Critical Context (Masterplots II: Juvenile & Young Adult Literature Series)
The Handmaid’s Tale has become a classic. While it can certainly be called a feminist work of literature, it is not uncritical of contemporary feminism and of other social movements that, in their intensity, can turn intolerant and bring out the very antisocial and antihuman conditions that they protest.
Several critics have compared Atwood’s novel to Nineteen Eight-four because both novels show the plight of individuals in a one-party state that puritanically controls people’s lives. Like George Orwell, who picked 1984 as the year in which the totalitarian tendencies of the late 1940’s might culminate, Atwood picks an unspecified but near future in order to suggest the place to which the social trends of her own time might be leading.
Although Offred is clearly past her teens but still of childbearing age—her age is not specified—The Handmaid’s Tale can also be looked upon as a Bildungsroman or coming-of-age novel, which shows how the main character educates himself or herself. Often, the heroes or heroines of these works discover that society is corrupt and unjust. They learn this truth through personal relationships that also teach them to reject the adults who have control over them. Like Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, Offred has an instinctive grasp of what is right and wrong, even if society tells her otherwise. She has a conscience and a sense of humanity that transcend the laws of political systems and the rules of society.