The Handmaid's Tale

Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale text guide

The Handmaid's Tale Cover 1st EditionThe Handmaid’s Tale, published in 1985, is a dystopian novel. Its Canadian author, Margaret Atwood, would call it ‘speculative’ rather than ‘science’ fiction. It is set in the United States of America in an unspecified near future. She imagines a situation in which a totalitarian theocracy has taken over, after a period of extreme liberalism. The new state calls itself Gilead, after a mountain, named in Genesis 31:22, on which was taken an oath to let God be the judge in human affairs and disputes.

The ‘tale’ of the title is an account by a woman whose real name is never disclosed (though it can perhaps be deduced). Throughout the novel she is known as Offred - ‘of Fred’. In Gilead women are entirely subservient and some, the Handmaids, are slaves to their masters – each is known by her master’s name and is expected to produce his children. Gilead has a dire shortage of children because of toxic pollution of the atmosphere leading to the malformation and death of foetuses, and also because of the easy accessibility of abortions in times past - a practice now punishable in Gilead by death.

Through her writing in The Handmaid’s Tale Atwood presents us with a series of challenges about our own society and also a series of moral dilemmas.

Margaret Atwood

Margaret AtwoodMargaret Eleanor Atwood (who was known for many years as Peggy) was born in Ottawa, Canada, on 18th November 1939. Having decided at the age of 16 that she wanted to be a writer, Atwood was writing throughout her time at University. She started writing The Handmaid's Tale in Berlin in 1984 - a city divided between a "democratic" and a "totalitarian" half. Read more . . .

Atwood's world

20th Century - Source: www.20th.infoThe Handmaid’s Tale is an effective satire, in which Atwood draws her readers’ attention to unpleasant, brutal and horrific events in the recent past and in contemporary society, as well as social trends and the ways in which human beings tend to behave to one another. The twentieth century world Atwood lived in when she wrote this novel had a massive impact on her writing. Atwood herself has said in an interview that ‘there isn't anything in the book not based on something that has already happened in history or in another country.’ Read more . . .

Dive in to The Handmaid's Tale text guide

Synopses and commentary - Chapter by chapter synopsis, commentary and analysis of the entire book.

Characterisation - Detailed analysis of all the important protagonists in Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale.

The Handmaid's Tale Timeline - Helpfully puts history, literary events and Atwood's life side by side so you can make sense of events.

Themes and significant ideas - Research themes and significant ideas that feature in The Handmaid's Tale.

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