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The Handmaid's Tale

The Handmaid's Tale is a dystopian novel by Canadian author Margaret Atwood, first published by McClelland and Stewart in 1985. The novel explores themes of women in subjugation, and the various means by which they gain agency, against the backdrop of a totalitarian pseudo-Christian theocracy which has overthrown the United States government in the near future. Sumptuary laws (dress codes) play a key role in imposing social control within the new society.

The American Library Association lists it in "10 Most Challenged Books of 1999" and as number 37 on the "100 Most Frequently Challenged Books of 1990–2000 due to many complaints from parents of pupils regarding the novel's anti-religious content and sexual references.

The Handmaid's Tale won the Governor General's Award for 1985, 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 several times into performance works.


Offred, the Handmaid

The protagonist was separated from her husband and child after the formation of the Republic of Gilead, and is part of the first wave of Gilead's women, who still remember pre-Gilead times. Since she has proven fertile, she is considered an important commodity and has now been placed as a handmaid in the home of the Commander Fred and his wife Serena Joy to bear a child for them.

Offred is a patronymic which describes her function: she is "Of Fred", i.e. she belongs to her Commander, Fred, as a concubine, a sexual slave. She is a chattel belonging to him, and so is given his name (see slave name). Atwood plays with her readers, because the narrator, whose real name is not revealed, does not accept her role; she is not "Of-Fred", a coded way of saying she is "not afraid". Offred can also be seen as "Off Red" which implies that she denounces the title and role of the Handmaid (red is their color) as well as the Republic of Gilead; she is off red and therefore rejects her social standing.

It is implied that her birth name is June. All of the women training to be handmaids recite their names, and all are later accounted for except June. In addition, one of the Aunts tells Offred to stop "mooning and June-ing." It may well be a pseudonym, as "Mayday" is the name of the Gilead resistance and could be an attempt on the protagonist's part to make something up; the Nunavit conference that takes place in the epilogue is held in June, as well.

The only physical description of Offred presented in the novel is the one she gives of herself. Offred describes herself as: "I am thirty-three years old. I have brown hair. I stand five seven without shoes. Notably, this description appears about halfway through the novel, so for a significant portion of the book the reader remains ignorant of her physical appearance.

Fred, the Commander

His background is never officially described as Offred does not have 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.

Serena Joy, the Wife

A former televangelist who seems loosely based on Anita Bryant, as well in parts Tammy Faye Bakker and Phyllis Schlafly, she is now a Wife in the fundamentalist theocracy she helped to create. She is neither serene nor joyful; all power and public recognition have been taken away from her by the state, as it has been for all women in Gilead. Being sterile, she also has to bear the indignity of having a Handmaid and being present every month as her husband has sex with the Handmaid at the Ceremony on her own bed.

Ofglen, the neighbour

A neighbour of Offred's and fellow handmaid, she has been partnered with Offred to do the shopping for the household each day, so that the Handmaids are never alone and police each others' behaviour. Ofglen is a member of the Mayday resistance, and gets Offred involved. In contrast to the relatively passive Offred, Ofglen is very daring, even leaping forward to knock out a spy who is to be tortured and killed in a "Particicution" (an event in which the handmaids are turned loose to kill a man accused of rape and infanticide) in order to save him the pain of a violent death. Ofglen later commits suicide before the government comes to take her away for being part of the resistance.

She is 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 lover

The Commander's chauffeur, he 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 becoming an Unwoman and being shipped off to the Colonies. Offred subsequently starts to develop real feelings for him, even going so far as to tell him her pre-Gilead name, a revealing act of trust. Nick is an ambiguous character, and Offred does not know if he is a party loyalist or a member of the resistance, until near the end of the story and her time in the Commander's household, when he helps her escape.

Moira, the friend

Moira has been a close friend of Offred's since college, hinted in the book to be either Harvard University or Radcliffe College. She is a rebel, and a lesbian. Moira is taken to be a Handmaid shortly after Offred, but both women end up at the Rachel and Leah Center at the same time. While at the Center, Moira attempts to escape, while the more passive Offred declines. Offred then loses track of her for several years, but encounters her at Jezebel's, the party-run brothel. Moira has been caught and offered the choice between being sent to the colonies and prostitution. She is grimly practical about her life of having sex with party leaders: once her "snatch wears out", she will be declared an Unwoman and sent to the colonies, perhaps to clean up toxic waste or work in agriculture.

Luke, the husband

Luke was the narrator's husband prior to the formation of the Republic. She started seeing him secretly while he was still married; he then divorced in order to marry her. Luke, the narrator, and their daughter try to escape to Canada, but are captured. She constantly expects to see him hanged at The Wall but never sees him there and never learns his fate.

Categories of people

People are segregated into categories and dressed according to their social functions. White women seem to be the default in Gilead. The main non-white ethnic group mentioned are Blacks, who are called the Children of Ham; Jews are called Sons of Jacob, which is also the name of the fundamentalist group which rules the Republic of Gilead. The Jews were offered a choice of converting to Christianity or emigrating to Israel. Most chose to leave, but in the epilogue the lecturer mentions that many were simply dumped into the sea on the way over in boats, as a result of privatization of the "repatriation program," in order to maximize private profits. It is an underpinning assumption of the book that the reproductive value of white women is privileged over that of others. The sexes are strictly divided. Women are categorised “hierarchically according to class status and reproductive capacity” as well as “metonymically colour-coded according to their function and their labour” . The Commander makes it clear that women are considered intellectually and emotionally inferior. Women are not permitted to read and girls are not educated.

The complex sumptuary laws serve to distinguish people by sex, occupation, and caste. Women are especially visually segregated; men are too, but they are equipped with military or paramilitary uniforms, constraining but also empowering them. 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. Only rare civilians (increasingly persecuted) and Commanders seem to be free of sumptuary restrictions.


Men have their particular roles and duties to carry out:

  • 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 (servants) and Guardians. They have a duty to procreate but many are possibly infertile, as a possible result of exposure to a biological agent in pre-Gilead times. It is unlawful to mention that men can be infertile, however. They wear black to signify superiority. They are allowed cars.
  • Eyes - the internal intelligence agency who attempt to root out 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 - "They're 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 lime green uniforms.


Seven legitimate categories and two illegitimate ones are described.

  • Wives are at the top social level permitted to women. They are married to the higher ranking functionaries. Wives always wear blue dresses, as, presumably, did 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 with a white head-dress that obscures their peripheral vision, both to keep them from seeing the world around them and to prevent their being seen and possibly tempting men. Handmaids are produced by reeducating 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's wives (Gen. 30:1-2) and Abraham (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 removing any association with gender criminality. They do the dirty work of the men running Gilead—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.
  • Marthas are older infertile women whose compliant nature and domestic skills recommend them to a life of domestic servitude. They dress in green smocks. The title of "Martha" is based on a story in Luke 10:38-42, where Jesus visits Mary, sister of Lazarus and Martha; Mary listens to Jesus while Martha is preoccupied "by all the preparations that had to be made."
  • Econowives are women who have married relatively low-ranking men, meaning any man who does not belong to the ruling elite. They are expected to perform all the female functions: domestic duties, companionship, child-bearing. Their dress is multicoloured red, blue, and green to reflect these multiple roles.

The division of labor between women engenders some resentment between categories. Marthas, Wives and Econowives perceive Handmaids as sluttish, and Econowives resent their freedom from domestic work. The narrator mourns that none of the various groups are able to empathize with the others; women are taught to hate and fear other women.

Outside of mainstream society exist two further classes of women.

  • 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. Males who engage in homosexuality or related acts are declared "Gender Traitors", and either executed or sent to the Colonies to die a slow death. All those non-persons banished to the colonies, men or women, wear grey dresses.
  • Jezebels are prostitutes and entertainers, available only to the Commanders and their guests; some are lesbians and attractive, educated women unable to adjust to handmaid status. They have been sterilized, which is illegal for other women. They operate in unofficially state-sanctioned brothels, and they seem to exist unbeknowst to most other women - at least those in society. Jezebels, whose title comes from the Biblical character, dress in the remnants of sexualized costumes from "the time before" viz. cheerleaders' costumes, school uniforms, and Playboy Bunny costumes. While Jezebels have some degree of freedom in that they can wear make up, drink and socialize with men, they are still tightly controlled by Aunts. Once their usefulness for sex is over, they are also sent to the Colonies.


  • Unbabies, also known as "shredders," are babies that are born either physically deformed or with some other birth defect. They are quickly disposed of; Offred does not know exactly how, and she comments that she does not wish to know. Having an Unbaby is a constant fear among pregnant Handmaidens, as they do not know whether they are carrying one until after birth. Defects have become increasingly common, probably as a result of the cause or causes that have rendered many people infertile.
  • Keepers are babies that are born alive with no defects.



Dystopian literature investigates how the human impulse to create utopia (a perfect world) goes awry when it meets the power to make such a place a reality. In The Handmaid's Tale, those who establish Gilead do so through the use of emergency laws, para-military organizations, surprise, and relative disinterest on the part of the populace. Having enacted a theocratic fascist state, the novel chronicles the ways in which the state was effective only in doing injury, not in transforming individuals to higher-minded ideals.

Sex for reproduction only, not pleasure

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

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

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

Pre-Gileadian society

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

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

The book also hints that the birth rate was in decline due to unspecified circumstances prior to the revolution by noting that the Center where Moira and Offred were kept was a high school that had been closed sometime in the mid-1980s due to a lack of students.

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

The novel is set in the Harvard Square neighborhood of Cambridge, Massachusetts, where Atwood studied at Radcliffe College, and many locations in the novel are recognizable. "Gender-traitors" (i.e. homosexuals) are hanged on the wall of Harvard Yard; Fred's home is on the famous "Professor's Row"; and the Brattle Theatre, Memorial Hall and Widener Library make very prominent cameos.

Biblical references

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

Another story in Genesis concerns the infertile Sarah and Hagar, who conceives on her behalf. This story is different from the previous one, mainly because of the active role played by Hagar, who keeps her own child, and Sarah's fertility, which is restored by God at an advanced age. Atwood was aware of the similarity between these stories, and was using it to show the hypocrisy of Gileadean interpretation: this Biblical story shows a relationship between a wife and a handmaid which did not involve sexual and reproductive subjugation. Additionally, it was ultimately the choice of the wives in the Bible, whereas Wives in Gilead (such as Serena Joy) are forced.

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

Key phrases

Atwood takes pains to emphasize the effect of changing context on behaviours and attitudes. A key phrase "context is all" (1996, pg.154, 202) is repeated throughout the novel. The Scrabble game, for example, illustrates her point, since Offred describes it as once "the game of old men and women" but now forbidden and therefore "desirable" (1996, pg.149). Offred also perceives the world differently in a society that is morally rigid. Revealing clothes and make-up 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.

Social critique

The Handmaid's Tale comprises a number of social critiques. Atwood sought to demonstrate that extremist views might result in fundamentalist totalitarianism. The novel presents a dystopian vision of life in the United States in the period projecting forward from the time of the writing (1985), covering the backlash against feminism. This critique is most clearly seen in both Offred's memories of the slow social transformation towards theocratic fascism and in the ideology of the Aunts.

Immediately following the overthrow of the government, but before the new order had completely changed things, women begin to lose whatever freedoms they had previously had. Offred describes the loss of her own bank account as it is transferred to her husband's control, and then the loss of her job, before she, her husband and her daughter attempt to flee. An "Aunt" describes women's rights prior to the overthrow as "freedom to" (i.e., women having the freedom to do as they pleased), while the time after is described as "freedom from" (i.e., women having the freedom from difficulties, responsibilities, and fear).

In the chapter "Soul Scrolls", Offred reflects on what happened. "I guess that's how they did it," she thinks to herself, regarding electronic banking. It allowed the government to freeze women's bank accounts once the fundamentalist Sons of Jacob had taken power by assassinating the President and all of Congress, blaming it on Muslim terrorists. A state of emergency was declared and the Constitution suspended by the army, run by Sons of Jacob members. Mass pornography burnings took place, such as in the "Manhattan cleanup". Women are decreed unable to work, their bank accounts transferred into their husbands' or male relatives' control, and the Sons of Jacob set up a Christian fundamentalist state church, which causes rebellion by Catholics, Baptists, and other denominations, who reject it. The backdrop was "The Big One" in California, which caused radioactive waste spills and produced "R-Strain Syphilis" that, along with AIDS, caused widespread infertility. This is alternate history wherein a far-right messianic Christian movement forms in the government and military, who make a pact with the USSR to deal with rebellions occurring in their spheres of influence. The latter was explained at the end of the book in a future historical lecture on the Republic of Gilead, which had long-since disappeared.

Atwood mocks those who talk of "traditional values" and suggest that women should return to being housewives (see Kinder, Küche, Kirche and Barefoot and pregnant). Serena Joy, formerly a television preacher with a high public profile, has been forced to give up her career and is clearly not content. The religious and social ideology she has spent her entire long career publicly promoting has, in the end, destroyed her own life and happiness.

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

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

Atwood pictures revivalism as counter-revolutionary, opposed to the revolutionary doctrine espoused by Offred's mother and Moira, which sought to break down gender categories. A Marxist reading of fascism explains it as the backlash of the right after a failed revolution. Atwood explores this Marxist reading and translates its analysis into the structure of a religious and gender revolution. "From each according to her ability… to each according to his needs" (page 127) is a deliberate distortion of Marx's phrase, "From each according to his ability, to each according to his need" — the latter, an ideological statement on class and society; the former, a stance taken by Gileadian society towards gender roles.


A 1990 film adaptation was directed by Volker Schlöndorff. It starred Natasha Richardson (Offred), Faye Dunaway (Serena Joy), Robert Duvall (Fred), Aidan Quinn (Nick), and Elizabeth McGovern (Moira). MGM released the film on DVD in 2001.

There is also an operatic adaptation, written by Poul Ruders, which premièred in Copenhagen on March 6, 2000, and ran at the English National Opera in London in 2003. There is a full-cast dramatization, produced for BBC Radio 4 by the award-winning John Dryden in 2000. A straight stage adaptation by Brendon Burns was toured by the Haymarket Theatre, Basingstoke, UK in 2002.

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