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The Handmaid's Tale

by Margaret Atwood

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What year is The Handmaid's Tale set in?

Though the exact year is never revealed by the characters of The Handmaid's Tale, one can find a great deal of evidence to suggest that it takes place in the late 1980s or early 1990s. Various technologies, medical advances, and attitudes in the text make it clear that it could not take place much, if any, earlier than this. Further, the medium Offred used to record her narrative also suggests this time period.

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It is difficult to pinpoint exactly what year this novel is set in, though we get enough clues to make an educated guess. We can see from the copyright page that the book received its copyright in 1986, and many of the textual clues would seem to confirm this as the approximate timing: computers are used but clearly not as frequently as they came to be used by the end of the 1990s and early 2000s, for example.

We also know that each handmaid term, so to speak, lasts two years, and that this is Offred's third Commander. There was, in addition, a training period at the Rachael and Leah Center before she was assigned to her first household, and so it stands to reason that the present of the story takes place some seven years, give or take, after the creation of the Republic of Gilead.

Offred also refers to "one of the first [churches] erected here," in what used to be the United States of America, "hundreds of years ago." This would have been sometime in the mid- to late-seventeeth century, so it stands to reason that the timing is the late twentieth-century, given this reference as well as the ones to televisions, computers, and cars. We can reasonably assume, then, that the text takes place sometime in the 1980s or 1990s. The fact that Offred records her tale on cassette tapes, which we learn in the Historical Notes, also points to this period.

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When was The Handmaid's Tale written?

The Handmaid's Tale was first published in 1986. The novel is set in the near future and serves as a warning of the direction in which the world might be heading.

At the time of writing the novel, Margaret Atwood was concerned by events taking place in the US. There had been a swing towards more conservative politics when the right-wing Republican Ronald Reagan became president. This was accompanied by the increasing popularity of right-wing Christian groups such as the Moral Majority. Advocating a return to more traditional values, these groups campaigned to ban abortion. As part of their promotion of family values, the Moral Majority argued that women should return to their traditional homemaking roles.

During this period, some of the most prominent spokespeople for the reversal of women's rights were women. Phyllis Schlafly, for example, led a movement to obstruct the passing of the Equal Rights Amendment. This desire to reverse women's rights arose as a backlash against the feminist movement of the 1960s and 1970s.

In The Handmaid's Tale, Atwood explores what might happen if these right-wing movements became powerful enough to take over the US. By highlighting the miserable fates of handmaids like Offred, the novel shows the consequences of interfering with women's reproductive and employment rights. Meanwhile, in the character of Serena Joy , the author critiques women like Phyllis Schlafly who fought to eradicate the rights women fought so hard to achieve. After encouraging other women to return to more traditional roles as a TV televangelist, Serena Joy...

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is shown to be miserable when she has to follow her own advice:

She doesn't make speeches anymore. She has become speechless. She stays in her home, but it doesn't seem to agree with her. How furious she must be, now that she's been taken at her word.

Another influence on The Handmaid's Tale was the oppressive political atmosphere of East Germany in the 1980s. While writing the novel, Atwood spent some time in West Berlin, which was still separated from East Germany by the Berlin Wall. Gilead's secret police (the Eyes) and the killing of anyone who opposes the regime were inspired by the real-life tactics of Communist-controlled East Germany.

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