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The Handmaid's Tale

by Margaret Atwood

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Introduction

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So, you’re going to teach The Handmaid’s Tale, a mainstay of English classrooms and Margaret Atwood’s most iconic work. Whether it’s your first or hundredth time guiding students through the novel, teaching The Handmaid's Tale will ensure a rewarding experience for everyone—including you. While it has its challenges—sexism, violence, and bigotry—studying this text will expose students to the rhetorical power of literary devices like allusion and narrative voice and engage them in discussing worthwhile themes, such as religious extremism and freedom versus confinement. This guide highlights some of the most salient aspects of the text before you begin teaching.

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Facts at a Glance

  • Publication Date: 1985 
  • Recommended Grade Level: 9–Undergraduate 
  • Approximate Word Count: 106, 100 
  • Author: Margaret Atwood 
  • Country of Origin: Canada 
  • Genre: Speculative Fiction 
  • Conflict: Person vs. Society, Person vs. Person, Person vs. Self 
  • Narration: First-Person Limited 
  • Setting: Cambridge, Massachusetts, under the Republic of Gilead that has replaced the USA 
  • Structure: Prose Novel 
  • Mood: Fearful, Apprehensive, Dark


Texts That Go Well with The Handmaid’s Tale

Brave New World by English writer Aldous Huxley. Like The Handmaid’s Tale, Brave New World is a dystopian novel that explores the dangers of trying to create a perfect society. The novel, published in 1932, is set in the World State, a futuristic government that rules over most of the globe. The World State is populated by genetically modified citizens organized within an intelligence-based social hierarchy. Scientific and technological advancements erode individualism and imperfection in the name of creating a utopian society. Only John, who grew up outside of the World State and whose worldview derives from Shakespeare’s plays, questions the government’s authoritarianism. 

Fahrenheit 451 by American writer Ray Bradbury. Fahrenheit 451, published in 1953, is a dystopian novel set in a futuristic American society wherein book burning is a common practice carried out by “firemen.” The novel’s protagonist, Guy Montag, is a fireman who becomes uncomfortable with the practice of censorship. He eventually dedicates himself to protecting literature. Like Atwood, Bradbury explores the dangers of policing thoughts and of stamping out dissenting ideas. 

Nineteen Eighty-Four by English author George Orwell. Like The Handmaid’s Tale, Nineteen Eighty-Four, often published as 1984, is a dystopian novel. Orwell depicts a world oppressed by continuous war, rampant propaganda, and constant government surveillance by the Thought Police. Protagonist Winston Smith dreams of rebelling against the “Party,” led by Big Brother, that rules Airstrip One—formerly Great Britain—which is a province of the superstate Oceania. 

Puritan Laws and Character by historian Henry William Elson. Published in 1904, Puritan Laws and Character is a nonfiction work about the Puritans, a religious group of English Reformed Protestants who founded the Massachusetts Bay Colony and exerted great influence over colonialist America. Have students compare the Puritans to the Sons of Jacob in The Handmaid’s Tale

Slaughterhouse-Five by American novelist Kurt Vonnegut. Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children’s Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death, was published in 1969 and is a pseudo-autobiographical science-fiction work set during World War II. The novel follows Billy Pilgrim, an American soldier and chaplain’s assistant, through a series of traumatic and bizarre events—including surviving the Allies’ firebombing of Dresden and being captured by aliens called Tralfamadorians—told in nonlinear fashion. Like The Handmaid’s Tale, Slaughterhouse-Five uses science fiction to explore controversial themes like perpetual war, emotional trauma, and corruption.

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Key Plot Points