The Handmaid's Tale Style, Form, and Literary Elements
by Margaret Atwood

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Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

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Gilead. Future name for the northeastern section of the United States. In Margaret Atwood’s vision of the future, the government of the United States has been overthrown by a group of right-wing, conservative Christians bent on transforming what they see as a decadent society into a theocracy. Atwood draws on the culture of the United States in 1985 and extrapolates what might happen if trends present in that year were to continue into the future. For example, in Gilead, birth rates have plummeted as a result of widespread contamination of the air, water, and earth. Further, Christians, sickened by divorce, pornography, and abortion, outlaw all three. They also take away a woman’s right to own property or have money of her own; everything is in her husband’s name. Women who have been divorced but who are proven to be fertile, such as the main character in the novel, are found guilty of the crime of adultery, and are given to the rulers of Gilead in order to provide children for childless couples.

Atwood deliberately places Gilead in New England; landmarks such as the library and the wall are clearly taken from Cambridge, where Harvard University is located. The irony in this location is twofold: In the first place, Massachusetts was first established as a theocracy by the pilgrim fathers, who applied a strict interpretation of the Bible to all aspects of life. Indeed, it was the Puritans of the seventeenth century who were responsible for the Salem witch trials and subsequent burnings.

As a side note, Atwood, a Canadian writer, dedicates the novel to her ancestor, Mary Webster, a woman convicted of witchcraft in Salem and sentenced to hang. When she was cut down from the scaffold in the morning, she was found to be still alive and was thus set free. Webster immigrated to Canada soon after. The second irony is that Harvard University is the premier site of learning in the United States. Gilead, by contrast, is a country ruled by keeping people ignorant. Written language is reserved for only the most powerful men; pictographs replace signs, and women are not permitted to read. Furthermore, Atwood’s second dedication is to Perry Miller, her professor of American literature at Harvard University. In the closing sequence of the book, an academic recognized by critics as being a parody of Miller addresses a large academic assembly. The academic reveals himself to be both ignorant and patronizing in his analysis of the state of Gilead.


Colonies. Unspecified location where infertile women, or “unwomen,” and divorced women are sent to clean up toxic waste. The major threat made against the handmaids is that they will be sent to the colonies if they do not comply with the demands of the commanders and Gileadian society. In addition, handmaids who have three assignments without producing an offspring are automatically sent to the colonies. Postmenopausal and divorced women who refuse to become handmaids are also sent to the colonies. Life is extremely cruel in this location, and most women survive only a short time.


*Canada. While none of the action of the book takes place in Canada, the country represents freedom to the persecuted of Gilead. Indeed, the narrator of the book and her husband are arrested as they try to flee to Canada with their daughter. The final section of the book suggests that the narrator once again tried to flee to Canada and hid for a time in a barn in Maine, a hideout on the underground “frailroad,” modeled on the Underground Railroad instituted by abolitionists in the years before the American Civil War.

Form and Content

(Survey of Young Adult Fiction)

Offred, the narrator of The Handmaid’s Tale , is one of a class of women who are trained to serve the master class—in this case, the Commander and his wife, Serena Joy. Offred remembers and indeed yearns for the husband and child that belonged to her in the time that the Republic of Gilead was the United States. All the democratic rights that were taken for granted in America have...

(The entire section is 2,804 words.)