The Handmaid's Tale

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia - View original article

The Handmaid's Tale
Cover of first edition (hardcover)
AuthorMargaret Atwood
Cover artistTad Aronowcz, design; Gail Geltner, collage (first edition, hardback)
GenreDystopian novel, science fiction, speculative fiction
PublisherMcClelland and Stewart
Publication date
1985 (hardcover)
Preceded byBodily Harm
Followed byCat's Eye
Jump to: navigation, search
For the film adaptation, see The Handmaid's Tale (film). For the operatic adaptation, see The Handmaid's Tale (opera).
The Handmaid's Tale
Cover of first edition (hardcover)
AuthorMargaret Atwood
Cover artistTad Aronowcz, design; Gail Geltner, collage (first edition, hardback)
GenreDystopian novel, science fiction, speculative fiction
PublisherMcClelland and Stewart
Publication date
1985 (hardcover)
Preceded byBodily Harm
Followed byCat'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 Christian 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; it was also 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[edit]

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.

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. The new regime moves quickly to consolidate its power and reorganize society along a new militarized, hierarchical, compulsorily Christian regime of 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.[5]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 freedom of religion.


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 the handmaids-in-training to stop "mooning and June-ing".[7] 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.[8]
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".[9]
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.
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. However, she also risks breaking protocol to tell Offred of the first Ofglen's fate.


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[edit]

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[edit]

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 dresses.


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

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:


The division of labor between women engenders some resentment between categories. Marthas, Wives and Econowives perceive Handmaids as slutty. 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.



In this society, birth defects have become increasingly common.

There are two main categories of human offspring:

The Ceremony[edit]

"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.[10]

The novel is set in the Harvard Square neighborhood of Cambridge, Massachusetts,[11] where Atwood studied at Radcliffe College.


In the novel's fictional fundamentalist society, sterile is an "outlawed" word.[12]

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.[13] 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".[14] Through living in a morally rigid society, Offred has come to perceive the world differently from earlier. At one point, Offred is amazed at how "It has taken so little time to change our minds about things".[15] 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.[15]

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".[16] 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.

Classification as science fiction or speculative fiction[edit]

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]


Frequent challenges, ALA conference, and controversy[edit]

The American Library Association (ALA) lists The Handmaid's Tale as number 37 on the "100 Most Frequently Challenged Books of 1990–2000".[17] Atwood participated in discussing The Handmaid's Tale as the subject of an ALA discussion series titled "One Book, One Conference".[18]

The book's place in school curricula and assignments has been challenged on a number of occasions:

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."[20] 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.'[20]

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."[21]

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."[22]


Further information: The Handmaid's Tale (film)

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.[23] It was the opening production of the 2004–2005 season of the Canadian Opera Company.[24]

A stage adaptation of the novel, by Brendon Burns, for the Haymarket Theatre, Basingstoke, England, toured the UK in 2002.[25]

A ballet adaptation choreographed by Lila York and produced by the Royal Winnipeg Ballet premiered on 16 October 2013. Amanda Green appeared as Offred and Alexander Gamayunov as The Commander.[26]

See also[edit]

Related works by Atwood[edit]

Related works by other authors[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ 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.
  2. ^ 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.


  1. ^ "About Speculative Fiction", The Handmaid's Tale Study Guide, Gradesaver, 22 May 2009 .
  2. ^ a b c Atwood, Margaret (17 June 2005), 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." 
  3. ^ a b Langford 2003.
  4. ^ Kantor, Elizabeth (2006), "2. Medieval Literature: Here Is God's Plenty", The Politically Incorrect Guide to English and American Literature, Washington, DC: Regenery, pp. 27–44, ISBN 1-59698-011-7 .
  5. ^ Grace, DM (1998). "Handmaid's Tale Historical Notes and Documentary Subversion". Science Fiction Studies (Science Fiction Studies) 25 (3): 481–94. JSTOR 4240726. 
  6. ^ a b "Character List", The Handmaid's Tale Study Guide, Gradesaver, 22 May 2009 .
  7. ^ Atwood 1986, p. 220.
  8. ^ Madonne 1991[page needed].
  9. ^ Atwood 1986, p. 143.
  10. ^ Atwood 1998, p. 94.
  11. ^ Atwood 1998, An Interview: 'Q: We can figure out that the main character lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts'
  12. ^ Atwood 1998, p. 161.
  13. ^ Atwood 1998, pp. 144, 192.
  14. ^ Atwood 1998, pp. 178–79.
  15. ^ a b Atwood 1998, pp. 36.
  16. ^ Atwood 1998, pp. 235.
  17. ^ "The 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books of 1990–2000", Issues & advocacy (ALA)  (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.)
  18. ^ "One Book, One Conference", Annual Report 2002–2003 (conference), American Library Association, June 2003, retrieved 21 May 2009 . Concerns inaugural program featuring Margaret Atwood held in Toronto, 19–25 June 2003.
  19. ^ Banned Books: 2007 Resource Guide, ALA .
  20. ^ a b Rushowy 2009
  21. ^ Rushowy 2009b
  22. ^ Winston-Salem Journal, 11/2/2012  .
  23. ^ Clements, Andrew (Apr 5, 2003), "Classical music & opera", The Guardian (first night review) (UK) 
  24. ^ Littler, William (December 15, 2004), Opera Canada .
  25. ^ The Handmaid's tale, UK: UKTW .
  26. ^ "The Handmaid's Tale debuts as ballet in Winnipeg". CA: CBC News. 15 October 2013. Retrieved 2013-10-16. 

Works cited[edit]

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]

Preceded by
The Engineer of Human Souls
Governor General's Award for English language fiction recipient
Succeeded by
The Progress of Love
Preceded by
Arthur C. Clarke Award
Succeeded by
The Sea and Summer