The novel is set in an indeterminate future, with a fundamentalist theocracy ruling the territory of what had been the United States. Individuals 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.
The novel is set in the Harvard Square neighborhood of Cambridge, Massachusetts.
In Gilead, the bodies of women are controlled for political purposes. The population is falling as more and more women and men become infertile and sterile, so the government takes total control over their lives and bodies. Women are not allowed to do anything that would make them independent of their households. They cannot vote, they cannot have a job, they cannot read, and they cannot own anything, among many other things. A particular quote from The Handmaid’s Tale sums this up particularly well: “The Republic of Gilead, said Aunt Lydia, knows no bounds. Gilead is within you” (HT 5.2). This describes that there is no way around the societal bounds of women in this new state of government. To oppress women further, they are assigned to a certain commander in Gilead and are given new names, such as Offred. The name essentially is “of” in front of the Commander’s name. When a handmaid is reassigned, her name changes with her. Their original identities before this revolution are useless, although the women try to learn each other’s original names to hold some sense of self, giving them hope that change can come.
In this book, the government appears to be strong though “no one in Gilead seems to be a true believer in its revolution” (Beauchamp). The Commanders, portrayed through Commander Fred, do not agree with their own doctrines. The commander takes Offred at one point to a club in order to make love to her in an informal setting apart from the Ceremony. The wives, portrayed through Serena Joy, former television evangelist, disobey the rules set forth by their commander husbands. Serena smokes black market cigarettes and even tries to help get Offred impregnated by the chauffer.
Gilead demonstrates decline in every aspect of its society; some of its people want only to escape to Canada. Critics have taken Gilead (the U.S.) to symbolize a repressive regime and the mistreated Handmaid to represent Canada. Atwood was "in the vanguard of Canadian anti-Americanism of the 1960s and 1970s."
Caste and class
African Americans, the main non-white ethnic group in this society, are called the Children of Ham. A state TV broadcast mentions their having been relocated en masse to "National Homelands" in the Midwest, which suggest the Apartheid-era homelands in South Africa. Roman Catholics were given seldom mention, but did say that nuns were considered "Unwomen" and most banished to the Colonies on account of their reluctance to marry and bear children. Jews are called Sons of Jacob, also the name of the fundamentalist group who rule the Republic of Gilead. The novel recounts that Jews were offered a choice of converting to Christianity or emigrating to Israel, and most chose to leave. Professor Pieixoto in the epilogue says that some of the emigrating Jews were dumped into the sea on the way to Israel by ship, due to privatization of the "repatriation program" and capitalists' effort to maximize profits. Offred reveals that many Jews who chose to stay were caught secretly practicing Judaism and executed.
Gender and occupation
The sexes are strictly divided. Gilead's society values reproduction by white women most highly. 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 expresses the prevailing opinion that women are considered intellectually and emotionally inferior to men.
Women are segregated by clothing, as are men. With rare exception, men wear military or paramilitary uniforms, which takes away their individualism as it does the women, but also gives them a sense of bravado and empowerment. All classes of men and women are defined by the colors 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.
Men are classified into four main categories:
- Commanders of the Faithful – the ruling class. Because of their status, they are entitled to establish a patriarchal household with a Wife, a Handmaid if necessary, Marthas (female servants) and Guardians. They have a duty to procreate, but many may be infertile, as a possible result of exposure to a biological agent in pre-Gilead times. They wear black to signify superiority. They are allowed cars.
- Eyes – the secret police attempt to discover those violating the rules of Gilead.
- Angels – soldiers who fight in the wars in order to expand and protect the country's borders. Angels may be permitted to marry.
- Guardians (of the Faith) – soldiers "used for routine policing and other menial functions". They are unsuitable for other work in the republic being "stupid or older or disabled or very young, apart from the ones that are Eyes incognito" (chapter 4). Young Guardians may be promoted to Angels when they come of age. They wear green uniforms.
Men who engage in homosexuality or related acts are declared "Gender Traitors;" they are either hanged or sent to the "colonies" to die a slow death.
Six main categories of "legitimate" women make up mainstream society. Two chief categories of "illegitimate" women live outside of mainstream society:
- Wives are at the top social level permitted to women. They are married to the higher-ranking functionaries. Wives always wear blue dresses, 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 are the natural or adopted children of the ruling class. They wear white until marriage. The narrator's daughter has been adopted by an infertile Wife and Commander.
- Handmaids are fertile women whose social function is to bear children for the Wives. They dress in a red habit that completely conceals their shape, plus red shoes and red gloves. They wear white wings around their heads to prevent their seeing or being seen except when standing directly in front of a person. Handmaids are produced by re-educating fertile women who have broken the gender and social laws. Needing fertile Handmaids, Gilead gradually increased the number of gender-crimes. The Republic of Gilead justifies use of the handmaids for procreation based on biblical stories: Jacob took his two wives' handmaids, Bilhah and Zilpah, to bed to bear him children, when the wives could not (Gen. 30:1–3), and Abraham took his wife's handmaid, Hagar (Gen. 16:1–6). Handmaids are generally assigned to Commanders, allowed to live in their houses, but remanded back to Aunts' facilities in the event a Commander is deployed in order to be guarded (and returned to the Commander's house upon his return from deployment). Handmaids who successfully bear children to term are never sent to the Colonies, even if they never have another baby.
- Aunts train and monitor the Handmaids. They try to promote the role as an honorable one and seek to legitimize it. They directly control and police women; serving as an Aunt is the only role for such unmarried, infertile, and often older women to have any autonomy. It allows them to avoid going to the colonies. Aunts dress in brown. They are the only class of women permitted to read. ("The Aunts are allowed to read and write." Vintage Books, p. 139. However, in the Anchor Books edition, it says: "They played it (the Beatitudes) from a tape, so not even an Aunt would be guilty of the sin of reading. The voice was a man's. (p.89.)" In the Vintage Books edition: "They played it (the Beatitudes) from a disc, the voice was a man's." p. 100.)
- Marthas are older infertile women who have domestic skills and are compliant, making them suitable as servants. 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 works at "all the preparations that had to be made".
- Econowives are women who married relatively low-ranking men, not part 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.
The division of labor among the women generates some resentment. Marthas, Wives and Econowives perceive Handmaids as promiscuous. Offred mourns that the women of the various groups have lost their ability to empathize with each other. They are divided in their oppression.
- Unwomen are sterile women, widows, feminists, lesbians, nuns, and politically dissident women: all women who are incapable of social integration within the Republic's strict gender divisions. They are exiled to "the colonies", areas of both agricultural production and deadly pollution. Joining them are those handmaids who fail to bear a child after three two-year assignments.
- Jezebels are women forced to become prostitutes and entertainers. They are available only to the Commanders and their guests. They are described as attractive and educated, unable to adjust as handmaids. They have been sterilized, which is forbidden to other women. They operate in unofficial but state-sanctioned brothels, unknown by 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 makeup, drink alcohol, and socialize with men, but are tightly controlled by the Aunts. When they are past their sexual prime and/or their looks fade, they are sent to the Colonies.
In this society, birth defects have become increasingly common.
There are two main categories of human children:
- Unbabies, also known as "shredders", are babies born physically deformed or with some other birth defect. They do not last, but Offred does not know or want to know what happens to them. Pregnant Handmaids fear giving birth to a damaged child, or unbaby. Gilead forbids abortion and has done away with other testing to determine prenatal health of a fetus.
- Keepers are babies that are born alive with no defects.
"The Ceremony" is a non-marital sexual act sanctioned for reproduction. The ritual requires the Handmaid to lie supine upon the Wife during the sex act. The handmaid lies between the Wife's legs as if they were one person. The Wife has to invite the Handmaid to share her power this way, which is considered both humiliating and offensive by many wives. Offred describes the ceremony:
My red skirt is hitched up to my waist, though no higher. Below it the Commander is fucking. What he is fucking is the lower part of my body. I do not say making love, because this is not what he's doing. Copulating too would be inaccurate, because it would imply two people and only one is involved. Nor does rape cover it: nothing is going on here that I haven't signed up for.
In the novel's fictional fundamentalist society, sterile is an "outlawed" word. In this society, there is no such thing as a sterile man anymore. In this culture, women are either fruitful or infertile, the latter of which is declared to be an “unwoman” and is 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". 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.