lllustration of six women wearing long, loose red dresses

The Handmaid's Tale

by Margaret Atwood
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What impact does setting have on understanding of the central ideas or themes presented in The Handmaid's Tale?

The story is set in what was once Boston, Massachusetts, an area associated with the Puritans. They were a fanatical religious sect which believed in separating work based on one's gender and strictly followed the Bible. Associating Gilead with this time and place, via the setting, allows Atwood to foreshadow and emphasize themes relating to the consequences of gender inequality.

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This text is set in what used to be Boston, Massachusetts, near the campus of what was once Harvard University. Offred describes all the red brick, including the Wall on which criminals are hanged. She describes the dormitories and the river where the rowers used to practice. We know that...

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This text is set in what used to be Boston, Massachusetts, near the campus of what was once Harvard University. Offred describes all the red brick, including the Wall on which criminals are hanged. She describes the dormitories and the river where the rowers used to practice. We know that we must be within the former continental United States because she talks about oranges that come via railroad from Florida or California.

Further, she also describes a church, "one of the first erected here, hundreds of years ago." In order for a church to be one of the first ones built in the US, it would have to be on the east coast in what was originally the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

She also describes the memento mori, the pictures engraved onto the headstones for graves, specifically referencing the types of pictures that were typical of that time and place. She describes paintings of "Our ancestors": "women in long somber dresses, their hair covered by white caps, and of upright men, darkly clothed and unsmiling." In calling the Puritans, a fanatical offshoot of Protestantism, their "ancestors," Offred implies that their fanaticism is also part and parcel of life in Gilead.

For the Puritans, religion infused every aspect of their daily lives. It seems to do the same in Gilead, where Scriptural precedent determines what is and is not allowed. By setting the story in the place with which the Puritans are most associated, Atwood gives us clues about the values of Gilead and begins to point toward themes regarding gender inequality and the division of labor between the genders. Gender-divided labor is very much associated with both the Puritans and Gileadeans. Note that women stay in and care for the home—the physical space, the children, the cooking and cleaning—while men have a lot more mobility and different facets to their identities.

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