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The Handmaid's Tale

by Margaret Atwood

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What is The Handmaid's Tale?

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The Handmaid's Tale is a 1985 dystopian novel exploring themes of women's oppression and identity.

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The Handmaid's Tale is a 1985 dystopian novel by Margaret Atwood. The story follows a woman called Offred, an enslaved woman living in the Republic of Gilead, a theocratic totalitarian state which has overthrown the United States government. Environmental catastrophe has negatively affected birthrates and fertility, and Offred is one of the few fertile women remaining, so she is made a breeding slave for a man called the Commander. The novel covers her daily life within and eventual rebellion against the Gilead regime.

The novel explores themes of women's identity in a patriarchal regime. In a society where women are forced into specific classes of servitude, some remain silent and compliant in order to stay alive, while others try to speak out as best they can. Offred's own narration is revealed to be a tape recording—her attempt to make her own voice heard in a world where the female perspective is denied validity. Language becomes highly important as ways for women to connect with one another and the world, a fact emphasized by Gilead's criminalizing women's literacy.

While the novel has been criticized as unrealistic regarding the Religious Right and too sketchy in its world-building, its portrayal of a dystopian regime and exploration of the merging of sexuality and politics have made it a perennial favorite. The book's popularity has inspired a number of adaptations in different mediums over the years, most famously a 2016 TV series starring Elizabeth Moss. In 2019, Atwood released The Testaments, a sequel set fifteen years after the events of the original story.

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What is The Handmaid's Tale about?

The Handmaid's Tale is about a woman who lives in a dystopian, horribly misogynist community in what used to be the state of Massachusetts in the United States. This new country is called Gilead, and it purports to be based on biblical precedents. For example, the narrator's role in the community is based on a biblical handmaid's role in the family she serves.

In the biblical story, Bilhah serves Rachel, a woman who learns that she cannot bear children. Rachel tells her husband, Jacob, to impregnate Bilhah, her maid, and Bilhah will bear Rachel's children for her as a sort of surrogate. The narrator of The Handmaid's Tale serves as the handmaid for one Commander's family, and it is her job to get pregnant by him so that she can give the child up to his wife.

Fertility has decreased as a result of environmental pollution, and so single women who are believed to be fertile were given a choice between becoming handmaids and going to clean up toxic waste in "the Colonies." Offred, the narrator (whose new name is a combination of the word "of" and her Commander, Fred's, first name), has three opportunities to bear a viable child for Gilead; if she fails, she is sent to the Colonies anyway. There is a resistance movement called "Mayday" which does eventually get Offred out of Gilead after her Commander begins an illegal relationship with her.

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