The Handmaid’s Tale

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The Handmaid’s Tale Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid’s Tale. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Margaret Atwood

Atwood is the second of three children. Her father was an entomologist (insect researcher), and she grew up playing in the Canadian woods. A writer since childhood, she received a bachelor’s degree from the University of Toronto and a Master’s at Radcliffe College, the former women’s college affiliated with Harvard. Atwood studied Victorian novels, which she has said influenced her belief that novels should be about society as a whole, not just about the characters’ specific lives. She has taught writing and English at many universities in Canada and the US, and has published dozens of books of poetry, fiction and nonfiction. Critics tend to acclaim her books, and she’s won major prizes. The Handmaid’s Tale is her most famous book, and its title and themes are often invoked even in contemporary discussions about women’s rights and theocracies.
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Historical Context of The Handmaid’s Tale

Atwood has written that her research on 17th-century American Puritans, who created a rigid and inhumane theocracy based on a few choice selections from the Bible, influenced Gilead. But the novel also responds to the modern political scene in America. The religious right, with its moralizing tendencies, was gaining power in America as backlash to the left-wing Free Love and feminist movements. In the 1970’s, Jerry Falwell and other Christian leaders urged the Republican party to bring prayer back to schools, diminish abortion rights, and defeat the Equal Rights Amendment, which was meant to support women. The Handmaid’s Tale shows how religion can be used as an excuse to reduce women’s rights, a political tendency which continues to occur all over the world.

Other Books Related to The Handmaid’s Tale

The title of the novel references Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, a medieval collection of stories about religious pilgrims going to Canterbury, with titles like “The Miller’s Tale.” Though Chaucer’s stories have nothing to do with dystopias or feminism, they reveal the foolishness and sinfulness of supposedly religious people, and Atwood’s title shows that we should consider her futuristic story as part of a very old tradition of storytelling. With its emphasis on labeling and female shame, the book also bears similarities to Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. And in a short essay about the book, Atwood compares it to 1984, Brave New World, and A Clockwork Orange—other widely influential dystopian fictions with political undertones, that quietly suggest that the worlds they portray aren’t so far off from our world.
Key Facts about The Handmaid’s Tale
  • Full Title: The Handmaid’s Tale
  • When Written: Early 1980’s
  • Where Written: West Berlin
  • When Published: 1985
  • Literary Period: Feminist
  • Genre: Speculative Fiction / Science Fiction / Dystopia
  • Setting: Cambridge, Massachusetts under the dystopian government of the Republic of Gilead, which has replaced the United States.
  • Climax: The Eyes, or maybe the Mayday Resistance, come to pick up Offred
  • Antagonist: Though the Commander, Serena Joy, and Aunt Lydia seem to be Offred’s enemies, the real antagonist is the Republic of Gilead itself.
  • Point of View: First person limited

Extra Credit for The Handmaid’s Tale

A Movie…and an Opera The Handmaid’s Tale became a movie in 1990 (with a screenplay mostly written by the acclaimed playwright Harold Pinter), and an opera (with music by the Danish composer Poul Ruders) in 2000. Both productions received mixed reviews. In the movie, Duke University’s campus subs in for Harvard in the Salvaging scene.

Speculative Fiction or Science Fiction? Atwood insists on the label speculative fiction for the novel, since she thinks its events could actually occur, whereas those of science fiction are more far-fetched. This distinction has drawn debate and ire from science fiction writers.