The Handmaid's Tale Additional Summary

Margaret Atwood


(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Dire explorations of future societies, dystopias, have usually been written by and about men. What future hell awaits women? Margaret Atwood asked, after surveying major news stories of the early 1980’s: industrial pollution, surrogate parenthood, AIDS, conservative backlash, televangelism, and oppressive regimes in Argentina and Iran. The Handmaid’s Tale is her imaginative answer. In this bleak narrative, the government of the United States has been overthrown by the Republic of Gilead, a theocracy based on total conformity and reactionary Christianity. With human fertility reduced, by toxic pollution, to crisis point, the fecund womb is now Gilead’s most valuable resource. Consequently, it has been nationalized. A Puritan polygamy, inspired by the Old Testament and by Mormon pioneers in Utah, has been imposed as the norm.

Offred, who tells her story, is an official womb, a red-clad handmaid. Once she had a family identity, but now even her personal name is unknown. She is simply “of-Fred,” bearing the name of the Commander to whom she is assigned. Her chief duty is regular participation in the “Ceremony,” during which Fred, in the presence of his wife and servants, must attempt to impregnate Offred. If he should succeed, her offspring, like those of handmaids of old, will become the possession of his wife, Serena Joy, once a televangelist known for her tears and songs.

Daily life in the Republic of Gilead is detailed....

(The entire section is 436 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

The Handmaid’s Tale begins near Boston in the mid-1980’s. A faction of right-wing Christians establishes a dictatorship after killing members of the United States government. The result is Gilead, an ultraconservative country that denies women power. Women are unable to hold jobs, use credit cards, or seek education. Also, massive pollution exists due to nuclear and biological warfare. Radioactive territory, known as the Colonies, becomes the home of Jews and of other minorities, because the new government wants only to propagate members of their own sect. Essentially, Atwood has created a dystopia which stands in direct opposition to an ideal world or utopia. Atwood drew upon research about present-day trends in environmental degradation and diseases to create an authentic setting.

Due to massive pollution and to the spread of sexually transmitted diseases, reproduction is difficult for women. Many babies are miscarried or born with defects. Women who cannot reproduce, as well as homosexuals, are considered worthless and are banished to the Colonies. Women are divided up into classes; colored clothing is used to separate the classes. The government establishes a secret police force to arrest fertile women, who become Handmaids. These Handmaids are breeders who must participate in sexual acts in order to create more members of the white race.

The women are given names that represent the men who control their lives; these names signify that women have lost their identities and that they are victimized by men. One such woman, named “Offred” is ripped away from her family. She is forced to be a Handmaid and is relocated to a center to receive the proper training for her new vocation. The Re-education Center is enclosed by barbed wire, and the conditions are rudimentary. Offred maintains her individuality, while acting as if she is conforming to the ways of the...

(The entire section is 778 words.)


(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Set in the near future, a time just prior to the year 2000, The Handmaid’s Tale is science fiction but also an indictment of the present, since Atwood’s future is the reader’s present. It is an atypical Atwood novel, her only novel not rooted in Canada and the only one to be so blatantly propagandistic. In it, she fulfills the promise of her narrator protagonist in Lady Oracle (1976): “I won’t write any more Costume Gothics. . . . But maybe I’ll try some science fiction.” Atwood prefers the term “speculative fiction” because of the blending of future and present and maintains that all the events in the novel have a “corresponding reality, either in contemporary conditions or historical fact.” Since the novel is set in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Atwood also indicts the American culture, which contains the “corresponding reality.”

The novel begins with a quotation from the book of Genesis about a barren Rachel encouraging her husband Jacob to have children by her maid, Bilhah. In the aftermath of nuclear war, a new North American republic called Gilead (another biblical reference to fertility) attempts to correct a declining birthrate, caused by nuclear radiation and pollutants, by relegating fertile women to the role of Bilhah-like Handmaids, the breeders of society. (In fact, all Gilead women are assigned to one of eight roles, each distinguished by its own uniform.) In such a patriarchal society where religion, state, and military are combined, women’s identities are controlled by men. Offred, the narrator, has lost her real name; she is “of Fred,” in reference to the commander whom she services in a perverse, impersonal sexual coupling with his wife, Serena Joy, at the head of the bed. At the beginning of the novel, Offred recounts her training under the aunts—also a perverse parody of the training that nuns and sisters undergo; Offred’s uniform, though red, resembles a nun’s habit.

Despite her indoctrination, Offred chafes under the repressive...

(The entire section is 828 words.)


(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Sometime in the past, Protestant fundamentalists assassinate the U.S. president and the Congress and set up a theocratic regime called the Republic of Gilead. In this totalitarian state, women are under the domination of men. They cannot hold jobs, own property, or have bank accounts in their own names. Nor are they allowed to read or write. Forced into the role of Handmaid, Offred is stripped of her own name and called by her master’s name, Fred, preceded by “of.”

Pollution and nuclear accidents make sterility a problem in Gilead (though officially only women could be sterile). Fertile women who are political dissidents or who are in marriages considered outside the law of the church, such as second marriages after divorce, are conscripted to serve as concubines to the political leaders of Gilead, whose wives are often sterile or past the age of childbearing.

Offred is obliged to endure an act of copulation with the Commander once a month in the hope that she will have a child. During the act, she rests between the legs of the Commander’s wife in a ritual believed to be sanctioned by biblical precedent. In the Old Testament, Rachel commands Jacob to sleep with her maid Billah: “Go in unto her, and she shall bear upon my knees, that I may have children by her.” Offred hopes to conceive because it is her only safeguard against being sent to the “colonies,” where women viewed as expendable are sent to clean up battlefields or nuclear waste sites.

Besides her monthly sexual obligations to the Commander, Offred’s only duty is to walk out once a day to do the shopping for the household. She has to wear a prescribed costume consisting of a bright red ankle-length dress that conceals her body and a white headdress with wide wings that constricts her vision. In her shopping excursions, Offred has a partner, another Handmaid named Ofglen. After making their purchases, Ofglen and Offred almost always walk to the “the wall.” On the wall, the hooded bodies of recently executed traitors to the regime are displayed. On these occasions, Offred looks for the body of her husband, Luke. Although Offred hopes that Luke is still alive, the likeliest possibility is that he had been killed...

(The entire section is 910 words.)