The Handmaid's Tale

The Handmaid's Tale Study Guide

Margaret Atwood's dystopian novel The Handmaid's Tale (1985) reveals the strange new world of Gilead. Once the United States of America, Gilead was formed by a military coup that shot the President and members of Congress, suspended the Constitution, and put a Christian Theocracy in the place of a democratic government. Desperate to deal with a shrinking birth rate caused by pollution, chemical poisoning and decreasing fertility, the government of Gilead creates the Handmaids, women with viable ovaries who are placed in the households of high ranked officials whose wives cannot bear children. Like Rachel and Leah in the Old Testament, these Handmaids are expected to bear their Commanders' children in place of their wives. Caught up in a world of constant surveillance, strict regulation, and extreme punishment, the novel's protagonist, Offred, attempts to get through each day while holding on to the belief that she will someday be reunited with her husband and daughter.

Atwood calls The Handmaid's Tale "speculative fiction", although the novel seems to possess many of the earmarks of true science fiction. Readers must deal with new vocabulary, such as "Pornomarts" and "Prayvaanzas"; there are recognizable categories and participants, but a new organization of power; the new world attempts to alter the relationships of society, but inevitably the relationships reemerge in fundamentally similar ways. Despite these flights of fancy, Atwood emphasizes that she tried to limit the ideas and practices in The Handmaid's Tale to those that have occurred somewhere in the world at some time. For example, she used a great many elements of early American life in Massachusetts. She points out that the Puritans had a theocratic government that was highly intolerant of divisions. Of course, one sees similarities between the costumes of the Handmaids and the traditional clothing of Muslim women in the Middle East. Polygamy has been practiced by numerous cultures throughout the world, and is predominantly found in those with large disparities between the upper and lower classes. In most of these cultures, the first wife has a tremendous amount of power over the other wives, often to the point where she is permitted to take their children and raise them as her own. Military dictatorships have often been characterized by constant surveillance of a society for acts of disloyalty and repeated purges and re-organizations of the government. Atwood has stated in a number of interviews that this novel was a response to many ideas currently in vogue in society, and was merely following those ideas to what seemed to her to be their inevitable conclusions.

One of the ideas that clearly plays a crucial role in The Handmaid's Tale is the importance of understanding and respecting the environment. In Atwood's world, chemicals, pollution, and wars have made much of the country entirely unlivable. Not only has the land itself been destroyed, but human beings have been so damaged by the pollutants and chemicals introduced into the air and water that only one in four babies are born healthy enough to survive for even a short time. Though Gilead still possesses the basic trappings of industrialization - electric lights, flush toilets, cars, etc. - these things have become luxuries. Everyone is deprived of certain foodstuffs that we take for granted, such as fresh fruit and vegetables, fish, and meat. Atwood paints a clear - and at least reasonably realistic - portrait of what life will be like in the future if people continue to ignore the increasingly permanent damage being done to our ecological systems.

Another of the novel's most important themes, and one that re-occurs in many of Atwood's novels, is the exploration of relationships between women. Though the protagonist, Offred, lacks the freedom to actively form new relationships and finds it painful to spend too much time remembering past ones, her relationships with her mother, Moira, Ofglen, and Serena Joy slowly reveal themselves over the course of the novel. What Offred finally shows to the reader is her pattern of understanding herself through her observations of the women around her. Offred cannot think about her relationship with the Commander without thinking about Serena Joy. They are a triangle not just because of the strange nature of their imposed sexual union, but also because of Offred's awareness of their innate similarities and connections. Atwood may be suggesting that whether or not such things are culturally imposed, women in society inevitably feel connected to each other simply because they are women. Offred's subtle reactions to Serena Joy and Ofglen stand in a marked contrast to the Aunts' declarations of female solidarity, and their prediction of a future where women will happily work together to fulfill their different functions. In the world of The Handmaid's Tale the connections between women bear little resemblance to friendship. Even when the women are also friends, their connection goes far beyond their personal relationship. To Offred, Moira is a heroine - perhaps even a role model. Her bravery and willingness to take risks serves as a reminder of what is possible. Similarly, the women grow angry at the Salvaging when they no longer read out the crimes of those to be executed, because those crimes were a reminder of what they, as women, were capable of.

Upon its first publication, The Handmaid's Tale was immediately considered an important novel, largely because of Atwood's clear and precise point of view. Rather than just a story meant for entertainment, The Handmaid's Tale is a scathing examination of gender relations, ecological damage, the dangers of mixing religion and government, and the importance of free speech for retaining a sense of self. Though some elements of the novel have begun to feel dated, the story of an ordinary person attempting to survive a dictatorship remains relevant to American society, and to the global community as a whole.