The Handmaid's Tale is set in the near future in the Republic of Gilead, a theocratic military dictatorship formed within the borders of what was formerly the United States of America.
Beginning with a staged terrorist attack (blamed on Islamic extremist terrorists) that kills the President and most of Congress, a movement calling itself the "Sons of Jacob" launches a revolution and suspends the United States Constitution under the pretext of restoring order. They are quickly able to take away all of women's rights, largely attributed to financial records being stored electronically and labelled by gender. The new regime moves quickly to consolidate its power and reorganize society along a new militarized, hierarchical, compulsorily Christian regime of Old Testament-inspired social and religious ultra-conservatism among its newly created social classes. In this society, almost all women are forbidden to read.
The story is presented from the point of view of a woman called Offred (literally Of-Fred). The character is one of a class of women kept as concubines ("handmaids") for reproductive purposes by the ruling class in an era of declining births due to sterility from pollution and sexually transmitted diseases. The book is told in the first person by Offred, who describes her life during her third assignment as a handmaid, in this case to Fred (referred to as "The Commander"). Interspersed in flashbacks are portions of her life from before and during the beginning of the revolution, when she finds she has lost all autonomy to her husband, through her failed attempt to escape with her husband and daughter to Canada, to her indoctrination into life as a handmaid. Offred describes the structure of Gilead's society, including the several different classes of women and their circumscribed lives in the new theocracy.
The Commander is a high-ranking official in Gilead. Although he is only supposed to have sex with Offred during "the Ceremony", a ritual at which his wife is present, he begins an illegal and ambiguous relationship with her. He reveals to her hidden or contraband aspects of the new society, such as fashion magazines and cosmetics. He takes her to a secret brothel run by the government, and he furtively meets with her in his study, where he allows her to read, an activity otherwise proscribed for women. The Commander's wife, Serena Joy, also has secret interactions with Offred, arranging for her secretly to have sex with Nick, Serena's driver, in an effort to get Offred pregnant. In exchange for Offred's cooperation, Serena Joy gives her news of her daughter, whom Offred has not seen since she and her family were captured trying to escape Gilead.
After Offred's initial meeting with Nick, they begin to rendezvous more frequently. Offred discovers she enjoys sex with Nick, despite her indoctrination and her memories of her husband. She shares potentially dangerous information about her past with him. Through another handmaid, Ofglen, Offred learns of the Mayday resistance, an underground network working to overthrow Gilead. Shortly after Ofglen's disappearance (later discovered to be a suicide), the Commander's wife finds evidence of the relationship between Offred and the Commander. Offred contemplates suicide. As the novel concludes, she is being taken away by men from the secret police, the Eyes of God, known informally as "the Eyes", under orders from Nick. Before she is put in the large black van, Nick tells her that the men are part of the Mayday resistance and that Offred must trust him. Offred does not know if Nick is a member of the Mayday resistance or a government agent posing as one, and she does not know if going with the men will result in her escape or her capture. She enters the van with her future uncertain.
The novel concludes with a metafictional epilogue that explains that the events of the novel occurred shortly after the beginning of what is called "the Gilead Period". The epilogue is a "transcription of a Symposium on Gileadean Studies written some time in the distant future (2195)." According to the symposium's "keynote speaker" Professor Pieixoto, he and colleague Professor Knotly Wade discovered Offred's story recorded onto cassette tapes. They transcribed the tapes, calling them collectively "the handmaid's tale". Through the tone and actions of the professionals in this final section of the book, the world of academia is highlighted and critiqued. The epilogue implies that, following the collapse of the theocratic Republic of Gilead, a more equal society re-emerged with a restoration of full rights of women and freedom of religion.
Offred: the protagonist and narrator. She was separated from her husband and daughter after the formation of the Republic of Gilead and is part of the first generation of Gilead's women: those who remember pre-Gilead times. Having proven fertile, she is considered an important commodity and has been placed as a handmaid in the home of the Commander Fred and his wife Serena Joy to bear a child for them (Serena Joy is said to be infertile).
Offred is a slave name which describes her function: she is "of Fred", i.e. she belongs to her Commander, Fred, as a concubine. In the novel, Offred says that she is not a concubine, or a geisha girl, but just a tool; a "two legged womb". It is implied that her birth name is 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". 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 Nunavit conference covered in the epilogue takes place in June.
The Commander: He says 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. His first name is presumably "Fred".
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 and that she killed herself when his wife found out. In the epilogue, the academics speculate that two figures, both instrumental in the establishment of Gilead, may have been Fred, based on his first name. It is strongly suggested that the Commander was a man named Frederick R. Waterford who was killed in a purge shortly after Offred was taken away, on charges that he was harboring an enemy agent.
Serena Joy: A former televangelist, she is the Commander's Wife in the fundamentalist theocracy. The state took away her power and public recognition, and tries to hide her past as a television figure. Believed to be sterile (although the suggestion is made that the Commander is sterile, Gileadean laws attribute sterility only to women), she is forced to accept that he has use of a handmaid. She resents having to take part on the 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 Pieixota in the epilogue, Serena Joy or Pam are pseudonyms for the character's name, implied as Thelma.
Ofglen: 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. Ofglen later commits suicide before the government takes her into custody as part of the resistance, possibly to avoid giving away any information.
Another handmaid named Ofglen is assigned as Offred's shopping partner. She threatens Offred against any thought of resistance. She breaks protocol by telling her what happened to the first Ofglen.
Nick: 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 to prove sterile, she would be 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. The epilogues suggests that he was part of the resistance, and aided Offred in escaping the Commander's house.
Moira: is a close friend of Offred's since college. A lesbian, she has resisted the homophobia of the Gilead society. Moira is taken to be a Handmaid soon after Offred. She escapes by stealing an Aunt's pass and clothes. Offred later encounters her working as a prostitute in a party-run brothel. She had been caught and chose the brothel over being sent to the Colonies.
Luke: Luke was Offred's husband prior to the formation of gilead. He had divorced his first wife to marry her. Under Gilead, all divorces were retroactively nullified, resulting in Offred being considered an adulteress and their daughter a bastard. 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.
Professor Pieixoto: The "co-discoverer [with Professor Knotly Wade] of Offred's tapes," he talked in his presentation about "the 'Problems of Authentication in Reference to The Handmaid's Tale'."
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.
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."
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. 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.
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. The latter wear military or paramilitary uniforms, which suggest their empowerment. 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. 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.
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 Wife becomes a Widow, she 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).
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 slutty. 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, 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.
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 cannot read the phrase "nolite te bastardes carborundorum" carved into the closet wall of her small bedroom; this mock-Latinaphorism 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.
Classification as science fiction or speculative fiction
I like to make a distinction between science fiction proper and speculative fiction. For me, the science fiction label belongs on books with things in them that we can't yet do, such as going through a wormhole in space to another universe; and speculative fiction means a work that employs the means already to hand, such as DNA identification and credit cards, and that takes place on Planet Earth. But the terms are fluid.
Atwood prefers to say that she writes speculative fiction—a term coined by SF author Robert A. Heinlein. As she told the Guardian, "Science fiction has monsters and spaceships; speculative fiction could really happen." She used a subtly different phrasing for New Scientist, "Oryx and Crake is not science fiction. It is fact within fiction. Science fiction is when you have rockets and chemicals." So it was very cruel of New Scientist to describe this interview in the contents list as: "Margaret Atwood explains why science is crucial to her science fiction." ... Play it again, Ms Atwood—this time for the Book-of-the-Month Club: "Oryx and Crake is a speculative fiction, not a science fiction proper. It contains no intergalactic space travel, no teleportation, no Martians." On BBC1Breakfast News the distinguished author explained that science fiction, as opposed to what she writes, is characterized by "talking squids in outer space."
In distinguishing between these genre labels science fiction and speculative fiction, Atwood acknowledges that others may use the terms interchangeably. But she notes her interest in this type of work to explore themes in ways that "realistic fiction" cannot do.
Frequent challenges, ALA conference, and controversy
The American Library Association (ALA) 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".
The book's inclusion in school curricula and assignments has been challenged by some groups in particular cities in the United States:
1992: Challenged in Waterloo, Iowa schools, 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 [that] stress suicide, illicit sex, violence, and hopelessness".
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, Texas school district, 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.
According to Education Reporter Kristin Rushowy of the Toronto Star (16 Jan. 2009), in 2008 a parent in Toronto, Canada, wrote a letter to his son's high school principal, asking that the book no longer be assigned as required reading, stating that the novel is "rife with brutality towards and mistreatment of women (and men at times), sexual scenes, and bleak depression." Rushowy quotes the response of Russell Morton Brown, a retired University of Toronto English professor, who acknowledged that
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 (14 Jan. 2009), 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 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."
^ abcAtwood, Margaret (17 June 2005), "Aliens Have Taken the Place of Angels", Film: Science fiction, fatasy & horror, The Guardian (UK), "If you're writing about the future and you aren't doing forecast journalism, you'll probably be writing something people will call either science fiction or speculative fiction. I like to make a distinction between science fiction proper and speculative fiction. For me, the science fiction label belongs on books with things in them that we can't yet do, such as going through a wormhole in space to another universe; and speculative fiction means a work that employs the means already to hand, such as DNA identification and credit cards, and that takes place on Planet Earth. But the terms are fluid. Some use speculative fiction as an umbrella covering science fiction and all its hyphenated forms–science fiction fantasy, and so forth–and others choose the reverse. ...I have written two works of science fiction or, if you prefer, speculative fiction: The Handmaid's Tale and Oryx and Crake. Here are some of the things these kinds of narratives can do that socially realistic novels cannot do."
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