The Handmaid’s Tale


Margaret Atwood

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Themes and Colors
Gender Roles Theme Icon
Religion and Theocracy Theme Icon
Fertility Theme Icon
Rebellion Theme Icon
Love Theme Icon
Storytelling and Memory Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The Handmaid’s Tale, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.

Gender Roles

Gilead is a strictly hierarchical society, with a huge difference between the genders. As soon as the Gileadean revolutionaries take over after terrorism destroys the US government, they fire all women from their jobs and drain their bank accounts, leaving Offred desperate and dependent. Luke, however, doesn’t seem so furious at this turn of events, a subtle suggestion that even good men may have embedded misogynistic attitudes, and that Gilead merely takes these common…

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Religion and Theocracy

Gilead is a theocracy, a government where church and state are combined. Religious language enters into every part of the society, from Rita’s position as a Martha, named for a New Testament kitchen worker, to the store names like Milk and Honey. And religion, specifically the Old Testament, is also the justification for many of Gilead’s most savage characteristics. Offred’s job as Handmaid is based on the biblical precedent of Rachel and Leah…

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Fertility is the reason for Offred’s captivity and the source of her power, Gilead’s major failing and its hope for the future. Inhabitants of Gilead give many reasons for the society’s issues with creating viable offspring: the sexual revolution and birth control, pollution, sexually transmitted diseases. And the book hints at other, more subtle problems: in a society that restricts women so much, treating the potential child-bearers alternately as precious objects, bothersome machines, and…

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Every major character in the story engages in some kind of disobedience against Gilead’s laws. Moira rebels most boldly, disguising herself and managing to escape from the Handmaids’ imprisonment, though her daring escape proves futile, and she ends up at Jezebel’s, resigned to her fate. Ofglen’s rebellion is more community-minded, since she works as part of an organized resistance, although her careful plotting also ends badly. More unexpected are the small-scale rebellions from the…

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Despite Offred’s general passivity in the face of the oppressive society, she has a deep and secret source of strength: her love. Though love might keep Offred complacent, permitting her to daydream rather than to rebel outright, it’s also responsible for the book’s greatest triumph, as love drives Nick to help Offred escape, which she manages more effectively than Moira or Ofglen. Her love for her mother, her daughter, Luke

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Storytelling and Memory

The structure of The Handmaid’s Tale is characterized by many different kinds of storytelling and fiction-making. For one, the title itself, and the fictional “Historical Notes on the Handmaid’s Tale” of the book’s end, frame the entire novel as Offred’s story, that she’s said into a tape recorder in the old fashioned storytelling tradition. For another, her whole story is also punctuated by shorter stories she tells herself, of the time before Gilead or…

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