The Handmaid's Tale

The Handmaid's Tale
The Handmaid's Tale  
Cover of first edition (hardcover)
Author(s) Margaret Atwood
Cover artist Tad Aronowcz, design; Gail Geltner, collage (first edition, hardback)
Country Canada
Language English
Genre(s) dystopian novel, science fiction or speculative fiction
Publisher McClelland and Stewart
Publication date 1985 (Hardcover)
Media type Print (Hardcover and paperback)
Pages 324
ISBN ISBN 0771008139
Preceded by Bodily Harm
Followed by Cat's Eye

The Handmaid's Tale is a dystopian novel, a work of science fiction or speculative fiction,[1] written by Canadian author Margaret Atwood[2][3] and first published by McClelland and Stewart in 1985. Set in the near future, in a totalitarian theocracy which has overthrown the United States government, The Handmaid's Tale explores themes of women in subjugation and the various means by which they gain agency. The novel's title was inspired by Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales, which is a series of connected stories ("The Merchant's Tale", "The Parson's Tale", etc.).[4]

The Handmaid's Tale won the 1985 Governor General's Award and the first Arthur C. Clarke Award in 1987, and it was nominated for the 1986 Nebula Award, the 1986 Booker Prize, and the 1987 Prometheus Award. It has been adapted for the cinema, radio, opera, and stage.


Plot summary

The Handmaid's Tale is set in the near future in the Republic of Gilead, a country formed within the borders of what was formerly the United States of America. It was founded by a racist, male chauvinist, nativist, theocratic-organized military coup as an ideologically driven response to the pervasive ecological, physical and social degradation of the country.

Beginning with a staged terrorist attack (blamed on Islamic extremist terrorists) that kills the President and most of Congress, a movement calling itself the "Sons of Jacob" launched a revolution and suspended the United States Constitution under the pretext of restoring order.

Taking advantage of electronic banking, they were quickly able to freeze the assets of all women and other "undesirables" in the country, stripping them of their rights. The new theocratic military dictatorship, styled "The Republic of Gilead", moved quickly to consolidate its power and reorganize society along a new militarized, hierarchical, compulsorily Christian regime of Old Testament-inspired social and religious orthodoxy among its newly created social classes.[citation needed]

The story is presented from the point of view of a woman called Offred (a patronymic name that means "Of Fred", referring to the man she serves). The character is one of a class of individuals kept as concubines ("handmaids") for reproductive purposes by the ruling class in an era of declining births. The book is told in the first person by Offred, who describes her life during her third assignment as a handmaid, in this case to Fred (referred to as "The Commander"). Interspersed in flashbacks are portions her life from the beginnings of the revolution, when she finds she has lost all autonomy to her husband, through her failed attempt to escape with her husband and daughter to Canada, to her indoctrination into life as a handmaid. Through her eyes, the structure of Gilead's society is described, including the several different categories of women and their circumscribed lives in the new theocracy.

The Commander, a high ranking official in Gilead, participates in a sexual ritual (known as "The Ceremony") once a month with his wife and Offred (who lies upon the wife) in an attempt to conceive. During Offred's assignment at the Commander's house, he begins an illegal and ambiguous relationship with her, exposing Offred to many hidden or contraband aspects of the new society, such as fashion magazines and cosmetics. He takes her to a secret brothel run by the government, and he furtively meets with her in his study, where he allows her the contraband activity of reading. The Commander's wife strikes a deal with Offred—she arranges for Offred to secretly have sex with her driver Nick in an effort to get her pregnant. The Commander's wife believes the Commander to be sterile, a subversive belief as official Gilead policy is that only women can be sterile. In exchange for Offred's cooperation, the Commander's wife gives her news of her daughter, whom Offred has not seen since she and her family were captured trying to escape Gilead.

After Offred's initial meeting with Nick, they begin to rendezvous more frequently. Offred finds herself enjoying sex with Nick despite her indoctrination, and even goes as far as to divulge potentially dangerous information about her past. Through another handmaid, Ofglen, Offred learns of the Mayday resistance, an underground network with the intent of overthrowing Gilead. Shortly after Ofglen's disappearance (later discovered to be a suicide), the Commander's wife finds evidence of the relationship between Offred and the Commander, and Offred contemplates suicide. As the novel concludes, she is being taken away by men from the secret police, known as the Eyes, in a large black van under orders from Nick. Before she is taken away, Nick tells her that the men are part of the Mayday resistance and that Offred must trust him. Offred does not know if Nick is truly a member of the Mayday resistance or if he is a government agent posing as one, and she does not know if going with the men will result in her escape or her capture. She enters the van with a final thought on her uncertain future.

The novel concludes with a metafictional epilogue that explains that the events of the novel occurred shortly after the beginning of what is called "the Gilead Period." The epilogue itself is a "transcription of a Symposium on Gileadean Studies written some time in the distant future (2195)", and according to the symposium's "keynote speaker" Professor Pieixoto, he and "a colleague", Professor Knotly Wade, discovered Offred's narrative recorded onto thirty cassette tapes. They created a "probable order" for these tapes and transcribed them, calling them collectively "the handmaid's tale".[5][6][7][8] The epilogue implies that, following the collapse of the theocratic Republic of Gilead, a more equal society re-emerged with a return of the legal rights of women and also Native Americans. It's further suggested that freedom of religion was also re-established.


  • Offred: The protagonist was separated from her husband and daughter after the formation of the Republic of Gilead and is part of the first generation of Gilead's women: those who remember pre-Gilead times. Having proven fertile, she is considered an important commodity and has been placed as a handmaid in the home of the Commander Fred and his wife Serena Joy to bear a child for them (Serena Joy is said to be infertile).[7]
Offred is a patronymic slave name which describes her function: she is "of Fred", i.e. she belongs to her Commander, Fred, as a concubine. It is implied that her birth name is June. The women in training to be handmaids whisper names across their beds at night. The names are "Alma. Janine. Dolores. Moira. June", and all are later accounted for except June. In addition, one of the Aunts tells Offred to stop "mooning and June-ing".[9] Miner suggests that "June" is a pseudonym, as "Mayday" is the name of the Gilead resistance, and it could be an attempt on the protagonist's part to invent a name; the Nunavit conference that takes place in the epilogue is held in June.[10]
The only physical description of Offred presented in the novel is one she gives of herself. Offred describes herself as: "I am thirty-three years old. I have brown hair. I stand five [feet] seven [inches] without shoes".[11] Notably, this description appears about halfway through the novel, so for a significant portion of the book the reader remains ignorant of her physical appearance.
  • The Commander: His background is never officially described, as Offred hasn't a chance to learn of his past, although he does volunteer, in one of their later meetings, that he is a sort of scientist and was previously involved in something like market research. Later, it is hypothesized, but not confirmed, that he might have been one of the architects of the Republic and its laws. His name is presumably "Fred".
As the story progresses, Offred learns that the Commander is dissatisfied with his marriage and his role in society, but is unwilling to bear the risks of abdicating either. He engages in forbidden intellectual pursuits with her, such as playing Scrabble, and introduces her to a secret club that serves as a brothel for high-ranking officers. Offred learns that the Commander carried on a similar relationship with his previous handmaid and that she killed herself when his wife found out. In the epilogue of the book, two identities are suggested to be the Commander, both instrumental in the establishment of Gilead. However, it is strongly suggested that the Commander was a man named Frederick R. Waterford who met his end in a socio-political purge shortly after Offred was taken away.
  • Serena Joy: A former televangelist, she is now a Wife in the fundamentalist theocracy she helped to create. All power and public recognition have been taken away from her by the state, as for all women in Gilead, and her past as a television personality is covered up as much as possible by the regime. Assumed to be sterile (although the possibility is raised that it is the Commander who is actually sterile, as Gileadean theocratic laws dictate that sterility is solely the fault of women), she bears and resents the indignity of having a Handmaid and being present every month during a fertility ritual wherein the Commander has intercourse with the Handmaid while both are lying atop the Wife. She strikes a deal with Offred to arrange for her to have sex with Nick in order to become pregnant. According to Professor Pieixota, in the epilogue, Serena Joy or Pam are pseudonyms for the character's actual name. It is implied that she was actually named Thelma.
  • Ofglen: A neighbour of Offred's and a fellow Handmaid, she is partnered with Offred to do the shopping for the household each day, so that the Handmaids are never alone and can police each others' behaviour. Ofglen is a member of the Mayday resistance, a secret organization that is rebelling against Gilead. In contrast to the relatively passive Offred, Ofglen is very daring, even leaping forward to knock out a spy for the Mayday resistance who is to be tortured and killed in a "particicution" (a portmanteau of "participation" and "execution") in order to save him the pain of a violent death. Ofglen later commits suicide before the government comes to take her away for being part of the resistance.
She is later replaced as Offred's shopping partner by another handmaid, also named Ofglen, who does not seem to share the original Ofglen's feelings about Gilead, and warns Offred against retaining any similar sentiments.
  • Nick: The Commander's chauffeur who lives above the garage. On Serena Joy's suggestion and arrangement, Offred starts a sexual relationship with him to try to increase her chances of getting pregnant and saving herself from being shipped to the ecological and nuclear wastelands of the Colonies. Offred subsequently starts to develop feelings for him, even going so far as to trust him with information about her pre-Gilead life. Nick is an ambiguous character, and Offred does not know if he is a party loyalist or a member of the resistance. Near the end of the story and her time in the Commander's household, Nick urges Offred to go with the secret police despite Offred's uncertainty at whether this move will result in her escape or imprisonment. It is suggested in the epilogue that Nick was indeed a member of the Mayday resistance and that because of him, Offred was able to successfully escape the Commander's house.
  • Moira: a close friend of Offred's since college, hinted in the book to be either Harvard University or Radcliffe College.[citation needed] An important aspect of Moira is her homosexuality and resistance to the new homophobia that rules society. Moira is taken to be a Handmaid shortly after Offred, but both women arrive at the indoctrination center (officially called the Rachel and Leah Center, informally referred to by the Handmaids as the Red Center) at the same time. While at the center, Moira manages to escape by stealing an Aunt's pass and clothes and leaving the Center wearing them. Offred then loses track of her for several years but encounters her working as a prostitute in a party-run brothel. Moira had been caught and offered the choice between being sent to the Colonies or prostitution; she chose prostitution and forced sterilization. In Offred's flashbacks she is shown to be brazen and outspoken, but in the encounter at the brothel she is indifferent and resigned. Moira represents how the totalitarian state can destroy the hearts and characters of the most independent spirits. Moira, once strong and courageous, is now complacent and crushed.
  • Luke: Luke was Offred's husband prior to the formation of the Republic. He had divorced his first wife to marry Offred, and since all divorces have been retroactively nullified by the Gilead government, Offred is considered to be an adulteress and her daughter a bastard. On that pretext, Offred is forced to become a Handmaid and her daughter is given to a family who is faithful to the party. Luke, the narrator, and their daughter try to escape to Canada, but are captured. Offred knows nothing about what happened to Luke and alternatively resigns herself to his death and searches for him among the men in Gilead.
  • Professor Pieixoto: The "co-discoverer [with Professor Knotly Wade] of Offred's tapes" and "keynote speaker at the Twelfth Symposium of the Gileadean Research Association", where he "speaks about the 'Problems of Authentication in Reference to The Handmaid's Tale'."[7] While speaking at the symposium, he makes two jokes about Gilead women, treating their plight with a certain degree of humor.

Social groups

In this novel characters are segregated by categories and dressed according to their social functions. The complex sumptuary laws (dress codes) play a key role in imposing social control within the new society and serve to distinguish people by sex, occupation, and caste.

Caste and class

African Americans, the main non-white ethnic group in this society, are called the Children of Ham, and one state TV broadcast mentions them being relocated en masse to "National Homelands" reminiscent of Apartheid-era South African homelands, in the Midwest. The narrator wonders what they're supposed to do up there, thinking "farm, supposedly." Jews are called Sons of Jacob, which is also the name of the fundamentalist group that rules the Republic of Gilead. In the body of the novel, it is explained that the Jews were offered a choice of converting to Christianity or emigrating to Israel, and that most chose to leave. But in the epilogue, Professor Pieixoto says that at least some Jews who chose to leave were dumped into the sea on the way to Israel in boats, as a result of privatization of the "repatriation program" in order to maximize private profits. The narrator also reveals that many Jews who chose to stay were caught practicing Judaism in secret and executed.

Gender and occupation

The sexes are strictly divided. Gilead's society values reproduction by white women more than reproduction by other women: women are categorised "hierarchically according to class status and reproductive capacity" as well as "metonymically colour-coded according to their function and their labour" (Kauffman 232). The Commander makes it clear that women are considered intellectually and emotionally inferior. Women are not permitted to read and girls are not educated.

Women are as visually segregated as men are. The men are equipped with military or paramilitary uniforms, constraining but, perhaps, empowering them as well. All classes of men and women are defined by the colours they wear (as in Aldous Huxley's dystopia Brave New World), drawing on color symbolism and psychology. All lower status individuals are regulated by this dress code. All non-persons are banished to the 'Colonies' (usually forced-labor camps in which they clean up radioactive waste, becoming exposed and dying painful deaths as a result). Sterile, unmarried women are considered to be non-persons. Both men and women sent there wear grey clothing. Only rare civilians (who are increasingly persecuted) and Commanders seem to be free of sumptuary restrictions.[original research?]


According to their particular roles and duties, men are classified into four main categories:

  • Commanders of the Faithful – the ruling class. Because of their status, they are entitled to establish a patriarchal household with a Wife, a Handmaid if necessary, Marthas (female servants) and Guardians. They have a duty to procreate, but many may be infertile, as a possible result of exposure to a biological agent in pre-Gilead times. They wear black to signify superiority. They are allowed cars.
  • Eyes – the internal intelligence agency who attempt to discover those violating the rules of Gilead.
  • Angels – soldiers who fight in the wars in order to expand and protect the country's borders. Angels may be permitted to marry.
  • Guardians (of the Faith) – soldiers "used for routine policing and other menial functions". They are unsuitable for other work in the republic being "stupid or older or disabled or very young, apart from the ones that are Eyes incognito" (chapter 4). Young Guardians may be promoted to Angels when they come of age. They wear green uniforms.

Men who engage in homosexuality or related acts are declared "Gender Traitors" and either executed or sent to the "colonies" to die a slow death.


There are six main categories of "legitimate" women, who make up mainstream society, and two main categories of "illegitimate" women, who exist outside of mainstream society:

  • Wives are at the top social level permitted to women. They are married to the higher-ranking functionaries. Wives always wear blue dresses, presumably as a reference to the traditional depictions of the Virgin Mary. (After the death of her husband, a Wife becomes a Widow and must dress in black.)
  • Daughters are the natural or adopted children of the ruling class. They wear white until marriage. The narrator's daughter has been adopted by an infertile Wife and Commander.
  • Handmaids are fertile women whose social function is to bear children for the Wives. They dress in a red habit that completely conceals their shape, including red shoes and red gloves. The only exception to the "all red rule" is the white wings they wear around their head that prevent them from seeing or being seen except when standing directly in front of them. Handmaids are produced by re-educating fertile women who have broken the gender and social laws. Owing to the need for fertile Handmaids, Gilead gradually increased the number of gender-crimes. The Republic of Gilead justifies the nature of the handmaids through the biblical stories of Jacob taking his two wives' handmaids, Bilhah and Zilpah, to bed to bear him children, when the wives could not (Gen. 30:1–3), and Abraham doing the same with his wife's handmaid, Hagar (Gen. 16:1–6).
  • Aunts train and monitor the Handmaids. The Aunts attempt to promote the role of the Handmaid as an honorable one and seek to legitimize it by downplaying any association with gender criminality. They do the dirty work of the men running Gilead in directly controlling and policing women—being an Aunt is the only way these unmarried, infertile, often older women may have any autonomy. It is also the only way to avoid going to the "colonies" for such women. Aunts dress in brown. They are also the only class of women permitted to read. ("The Aunts are allowed to read and write." Vintage Books, p. 139. However, in the Anchor Books edition, it says: "They played it (the Beatitudes) from a tape, so not even an Aunt would be guilty of the sin of reading. The voice was a man's. (p.89.)" In the Vintage Books edition: "They played it (the Beatitudes) from a disc, the voice was a man's." p. 100.)
  • Marthas are older infertile women whose compliant nature and domestic skills recommend them to a life of domestic servitude. They dress in green smocks. The title of "Martha" is based on a story in Luke 10:38–42, where Jesus visits Mary, sister of Lazarus and Martha; Mary listens to Jesus while Martha is preoccupied "by all the preparations that had to be made".
  • Econowives are women who have married relatively low-ranking men, meaning any man who does not belong to the ruling elite. They are expected to perform all the female functions: domestic duties, companionship, child-bearing. Their dress is multicoloured red, blue, and green to reflect these multiple roles.

The division of labor between women engenders some resentment between categories. Marthas, Wives and Econowives perceive Handmaids as sluttish. The narrator mourns that none of the various groups are able to empathize with the others; women are taught to hate and fear other women and thus remain divided in their oppression.

  • Unwomen are sterile women, widows, feminists, lesbians, nuns, and politically dissident women: all women who are incapable of social integration within the Republic's strict gender divisions. They are exiled to "the colonies", areas of both agricultural production and deadly pollution, as are handmaids who fail to produce a child after three two-year assignments.
  • Jezebels are prostitutes and entertainers, available only to the Commanders and their guests; some are lesbians and attractive, educated women unable to adjust to handmaid status. They have been sterilized, which is illegal for other women. They operate in unofficial but state-sanctioned brothels, and they seem to exist unbeknownst to most other women. Jezebels, whose title comes from the Biblical character, dress in the remnants of sexualized costumes from "the time before", such as cheerleaders' costumes, school uniforms, and Playboy Bunny costumes. While Jezebels have some degree of freedom in that they can wear makeup, drink alcohol, and socialize with men, they are still tightly controlled by Aunts. Once their usefulness for sex is over, they are sent to the Colonies.


In this society, birth defects have become increasingly common.

There are two main categories of human offspring:

  • Unbabies, also known as "shredders", are babies that are born physically deformed or with some other birth defect. They are quickly made to vanish; Offred does not know exactly how, and she comments that she does not wish to know. Having an Unbaby is a constant fear among pregnant Handmaids, as they do not know whether they are carrying one until after birth. In the Republic of Gilead, there is no need for amniocentesis, ultrasound, or other modern prenatal health detection techniques, since abortion is not a legal option and medical doctors were executed and their corpses displayed on The Wall for performing abortions in the pre-Gileadan era.
  • Keepers are babies that are born alive with no defects.

Classification as science fiction or speculative fiction

In interviews and essays Atwood has discussed generic classification of The Handmaid's Tale as "science fiction" or "speculative fiction", observing:

I like to make a distinction between science fiction proper and speculative fiction. For me, the science fiction label belongs on books with things in them that we can't yet do, such as going through a wormhole in space to another universe; and speculative fiction means a work that employs the means already to hand, such as DNA identification and credit cards, and that takes place on Planet Earth. But the terms are fluid.[2]

Hugo-winning science fiction critic David Langford observed in a column: "(…The Handmaid's Tale, won the very first Arthur C. Clarke award in 1987. She's been trying to live this down ever since.)" and goes on to point out:

Atwood prefers to say that she writes speculative fiction—a term coined by SF author Robert A. Heinlein. As she told the Guardian, "Science fiction has monsters and spaceships; speculative fiction could really happen." She used a subtly different phrasing for New Scientist, "Oryx and Crake is not science fiction. It is fact within fiction. Science fiction is when you have rockets and chemicals." So it was very cruel of New Scientist to describe this interview in the contents list as: "Margaret Atwood explains why science is crucial to her science fiction." … Play it again, Ms Atwood—this time for the Book-of-the-Month Club: "Oryx and Crake is a speculative fiction, not a science fiction proper. It contains no intergalactic space travel, no teleportation, no Martians." And one more time: on BBC1 Breakfast News the distinguished author explained that science fiction, as opposed to what she writes, is characterized by "talking squids in outer space." "[3]

In distinguishing between these genre labels science fiction and speculative fiction, Atwood stated that while others might be using the terms interchangeably, whether classified as "science fiction proper" or as "speculative fiction", her narratives give her the ability to explore themes in ways that "realistic fiction" cannot do.[2]


Sex for reproduction only, not pleasure

Human sexuality in Gilead is regulated by the notion that sexual intercourse is fundamentally degrading to women. Men are understood to desire sexual pleasure constantly, but are obliged to abstain from all but marital sex for religio-social reasons. The social regulations are enforced by law, with corporal punishment inflicted for lesser offences and capital punishment for greater ones.

"The Ceremony" is a non-marital sexual act sanctioned solely for the purpose of reproduction, based on a Biblical passage described below. This Gileadian enactment has the Handmaid lying supine upon the Wife during the sex act itself. The handmaid is to lie between the Wife's legs as if they are one person. In this way, the Wife has to invite the Handmaid to share her power by inviting her to lie in her own personal space, which is considered both humiliating and offensive by many wives. Offred describes the ceremony:

"My red skirt is hitched up to my waist, though no higher. Below it the Commander is fucking. What he is fucking is the lower part of my body. I do not say making love, because this is not what he's doing. Copulating too would be inaccurate, because it would imply two people and only one is involved. Nor does rape cover it: nothing is going on here that I haven't signed up for." (page 94)

Once a Handmaid is pregnant, she is venerated by her peers and the Wives. After the baby is born, if it is not an "unbaby" or a "shredder", it is given to the Wife of her Commander, and she is reassigned to another household. She has the guarantee that she will never be declared an "Unwoman".

Pre-Gileadian society

The novel indicates that pre-Gileadian society was not favorable for women. This society was a late 20th-century version of the United States as Atwood envisioned it developing at the time of its writing (1985). In this society, women feared physical and sexual violence, and despite long-running feminist campaigns (approximately 1970–2000 within the text), they had not achieved equality. Feminist campaigners like Offred's mother and Moira were persecuted by the state. Radical feminism had teamed up with social conservativism in campaigns against pornography. In addition, mass commercialization had reached a nadir of "fast-food" and "home delivery" sexuality. Women outside of prostitution in "the former times" were subject to a socially constructed vision of romantic love that encouraged serial monogamy in favor of men's social and sexual interests.

In pre-Gileadean society, despite holding a university degree, Offred was a menial white collar worker whose colleagues were all women, with a male boss. Aside from having had to cope with oppressive cultural and social phenomena, women lacked full and meaningful control over their economic lives.

The book also hints that the birth rate was in decline due to infertility caused by AIDS and "R-Strain" Syphilis epidemics prior to the revolution by noting that the Center where Moira and Offred were kept was a high school that had been closed sometime in the mid-1980s due to a lack of students.

In the novel, women are depicted as the property of men in both societies, in the United States as private property and in Gilead as social property.

The novel is set in the Harvard Square neighborhood of Cambridge, Massachusetts,[12] where Atwood studied at Radcliffe College, and many locations in the novel are recognizable. Victims of "Salvagings" (public executions) are hanged on the wall of Harvard Yard; Fred's home is on the famous "Professor's Row"; and the Brattle Theatre, Memorial Hall and Widener Library make very prominent cameos. "There are no lawyers now, and the university is closed", Offred thinks to herself, observing the changes.

Republic of Gilead

Republic of Gilead
Source The Handmaid's Tale
Creator Margaret Atwood
Genre Dystopian novel
Capital unknown
Language(s) English (de facto)
Ethnic groups Whites, Sons of Jacob, Children of Ham
Government Theocratic military dictatorship

The Republic of Gilead is a fictional country that is the setting of the Margaret Atwood dystopian novel The Handmaid's Tale.


The country exists within the borders of what was originally the United States of America. However, after an unspecified catastrophe (possibly a nuclear or biological war or extreme environmental pollution), a meticulously planned terrorist attack was staged against the President and the Congress, which was afterwards referred to as "the President's Day massacre." Immediately after this, a revolution occurred which deposed the United States government and abolished the United States Constitution, and a new theocratic government was formed under the rule of a military dictatorship. The government has proclaimed martial law due to the destabilizing effect of "hordes of guerrillas" roaming the countryside, although the actual threat from the "guerrillas" may be greatly exaggerated.The guerrillas in the novel are people from opposing religious groups, even Christians, who follow the teachings of the New Testament .

The Republic of Gilead is governed according to strict Old Testament-based religious dogma. Other religions are not tolerated, and those who do not conform are quickly executed by the state or shipped to areas of the former US known as the "colonies" which have dangerously high levels of radiation. The colonies are also the source of most of Gilead's agricultural production. For a brief period at the outset of the Republic, Jewish people also have the option of emigrating to Israel, as they are regarded as Sons of Jacob and therefore deserving of special treatment.Those who may have formerly been considered African-American are redesignated the Children of Ham and transported to National Homeland One, believed to be located somewhere within the boundaries of what was previously North Dakota. However, some sources have suggested that formerly African-American women form part or all of the complement of the Marthas, a group of sterile, older women who are deemed most appropriate for a life of domestic servitude.

The Republic also has a brutal policy towards women, which forms much of the novel's central theme. In Gilead women are forbidden to read, and are segregated into an elaborate caste system in which their sexual activities are strictly controlled and regulated so as to serve the procreative agendas of the government. Ironically, despite its claim to be based on "traditional values", the Republic's misogyny is far more extreme than that of even the most misogynistic periods of premodern human history.

Biblical references

Some of the underpinnings of the Republic of Gilead come from the Bible, especially the Book of Genesis. The primary reference is to the story of Rachel and Leah (Genesis 29:31–35; 30:1–24). Leah, Rachel's sister and the first wife of Jacob, was fertile and was blessed by God; but Rachel, Jacob's second wife, was thought to be infertile until much later in her life. Rachel and Leah compete in bearing sons for their husband by using their handmaids as proxies and taking immediate possession of the children they produce. In the context of Atwood's book, the story is one of female competition, jealousy, and reproductive cruelty.

The name "Gilead" is also from Genesis and means "hill of testimony" or "mount of witness".

Key words and phrases

In this context of the novel's fictional futuristic fundamentalist social hierarchy, sterile is an "outlawed" word (161).

Atwood emphasises how changes in context affect behaviours and attitudes by repeating the phrase "Context is all" throughout the novel, establishing this precept as a motif (e.g., 144, 192). Playing the game of Scrabble with her Commander illustrates the key significance of changes in "context"; once "the game of old men and women", the game became forbidden for women to play and therefore "desirable" (178–79). Through living in a morally rigid society, Offred has come to perceive the world differently than earlier. At one point, Offred is amazed at how "It has taken so little time to change our minds about things" (36). Revealing clothes and makeup were part of her former life; yet, when she encounters some Japanese tourists wearing these, she is intrigued by her feeling that they are inappropriately dressed (36).

Another ironic motif in the novel derives from Offred's inability to understand the phrase "nolite te bastardes carborundorum" carved into the closet wall of her small bedroom: a well-known mock-Latin aphorism mockingly signifying "Don't let the bastards grind you down" (235).

Social critique

The Handmaid's Tale comprises a number of social critiques. Atwood sought to demonstrate that extremist views might result in fundamentalist totalitarianism. The novel presents a dystopian vision of life in the United States in the period projecting forward from the time of the writing (1985), covering the backlash against feminism. This critique is most clearly seen in both Offred's memories of the slow social transformation towards theocratic fascism and in the ideology of the Aunts. Atwood's motivations for writing the novel, reflecting the above statements, can be found in the interview appended to the 1998 version of the novel. She says, "This is a book about what happens when certain casually held attitudes about women are taken to their logical conclusions" (394).

Atwood mocks those who talk of "traditional values" and those who suggest that women should return to being housewives. For Serena Joy, a formerly successful TV personality and public speaker, the religious and social ideology she has spent her entire long career publicly promoting has, in the end, destroyed her own life and happiness.

Atwood also offers a critique of contemporary feminism. By working against pornography, feminists in the early 1980s opened themselves up to criticism that they favoured censorship. Anti-pornography feminist activists such as Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon made alliances with the religious right. This critique was adopted and made popular by dissident feminists such as Camille Paglia. Atwood warns that the consequences of such an alliance may end up empowering feminists' worst enemies. She also suggests, through descriptions of the narrator's feminist mother burning books, that contemporary feminism was becoming overly rigid and adopting the same tactics of the religious right.

Most notably, Atwood critiques modern religious movements, specifically fundamentalist Christianity in the United States, with a reference to Islamic fundamentalism such as the theocracy founded in Iran in 1979. An American religious revival in the mid-1970s had led to the growth of the religious right through televangelism. Jimmy Carter, then president, had avowed his renewed and reaffirmed Christianity; Ronald Reagan was elected as his successor using a specifically Christian discourse.[citation needed]

Atwood pictures revivalism as counter-revolutionary, opposed to the revolutionary doctrine espoused by Offred's mother and Moira, which sought to break down gender categories. A Marxist reading of fascism explains it as the backlash of the right after a failed revolution. Atwood explores this Marxist reading and translates its analysis into the structure of a religious and gender revolution. "From each according to her ability… to each according to his needs" (117) is a deliberate distortion of Marx's phrase, "From each according to his ability, to each according to his need" — the latter, an ideological statement on class and society; the former, a stance taken by Gileadian society towards gender roles.

Atwood's social critique in the novel has been challenged, such as by conservative pundit Elizabeth Kantor.[4] Kantor argues that Atwood's "dreary" and "third-rate" novel, being based on a superficial and selective interpretation of Chaucer, misrepresents its source of inspiration: "Medieval literature is nothing at all like the what you expect if you go into it with the impression that an explicitly Christian society must be some kind of totalitarian nightmare." Christianity—in the form of the Pope—actually serves as a check on the abuses of royal power, suggests Kantor. In contrast to Atwood's depiction of a society where oppression of women is the norm, Kantor suggests that Chaucer reveals a world where courtly love has improved the social status of women, and where women are depicted vividly, realistically and sympathetically; they "choose husbands or lovers, are disobedient, exert control over their husband's money, and have a very healthy interest in sex. [...] Chaucer pokes fun at the kind of man who is so deluded about a woman's innocent, shrinking-violet nature as to imagine that his physical attentions will be too much for her."


Frequent challenges, ALA conference, and controversy

The American Library Association (ALA) lists The Handmaid's Tale as number 37 on the "100 Most Frequently Challenged Books of 1990–2000".[15]

Atwood participated in discussing The Handmaid's Tale as "the subject of the ALA's first conference-wide discussion series, 'One Book, One Conference,' which was so successful that its Public Programs Office was considering hosting a second series in 2004."[16]

According to Education Reporter Kristin Rushowy of the Toronto Star (16 Jan. 2009), in 2008 a parent in Toronto, Canada, wrote a letter to his son's high school principal, asking that the book no longer be assigned as required reading, stating that the novel is "rife with brutality towards and mistreatment of women (and men at times), sexual scenes, and bleak depression."[17] Rushowy quotes the response of Russell Morton Brown, a retired University of Toronto English professor, who acknowledged that "The Handmaid's Tale wasn't likely written for 17-year-olds, 'but neither are a lot of things we teach in high school, like Shakespeare. … 'And they are all the better for reading it. They are on the edge of adulthood already, and there's no point in coddling them,' he said, adding, 'they aren't coddled in terms of mass media today anyway.' … He said the book has been accused of being anti-Christian and, more recently, anti-Islamic because the women are veiled and polygamy is allowed. … But that 'misses the point,' said Brown. 'It's really anti-fundamentalism.' "[17] In her earlier account (14 Jan. 2009), Rushowy indicates that, in response to the parent's complaint, a Toronto District School Board committee was "reviewing the novel"; while noting that "The Handmaid's Tale is listed as one of the 100 'most frequently challenged books' from 1990 to 1999 on the American Library Association's website", Rushowy reports that "The Canadian Library Association says there is 'no known instance of a challenge to this novel in Canada' but says the book was called anti-Christian and pornographic by parents after being placed on a reading list for secondary students in Texas in the 1990s."[18]


The 1990 film The Handmaid's Tale was based on a screenplay by Harold Pinter and directed by Volker Schlöndorff. It starred Natasha Richardson as Offred, Faye Dunaway as Serena Joy, and Robert Duvall as The Commander (Fred).

A dramatic adaptation of the novel for radio was produced for BBC Radio 4 by John Dryden in 2000.[citation needed] An operatic adaptation, The Handmaid's Tale, by Poul Ruders, premiered in Copenhagen on 6 March 2000, and was performed by the English National Opera, in London, in 2003.[citation needed] It was the opening production of the 2004–2005 season of the Canadian Opera Company.[19]

A stage adaptation of the novel, by Brendon Burns, for the Haymarket Theatre, Basingstoke, England, toured the UK in 2002.[citation needed]


Translated into Danish as Tjenerindens fortælling; Dutch as Het Verhaal van de Dienstmaagd; Estonian as Teenijanna lugu; French as La Servante écarlate; German as Der Report der Magd; Greek as Η ιστορία της πορφυρής δούλης; Hungarian as A szolgálólány meséje; Polish as Opowieść podręcznej; Spanish as El relato de la criada; Vietnamese as Chuyện người tùy nữ (translation sponsored by Canada Council for the Arts); and Icelandic as Saga þernunnar.

See also

Book collection.jpg Novels portal
Related works by Atwood
Related works by other authors
Related topics


  1. ^ "About Speculative Fiction", in The Handmaid's Tale Study Guide, Gradesaver, Gradesaver LLC, 1999–2009, 22 May 2009.
  2. ^ a b c Atwood, "Aliens Have Taken the Place of Angels": "If you're writing about the future and you aren't doing forecast journalism, you'll probably be writing something people will call either science fiction or speculative fiction. I like to make a distinction between science fiction proper and speculative fiction. For me, the science fiction label belongs on books with things in them that we can't yet do, such as going through a wormhole in space to another universe; and speculative fiction means a work that employs the means already to hand, such as DNA identification and credit cards, and that takes place on Planet Earth. But the terms are fluid. Some use speculative fiction as an umbrella covering science fiction and all its hyphenated forms–science fiction fantasy, and so forth–and others choose the reverse. … I have written two works of science fiction or, if you prefer, speculative fiction: The Handmaid's Tale and Oryx and Crake. Here are some of the things these kinds of narratives can do that socially realistic novels cannot do."
  3. ^ a b Cf. Langford, "Bits and Pieces".
  4. ^ a b Kantor, Elizabeth. (2006) The Politically Correct Guide to English and American Literature. Washington, D.C.: Regenery, ISBN 1596980117, pp. 27–44 in Chapter Two, "Medieval Literature: Here Is God's Plenty."
  5. ^ Grace, D. M. (1998). "Handmaid's Tale Historical Notes and Documentary Subversion". Science Fiction Studies (Science Fiction Studies (1998)) 25 (3): 481–494. JSTOR 4240726. 
  6. ^ "Short Summary", in The Handmaid's Tale Study Guide, Gradesaver, Gradesaver LLC, 1999–2009, 22 May 2009.
  7. ^ a b c "Character List", in The Handmaid's Tale Study Guide, Gradesaver, Gradesaver LLC, 1999–2009, 22 May 2009.
  8. ^ "Character List", The Handmaid's Tale at SparkNotes, 22 May 2009: Professor Pieixota is "The guest speaker at the symposium that takes place in the epilogue to The Handmaid's Tale. He and another academic, working at a university in the year 2195, transcribed Offred's recorded narrative; his lecture details the historical significance of the story that we have just read."
  9. ^ Atwood, Margaret. The Handmaid's Tale.' New York: Anchor Books, 1986. pg. 220. Print
  10. ^ See Madonne Miner, " 'Trust Me': Reading the Romance Plot in Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale", Twentieth Century Literature 37 (1991): 148–68.
  11. ^ Atwood, Margaret. The Handmaid's Tale. New York: Anchor Books, 1986. pg. 143. Print
  12. ^ From "An Interview With Margaret Atwood on Her Novel The Handmaid's Tale": "Q: We can figure out that the main character lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts." Atwood, Margaret (1998). The Handmaid's Tale. Anchor Books. 
  13. ^ The Handmaid's Tale is the inaugural winner of this award for the best science fiction novel published in the United Kingdom during the previous year.
  14. ^ The Prometheus Award is an award for libertarian science fiction novels given out annually by the Libertarian Futurist Society, which also publishes a quarterly journal, Prometheus.
  15. ^ "The 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books of 1990–2000". (Some of the ALA's links are no longer active. The ALA website does not update and redirect its moved links automatically; if they are updated, one must perform a new search for them.)
  16. ^ "Conference: One Book, One Conference", in "Conferences and Workshops", Annual Report 2002–2003, American Library Association, American Library Association, June 2003, World Wide Web, 21 May 2009. [Concerns inaugural program featuring Margaret Atwood held in Toronto, 19–25 June 2003.]
  17. ^ a b Rushowy, "Atwood Novel Too Brutal, Sexist for School: Parent": "Committee reviews 'fictional drivel' alleged to violate board policy on respect, profanity." In his letter to his son's school principal (quoted by Rushowy), a parent, Robert Edwards, observes that The Handmaid's Tale "is rife with brutality towards and mistreatment of women (and men at times), sexual scenes, and bleak depression", adding: "I can't really understand what it is my son is supposed to be learning from this fictional drivel. … I have a major problem with a curriculum book that cannot be fully read out loud in class, in front of an assembly, directly to a teacher, a parent, or, for that matter, contains attitudes and words that cannot be used by students in class discussion or hallway conversation. Let alone a description of situations that must be embarrassing and uncomfortable to any young woman in that class – and probably the young men, too." Rushowy reports: "According to Toronto District School board policy, any complaint that can't be solved at the school level goes to a review committee. … Such a committee is now reviewing The Handmaid's Tale … . It met yesterday [15 Jan. 2009] … and will eventually make a recommendation to the director of education. If Edwards still isn't satisfied, he can appeal to trustees."
  18. ^ Rushowy, "Complaint Spurs School Board to Review Novel by Atwood": "Committee to consider objection to book; concern may centre on sexuality, religion."
  19. ^ Littler, William. Opera Canada, December 15, 2004

Works cited

Alexander, Lynn. "The Handmaid's Tale: Working Bibliography". Department of English, University of Tennessee at Martin ( The University of Tennessee at Martin, n.d. Web. 22 May 2009. [Hyperlinked to online resources for Women Writers: Magic, Mysticism, and Mayhem, taught by Dr. Alexander in Spring 1999. Includes entry for book chap. by Kauffman.]
American Library Association (ALA). "The100 Most Frequently Challenged Books of 1990–2000". American Library Association. American Library Association, 2009. Web. 22 May 2009.
Atwood, Margaret. "Aliens Have Taken the Place of Angels". Guardian Media Group, 17 June 2005. Web. 21 May 2009.
–––. The Handmaid's Tale. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1985. ISBN 0771008139. New York: Anchor Books (Div. of Random House), 1998. ISBN 038549081X (10). ISBN 9780385490818 (13). (Parenthetical page references are to the 1998 ed.) "Digitized Jun 2, 2008" according to Google Books. (311 pages.)
–––. La Servante écarlate. Trans. Sylviane Rué. Paris: J'ai Lu, 2005. ISBN 2290347108 (10). ISBN 9782290347102 (13). (French) [Translation of The Handmaid's Tale.]
Kauffman, Linda. "Special Delivery: Twenty-First Century Epistolarity in The Handmaid's Tale." 221–44 (chap. 6) in Writing the Female Voice: Essays on Epistolary Literature. Ed. Elizabeth Goldsmith. Boston: Northeastern UP, 1989. [Cited in Alexander.]
Langford, David. "Bits and Pieces". SFX 107 (Aug. 2003). Web. 9 May 2009.
Miner, Madonne. " 'Trust Me': Reading the Romance Plot in Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale." Twentieth Century Literature 37 (1991): 148–168.
Rushowy, Kristin. "Atwood Novel Too Brutal, Sexist for School: Parent". Toronto Star ( The Toronto Star, 16 Jan. 2009. Web. 9 May 2009.
–––. "Complaint Spurs School Board to Review Novel by Atwood". Toronto Star ( The Toronto Star, 14 Jan. 2009. Web. 21 May 2009.

Further reading

  • Adami, Valentina. Bioethics Through Literature: Margaret Atwood's Cautionary Tales. Trier: WVT, 2011.
  • Bloom, Harold, ed. The Handmaid’s Tale: Margaret Atwood. Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publications, 2001.
  • Cooper, Pamela. “'A Body Story with a Vengeance': Anatomy and Struggle in The Bell Jar and The Handmaid’s Tale”. Women’s Studies 26.1 (1997): 89-123.
  • Dopp, Jamie. “Subject-Position as Victim-Position in The Handmaid’s Tale”. Studies in Canadian Literature 19.1 (1994): 43-57.
  • Gardner, Laurel J. “Pornography as a Matter of Power in The Handmaid’s Tale”. Notes on Contemporary Literature 24.5 (1994): 5-7.
  • Garretts-Petts, W. F. “Reading, Writing and the Postmodern Condition: Interpreting Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale”. Open Letter Seventh Series I (1988).
  • Hammer, Stephanie Barbé. “The World as It Will Be? Female Satire and the Technology of Power in The Handmaid’s Tale”. Modern Language Studies XX.2 (1990): 39-49.
  • Malak, Amin. “Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and the Dystopian Tradition”. Canadian Literature 112 (1987): 9-16.
  • McCarthy, Mary. "No Headline": The Handmaid's Tale (Boston: Houghton Mifflin). New York Times, Books, 9 February 1986, 9 May 2009. (Book rev.)
  • Myrsiades, Linda. “Law, Medicine, and the Sex Slave in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale”. Un-Disciplining Literature: Literature, Law, and Culture. Ed. Myrsiades, Kostas, and Linda Myrsiades. New York: Peter Lang, 1999: 219-45.
  • Stanners, Barbara, Michael Stanners, and Margaret Atwood. Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Top Notes Literature Guides. Seven Hills, N.S.W.: Five Senses Education, 2004.

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