Recent critical interpretations of The Handmaid's Tale

There are many ways in which a critic may approach literary texts. Some of these approaches may be influenced by passing fashions in criticism, and some are very technical and more suited to undergraduate or even graduate levels of study. However, students should be aware of some of the approaches adopted by literary critics, especially some of the new ways of approaching literary texts which have emerged in recent years.

Genres and sub-genres

There has been a growing interest in literary genres and sub-genres including detective stories, science fiction and Gothic fiction. Atwood herself has written in a wide variety of genres. The Handmaid's Tale may be seen as satire and as dystopian fiction and has been called ‘science fiction', though Atwood prefers the term ‘speculative fiction'. Her writing also contains many elements of the Gothic; see, for example, Themes and significant ideas > Myth and fairy tale.


Postmodernism is an approach which moves beyond the ‘modernist' questioning of previous certainties and acknowledges uncertainty in form and language. Hence The Handmaid's Tale may be seen as post-modern in its insistence that:

  • Everything is a ‘construct'
  • There are different versions of the same event
  • Everything is open to interpretation
  • There is no certain ending.

Feminist literary criticism

Feminist literary criticism has developed throughout the second half of the twentieth century and beyond, and has become part of the academic discipline known as Women's Studies which was developed in the 1970s. The Handmaid's Tale can be seen as a feminist work which:

  • Is written from the point of view of a female character
  • Has a great deal to say about the place and role of women in society
  • Raises questions about the feminist movement
  • Makes the reader aware of the significance of the female body.

Psychoanalytical criticism

Psychoanalytical criticism has been influenced by the theories of psychoanalysis developed by Sigmund Freud (1858-1939). Critics may interpret the text in terms of the conscious and unconscious mind, and may evaluate characters' behaviour in psychological terms. Such an approach may well be helpful in reading, for example, Atwood's novel Surfacing, which deals with a young woman's attempt to find her own identity. The Handmaid's Tale can be seen as a novel depicting the inner individual asserting its differentiation from the external identity imposed upon it.

Post-colonial criticism

Post-colonial criticism considers the relationship between colonising nations and their former colonies and also the effects of cultural imperialism, as depicted in literature. Atwood is particularly conscious of her role as a Canadian writer, and the nature of colonialism in various forms is very evident in her novel Surfacing. It is also clear that in The Handmaid's Tale:

  • Canada is seen as the place of escape from a repressive régime on its southern borders
  • There is also an implicit comment in the Historical Notes section regarding the cultural dominance of previously marginalised Native Americans.


Ecocriticism is a growing movement which considers the relationship between works of literature (and television and film) and the environment, looking at ethical questions arising from the depiction of the natural world. Atwood is very committed to the preservation of the natural world - the first six ‘favourite sites' listed on her website show environmental groups which she supports - and The Handmaid's Tale focusses strongly on the devastating effects of environmental abuse.

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