The Handmaid's Tale is set in the near future in the Republic of Gilead, a theocratic military dictatorship formed within the borders of what was formerly the United States of America. It was founded by a racist, homophobic, Christian, nativist-derived, theocratic-organized cult's military coup as an ideologically driven response to the country's ecological, physical and social degradation.
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" launches a revolution and suspends the United States Constitution under the pretext of restoring order. They are quickly able to take away all of women's rights, largely attributed to financial records being stored electronically and labelled by gender. This allows the new rulers to freeze women's bank accounts (the story also takes place in a future of a cashless society utilizing electronic money which leaves them with no funds after this), then outlaw employing them. The new regime moves quickly to consolidate its power and reorganize society along a new militarized, hierarchical, compulsorily cult-Christian regime of selectively skewed Old Testament-inspired social and religious ultra-conservatism among its newly created social classes. In this society, almost all women are forbidden to read.
The story is presented from the point of view of a woman called Offred (literally Of-Fred). 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 due to sterility from pollution and sexually transmitted diseases. 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 of her life from before and during the beginning 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 classes of women and their circumscribed lives in the new theocracy.
The Commander is a high-ranking official in Gilead. Although he is only supposed to have sex with Offred during "the Ceremony", a ritual at which his wife is present, he begins an illegal and ambiguous relationship with her, exposing Offred to 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 proscribed activity of reading. The Commander's wife, Serena Joy, also has secret interactions with Offred, arranging for her to secretly have sex with her driver Nick in an effort to get Offred pregnant. In exchange for Offred's cooperation, Serena Joy 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 her memories of her husband, 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, the Eyes of God, known informally 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 story recorded onto cassette tapes. They created an order for these tapes and transcribed them, calling them collectively "the handmaid's tale". Through the tone and actions of the professionals in this final section of the book, the world of academia is highlighted and critiqued. 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. It is further suggested that freedom of religion was also re-established.
Offred: the protagonist and narrator. She 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).
Offred is a slave name which describes her function: she is "of Fred", i.e. she belongs to her Commander, Fred, as a concubine, though in the novel she says herself that she is not a concubine, or a geisha girl, that she is just a tool; a "two legged womb". 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". 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.
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".
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 first 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, based on his first name, Fred. 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, on charges that, among things, he was harboring an enemy agent.
Serena Joy: A former televangelist, she is now the Commander's 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 misogynistic 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 other's 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, possibly so she cannot be tortured into giving up information.
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. An important aspect of Moira is her identity as a lesbian 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 later 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. 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 Gilead's totalitarianism can destroy the hearts and characters of even 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 ruling class. Luke, the narrator, and their daughter try to escape to Canada, but are captured. Offred knows nothing about what happened to Luke and alternately 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'." While speaking at the symposium, he makes two jokes about Gileadan women, treating their plight with a certain degree of humor.
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 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.
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 secret police 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 hanged 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, and 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 each other 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 women who are forced to become prostitutes and entertainers, available only to the Commanders and their guests; they are usually 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 (though the nickname "shredders" is suggestive). 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
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.
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 BBC1Breakfast News the distinguished author explained that science fiction, as opposed to what she writes, is characterized by "talking squids in outer space."
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.
"The Ceremony" is a non-marital sexual act sanctioned solely for the purpose of reproduction. This Gileadian act 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.
In this context of the novel's fictional futuristic fundamentalist social hierarchy, sterile is an "outlawed" word.
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. 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". 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". 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.
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-Latinaphorism mockingly signifying "Don't let the bastards grind you down". The significance of this phrase is intensified by the challenges the book has faced, creating a "Mise en abyme" as both the protagonist and the reader decipher subversive texts.
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". Atwood participated in discussing The Handmaid's Tale as the subject of an ALA discussion series titled "One Book, One Conference".
The book's place in school curricula and assignments has been challenged on a number of occasions:
1992: Challenged in Waterloo, Iowa schools, reportedly because of profanity, lurid passages about sex, and statements defamatory to minorities, God, women, and the disabled.
1993: Removed from the Chicopee, Massachusetts high school English class reading list because of profanity and sex.
1998: Challenged for use in Richland, Washington high school English classes along with six other titles because the "books are poor quality literature and stress suicide, illicit sex, violence, and hopelessness".
2001: Challenged, but retained, in the Dripping Springs, Texas senior Advanced Placement English course as an optional reading assignment. Some parents were offended by the book’s descriptions of sexual encounters.
2006: Initially banned by Superintendent Ed Lyman from an advanced placement English curriculum in the Judson, Texas school district, after a parent complained that the novel was sexually explicit and offensive to Christians. Lyman had overruled the recommendation of a committee of teachers, students, and parents; the committee appealed the decision to the school board, which overturned the ban.
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." 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.’” 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."
In November 2012 two parents in Guilford County, North Carolina protested inclusion of the book on a required reading list at a local high school. The parents presented the school board with a petition signed by 2,300 people, prompting a review of the book by the school's media advisory committee. According to local news reports, one of the parents said "she felt Christian students are bullied in society, in that they’re made to feel uncomfortable about their beliefs by non-believers. She said including books like The Handmaid’s Tale contributes to that discomfort, because of its negative view on religion and its anti-biblical attitudes toward sex."
^ abcAtwood, Margaret, Aliens Have Taken the Place of Angels, "Film: Science fiction, fatasy & horror", The Guardian (UK), "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."
^"Character List", The Handmaid's Tale, 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."
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