The Handmaid’s Tale

In mid-1980s’ Massachusetts, a group of conservative religious extremists has seized power to form Gilead, a repressive state in which women cannot vote, divorce is illegal, and gay people are executed. The dystopian novel follows Offred (a Handmaid) as she is forced to adapt to life under this harsh regime. One of Margaret Atwood’s best-known works, The Handmaid’s Tale imagines a world in which citizens are stripped of their fundamental rights, and the very nature of freedom is questioned.

Feminism

The Handmaid’s Tale has been called a feminist classic which closely examines reproductive rights and violence against women. By placing the story in a dystopian near-future, the book is sometimes seen as a warning to contemporary society. It is also a reminder of the past. According to Atwood, she did not put “any events into the book that had not already happened” to women somewhere.

Sexuality

In her criticism of the conservative religious right, Atwood explores the consequences of a regime in which sex and sexuality are both controlled and feared. In Gilead, gay people are executed; pornography is destroyed; revealing or provocative clothing is banned; abortion doctors are killed; and divorce is outlawed.

Fertility

Pollution and chemical spills have led to declining fertility rates in Gilead, so children are considered rare commodities. Handmaids like Offred must bear children for elite couples who cannot conceive, skewing traditional ideas of parenting and family.

Love

In The Handmaid’s Tale, love exists more as a memory than in practice. Atwood often considers love through the memory of pain and separation, in the instance of Offred’s flashbacks about her previous life. Affairs are enacted in secret to illustrate the constrained nature of love under the Gileadean regime.

Freedom

There is hardly anything that women — particularly Handmaids — are allowed to do in Gilead. They cannot vote, read, own property or hold jobs. Their bodies are not their own, and they are confined to their bedrooms except for sanctioned outings. Any activity which would allow women independence is considered a threat to the power of their husbands or the state.