The Handmaid’s Tale

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Last Updated on June 4, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 731

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...

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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a credible explanation for the abrupt collapse of constitutional government and a clear sense of the good which has been replaced by the present evil.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 Plot

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Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 515

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

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Last Updated on June 4, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 513

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

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Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1892

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.

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