Textual analysis of The Handmaid's Tale

How to approach a text-based question


Some A-level questions may ask candidates to write a detailed critical analysis of an extract from the novel. Before beginning an answer, it is necessary to have a very good idea of:

  • The context of the extract
  • Its significance
  • The author's approaches.


When you have the given extract in front of you:

  • Read it through a couple of times to remind yourself of its content
  • Consider exactly what the question is asking for
  • Go through and annotate it – that is, write brief marginal notes whenever anything strikes you about its style and significance

(This has been done for you below by using numbers, and also using full sentences; but you should write jottings alongside each line, using just brief phrases.)

  • At this stage you will be going through chronologically – that is, starting at the beginning and working your way down to the end.


  • When you begin your actual answer, you will probably not want to use a completely chronological approach
  • It is always vital to show that you have a good sense of what is going on overall in the extract, and you may well be asked how these features and approaches are typical of the author's methods
  • Do not simply list features of style. For example, it is pointless to say that the writer uses imagery or alliteration unless you can say what the effect is, or might be, upon the reader
  • Answer the specific question! Your answer must show that it focuses upon what is asked for and is exactly relevant.

A worked example of textual analysis

Below is a demonstration of the potential preparation of a possible answer, to the question:

‘How does Atwood present Commander Warren's Wife, and to what effect, in the extract ‘The Commander's Wife hurries in … our eyes are on Janine.' (chapter 21)?'

(The context of the extract is given you here, in the words in italics below, as a reminder, but this would not appear on an examination paper.)

[Together with other Handmaids, Offred has been taken to the house where Ofwarren (formerly Janine) is a Handmaid, to witness Ofwarren giving birth. After a long and difficult labour, in which Ofwarren has been allowed no anaesthetics, the moment of the actual birth has arrived, and Commander Warren's Wife is brought into the bedroom where the delivery is taking place.]

The Handmaid's Tale: extract from chapter 21

The Commander's Wife (1) hurries in (2), in her ridiculous (3) white cotton nightgown (4), her spindly legs sticking out (5) beneath it. Two of the Wives (6) in their blue dresses and veils (7) hold her by the arms, as if she needs it (8); she has a tight little smile on her face, like a hostess at a party she'd rather not be giving (9). She scrambles (10) onto the Birthing Stool (11), sits on the seat behind and above Janine, so that Janine is framed by her: her skinny legs (12) come down on either side, like the arms of an eccentric chair (13). Oddly enough (14), she's wearing white cotton socks, and bedroom slippers (15), blue ones made of fuzzy material, like toilet-seat covers (16). But we pay no attention to the Wife (17), we hardly even see her, our eyes are on Janine (18).


  1. Her rank suggests a powerful status, which is immediately undermined by the fact that she looks ridiculous.
  2. ‘Hurries in': Offred uses the present tense, because these events are apparently happening as she speaks to us. Yet Offred clearly cannot be recording these events as they happen, and indeed, when we reach the section Historical Notes, we are reminded that the tapes which form this record must have been made a considerable time later. Throughout the novel Atwood uses changes between past and present tense and a non-chronological structure. (See Structure and methods of narration.)
  3. Atwood, in the persona of Offred, does not wait for us to form an opinion; she tells us directly that this woman appears ridiculous.
  4. The Commander's Wife is dressed as if she is the one in the bed, giving birth; this is part of the extraordinary ritual which Gilead has introduced, justifying its use of Handmaids by citing biblical precedent, as Atwood has revealed in her first epigraph.
  5. The ‘spindly legs sticking out' suggest again the ridiculous figure which the Commander's Wife makes; she appears like a cartoon character, rather than as someone with power and status. It also indicates her likely age and lack of fertility.
  6. The fact that the Wives are collectively known by their husbands' rank reminds us that women in Gilead have no rights, status or wealth of their own; they are dependent on male relatives.
  7. As with everyone in Gilead, the Wives are prescribed a uniform. Wives, like Handmaids, have their hair covered by a veil.
  8. Again, part of the pretence that Commander Warren's Wife is the one actually giving birth: Ofwarren is merely a means to an end - the production of a baby in the Commander's household.
  9. Commander Warren's Wife is clearly uncomfortable about the event. Offred is well aware that the Wife would ‘rather not' be having to resort to the use of a Handmaid to produce a child, but is obviously infertile (as are many women in Gilead). Atwood's use of an acerbic simile reminds us of the author's frequent use of telling, and often unusual, imagery. (See Imagery and symbolism.)
  10. The choice of the dynamic verb ‘scrambles' again suggests the ungainly, undignified and ‘ridiculous' appearance of the Commander's Wife.
  11. Atwood reminds us that Gilead has re-introduced a double Birthing Stool, with one seat behind the other (see Synopses and commentary > Chapter 21). Such a seat was used by Puritans in seventeenth century New England and Gilead sees itself as a society which promotes Puritan values.
  12. Although Janine is ‘framed' by the Commander's Wife, so that the Wife appears in a superior position, the reminder that her legs are ‘skinny' makes her seem slight and insignificant, as does the following phrase, in which...
  13. ...Atwood uses another striking image, which reduces the Commander's Wife to a piece of furniture, as if she is herself part of the ‘Birthing Stool'.
  14. The phrase ‘oddly enough' at the start of the sentence tells us again that Offred regards the Commander's Wife as being dressed in a ‘ridiculous' way.
  15. ‘White cotton socks and bedroom slippers' sound unimpressive: again the status and dignity of Commander's Wife is undermined by the description.
  16. Another lively image which is calculated to remove any remaining suggestion of dignity which the Commander's Wife's rank may have given her.
  17. It is interesting that Offred says this after such a detailed description. Atwood has allowed Offred simultaneously to observe the Commander's Wife and to dismiss her as irrelevant as far as the Handmaids are concerned.
  18. For the Handmaids, Janine is the most important person in the room, partly because she is one of them but also because, like her, they too are desperate to produce a child. Giving birth is potentially a Handmaid's greatest moment, according to the values of the Republic, as well as being her passport to continued existence in Gilead.

Sample approach

‘How does Atwood present Commander Warren's Wife in the extract ‘The Commander's Wife hurries in … our eyes are on Janine.' (chapter 21), and to what effect?'

Atwood is, of course, the constructor and controller of the whole novel, but, apart from the Historical Notes, the narrative voice is that of her creation, the Handmaid Offred. So it is Offred's attitudes, opinions and values which permeate the narrative. Here, she makes us strongly aware of her feelings as she attends the Birth Day of the child born to Janine, now Ofwarren, and Atwood presents Offred's narrative in the present tense, ensuring that her account seems vivid and immediate.

Janine features regularly throughout The Handmaid's Tale, and Offred frequently finds her annoying and untrustworthy (see Characterisation > Ofwarren). Yet in this section Offred and the other Handmaids are deeply interested in her and very much aware of her sufferings as she labours without anaesthetic to give birth to a viable baby. Hence Offred, although she describes the Commander's Wife in some detail, tells us that ‘we pay no attention to the Wife', as ‘our eyes are on Janine.' Atwood has allowed her to simultaneously observe the Commander's Wife and to dismiss her as irrelevant as far as the Handmaids are concerned.

However, Atwood ensures that Offred's contempt for the Commander's Wife is fully conveyed through a few well-observed details and some striking imagery. Even the Wife's anonymity is telling: like the Handmaid, who is called after the Commander she serves, the Wife is accorded no individuality; she is known only as Commander Warren's Wife. All the Commanders' Wives are required, as is everyone in Gilead, to wear a uniform, and the Wives must wear head-coverings. However, Atwood declares instantly that Offred finds this particular Wife ‘ridiculous', because she enters wearing, not the blue robe which would be her normal gown, but a ‘white cotton nightgown', ‘white cotton socks and bedroom slippers'. A comic image, introduced by the phrase, ‘oddly enough', reinforces her lack of dignity: her slippers are ‘made of fuzzy material, like toilet-seat covers'. Another image, describing her as being ‘like a hostess at a party she'd rather not be giving', underlines her awkwardness.

Atwood gives Offred other opportunities to belittle the ceremonial surrounding the birth. The Commander's Wife, who is escorted in ‘as if she needs it', is dressed in a nightgown to suggest that she is the significant one, the one who is giving birth, but the main effect of the garment is to reveal her ‘spindly legs'. She has to ‘scramble' onto the Birthing Stool and the choice of this dynamic verb suggests a complete lack of dignity. So too does her position on the Stool which, though supposedly one of superiority, actually exposes even more of these ‘skinny legs', reminding Offred of ‘the arms of an eccentric chair': the Wife seems no more important than a piece of furniture.

The overall effect, then, is satirical. Atwood, through Offred's observations, contrives to show the reader how contemptible is the theocracy of Gilead. As Offred belittles one of Gilead's supposedly more important women during a ridiculous ritual, and describes the way in which Janine is seen merely as a walking womb, the whole régime is seen for what it is: a hypocritical sham, albeit a highly dangerous one.

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