The Handmaid's Tale Margaret Atwood

(Full name Margaret Eleanor Atwood) Canadian novelist, poet, short story writer, critic, editor, and children's writer.

The following entry presents criticism on Atwood's novel The Handmaid's Tale (1985). For further information on Atwood's life and works, see CLC, Volumes 2, 3, 4, 8, 13, 25, and 84.


A Canadian and feminist writer, Margaret Atwood is internationally acclaimed as an accomplished novelist, poet, short story writer, and literary commentator. Her novel The Handmaid's Tale (1985) is highly regarded as a provocative work of feminist dystopian fiction that examines the cultural construction of female identity, language, and historical memory. Alternately chilling, satirical, and suspenseful, Atwood's cautionary tale portrays the physical and psychological oppression of women under a futuristic totalitarian regime that reduces its female subjects to mere voiceless, childbearing vessels. Presented as the eyewitness recollections of its entrapped heroine, the novel vividly displays the dehumanizing effects of ideological rhetoric, biological reductionism, and linguistic manipulation. Among Atwood's most celebrated works, The Handmaid's Tale displays the author's superior narrative abilities, her distinct poetic voice, and the chief feminist and humanitarian concerns which fascinate her.

Plot and Major Characters

Set sometime during the late twentieth century, The Handmaid's Tale relates events in the Republic of Gilead, a militaristic Christian state that has supplanted the democratic government of the United States after a violent coup d'état. The proliferation of toxic pollution and sexually transmitted diseases in the near future has caused widespread sterility and a decline of Caucasian births. The new ruling male theocracy, situated in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is founded on fundamentalist biblical principles and a social hierarchy designed to promote controlled procreation. The strict moral code of the regime, a reaction against the amorality and permissiveness of the former United States, is enforced by the constant surveillance of Eyes (secret agents), Angels (soldiers), and Guardians (police). Though women in Gilead are prized for their ability to reproduce, they are forbidden to work, own property, or read. A select number of women who are fertile and unmarried are recruited as Handmaids; they wear red habits with white hoods and are assigned to a Commander, a high-ranking government official, and his post-menopausal Wife. The sole function of the Handmaid is to produce children, a task that requires her to engage in ritualized, monthly copulation with the Commander in the presence of his Wife. Beneath the Handmaids in the caste system are Econowives, the spouses of lower class men who wear striped dresses. The remainder of infertile and unmarried women are divided into the following: Marthas, a servant class designated by drab green dresses; Aunts, a cattleprod-wielding corps entrusted with the indoctrination and discipline of the Handmaids; and Unwomen, a group comprised of resistant women who are sent to the embattled Colonies to clean up toxic waste. The Handmaid's Tale revolves around the first-person narrative of Offred, a thirty-three year old woman who is forced into the ranks of the Handmaids after a failed attempt to flee to Canada with her husband, Luke, and their young daughter. Earlier, Offred's mother, an ardent feminist in the old society, was condemned to the Colonies. Following a period of political re-education at the Rachael and Leah Center, a converted gymnasium where the Handmaids are detained and systematically brainwashed by the Aunts, Offred is assigned to a Commander named Fred (the name “Of-Fred” denotes her fealty to Fred) and his wife Serena Joy, a television gospel singer and leading proponent of the new female order. Offred is a replacement for Fred's former Handmaid, Janine, who has committed suicide. Offred's story describes her cloistered existence in the Commander's home, her despair over her lost identity and freedom, and the horrific realities of Gileadean society, including public executions, called “salvagings,” of homosexuals, traitors, and other undesirables whose corpses are displayed on the wall of Harvard Yard. During paired shopping excursions with Ofglen, another Handmaid, Offred learns of the underground movement called Mayday, of which Ofglen is a part. Though initially passive and hopeless, Offred is gradually emboldened by her brief exchanges with Ofglen. Offred also becomes involved in an illicit relationship with Commander Fred, who summons her to his study during the evenings to play Scrabble—a illegal activity since women are condemned to illiteracy. She is compensated with hand lotion and old copies of banned women's magazines. Fred further violates their officially sanctioned relationship by kissing Offred, dressing her in slinky clothing, and taking her out to an underground nightclub called Jezebel's where various Unwomen are assembled for the pleasure of the officers. There Offred reencounters her friend Moira, a lesbian and rebellious former Handmaid-in-training whose failed escape from the Rachael and Leah Center has landed her a role as a prostitute at the club. At home, Offred also enters into a dangerous clandestine relationship with Nick, the Commander's limousine driver, who may have links to both the secret police and underground resistance. Her late-night couplings with Nick are tacitly approved by the Commander's Wife, Serena, in an effort to facilitate a speedy pregnancy after Fred fails to inseminate Offred during their monthly sessions. While Offred is permitted to satisfy her sexual longings with Nick, Serena stands to benefit from the prestige of having a birth in her home, a ceremonious event in itself attended by the Wives and Handmaids. Offred's risky involvements become increasingly perilous and complicated. Serena eventually learns of her unauthorized meetings with Fred and, in the final scene of her narrative, an ominous black van arrives at the Commander's house. Offred is whisked away either to safety with the underground resistance, perhaps arranged by Nick, or to certain death at the hands of the Eyes. A postscript to the novel entitled “Historical Notes on The Handmaid's Tale” reveals that the preceding narrative derives from a transcription of some thirty audiotapes dictated by Offred after her apparent escape. The postscript purports to be an excerpt from the “Twelfth Symposium on Gileadean Studies,” an academic conference held in the year 2195 at the University of Denay, Nunavit, located in northern Canada. The historians in attendance, presided over by keynote speaker Professor James Darcy Pieixoto, have gathered to debate the authenticity and significance of Offred's account, which has been recently discovered by archaeologists in Bangor, Maine.

Major Themes

The Handmaid's Tale is primarily concerned with the problems of ideological extremism, historical interpretation, and most importantly the objectification of women in modern society. As in most dystopian fiction, the future setting merely affords the author an opportunity to illustrate the magnified ill effects of familiar contemporary problems left unchecked. As such, the Republic of Gilead embodies the dangerous potential of religious fanaticism, militarism, and sexism, whereby the Bible is appropriated as a tool of subjugation, democratic freedom is replaced by brutal coercion, and women are reduced to a strictly biological role as “two-legged wombs.” The biblical foundation of Gilead evokes parallels between America's New England Puritan past and the evangelical Christianity of the contemporary Moral Majority. Biblical names and allusions permeate the text and the literal interpretation of Genesis 30:1-3, in which Jacob employs his wife's handmaid as a surrogate to produce children, forms the basis of Gileadean ideology. Orchestrated public events such as Prayvaganzas and the production of computerized prayers called “soul scrolls” also serve to underscore the political and commercial subversion of religion in Gilead. The omnipresence of Eyes, Angels, Guardians, and Aunts—all agents of state sponsored repression—evoke an atmosphere of constant surveillance and social control in which biblical mandate, fascist tactics, and technology are all merged. Atwood frequently employs satire as a method of social critique: Econowives and Birthmobiles parody modern consumerism; Serena Joy serves as an ironic name for the bitter, repressed religious leader of women's passivity; and the “Historical Notes” postscript lampoons the arrogance and false objectivity of male academics. Though men also suffer under the tyrannical Gileadean order, Atwood focuses on the persecution of women and their various efforts to resist male domination, including flight (Moira), dissent (Ofglen), suicide (Janine), acceptance (Serena), and storytelling (Offred). The use of language as a mode of both manipulation and liberating affirmation is a dominant motif in the novel. For example, the recurring images of eyes, eggs, ovals, and mirrors in the text contrast positive feminine symbols of fertility, continuity, and wholeness with negative aspects of surveillance, control, and imprisonment. Likewise, the blood-red gowns of the Handmaids conjure positive associations with birth and life as well as pejorative links with suffering, shame, and female bondage to reproductive cycles. Such multiplicity of meaning is also embedded in Offred's name, which may be interpreted as off-read, off-red, offered, or afraid. Though Offred's pre-Gilead name is never explicitly mentioned, some critics have deduced from the text that it is June, a name significantly associated with Spring and rebirth. Throughout her narrative, Offred relies upon linguistic invention as an internal voice of self-expression, subjectivity, and, ultimately, survival, as her tapes suggest that women may transcend oppression by documenting and sharing their experiences. However, the “Historical Notes” postscript offers a skeptical conclusion that reveals the inadequacies of historical analysis and the persistence of male authority long after the fall of Gilead. Offred's account is ascribed the title “The Handmaid's Tale” by male historians who revel in its sexist pun on the word tale/tail and its association with Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales, suggestive in this context of a medieval regression. The pompous jibes of Professor Pieixoto, his focus on Offred's credibility, and refusal to make any moral judgements about Gileadean society indicate that Offred's voice and harrowing reality are not taken seriously, and that a reinstated patriarchal establishment continues to marginalize women. The location of the conference at the University of Denay, Nunavit, forms the linguistic pun “deny none of it.” In the end, Pieixoto's closing remark to his audience—“Are there any questions?”—serves as an ironic, open-ended, final statement that places responsibility and the possibility of change in the hands of the reader.

Critical Reception

The Handmaid's Tale is widely acclaimed as a major work of feminist protest and speculative fiction. A critical and popular success, the novel was awarded the Los Angeles Times Book Award, Arthur C. Clarke Award, and the Commonwealth Literature Prize, and was also adapted into a film in 1990. Critics consistently draw attention to the depth and complexity of the novel, praising Atwood's ability to illustrate the insidious presence of sexism and anti-feminism in contemporary society. Recognized as a daring departure from her previous novels, most commentators have applauded Atwood's compelling extrapolations of modern social, political, and environmental problems in this work. The Handmaid's Tale is frequently compared to classic dystopian novels such as Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, George Orwell's 1984, and Anthony Burgess's A Clockwork Orange. While many critics regard Atwood's novel as a rival to these works and a breakthrough contribution to an essentially male genre, others, most notably New York Times Book Review contributor Mary McCarthy, feel Atwood's novel lacks the satiric power and imagination of these earlier novels. However, Atwood's satire has prompted other reviewers to favorably compare her work to such literary staples as Jonathan Swift: Lucy M. Freibert writes, “Instead of a modest proposal, her Swiftean serio-comic vision comprises an ironic indictment of a society that treats woman's body as a pawn and her life as an academic question.” Atwood's skillful use of postmodern narrative devices, ironic names, wordplay, and poetic language received frequent praise and is the focus of many scholarly studies of the novel. Commenting on the novel's universal significance, Stephanie Barbé Hammer writes, “the satire in The Handmaid's Tale directs its criticism towards all of us—feminists and non-feminists, women and men. It warns us of the imperceptible technology of power, of the subtle domination of women by men, and of our unconscious imprisoning of each other and ourselves by ourselves.”

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