lllustration of six women wearing long, loose red dresses

The Handmaid's Tale

by Margaret Atwood

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What are the three key settings in Margret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale?

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Some of the most important settings in the novel are rooms in the Commander's house: Offred's bedroom, the sitting room in which the family meets prior to the Ceremony, and the bedroom in which the Ceremony takes place.

Offred's description of the room in which she sleeps ("not [her] room, [she] refuse[s] to say [her]") acquaints us with some aspects of this unfamiliar reality and her standing in the community. She says, "They've removed anything you could tie a rope to." We can piece together the idea that this life she's living is considered to be too awful to many women, and so they've chosen suicide rather than this limited and objectified existence. It has "A bed. Single, mattress medium-hard, covered with a flocked white spread." From this description, we learn that Offred is alone most of the time (a single bed), that her comfort is not really of concern to community and household leaders (a medium-hard mattress), and that she is not granted the opportunity for personal expression (her blanket is utilitarian—notice she doesn't call it a "comforter" but a "spread"); even its color, white, could be symbolic of the community's expectations of her: that she be a pure vessel. She is not sexual, not dirty; she has a purpose, a sanctified one.

The sitting room is where the household assembles prior to the Ceremony. When Offred enters, she says, "I don't sit, but take my place, kneeling, near the chair with the footstool where Serena Joy will shortly enthrone herself, leaning on her cane while she lowers herself down. Possibly she'll put a hand on my shoulder, to steady herself, as if I'm a piece of furniture." Here, the household structure is enforced. The Commander, alone, can read, and he reads passages from the Bible as if to prepare himself, his wife, and Offred for the Ceremony. Serena Joy breaks the rules, wearing contraband perfume, smoking a cigarette, letting the household watch the news: small rebellions because she cannot stage a larger one. Offred kneels, the only person who must, reinforcing her position as the lowest member of the household: she's a fixture, like furniture, and not really a person. Also, when the Commander knocks, Offred says, "The knock is prescribed: the sitting room is supposed to be Serena Joy's territory, he's supposed to ask permission to enter it." Territories and rules are important here, and women are touchy about what powers they do have because they have so few.

Finally, the bedroom in which the Ceremony takes place is another important setting. Offred says, "What's going on in this room, under Serena Joy's silvery canopy, is not exciting. It has nothing to do with passion or love or romance or any of those other notions we used to titillate ourselves with. It has nothing to do with sexual desire, at least for me, and certainly not for Serena." Here, we understand fully Offred's significance, her role in the community, as well as the depths of humiliation that even Serena Joy must bear. Both women are victims of a kind, as are all women in this community.

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The three most important settings in The Handmaid's Tale are the Commander's home, the school where the handmaids are re-educated, and the changing times that are recounted in the narrator's flashbacks..

The Commander's home is clearly the most important setting in regards to the novel's plot, because this is where the majority of the story occurs. This is where everything that has been created by the Gilead founders is practiced. This is where the ceremony, the subjugation of the women and the de-feminization of women occur.

Massachusetts before the revolution is the most important setting in regards to theme. Throughout this time period, the narrator recalls the changing social view in relation to women. The way the narrator describes it, the killing of women went unnoticed and the subtle removal of women's rights were excused away. This is the part in which Margaret Atwood is warning her readers to be aware of what's happening today because the future could be the one the narrator is living in.

The most interesting setting is the one where the narrator is re-educated to be a handmaid. This is where the narrator begins to notice all the things that have changed. Listen to her description of the high school gym where she sleeps:

We slept in what had once been the gymnasium. The floor was of varnished wood, with stripes and circles painted on it, for the games that were formerly played there; the hoops for the basketball nets were still in place, though the nets were gone. A balcony ran around the room, for the spectators, and I thought I could smell, faintly like an afterimage, the pungent scent of sweat, shot through with the sweet taint of chewing gum and perfume from the watching girls, felt-skirted as I knew from pictures, later in miniskirts, then pants, then in one earring, spiky green-streaked hair.


There was old sex in the room and loneliness, and expectation, of something without a shape or name. I remember that yearning, for something that was always about to happen and was never the same as the hands that were on us there and then, in the small of the back, or out back, in the parking lot, or in the television room with the sound turned down and only the pictures flickering over lifting flesh.

Both show the narrator's yearning for the possibilities of the past.

There are many other settings in this story that are interesting. The difference between night and day, for example, would be interesting to explore. The club the Commander takes the narrator to would be interesting. The streets the handmaids walk through to do shopping would also be interesting.

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