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The Handmaid's Tale

by Margaret Atwood

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Last Updated on June 4, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 604


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...

(This entire section contains 604 words.)

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American Civil War.

Form and Content

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Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 574

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 vanished in this future world—including a woman’s right to marry, to hold a job, or to do anything without the approval of her master and mistress.

Offred speaks as a character who has partially become accustomed to this new world. She is aware that it came about because of the social chaos of American democracy. There was too much violence; people were too free to do as they liked. At least this is how the United States is viewed from the perspective of Offred’s authoritarian society. Yet, Offred has not been brainwashed. Like Winston Smith in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four (1948), she has a mind of her own, but she has to conceal it. She is afraid of being punished for her independent thoughts. She has a friend, Moira, who represents everything that Offred would like to be. Moira is outspoken and rebellious. She does not accept the subjection of women for a moment or believe that any class of people has the right to rule others.

Offred is wistful about the past. It is hard to recall, however, when her present is so filled with her duties as a Handmaid. She is surprised when the Commander takes an interest in her—proposing they attend a costume party and then making sexual advances to her. In the Republic of Gilead, Handmaids such as Offred are only meant to be procreators—that is, they have sex with their masters only for the purposes of childbearing. The Commander, however, obviously chafes under the rigid, puritanical regime, and he looks to Offred to relieve his frustrations, even though he is breaking the very rules that he is pledged to uphold.

Offred uses the Commander’s attentions to win a few freedoms for herself, realizing that to the Commander she is merely a plaything and that he cannot be trusted with her real inner feelings. She must also be cautious because Serena Joy, the Commander’s wife, would surely have Offred punished if she were to discover that Offred and her husband had a sexual relationship outside of their officially sanctioned mating sessions. Offred finds her true lover in Nick, who is also employed by the Commander and his wife. Nick risks certain death if his liaison with Offred is discovered, yet the couple (again like Winston Smith and his beloved in Nineteen Eighty-four) are compelled to express their humanity by carrying on their secret affair. In each other they find an outlet for expressing all those emotional human needs that their society represses by restricting both males and females to prescribed roles.

Offred’s fate is not entirely clear because the novel ends with an appendix that reveals that Offred’s narrative has been discovered by a later society—one that apparently has restored something like the equality of the sexes and individual liberties that Offred desired. From the perspective of the appendix, then, Offred’s narrative becomes a kind of Old Testament, a record of the human quest for self-expression and redemption.

Form and Content

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Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 776

Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale takes place in the United States at the turn of the twenty-first century. A revolution sponsored by fundamentalist leaders has produced a monolithic theocracy called the Republic of Gilead. Although inspired by divine power, the administrators of Gilead rely on human control to implement their religion-based policies. Overt military control is conducted through a series of agents—such as Commanders, Eyes, and Guardians—who use electronic devices, blockades, and spies to maintain surveillance over the population. Those who are not members of the Gilead forces become servants, a role reserved almost exclusively for women.

Women, who the revolution was supposedly fought in part to protect, are relegated to serving in eight narrowly defined categories easily identified by the color of their prescribed wardrobe. The blue-clad wives of the Commanders are the most visible of all the women in Gilead. They are to preside over the Commanders’ homes, create beautiful gardens, and attend social functions, which include public hangings and ritual beatings of men who break the Gilead rules. The green-clad Marthas are responsible for cooking and keeping the house clean. Econowives, women married to midlevel members of the Gilead administration, wear multicolored uniforms to designate their mixed functions as housewife, cook, maid, and mother. A small number of women wear black, widows whose life is ill-defined in Gilead; as a result, they are rarely seen. Two other groups of women are not seen in Gilead: the gray-clad Unwomen, those who refused to cooperate with the system and have been sent to work in the Colonies (where environmental pollution will soon kill them), and the women who work in the underground brothel, where the Commanders go for pleasures that are officially restricted by the republic. The remaining two categories of women rival the wives in importance. The Aunts, wearing Nazi-brown dresses, train the other group to become surrogate mothers. Because of the environmental pollution, the loss of life during the revolutionary fighting, and the age of some of the wives, sterility has become Gilead’s most visible problem. The solution to this problem is the procurement of fertile women who will bear children for the Commanders, the red-clad Handmaids.

The Handmaid is limited to offering her body as a vessel for procreation during bizarre bedroom encounters with the Commander and his wife. Lying fully clothed in her red habit between the open thighs of the wife, the Handmaid receives the Commander, who is also clothed except for an open zipper. No communication between the Commander and the Handmaid is allowed. The sexual encounter becomes both asexual and pornographic at the same time.

The birth of a child consumes Serena Joy, the wife of one Commander, to such an extent that she accepts the private nighttime meetings of her husband and the Handmaid Offred in the hope that this might lead to a pregnancy. These private encounters allow both the Commander and Offred to assume more human qualities than either is allowed by the republic. Both at first relish the intellectual cat-and-mouse game that develops between them. Offred continues the game because the Commander provides items that she otherwise would never have, such as magazines, alcohol, and special soaps. The Commander pursues the game in the hope of creating a sexual intimacy that is not permitted during the procreation ritual. The game does not produce the desired result, however, for either the Commander or Serena Joy: Offred does not become pregnant. Desperate to produce a child for her house and bask in the rewards of Gilead’s society, Serena Joy secretly employs the Commander’s chauffeur, Nick, to have sex with Offred. At first hesitant, Nick and Offred discover a sexuality with each other that the republic forbids. Thus, even when the private meetings are ended by Serena Joy, Offred continues to sneak to Nick’s room when possible. At about the same time, the Commander takes Offred for a nighttime excursion to an underground brothel. Once there, Offred is reunited with her college friend Moira, a rebel. Although glad to see her, Offred is dismayed that Moira is a prostitute. Moira explains that the decision was either to die in the poisonous Colonies or to remain alive and endure—to perhaps escape, as she has done twice before.

Moira’s courage, Offred’s revulsion to the brothel, and her exploitation by another woman, Serena Joy, lead to Offred’s decision to attempt escape. Befriended by another Handmaid, Ofglen, who has contacts with the underground, and assisted by Nick, Offred escapes and attempts to reach Canada. During her trip north, she discovers a tape recorder and tells the Handmaid’s tale.

Literary Techniques

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 544

In The Handmaid's Tale Atwood again uses her trademark Gothicism to convey the grotesque dislocations produced by Gilead's social agenda. The hallucinatory imagery filling Offred's narration, usually Atwood's way of revealing the intense psychic alienation of her protagonists, here derives from horrific governmental policies made all the more haunting by Offred's matter-of-fact delivery. Harvard Yard has been turned into a public torture and execution area, with the bodies of "gender traitors" such as homosexuals, rapists, adulterers, and abortionists regularly displayed as evidence of the fate awaiting the unorthodox. Women participate in violent group assaults called "particicutions," in which supposed criminals are literally ripped to shreds by frenzied female mobs. Gilead's extensive behavioral rules eerily contribute to the ominous climate surrounding women. The red robes and white blinders the handmaids wear, as well as the demure and silent pairings in which they travel in public, offer only two examples of how Atwood builds the disorienting atmosphere of the novel. Offred's first-person interior monologue intensifies the reader's experience of the claustrophobic entrapment women suffer in Gilead. A familiar narrative device in Atwood's fiction, here it receives two compelling twists, both revealed at the novel's conclusion. One is the sudden opening out of the text from its Gileadean milieu to a futuristic frame of reference set in 2195, some two hundred years after the events just described. This epilogue is presented as "a partial transcript" of a yearly conference of academics engaged in the study of Gilead, now a defunct society primarily of interest to antiquarians. Such a transition releases readers from the suffocating confinement of Offred's consciousness and offers the reassurance that the historical nightmare recorded in the text proper has ended. The inter-textual complexity generated by the tonal layerings of the epilogue qualifies such effects, however. Atwood presents the scholarly conference satirically, not only exposing the reductive treatment being given Offred's riveting story but raising provocative doubts about just how much of Gilead's patriarchal repression has in fact passed away. While women and men function as seeming equals within this academic community, the female chair of the conference busily orchestrates the social niceties of the occasion as backdrop to the remarks of the male speaker, Professor James Darcy Pieixoto. The professor reveals a penchant for sexist humor and evinces far greater interest in discovering the identity of the Commander than in Offred's own story.

Pieixoto also reveals the other narrative "trick" at work in the text: the news that Offred's voice has survived, not as a written document, but as a series of tape-recordings made after her escape from Boston. Just as the recovery of women's history is often dependent upon nonliterary and oral forms, Offred's tapes speak across centuries of a woman's hunger to reclaim and validate her life. Yet the narrative composed from her tapes is the work of an insensitive male and his faceless assistants who have become interpretive mediators intruding between the reader and the speaker. The professor entitles their text The Handmaid's Tale — not only a self-conscious homage to Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales but a smirking sexual distortion of the great poet's original language. To Pieixoto's final comment, "Are there any questions?" one is prompted to ask, in true postmodern perplexity, just whose story exists within these pages after all.

Literary Precedents

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 306

Much has been made of Atwood's obvious indebtedness to the tradition of dystopian fiction preceding. The Handmaid's Tale, most notably George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-four (1949) and Aldous Huxley's Brave New World (1932). Atwood's work is anti-utopian in its concern with the power constructions whereby ideologically driven regimes establish and maintain their dominance over select populations. She uses differentiations based on gender, race and class to imagine a rigidly hierarchical society whose absolutist cultural values, permitting no compromise, foster brutal persecution of "deviance." Dystopian fictions are cautionary tales that warn against what their authors view as society's most dangerous existing tendencies. The nightmarish ambiance born of the genre's characteristic extremism saturates The Handmaid's Tale, whose alien philosophical and political foundation rests paradoxically upon enough familiar detail to make it jarringly immediate.

Atwood claims that every abuse and horror of Gilead social policy has either been practiced at one time in history or has a direct parallel in the contemporary world. She has been faulted by some critics for not having imagined as self-enclosed and original a new society as exists in Nineteen Eighty-four but Atwood argues that Gilead is intended as a relatively recent historical development without the temporal leap into the future that characterizes other such fictions. She also eschews labeling the novel science fiction, preferring to call it "speculative fiction."

In comparison to this dystopian element, very little attention has been paid to the tradition of feminist Utopian writing with which The Handmaid's Tale is also in dialogue. Unlike Charlotte Perkins Gilman's Herland or Marge Piercy's more recent Woman on the Edge of Time (1976), both of which present idealized communities where hierarchical gender polarizations and the conflicts they produce are replaced by virtues associated with female culture such as nurturance and egalitarianism, Atwood's novel posits a dark alternative where female subservience is the central fact of society.


Key Ideas and Commentary


Historical and Social Context