The Handmaid's Tale
The Handmaid's Tale is a dystopian novel by Canadian author Margaret Atwood, published in 1985. It is set in a near-future New England, in a totalitarian state, known as Gilead, that has overthrown the United States government.
The Handmaid's Tale explores themes of subjugated women in a patriarchal society and the various means by which these women resist and attempt to gain individuality and independence. The novel's title echoes the component parts of Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales, which is a series of connected stories.
The Handmaid's Tale is structured into two parts, by night and by other various events. The novel can be interpreted as a double narrative: central protagonist Offred's personal struggle and the handmaids' shared plight. The night sections are solely about Offred, and the other sections are the stories that describe the possible life of every handmaid, though from the perspective of Offred. In many of these sections, Offred jumps between past and present as she retells the events leading up to the fall of women's rights and the current details of the life that she now lives.
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. The book has been adapted into a 1990 film, a 2000 opera, a 2017 television series, and other media.
In 2019, a sequel novel, The Testaments, was published.
Plot summaryAfter a staged attack that killed the President of the United States and most of Congress, a radical political group called the "Sons of Jacob" used quasi-Christian ideology to launch a revolution. The United States Constitution was suspended, newspapers were censored, and what was formerly the United States of America was changed into a military dictatorship known as the Republic of Gilead. The new regime moved quickly to consolidate its power, overtaking all other religious groups, including traditional Christian denominations. In addition, the regime reorganized society using a peculiar interpretation of some Old Testament ideas, and a new militarized, hierarchical model of social and religious fanaticism among its newly created social classes. Above all, the biggest change is the severe limitation of people's rights, especially those of women, who are not allowed to read, write, own property or handle money. Most significantly, women are deprived of control over their own reproductive functions.
The story is told in first-person narration by a woman named Offred. In this era of environmental pollution and radiation, she is one of few fertile women remaining. Therefore, she is forcibly assigned to produce children for the "Commanders", the ruling class of men, and is known as a "Handmaid" based on the biblical story of Rachel and her handmaid Bilhah. Apart from Handmaids, other women are also classed socially and follow a strict dress code, ranked highest to lowest: the Commanders' Wives in blue, the Handmaids in red with white veils around their faces, the Aunts in brown, the Marthas in green, "Econowives" who handle everything in the domestic sphere in stripes, young, unmarried girls in white, and widows in black.
Offred details her life starting with her third assignment as a Handmaid to a Commander. Interspersed with her narratives of her present-day experiences are flashbacks of her life before and during the beginning of the revolution, including her failed attempt to escape to Canada with her husband and child, her indoctrination into life as a Handmaid by the Aunts, and the escape of her friend Moira from the indoctrination facility. At her new home, she is treated poorly by the Commander's wife, a former Christian media personality named Serena Joy who supported women's domesticity and subordinate role well before Gilead was established. To Offred's surprise, the Commander requests to see her outside of the "Ceremony", a sexual ritual obligatory for handmaids and intended to result in conception in the presence of his wife. The two begin an illegal relationship where they play Scrabble and Offred is allowed to ask favours of him, whether in terms of information or material items. Finally, he gives her lingerie and takes her to a covert, government-run brothel called Jezebel's. Offred unexpectedly encounters Moira there, with her will broken, and she learns that those who are found breaking the law are sent to the Colonies to clean up toxic waste or are allowed to work at Jezebel's as punishment.
In the days between her visits to the Commander, Offred also learns from her shopping partner, a woman called Ofglen, of the Mayday resistance, an underground network working to overthrow the Republic of Gilead. Not knowing of Offred's criminal acts with her husband, Serena begins to suspect that the Commander is infertile, and arranges for Offred to begin a covert sexual relationship with Nick, the Commander's personal servant. After their initial sexual encounter, Offred and Nick begin to meet on their own initiative as well, with Offred discovering that she enjoys these intimate moments despite memories of her husband, and shares potentially dangerous information about her past with him. However, shortly after, Ofglen disappears, and Serena finds evidence of the relationship between Offred and the Commander, which causes Offred to contemplate suicide.
Offred tells Nick that she thinks she is pregnant. Shortly afterward, men arrive at the house wearing the uniform of the secret police, the Eyes of God, known informally as "the Eyes", to take her away. As she is led to a waiting van, Nick tells her to trust him and go with the men. It is unclear whether the men are actually Eyes, or members of the Mayday resistance, an underground network to overthrow the Republic of Gilead. Offred is still unsure if Nick is a member of Mayday or an Eye posing as one, and does not know if leaving will result in her escape or her capture. Ultimately, she enters the van with her future uncertain.
The novel concludes with a metafictional epilogue, described as a partial transcript of an international historical association conference taking place in the year 2195. The keynote speaker explains that Offred's account of the events of the novel was recorded onto cassette tapes later found and transcribed by historians studying what is then called "the Gilead Period." Professor Pieixoto makes a sexist joke about Professor Maryann Crescent Moon, causing laughter from the audience — highlighting lingering issues regarding attitudes towards women, and his ignorance toward the situation.
BackgroundFitting with her statements that The Handmaid's Tale is a work of speculative fiction, not science fiction, Atwood's novel offers a satirical view of various social, political, and religious trends of the United States in the 1980s. Her motivation for writing the novel was her belief that in the 1980s, the religious right was discussing what they would do with/to women if they took power, including the Moral Majority, Focus on the Family, the Christian Coalition and the Ronald Reagan administration. Further, Atwood questions what would happen if these trends, and especially "casually held attitudes about women" were taken to their logical end. Atwood continues to argue that all of the scenarios offered in The Handmaid's Tale have actually occurred in real life—in an interview she gave regarding Oryx and Crake, Atwood maintains that "As with The Handmaid's Tale, I didn't put in anything that we haven't already done, we're not already doing, we're seriously trying to do, coupled with trends that are already in progress... So all of those things are real, and therefore the amount of pure invention is close to nil." Atwood was also known to carry around newspaper clippings to her various interviews to support her fiction's basis in reality. Atwood has explained that The Handmaid's Tale is a response to those who say the oppressive, totalitarian, and religious governments that have taken hold in other countries throughout the years "can't happen here"—but in this work, she has tried to show how such a takeover might play out.
Atwood's inspiration for the Republic of Gilead came from her time studying early American Puritans while at Harvard, which she attended on a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship. Atwood argues that the modern view of the Puritans—that they came to America to flee religious persecution in England and set up a religiously tolerant society—is misleading, and that instead, these Puritan leaders wanted to establish a monolithic theocracy where religious dissent would not be tolerated. Atwood also had a personal connection to the Puritans, and she dedicates the novel to her own ancestor Mary Webster, who was accused of witchcraft in Puritan New England but survived her hanging. Due to the totalitarian nature of Gileadan society, Atwood, in creating the setting, drew from the "utopian idealism" present in 20th century régimes, such as Cambodia and Romania, as well as earlier New England Puritanism. Atwood has argued that a coup, such as the one depicted in The Handmaid's Tale, would misuse religion in order to achieve its own ends.
Atwood, with respect to those leading Gilead, further stated:
I don't consider these people to be Christians because they do not have at the core of their behavior and ideologies what I, in my feeble Canadian way, would consider to be the core of Christianity … and that would be not only love your neighbors but love your enemies. That would also be 'I was sick and you visited me not' and such and such …And that would include also concern for the environment, because you can't love your neighbor or even your enemy, unless you love your neighbor's oxygen, food, and water. You can't love your neighbor or your enemy if you're presuming policies that are going to cause those people to die. … Of course faith can be a force for good and often has been. So faith is a force for good particularly when people are feeling beleaguered and in need of hope. So you can have bad iterations and you can also have the iteration in which people have got too much power and then start abusing it. But that is human behavior, so you can't lay it down to religion. You can find the same in any power situation, such as politics or ideologies that purport to be atheist. Need I mention the former Soviet Union? So it is not a question of religion making people behave badly. It is a question of human beings getting power and then wanting more of it.In the same vein, Atwood also declared that "In the real world today, some religious groups are leading movements for the protection of vulnerable groups, including women." Atwood also draws connections between the ways in which Gilead's leaders maintain their power and other examples of actual totalitarian governments. In her interviews, Atwood offers up Afghanistan as an example of a religious theocracy forcing women out of the public sphere and into their homes, as in Gilead. The "state-sanctioned murder of dissidents" was inspired by the Philippines, and the last General Secretary of the Romanian Communist Party Nicolae Ceaușescu's obsession with increasing the birth rate led to the strict policing of pregnant women and the outlawing of birth control and abortion. However, Atwood clearly explains that many of these deplorable acts were not just present in other cultures and countries, "but within Western society, and within the 'Christian' tradition itself".
The Republic of Gilead struggles with infertility, making Offred's services as a Handmaid vital to producing children and thus reproducing the society. Handmaids themselves are "untouchable", but their ability to signify status is equated to that of slaves or servants throughout history. Atwood connects their concerns with infertility to real-life problems our world faces, such as radiation, chemical pollution, and venereal disease. Atwood's strong stance on environmental issues and their negative consequences for our society has presented itself in other works such as her MaddAddam trilogy, and refers back to her growing up with biologists and her own scientific curiosity.
OffredOffred is the protagonist and narrator who takes the readers through life in Gilead. She was labeled a "wanton woman" when Gilead was established because she had married a man who was divorced. All divorces were nullified by the new government, meaning her husband was now considered still married to his first wife, making Offred an adulteress. In trying to escape Gilead, she was separated from her husband and daughter. She is part of the first generation of Gilead's women, those who remember pre-Gilead times. Proved fertile, she is considered an important commodity and has been placed as a "handmaid" in the home of "the Commander" and his wife Serena Joy, to bear a child for them. Readers are able to see Offred's resistance of The Republic of Gilead on the inside through her thoughts.
Offred is a slave name that describes her function: she is "of Fred". In the novel, Offred says that she is not a concubine, but a tool; a "two legged womb". The Handmaids' names say nothing about who the women really are; their only identity is as the Commander's property. "Offred" is also a pun on the word "offered", as in "offered as a sacrifice", and "of red" because the red dress assigned for the handmaids in Gilead.
In Atwood's original novel, Offred's real name is never revealed; however, Volker Schlöndorff's 1990 film adaptation gave Offred the real name Kate, while the television series gave her the real name 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". From this and other references, some readers have inferred that her birth name could be "June". Miner suggests that "June" is a pseudonym. As "Mayday" is the name of the Gilead resistance, June could be an invention by the protagonist. The Nunavut conference covered in the epilogue takes place in June. When the Hulu TV series chose to state outright that Offred's real name is June, Atwood wrote that it was not her original intention to imply that Offred's real name is June "but it fits, so readers are welcome to it if they wish". The revelation of Offred's real name serves only to humanize her in the presence of the other Handmaids.
The CommanderThe Commander says that he was a scientist and was previously involved in something similar to market research before Gilead's inception. Later, it is hypothesized, but not confirmed, that he might have been one of the architects of the Republic and its laws. Presumably, his first name is "Fred", though that, too, may be a pseudonym. He engages in forbidden intellectual pursuits with Offred, 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, who later killed herself when his wife found out.
In the epilogue, Professor Peixoto speculates that one of two figures, both instrumental in the establishment of Gilead, may have been the Commander, based on the name "Fred". It is his belief that the Commander was a man named Frederick R. Waterford who was killed in a purge shortly after Offred was taken away, charged with harbouring an enemy agent.
Serena JoySerena Joy is a former televangelist and the Commander's wife in the fundamentalist theonomy. The state took away her power and public recognition, and tries to hide her past as a television figure. Offred identifies Serena Joy by recalling seeing her on TV when she was a little girl early on Saturday mornings while waiting for the cartoons to air. Believed to be sterile, she is forced to accept that he has use of a handmaid. She resents having to take part in "The Ceremony", a monthly fertility ritual. She strikes a deal with Offred to arrange for her to have sex with Nick in order to become pregnant. According to Professor Pieixoto in the epilogue, "Serena Joy" or "Pam" are pseudonyms; the character's real name is implied to be Thelma.
OfglenOfglen is a neighbour of Offred's and a fellow Handmaid. She is partnered with Offred to do the daily shopping. Handmaids are never alone and are expected to police each other's behaviour. Ofglen is a member of the Mayday resistance. In contrast to Offred, she is daring. She knocks out a Mayday spy who is to be tortured and killed in order to save him the pain of a violent death. Offred is told that when Ofglen vanishes, it is because she has committed suicide before the government can take her into custody due to her membership in the resistance, possibly to avoid giving away any information.
A new handmaid, also called Ofglen, takes Ofglen's place, and is assigned as Offred's shopping partner. She threatens Offred against any thought of resistance. In addition, she breaks protocol by telling her what happened to the first Ofglen.
NickNick is the Commander's chauffeur, who lives above the garage. By Serena Joy's arrangement, he and Offred start a sexual relationship to increase her chance of getting pregnant. If she were unable to bear the Commander a child, she would be declared sterile and shipped to the ecological wastelands of the Colonies. Offred begins to develop feelings for him. Nick is an ambiguous character, and Offred does not know if he is a party loyalist or part of the resistance, though he identifies himself as the latter. The epilogue suggests that he really was part of the resistance, and aided Offred in escaping the Commander's house.
MoiraMoira has been a close friend of Offred's since college. In the novel, their relationship represents a female friendship that the Republic of Gilead tries to block. A lesbian, she has resisted the homophobia of Gilead society. Moira is taken to be a Handmaid soon after Offred. She escapes by stealing an Aunt's pass and clothes, but Offred later finds her working as a prostitute in a party-run brothel. She was caught and chose the brothel rather than to be sent to the Colonies. Moira exemplifies defiance against Gilead by rejecting every value that is forced onto the citizens.
LukeLuke was Offred's husband before the formation of Gilead, having divorced his first wife to marry her. Under Gilead, all divorces were retroactively nullified, resulting in Offred being considered an adulteress and their daughter illegitimate. Offred was forced to become a Handmaid and her daughter was given to a loyalist family. Since their attempt to escape to Canada, Offred has heard nothing of Luke. She wavers between believing him dead or imprisoned.
Professor PieixotoPieixoto is the "co-discoverer of Offred's tapes". In his presentation at an academic conference, he talks about "the 'Problems of Authentication in Reference to The Handmaid's Tale.
Pieixoto is therefore the person who is retelling Offred's story, and so makes the narration even more unreliable than it was originally.
SettingThe novel is set in an indeterminate dystopian future, speculated to be around the year 2005, with a fundamentalist theonomy ruling the territory of what had been the United States but is now the Republic of Gilead. Individuals are segregated by categories and dressed according to their social functions. Complex dress codes play a key role in imposing social control within the new society and serve to distinguish people by sex, occupation, and caste.
The action takes place in what once was the Harvard Square neighbourhood of Cambridge, Massachusetts; Atwood studied at Radcliffe College, located in this area.
PoliticsIn Gilead, the bodies of fertile women are politicized and controlled. The North American population is falling as more men and women become infertile. Gilead's treatment of women is based upon a literal, fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible, meaning that women are the property of and subordinate to their husband, father, or head of household. They are not allowed to do anything that would grant them any power independent of this system. They are not allowed to vote, hold a job, read, possess money, or own anything, among many other restrictions.
A particular quote from The Handmaid's Tale sums this up: "The Republic of Gilead, said Aunt Lydia, knows no bounds. Gilead is within you". This describes that there is no way around the societal bounds of women in this new state of government. Handmaids, being not allowed to wed, are given two-year assignments with a commander, and lose their own name: they are called "Of ", such as the novel's protagonist, known only as Offred. When a handmaid is reassigned, her name changes with her. Their original identities are suppressed. However, while being re-educated as handmaids, they surreptitiously share their names with each other.
In this book, the government appears to be strong though "no one in Gilead seems to be a true believer in its revolution". The Commanders, portrayed via Commander Fred, do not agree with their own doctrines. The commander takes Offred at one point to a brothel in order to have sex with her in an informal setting apart from the Ceremony. The wives, portrayed via Serena Joy, former television evangelist, disobey the rules set forth by their commander husbands. Serena smokes black market cigarettes, expresses the forbidden idea that men may be infertile, and schemes to get Offred impregnated by her chauffeur.
ReligionBruce Miller, the executive producer of The Handmaid's Tale television serial, declared with regard to Atwood's book, as well as his series, that Gilead is "a society that’s based kind of in a perverse misreading of Old Testament laws and codes". The author explains that Gilead tries to embody the "utopian idealism" present in 20th-century regimes, as well as earlier New England Puritanism. Both Atwood and Miller stated that the people running Gilead are "not genuinely Christian". The group running Gilead, according to Atwood, is "not really interested in religion; they're interested in power." In fact, in her prayers to God, Offred reflects on Gilead and prays “I don't believe for an instant that what's going on out there is what You meant.... I suppose I should say I forgive whoever did this, and whatever they’re doing now. I’ll try, but it isn't easy.” Margaret Atwood, writing on this, says that "Offred herself has a private version of the Lord's Prayer and refuses to believe that this regime has been mandated by a just and merciful God."
Christian churches that do not support the actions of the Sons of Jacob are systematically demolished, and the people living in Gilead are never seen attending church. Christian denominations, including Quakers, Baptists and Roman Catholics, are specifically named as enemies of the Sons of Jacob. Nuns who refuse conversion are considered "Unwomen" and banished to the Colonies, owing to their reluctance to marry and refusal to bear children. Priests unwilling to convert are executed and hanged from the Wall. Atwood pits Quaker Christians against the regime by having them help the oppressed, something she feels they would do in reality: "The Quakers have gone underground, and are running an escape route to Canada, as—I suspect—they would."
Jews are named an exception and classified Sons of Jacob. Offred observes that Jews refusing to convert are allowed to emigrate from Gilead to Israel, and most choose to leave. However, in the epilogue, Professor Pieixoto reveals that many of the emigrating Jews ended up being dumped into the sea while on the ships ostensibly tasked with transporting them to Israel, due to privatization of the "repatriation program" and capitalists' effort to maximize profits. Offred mentions that many Jews who chose to stay were caught secretly practicing Judaism and executed.
Legitimate women;Wives: The top social level permitted to women, achieved by marriage to higher-ranking officers. Wives always wear blue dresses and cloaks, suggesting traditional depictions of the Virgin Mary in historic Christian art. When a Commander dies, his Wife becomes a Widow and must dress in black.
;Daughters: The natural or adopted children of the ruling class. They wear white until marriage, which is arranged by the government. The narrator's daughter may have been adopted by an infertile Wife and Commander and she is shown in a photograph wearing a long white dress.
;Aunts: Trainers of the Handmaids. They dress in brown. Aunts promote the role of Handmaid as an honorable way for a sinful woman to redeem herself. They also police the Handmaids, beating some and ordering the maiming of others. The aunts have an unusual amount of autonomy, compared to other women of Gilead. They are the only class of women permitted to read although this is only to fulfil the administrative aspect of their role. from a disc; the voice was a man's." In the Anchor Books edition: "They played it from a tape, so not even an Aunt would be guilty of the sin of reading. The voice was a man's.
; Marthas:They are older, infertile women who have domestic skills and are compliant, making them suitable as servants. They dress in green smocks. The title of "Martha" is based on the story of Jesus at the home of Martha and Mary, where Jesus visits Mary, sister of Lazarus and Martha; Mary listens to Jesus while Martha works at "all the preparations that had to be made".
; Econowives: Women married to men of lower-rank, not members of the 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, and is made of notably cheaper material.
The division of labour among the women generates some resentment. Marthas, Wives and Econowives perceive Handmaids as promiscuous and are taught to scorn them. Offred mourns that the women of the various groups have lost their ability to empathize with each other. They are divided in their oppression.
The Ceremony"The Ceremony" is a non-marital sexual act sanctioned for reproduction. The ritual requires the Handmaid to lie on her back between the legs of the Wife during the sex act as if they were one person. The Wife has to invite the Handmaid to share her power this way; many Wives consider this both humiliating and offensive. Offred describes the ceremony:
Genre classificationThe Handmaid’s Tale is a feminist dystopian novel, combining the characteristics of dystopian fiction: “a genre that projects an imaginary society that differs from the author’s own, first, by being significantly worse in important respects and second by being worse because it attempts to reify some utopian ideal,” with the feminist utopian ideal which: “sees men or masculine systems as the major cause of social and political problems, and presents women as not only at least the equals of men but also as the sole arbiters of their reproductive functions. The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction notes that dystopian images are almost invariably images of future society, “pointing fearfully at the way the world is supposedly going in order to provide urgent propaganda for a change in direction.” Atwood's stated intent was indeed to dramatize potential consequences of current trends.
In 1985, reviewers hailed the book as a "feminist 1984," citing similarities between the totalitarian regimes under which both protagonists live, and “the distinctively modern sense of nightmare come true, the initial paralyzed powerlessness of the victim unable to act.” Scholarly studies have expanded on the place of The Handmaid’s Tale in the dystopian and feminist traditions.
The classification of utopian and dystopian fiction as a sub-genre of the collective term, speculative fiction, alongside science fiction, fantasy, and horror is a relatively recent convention. Dystopian novels have long been discussed as a type of science fiction, however, with publication of The Handmaid's Tale, Atwood distinguished the terms science fiction and speculative fiction quite intentionally. In interviews and essays, she has discussed why, observing:
Atwood acknowledges that others may use the terms interchangeably, but she notes her interest in this type of work is to explore themes in ways that "realistic fiction" cannot do.
Among a few science fiction aficionados, however, Atwood's comments were considered petty and contemptuous. 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."
Critical receptionThe Handmaid's Tale was well received by critics, helping to cement Atwood's status as a prominent writer of the 20th century. Not only was the book deemed well-written and compelling, but Atwood's work was notable for sparking intense debates both in and out of academia. Atwood maintains that the Republic of Gilead is only an extrapolation of trends already seen in the United States at the time of her writing, a view supported by other scholars studying The Handmaid's Tale. Indeed, many have placed The Handmaid's Tale in the same category of dystopian fiction as Nineteen Eighty-Four and Brave New World, with the added feature of confronting patriarchy, a categorization that Atwood has accepted and reiterated in many articles and interviews.
Even today, many reviewers hold that Atwood's novel remains as foreboding and powerful as ever, largely because of its basis in historical fact. Yet when her book was first published in 1985, not all reviewers were convinced of the "cautionary tale" Atwood presented. For example, Mary McCarthy's New York Times review argued that The Handmaid's Tale lacked the "surprised recognition" necessary for readers to see "our present selves in a distorting mirror, of what we may be turning into if current trends are allowed to continue".
In the aftermath of the television series' debut in 2017, there has been much debate on parallels drawn between the series and American society following the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States and that of Mike Pence as Vice President of the United States.
Feminist analysisMuch of the discussion about The Handmaid's Tale has centered on its categorization as feminist literature. Atwood does not see the Republic of Gilead as a purely feminist dystopia, as not all men have greater rights than women. Instead, this society presents a typical dictatorship: "shaped like a pyramid, with the powerful of both sexes at the apex, the men generally outranking the women at the same level; then descending levels of power and status with men and women in each, all the way down to the bottom, where the unmarried men must serve in the ranks before being awarded an Econowife". Econowives are women married to men that don't belong to the elite and who are expected to carry out child-bearing, domestic duties, and traditional companionship. When asked about whether her book was feminist, Atwood stated that the presence of women and what happens to them are important to the structure and theme of the book. This aisle of feminism, by default, would make a lot of books feminist. However, she was adamant in her stance that her book did not represent the brand of feminism that victimizes or strips women of moral choice. Additionally, Atwood has argued that while some of the observations that informed the content of The Handmaid's Tale may be feminist, her novel is not meant to say "one thing to one person" or serve as a political message—instead, The Handmaid's Tale is "a study of power, and how it operates and how it deforms or shapes the people who are living within that kind of regime".
Some scholars have offered such a feminist interpretation, however, connecting Atwood's use of religious fundamentalism in the pages of The Handmaid's Tale to a condemnation of their presence in current American society. Atwood goes on to describe her book as not a critique of religion, but a critique of the use of religion as a "front for tyranny." Yet others have argued that The Handmaid's Tale critiques typical notions of feminism, as Atwood's novel appears to subvert the traditional "women helping women" ideals of the movement and turn toward the possibility of "the matriarchal network... and a new form of misogyny: women's hatred of women". Scholars have analyzed and made connections to patriarchal oppression in The Handmaid's Tale and oppression of women today. Aisha Matthews tackles the effects of institutional structures that oppress woman and womanhood and connects those to the themes present in The Handmaid's Tale. She first asserts that structures and social frameworks, such as the patriarchy and societal role of traditional Christian values, are inherently detrimental to the liberation of womanhood. She then makes the connection to the relationship between Offred, Serena Joy, and their Commander, explaining that through this "perversion of traditional marriage, the Biblical story of Rachel, Jacob, and Bilhah is taken too literally." Their relationship and other similar relationships in The Handmaid's Tale mirror the effects of patriarchal standards of womanliness.
Sex and OccupationThe sexes are strictly divided. Gilead's society values white women's reproductive commodities over those of other ethnicities. Women are categorized "hierarchically according to class status and reproductive capacity" as well as "metonymically colour-coded according to their function and their labour". The Commander expresses his personal opinion that women are considered inferior to men, as the men are in a position where they have power to control society.
Women are segregated by clothing, as are men. With rare exception, men wear military or paramilitary uniforms. All classes of men and women are defined by the colours they wear, drawing on colour symbolism and psychology. All lower-status individuals are regulated by this dress code. All "non-persons" are banished to the "Colonies". Sterile, unmarried women are considered to be non-persons. Both men and women sent there wear grey dresses.
The women, particularly the handmaids, are stripped of their individual identities as they lack formal names, taking on their assigned commander's first name in most cases. This hierarchical society has forced women to come to terms with their inability to make decisions about their own bodies and lives.
UnwomenSterile women, the unmarried, some widows, feminists, lesbians, nuns, and politically dissident women: all women who are incapable of social integration within the Republic's strict gender divisions. Gilead exiles Unwomen to "the Colonies", areas both of agricultural production and deadly pollution. Joining them are handmaids who fail to bear a child after three two-year assignments.
JezebelsJezebels are women who are forced to become prostitutes and entertainers. They are available only to the Commanders and to their guests. Offred portrays Jezebels as attractive and educated; they may be unsuitable as handmaids due to temperament. They have been sterilized, a surgery that is forbidden to other women. They operate in unofficial but state-sanctioned brothels, unknown to most women. Jezebels, whose title also comes from the Bible, dress in the remnants of sexualized costumes from "the time before", such as cheerleaders' costumes, school uniforms, and Playboy Bunny costumes. Jezebels can wear make-up, drink alcohol and socialize with men, but are tightly controlled by the Aunts. When they pass their sexual prime and/or their looks fade, they are discarded without any precision as to whether they are killed or sent to the Colonies in the novel.
Race analysis, the main non-white ethnic group in this society, are called the Children of Ham. A state TV broadcast mentions they have been relocated "en masse" to "National Homelands" in the Midwest, which are suggestive of the Apartheid-era homelands set up by South Africa. Ana Cottle characterized The Handmaid's Tale as "white feminism", noting that Atwood does away with black people in a few lines by relocating the "Children of Ham" while borrowing heavily from the African-American experience and applying it to white women.
It is implied that Native Americans living in territories under the rule of Gilead are exterminated. Jews are given a choice between converting to the state religion or being "repatriated" to Israel. However, converts who were subsequently discovered with any symbolic representations or artifacts of Judaism were executed, and the repatriation scheme was privatized.
Many argue that readers cannot simply ignore the parallels between racism and sexism within The Handmaid's Tale. Many critics believe that Atwood chooses to erase the black community from the novel by sending them elsewhere in order to make the Republic of Gilead a white society. Scholar Ben Merriman believes that Atwood's portrayal of society in The Handmaid's Tale mimics that of a society run on black slavery, due to the novel's heavy focuses on "sexual exploitation, isolation, and compelled ignorance that accompany severe economic and political powerlessness", which are themes often associated with African-American slavery. Merriman accuses Atwood of purposely failing to acknowledge the parallels between her novel and the African-American experience. In Gilead, Handmaids are forbidden to read or write and the men in charge control access to literacy. In black slavery, African-Americans had restrictions on literacy as well. Additionally, The Handmaid's Tale is written as an oral narration of Offred's experiences; oral narration is a theme commonly associated with slave narratives.
Language analysisIn the novel's fictional fundamentalist society, sterile is an outlawed word. In this society, there is no such thing as a sterile man. In this culture, women are either fruitful or barren, the latter of which are declared to be "unwomen" and are sent to the colonies with the rest of the "unwomen" to do life-threatening work until their death, which is, on average, three years.
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 from earlier. Offred expresses amazement at how "It has taken so little time to change our minds about things". Wearing revealing clothes and makeup had been part of her former life, but when she sees Japanese tourists dressed that way, she now feels the women are inappropriately dressed.
Offred can read but not translate the phrase "nolite te bastardes carborundorum" carved into the closet wall of her small bedroom; this mock-Latin aphorism signifies "Don't let the bastards grind you down".
- 1985 – Governor General's Award for English-language fiction
- 1986 – Booker Prize
- 1986 – Nebula Award
- 1987 – Arthur C. Clarke Award
- 1987 – Prometheus Award
- Commonwealth Literature Prize
- Welsh Arts Council International Writer's Prize
ChallengesBecause the book has been frequently challenged or banned over the last thirty years, many people have expressed discontent at The Handmaid's Tale presence in the classroom. Some of these challenges have come from parents concerned about the explicit sexuality and other adult themes represented in the book. Others have argued that The Handmaid's Tale depicts a negative view of religion, a view supported by several academics who propose that Atwood's work satirizes contemporary religious fundamentalists in the United States, offering a feminist critique of the trends this movement to the Right represents.
The American Library Association 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".
Some complaints have included:
- 1990: Challenged at Rancho Cotate High School, Rohnert Park, California, as too explicit for students.
- 1992: Challenged in schools in Waterloo, Iowa, reportedly because of profanity, lurid passages about sex, and statements defamatory to minorities, God, women, and the disabled.
- 1993: Removed because of profanity and sex from the Chicopee, Massachusetts, high-school English class reading list.
- 1998: Challenged for use in Richland, Washington, high-school English classes, along with six other titles determined to be "poor quality literature and stress suicide, illicit sex, violence, and hopelessness".
- 1999: Challenged because of graphic sex, but retained on the advanced placement English list, at George D. Chamberlain High School in Tampa, Florida.
- 2000: Downgraded from "required" to "optional" on the summer reading list for eleventh graders in the Upper Moreland School District near Philadelphia due to "age-inappropriate" subject matter.
- 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 independent school district in Texas after a parent complained. Lyman had overruled the recommendation of a committee of teachers, students, and parents; the committee appealed the decision to the school board, which overturned his ban.
- 2012: Challenged as required reading for a Page High School International Baccalaureate class and as optional reading for Advanced Placement reading courses at Grimsley High School in Greensboro, North Carolina because the book is “sexually explicit, violently graphic and morally corrupt". Some parents thought the book is “detrimental to Christian values".
"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, Rushowy reported that 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 against 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."
Other use in academiaIn institutions of higher education, professors have found The Handmaid's Tale to be useful, largely because of its historical and religious basis and Atwood's captivating delivery. The novel's teaching points include: introducing politics and the social sciences to students in a more concrete way; demonstrating the importance of reading to our freedom, both intellectual and political; and acknowledging the "most insidious and violent manifestations of power in Western history" in a compelling manner. The chapter entitled "Historical Notes" at the end of the novel also represents a warning to academics who run the risk of misreading and misunderstanding historical texts, pointing to the satirized Professor Pieixoto as an example of a male scholar who has taken over and overpowered Offred's narrative with his own interpretation.
The novel appears as a studied text on Ireland's Leaving Certificate examination for school-leavers.
In other media
- An audiobook of the unabridged text, read by Claire Danes, won the 2013 Audie Award for fiction.
- In 2014, Canadian band Lakes of Canada released their album Transgressions, which is intended to be a concept album inspired by The Handmaid's Tale.
- On his album Shady Lights from 2017, Snax references the novel and film adaption, specifically the character of Serena Joy, in the song, “Make Me Disappear.” The first verse reads, ‘You can call me Serena Joy. Drink in hand, in front of the TV, I’m teary eyed, adjusting my CC.’
- The 1990 film The Handmaid's Tale was based on a screenplay by Harold Pinter and directed by Volker Schlöndorff. It stars Natasha Richardson as Offred, Faye Dunaway as Serena Joy, and Robert Duvall as The Commander.
- A dramatic adaptation of the novel for radio was produced for BBC Radio 4 by John Dryden in 2000.
- A Canadian dramatic adaptation for radio was written by playwright Michael O'Brien and produced on CBC Radio in 2002.
- A stage adaptation written and directed by Bruce Shapiro played at Tufts University in 1989.
- 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. It was the opening production of the 2004–2005 season of the Canadian Opera Company. Boston Lyric Opera mounted a production in May 2019.
- A stage adaptation of the novel, by Brendon Burns, for the Haymarket Theatre, Basingstoke, England, toured the UK in 2002.
- 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.
- A one-woman stage show, adapted from the novel, by Joseph Stollenwerk premiered in the U.S. in January 2015.
- Hulu has produced a television series based on the novel, starring Elisabeth Moss as Offred. The first three episodes were released on April 26, 2017, with subsequent episodes following on a weekly basis. Margaret Atwood served as consulting producer. The series won eight Primetime Emmy Awards in 2017, including Outstanding Drama Series and Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series. The series was renewed for a second season, which premiered on April 25, 2018, and in May 2018, Hulu announced renewal for a third season. Third season premiered on June 5, 2019. Hulu announced season 4, which will consist of 10 episodes, and it was to start production in March 2020, but was delayed due to the 2019–20 coronavirus pandemic.