studies is a professor who has been studying a document called “The Handmaid’s Tale.” He makes a few comments on the possible authenticity of this document, which was discovered shortly after the regime of Gilead fell. It remains unclear whether Offred escaped safely or, instead, that only her story survived.

The Handmaid's Tale The Handmaid’s Tale (Critical Guide to Censorship and Literature)

The Work

Among the most frequently banned books of the 1990’s, The Handmaid’s Tale won Canada’s most prestigious award for fiction, the Governor General’s Literary Award. The novel is narrated by a woman known as Offred (Of Fred), a “Handmaid” to a Commander and the Commander’s Wife in the fictional Republic of Gilead. As Offred describes events in her highly controlled life, she recalls times before religious fundamentalists assumed political control, a period when she was a wife, mother, and librarian.

Complaints about The Handmaid’s Tale, which has been used in literature study at the high school level, have included objections to its allegedly despairing themes, depictions of women as sex objects, profanity, sexually explicit scenes, and anti-Christian themes.

Bibliography

Grace, Sherrill E., and Lorraine Weir, eds. Margaret Atwood: Language, Text, and System. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1983. Includes nine essays examining Atwood’s literary “system” and her development of style and subject matter up to the publication of The Handmaid’s Tale.

Greene, Gayle. Changing the Story: Feminist Fiction and the Tradition. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991. The author discusses Atwood and other contemporary women writers who employ narrative strategies that incorporate women’s perspectives and challenge traditional modes of storytelling. She sees The Handmaid’s Tale as less feminist in vision than Atwood’s previous novels.

Hammar, Stephanie Barbe. “The World As It Will Be? Female Satire and the Technology of Power in The Handmaid’s Tale.” Modern Language Studies 22, no. 2 (Spring, 1990): 39-49. The article discusses The Handmaid’s Tale as a work with satiric intent. Atwood warns of the abuses of technology, the domination of women by men, and the propensity to allow oneself to be trapped in a rigid role.

Kostash, Myrna, et al. Her Own Woman: Profiles of Ten Canadian Women. Toronto: Macmillan of Canada, 1975. Contains a biographical essay by Valerie Miner, “Atwood in Metamorphosis: An Authentic Canadian Fairy Tale,” that examines the evolution and maturation of Atwood’s writing.

McCombs, Judith, ed. Critical Essays on Margaret Atwood. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1988. This valuable volume contains thirty-two reviews, articles, and essays on Atwood’s prose and poetry. The essays are arranged in chronological order. The volume contains a primary bibliography to 1986.

Mendez-Engle, Beatrice, ed. Margaret Atwood: Reflections and Reality. Edinburg, Tex.: Pan American University Press, 1987. This selection of critical essays on Atwood’s work includes an interview with Atwood. The essays trace Atwood’s development as a writer and include a discussion of her use of fables.

Rigney, Barbara Hill. Margaret Atwood. Totowa, N.J.: Barnes & Noble Books, 1987. An analysis of Atwood as poet, novelist, and political commentator, all from a feminist perspective. Includes a useful bibliography.

Rosenberg, Jerome H. Margaret Atwood. Boston: Twayne, 1984. A concise literary biography of the Canadian novelist and poet that provides a useful introduction to her works.

Van Spanckeren, Kathryn, and Jan Garden Castro, eds. Margaret Atwood: Vision and Forms. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1988. This useful collection contains essays on Atwood’s works that are of uniformly high quality. Several essays deal with The Handmaid’s Tale.

The Handmaid's Tale Places Discussed (Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

Gilead

Gilead. Future name for the northeastern section of the United States. In Margaret Atwood’s vision of the future, the government of the United States has been overthrown by a group of right-wing, conservative Christians bent on transforming what they see as a decadent society into a theocracy. Atwood draws on the culture of the United States in 1985 and extrapolates what might happen if trends present in that year were to continue into the future. For example, in Gilead, birth rates have plummeted as a result of widespread contamination of the air, water, and earth. Further, Christians, sickened by divorce, pornography, and abortion, outlaw all three. They also take away a woman’s right to own property or have money of her own; everything is in her husband’s name. Women who have been divorced but who are proven to be fertile, such as the main character in the novel, are found guilty of the crime of adultery, and are given to the rulers of Gilead in order to provide children for childless couples.

Atwood deliberately places Gilead in New England; landmarks such as the library and the wall are clearly taken from Cambridge, where Harvard University is located. The irony in this location is twofold: In the first place, Massachusetts was first established as a theocracy by the pilgrim fathers, who applied a strict interpretation of the Bible to all aspects of life. Indeed, it was the Puritans of the seventeenth century who were responsible for the Salem witch trials and subsequent burnings.

As a side note, Atwood, a Canadian writer, dedicates the novel to her ancestor, Mary Webster, a woman convicted of witchcraft in Salem and sentenced to hang. When she was cut down from the scaffold in the morning, she was found to be still alive and was thus set free. Webster immigrated to Canada soon after. The second irony is that Harvard University is the premier site of learning in the United States. Gilead, by contrast, is a country ruled by keeping people ignorant. Written language is reserved for only the most powerful men; pictographs replace signs, and women are not permitted to read. Furthermore, Atwood’s second dedication is to Perry Miller, her professor of American literature at Harvard University. In the closing sequence of the book, an academic recognized by critics as being a parody of Miller addresses a large academic assembly. The academic reveals himself to be both ignorant and patronizing in his analysis of the state of Gilead.

Colonies

Colonies. Unspecified location where infertile women, or “unwomen,” and divorced women are sent to clean up toxic waste. The major threat made against the handmaids is that they will be sent to the colonies if they do not comply with the demands of the commanders and Gileadian society. In addition, handmaids who have three assignments without producing an offspring are automatically sent to the colonies. Postmenopausal and divorced women who refuse to become handmaids are also sent to the colonies. Life is extremely cruel in this location, and most women survive only a short time.

*Canada

*Canada. While none of the action of the book takes place in Canada, the country represents freedom to the persecuted of Gilead. Indeed, the narrator of the book and her husband are arrested as they try to flee to Canada with their daughter. The final section of the book suggests that the narrator once again tried to flee to Canada and hid for a time in a barn in Maine, a hideout on the underground “frailroad,” modeled on the Underground Railroad instituted by abolitionists in the years before the American Civil War.

The Handmaid's Tale Form and Content (Survey of Young Adult Fiction)

Offred, the narrator of The Handmaid’s Tale, is one of a class of women who are trained to serve the master class—in this case, the Commander and his wife, Serena Joy. Offred remembers and indeed yearns for the husband and child that belonged to her in the time that the Republic of Gilead was the United States. All the democratic rights that were taken for granted in America have vanished in this future world—including a woman’s right to marry, to hold a job, or to do anything without the approval of her master and mistress.

Offred speaks as a character who has partially become accustomed to this new world. She is aware that it came about because of the social chaos of American democracy. There was too much violence; people were too free to do as they liked. At least this is how the United States is viewed from the perspective of Offred’s authoritarian society. Yet, Offred has not been brainwashed. Like Winston Smith in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four (1948), she has a mind of her own, but she has to conceal it. She is afraid of being punished for her independent thoughts. She has a friend, Moira, who represents everything that Offred would like to be. Moira is outspoken and rebellious. She does not accept the subjection of women for a moment or believe that any class of people has the right to rule others.

Offred is wistful about the past. It is hard to recall, however, when her present is so filled with her duties as a Handmaid. She is surprised when the Commander takes an interest in her—proposing they attend a costume party and then making sexual advances to her. In the Republic of Gilead, Handmaids such as Offred are only meant to be procreators—that is, they have sex with their masters only for the purposes of childbearing. The Commander, however, obviously chafes under the rigid, puritanical regime, and he looks to Offred to relieve his frustrations, even though he is breaking the very rules that he is pledged to uphold.

Offred uses the Commander’s attentions to win a few freedoms for herself, realizing that to the Commander she is merely a plaything and that he cannot be trusted with her real inner feelings. She must also be cautious because Serena Joy, the Commander’s wife, would surely have Offred punished if she were to discover that Offred and her husband had a sexual relationship outside of their officially sanctioned mating sessions. Offred finds her true lover in Nick, who is also employed by the Commander and his wife. Nick risks certain death if his liaison with Offred is discovered, yet the couple (again like Winston Smith and his beloved in Nineteen Eighty-four) are compelled to express their humanity by carrying on their secret affair. In each other they find an outlet for expressing all those emotional human needs that their society represses by restricting both males and females to prescribed roles.

Offred’s fate is not entirely clear because the novel ends with an appendix that reveals that Offred’s narrative has been discovered by a later society—one that apparently has restored something like the equality of the sexes and individual liberties that Offred desired. From the perspective of the appendix, then, Offred’s narrative becomes a kind of Old Testament, a record of the human quest for self-expression and redemption.

The Handmaid's Tale (Literary Masterpieces, Volume 9)

ph_0111201629-Atwood.jpgMargaret Atwood Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Political climates have played major roles in several of Margaret Atwood’s novels, particularly in Life Before Man (1979) and Bodily Harm (1982). In these novels, the sense of social upheaval provides not merely a social context for her protagonists, but it also mirrors their emotional conflict. What does society, so restless and discontent, need to become harmonious? Are revolutions or separatist movements genuine solutions to social problems? Individuals seem to have a greater range of possibilities for happiness: money, clothes, jobs, travel, sex. As any reader of Atwood’s novels knows, these “remedies” are as shallow as those who promote them. Indeed, the twentieth century way of life, awash in banal hucksterism reducing people to products and solving complicated problems during thirty-minute television talk shows, seems perilously close to extinction. Just keeping afloat in a swill of pollution, exploitation, waste, racism, and sexism is problematical. Proposed “solutions” to these problems abound, a return to fundamentalist religion being one. The Handmaid’s Tale gives its readers just such a political climate, and the results are both fascinating and chilling.

Late twentieth century America, saturated with pollution, pornography, sexual license, and a virulent strain of venereal disease, has erupted. Emerging from the fray is the Republic of Gilead, a theocracy even more conservative than that of the Puritans, where women are denied independence, education, even their own names—at least in the case of the Handmaids, who assume the names of their Commanders prefixed by the possessive preposition “of” (Offred is “of” added to “Fred,” her Commander). In Gilead, women are reduced to mere functions—Wives, Daughters, Marthas (housemaids), Econowives, and Handmaids—and used as rewards for loyal service by men to the Republic. Dissident women are declared Unwomen and either shipped off to forced labor camps or publicly executed. Offred, the narrator of The Handmaid’s Tale, is among the first group of Handmaids, fertile women assigned to high-ranking childless government officials and their wives to bear them a child. Haunted by memories of her former freedom, tortured because she does not know what has happened to her husband and daughter, and scornful of her moral cowardice, Offred struggles with her version of the truth.

The action of this novel is rather restricted, for Offred’s movements are limited to grocery shopping and attending Prayvaganzas, Salvagings, and the rare Birthing. Her time is running out. At thirty-three, Offred has one more chance either to produce a child for her Commander or be killed. Thus, when Fred invites her to play an illicit game of Scrabble (books are forbidden in Gilead, and women are not allowed to read), Offred recognizes more than simply a change in her dull routine; she sees the beginning of an opportunity. Soon she finds herself caught among the desires of her Commander; those of his wife, Serena Joy, who wants a child; and her own need for human affection. She agrees to Serena Joy’s arranged meeting with Nick, a fellow servant who is Offred’s surest chance of becoming pregnant. Nick, however, arranges for an unexpected rescue.

Offred uses flat, almost emotionless prose to define and describe her existence. Weaving between past and an apparent present (which is later learned to be another past), Offred gives a picture of a terrifyingly real possibility. Her restrained prose seems at first to be extremely accurate and detached, as if she acts merely as an observer, one who declines to participate in her life at all. The fact is that Offred remains numb from all that has happened to her. Besides, she has learned not to trust anyone, least of all herself, a self she believes to be shallow and weak. Still, she is a grim survivor, planning to keep herself alive whatever the cost. As she goes forward with her narrative, however, Offred indicates gradual changes in her attitude, the need to take risks. Able to judge and in possession of an acerbic wit, Offred seizes opportunities when she can.

Not that she has many. Gilead is an almost perfect patriarchy, in which a few elderly men design rules for everyone else to follow. Ostensibly using the Bible as a guide and justification, the Commanders have structured a “safe” and orderly society, a society where they enjoy privileges denied to everyone else, where status is achieved by ideological rightness, where movements are constantly checked, and where anyone might be a spy. There is no longer any abortion or pollution, practically no rape, no apparent social discord, no lawyers, and no freedom of expression, movement, or religion.

This novel is not merely about a repressive patriarchy; it also explores the conflicts within women, their uncertainty between traditional values and liberation, their attitudes about behavior, their distrust of one another, and, most of all, their distrust of themselves. Offred is a prime example. Accepting the circumstances of her time, she thinks her mother’s militant feminism archaic and her friend Moira’s boldness merely entertaining. Because Offred thinks that her rights do not need defending, she thinks others’ struggles are insignificant. Deprived of the very rights her mother and Moira defended, Offred recognizes their true value.

Offred’s relation with the Aunts explores yet another relationship among women, for the Aunts in Gilead are one of the patriarchy’s primary means of controlling women. As enforcers, they are granted some prominence and authority (but not guns) to become apostles of a woman’s true purpose: bearing children. Needless to say, the Aunts ignore the contradiction between their relative freedom and the bondage they enforce when they preach submission and piety, assuring women that the protection they have is worth the cost of freedom.

Certainly, women are protected, not only by Angels and Guardians but also by apparel. Costumes identify role, with Wives in blue, Aunts in brown, Daughters in virginal white, Marthas in green, and Handmaids in red (still scarlet even in a new society that claims to revere their function). Color identifies rank and role; even as it separates women, it paradoxically makes them uniform. Offred frequently comments on her shapeless garment, comparing her protective red sack to the freedom of jeans and sundresses. She often alludes to her “wings,” a wimple depriving her of peripheral vision, thus preventing her from seeing what goes on around her. The wimple further obscures her physical identity.

Identity is something to which Offred gave little thought in the past. She has been a stranger to herself and society, accepting the usual as if it has always existed. Deprivation, however, creates new hungers in her: curiosity about what goes on in the world, a subversive need for power, a longing for feeling, a willingness to dare. In many ways, The Handmaid’s Tale is a novel about loss and what it creates. Gilead, in fact, has been created partially in response to loss. Offred’s Commander explains that for men “there was nothing to work for, nothing to fight for. . . . You know what they were complaining about the most? Inability to feel.” Offred finds little comfort in his assurance that feeling has returned.

Feeling, as Offred knows, can be mercurial, often unstable. Perhaps this is why her characterization of other figures in the novel seems distant. While Offred observes gestures, facial responses, and voice tone, she can only guess at intent. Messages seem to be implicit in simple language, and she attempts to decode all kinds of linguistic communication, beginning with the Latin inscription that she discovers scratched in her wardrobe: “Nolite te bastardes carborundorum.” When she is given a translation of this message, however, which becomes her motto, she discovers that it is corrupt. Language is subject to all sorts of twists. Even though Offred is desperate for communication, she intentionally obscures her own messages. All this struggle to understand reflects a familiar theme in Atwood’s work, the inability to understand truly another person, another situation. Atwood further supports this through the very nature of Offred’s narrative.

An extremely self-conscious narrative, The Handmaid’s Tale constantly calls attention to itself. One plausible reason, readers later learn, is that Offred has recorded her experiences. Atwood, though, wants to emphasize the shifting face of reality by having Offred acknowledge the impossibility of telling the truth, by contradicting what she has said, by mixing hope with experience, by distrusting herself, by stating repeatedly, “This is a reconstruction.” She goes on to confirm, “It’s impossible to say a thing exactly the way it was, because what you say can never be exact, you always have to leave something out, there are too many parts, sides, crosscurrents, nuances; too many gestures, which could mean this or that, too many shapes which can never be fully described.” While Offred’s struggle to be honest makes her a reliable narrator, she constantly reminds readers of her limits.

Another interesting facet of this narrative is its place in time. Offred tells her story in the present, except when she refers to her life before becoming a Handmaid. Whatever experience she endures—from the Ceremony to a Salvaging—she gives her audience an intense sense of the present. Ironically, readers learn that not only is she telling her story after the events but also that her narrative has been reconstructed and presented to an audience at a still greater temporal remove. This latter audience, participants at the Twelfth Symposium on Gileadean Studies held in 2195, is concerned with authenticating Offred’s story, in finding a truth that her message resists. Thorough research, however, fails to provide firm answers, and the entire narrative remains equivocal.

All of this is, needless to say, intentional. Atwood’s fiction is rich precisely because of its ambiguity. The author does provide direction in prefatory quotations. The first, a passage from the Book of Genesis, recounts Rachel’s reasons for giving her maid Bilhah to bear Jacob’s child. More revealing, perhaps, is Atwood’s quotation from Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal.” Like Swift’s satire, Atwood’s skates on the surface of reality, often snagging on familiar actions (such as bombing family-planning clinics), and only slightly exaggerating some attitudes, particularly those commonly held about women. Old issues concerning a woman’s place, the value of her work, her real role in society are the heart of this novel. Atwood’s sustained irony skewers not only attitudes but also the costumes they often assume. Her description of a dilapidated Playboy bunny costume, for example, is hilarious. This may lead to the novel’s only weakness, if it is in fact a weakness.

Atwood has satirized popular culture so often in the past that readers familiar with her work will have no trouble recognizing her ironic references. Some novice readers of Atwood, however, will doubtless miss the author’s understated digs at passing social trends. Still, this novel is so rich that even a morsel yields a pungent taste.

The Handmaid’s Tale, in the guise of speculative fiction, is a deadly serious novel. Again, Atwood challenges her readers to look carefully at the world around them, to weigh the messages that besiege them, to interpret carefully the implications of action, and not to yield individuality. Offred certainly discovers that while submission may create the temporary illusion of safety, no one is safe. Ultimately human beings must risk life or lose what is most valuable to their experience.

The Handmaid's Tale Form and Content (Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale takes place in the United States at the turn of the twenty-first century. A revolution sponsored by fundamentalist leaders has produced a monolithic theocracy called the Republic of Gilead. Although inspired by divine power, the administrators of Gilead rely on human control to implement their religion-based policies. Overt military control is conducted through a series of agents—such as Commanders, Eyes, and Guardians—who use electronic devices, blockades, and spies to maintain surveillance over the population. Those who are not members of the Gilead forces become servants, a role reserved almost exclusively for women.

Women, who the revolution was supposedly fought in part to protect, are relegated to serving in eight narrowly defined categories easily identified by the color of their prescribed wardrobe. The blue-clad wives of the Commanders are the most visible of all the women in Gilead. They are to preside over the Commanders’ homes, create beautiful gardens, and attend social functions, which include public hangings and ritual beatings of men who break the Gilead rules. The green-clad Marthas are responsible for cooking and keeping the house clean. Econowives, women married to midlevel members of the Gilead administration, wear multicolored uniforms to designate their mixed functions as housewife, cook, maid, and mother. A small number of women wear black, widows whose life is ill-defined in Gilead; as a result, they are rarely seen. Two other groups of women are not seen in Gilead: the gray-clad Unwomen, those who refused to cooperate with the system and have been sent to work in the Colonies (where environmental pollution will soon kill them), and the women who work in the underground brothel, where the Commanders go for pleasures that are officially restricted by the republic. The remaining two categories of women rival the wives in importance. The Aunts, wearing Nazi-brown dresses, train the other group to become surrogate mothers. Because of the environmental pollution, the loss of life during the revolutionary fighting, and the age of some of the wives, sterility has become Gilead’s most visible problem. The solution to this problem is the procurement of fertile women who will bear children for the Commanders, the red-clad Handmaids.

The Handmaid is limited to offering her body as a vessel for procreation during bizarre bedroom encounters with the Commander and his wife. Lying fully clothed in her red habit between the open thighs of the wife, the Handmaid receives the Commander, who is also clothed except for an open zipper. No communication between the Commander and the Handmaid is allowed. The sexual encounter becomes both asexual and pornographic at the same time.

The birth of a child consumes Serena Joy, the wife of one Commander, to such an extent that she accepts the private nighttime meetings of her husband and the Handmaid Offred in the hope that this might lead to a pregnancy. These private encounters allow both the Commander and Offred to assume more human qualities than either is allowed by the republic. Both at first relish the intellectual cat-and-mouse game that develops between them. Offred continues the game because the Commander provides items that she otherwise would never have, such as magazines, alcohol, and special soaps. The Commander pursues the game in the hope of creating a sexual intimacy that is not permitted during the procreation ritual. The game does not produce the desired result, however, for either the Commander or Serena Joy: Offred does not become pregnant. Desperate to produce a child for her house and bask in the rewards of Gilead’s society, Serena Joy secretly employs the Commander’s chauffeur, Nick, to have sex with Offred. At first hesitant, Nick and Offred discover a sexuality with each other that the republic forbids. Thus, even when the private meetings are ended by Serena Joy, Offred continues to sneak to Nick’s room when possible. At about the same time, the Commander takes Offred for a nighttime excursion to an underground brothel. Once there, Offred is reunited with her college friend Moira, a rebel. Although glad to see her, Offred is dismayed that Moira is a prostitute. Moira explains that the decision was either to die in the poisonous Colonies or to remain alive and endure—to perhaps escape, as she has done twice before.

Moira’s courage, Offred’s revulsion to the brothel, and her exploitation by another woman, Serena Joy, lead to Offred’s decision to attempt escape. Befriended by another Handmaid, Ofglen, who has contacts with the underground, and assisted by Nick, Offred escapes and attempts to reach Canada. During her trip north, she discovers a tape recorder and tells the Handmaid’s tale.

The Handmaid's Tale Context (Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

When it was first published, The Handmaid’s Tale was immediately compared to the appearance almost forty years before of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949). Both novels suggest that to create a world of perfect order and stability would require that the imperfections of human beings be brought under control. The future societies of both novels ban writing, the written word being a weapon feared by those in charge. Both worlds restrict relationships, reducing them to sterile, superficial role-playing. Violence as a method of control and citizen participation in that violence appear in both novels. Yet Winston Smith, the main character in Nineteen Eighty-Four, is a man and has at least a marginal sense of independence and identity. Offred in The Handmaid’s Tale is a woman who has no independence and has been stripped of all identity.

Because of this difference, Atwood’s novel is closer in relationship to the words spoken by the cofounder of the modern women’s movement, Elizabeth Cady Stanton. At the end of the nineteenth century, Stanton was asked to speak on behalf of women’s rights in the nation’s capital. Her speech, quickly reprinted and published in newspapers throughout the United States, was about the “solitude of self.” An appraisal of the forty years that had just passed and a speculation on the future, Stanton’s address was a sober reminder that regardless of the success of the movement, women must realize that they are individuals first and that each must encounter the world alone. She implied that no utopia was imminent—nor should it be, because women are individuals and a collective success approved by all was neither possible nor, in the long run, desirable. The solitude of self was the acknowledgment of personal responsibility and the courage to endure—the qualities possessed by Moira and admired by Offred, and the reason that Atwood’s character records The Handmaid’s Tale.

The Handmaid's Tale Historical Context

International Conservatism
In the 1980s, the political climate around the globe turned toward fiscal restraint and social...

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The Handmaid's Tale Literary Techniques

In The Handmaid's Tale Atwood again uses her trademark Gothicism to convey the grotesque dislocations produced by Gilead's social...

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The Handmaid's Tale Ideas for Group Discussions

No other Atwood fiction has aroused the public debate that has accompanied The Handmaid's Tale, and thus it should provoke lively...

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The Handmaid's Tale Social Concerns

The Handmaid's Tale gives heightened, prophetic urgency to a number of Atwood's long-standing social preoccupations. The novel is set...

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The Handmaid's Tale Topics for Further Study

Research the techniques used by the government of Nazi Germany to oppress people, such as blacks, Jews, homosexuals and Gypsies in the 1930s...

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The Handmaid's Tale Literary Precedents

Much has been made of Atwood's obvious indebtedness to the tradition of dystopian fiction preceding. The Handmaid's Tale, most notably...

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The Handmaid's Tale Related Titles

Earlier in the decade that produced The Handmaid's Tale, Atwood published Bodily Harm (1981), a novel whose protagonist, a...

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The Handmaid's Tale Adaptations

The immense popularity of The Handmaid's Tale and its provocative themes led to its translation to the screen in 1990. Considerable...

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The Handmaid's Tale Media Adaptations

The Handmaid's Tale was adapted as a film by Volker Schlondorff, starring Natasha Richardson, Faye Dunaway, Aidan Quinn and Robert...

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The Handmaid's Tale What Do I Read Next?

Margaret Atwood followed this book with Cat's Eye in 1988. Some of the same concerns show up in the later book; a controversial...

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The Handmaid's Tale Bibliography and Further Reading

Sources
Atwood, Margaret. The Handmaid’s Tale. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1986.

Barbara Ehrenreich,...

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The Handmaid's Tale Bibliography (Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Grace, Sherrill E., and Lorraine Weir, eds. Margaret Atwood: Language, Text, and System. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1983. Includes nine essays examining Atwood’s literary “system” and her development of style and subject matter up to the publication of The Handmaid’s Tale.

Greene, Gayle. Changing the Story: Feminist Fiction and the Tradition. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991. The author discusses Atwood and other contemporary women writers who employ narrative strategies that incorporate women’s perspectives and challenge traditional modes of storytelling. She sees The Handmaid’s Tale as less feminist in vision than Atwood’s previous novels.

Hammar, Stephanie Barbe. “The World As It Will Be? Female Satire and the Technology of Power in The Handmaid’s Tale.” Modern Language Studies 22, no. 2 (Spring, 1990): 39-49. The article discusses The Handmaid’s Tale as a work with satiric intent. Atwood warns of the abuses of technology, the domination of women by men, and the propensity to allow oneself to be trapped in a rigid role.

Kostash, Myrna, et al. Her Own Woman: Profiles of Ten Canadian Women. Toronto: Macmillan of Canada, 1975. Contains a biographical essay by Valerie Miner, “Atwood in Metamorphosis: An Authentic Canadian Fairy Tale,” that examines the evolution and maturation of Atwood’s writing.

McCombs, Judith, ed. Critical Essays on Margaret Atwood. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1988. This valuable volume contains thirty-two reviews, articles, and essays on Atwood’s prose and poetry. The essays are arranged in chronological order. The volume contains a primary bibliography to 1986.

Mendez-Engle, Beatrice, ed. Margaret Atwood: Reflections and Reality. Edinburg, Tex.: Pan American University Press, 1987. This selection of critical essays on Atwood’s work includes an interview with Atwood. The essays trace Atwood’s development as a writer and include a discussion of her use of fables.

Rigney, Barbara Hill. Margaret Atwood. Totowa, N.J.: Barnes & Noble Books, 1987. An analysis of Atwood as poet, novelist, and political commentator, all from a feminist perspective. Includes a useful bibliography.

Rosenberg, Jerome H. Margaret Atwood. Boston: Twayne, 1984. A concise literary biography of the Canadian novelist and poet that provides a useful introduction to her works.

Van Spanckeren, Kathryn, and Jan Garden Castro, eds. Margaret Atwood: Vision and Forms. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1988. This useful collection contains essays on Atwood’s works that are of uniformly high quality. Several essays deal with The Handmaid’s Tale.