The Handmaid's Tale Key Ideas and Commentary
by Margaret Atwood

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The Handmaid’s Tale

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

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a credible explanation for the abrupt collapse of constitutional government and a clear sense of the good which has been replaced by the present evil.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


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...

(The entire section is 3,651 words.)