The Handmaid's Tale

Topics: The Handmaid's Tale, Totalitarianism, Margaret Atwood Pages: 5 (1603 words) Published: March 6, 2014
The Handmaid’s Tale Novel Analysis
Elizabethtown Community College

The Handmaid’s Tale Novel Analysis
Margaret Atwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale, is an eerie example of a “dystopian” novel. A dystopian novel portrays a terrifying picture of a world which makes the reader say, “what if?” Atwood wrote the novel in the 1980’s following the free-spirited, fun-loving period of the 60’s and 70’s. The plot, characters, themes, symbolism and setting of the novel display a picture of what the future world could be like if women’s rights were completely removed. Plot

Plot is defined as “an author’s selection and arrangement of incidence in a story to shape the action and give the story a particular focus” (Meyer, 2011, p.1666). The Handmaid's Tale portrays a scary world following an epidemic of infertility. A religious, totalitarian state, the Republic of Gilead, has taken over control after assassinating the president along with all members of Congress. There is no separation of church and state within Gilead and women are stripped of their identity and made to be solely submissive to their husbands and other men.

The narrator of the story, Offred is a Handmaid in Gilead. Frequently throughout the story, Offred flashes back, remembering her life before the reign of Gilead. Prior to their takeover, Offred had been married and had a daughter. However, during a failed escape attempt, all three of them were separated and Offred does not see them again within the story.

Following the takeover by Gilead, women of child-bearing age are sent to the Red Center, which is where the attempt to indoctrinate the Handmaid’s way of thinking occurs. The people that run the Red Center are middle-age women called the Aunts. After their training, Offred and other Handmaids are assigned to well-off couples who cannot bear children; Offred is assigned to the Commander and Serena Joy. If a Handmaid bears a child, she is considered higher in status. Handmaids are forced to live within these homes, unable to leave the house except to go shopping for household goods. They cannot close their bedroom doors completely, cannot walk around the house freely, bathe when instructed to do so, eat what they are told and forced to give themselves sexually to their Commander at a certain time during the month. The ritual of the Handmaids giving themselves to the Commander is called “A Ceremony.” The act is a wordless, cold act in which the wife of the Commander sits directly behind the Handmaid and holds her hands. While the Handmaids are taught that the ways of Gilead are better and safer for young women, their rituals are a nice way of saying “rape” and “abuse.”

Once Offred gets settled at the Commander’s house, she begins to settle in to her routine. She is assigned another Handmaid, Ofglen, to go shopping with and starts to build a friendship with her. As the story progresses, Offred learns that Ofglen is a member of the secret group, the Mayday and hopes to assist in breaking free of Gilead. Ofglen attempts to recruit Offred in to trying to get information from the Commander which may assist the group. The Handmaids are also forced to visit the physician regularly to check for any illnesses or issues which may interfere with getting pregnant. During one of Offred’s visits to the doctor, he offers to get her pregnant so that she could be relieved of the life she was living. Offred refused out of fear of being caught.

Following the doctor’s proposition the Commander summons Offred to his office late at night, via Nick the chauffeur. This opens the door to a growing relationship between the Commander and Offred. They begin to spend many evenings in his office talking, playing scrabble and reading old magazines. Offred begins to see the Commander as a different kind of victim, although he played a role in the building of Gilead, and the reader begins to feel empathy for him. After much time, the Commander sneaks Offred...

References: Meyer, M. (2011). The Compact Bedford Introduction to Literature (9th ed.). University of Connecticut: Bedford/St. Martin’s.
SparkNotes Editors. (2003). SparkNote on The Handmaid’s Tale. Retrieved September 6, 2012, from
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