The Handmaid’s Tale

The Handmaid’s Tale, acclaimed dystopian novel by Canadian Nobel laureate Margaret Atwood, published in 1985. With stark attention to detail, Atwood describes life after a fertility crisis in the not too distant future where the United States has suffered a military coup and is now a totalitarian theocracy.

The story’s protagonist (Offred) remembers the time before the change a risky choice Atwood made. A fairly unique element in the dystopian genre. Most dystopians writers set their stories is some time in the far future and there seems little hope for change or revolution.

The Handmaid's Tale Book Cover

The Handmaid’s Tale Summary

Offred’s recollections reveal that she was the daughter of a feminist activist who had chosen to be a single mother. Before the advent of the theocratic government, Offred attended university and had a close friend named Moira. She became involved with a married man, Luke, and eventually she and Luke wed and had a daughter.

Following a military coup in which rebels killed the president and most members of Congress, the country became the Republic of Gilead. One day the protagonist loses her job at the library because the regime did not allow women to work. That same evening she learned that women were also not allowed to have money, and her bank account had been transferred to Luke.

The set up

Eventually, Luke, the protagonist, and their daughter tried to flee to Canada but were caught. Then they send her to a reeducation center for indoctrination in preparation for becoming a Handmaid. Moira was also at the reeducation center, but she escaped.

All women are assigned to various classes: the chaste childless Wives of the Commanders; the housekeeping Marthas; and the reproductive Handmaids, who turn their offspring over to the Wives and are called by the names of their assigned Commanders. Ranked under the Commanders are Guardians, who have police powers, and the society is permeated with government spies called Eyes. Those who cannot conform are sent to the Colonies, and people of color (Children of Ham) are resettled.

Offred begins her third assignment as a Handmaid, having been unsuccessful in her previous two. Fred is Offred’s current Commander—her name means “of Fred”—and his Wife is Serena Joy, a former singer on a televangelist program. Offred is required to go grocery shopping in the company of the neighboring Handmaid, Ofglen. As they return, they pass the Wall, where the regime displays the bodies of executed prisoners.


One day, Offred notices a phrase carved into the closet floor: “Nolite te bastardes carborundorum.” On Offred’s monthly visit to the doctor, he suggests that the Commander may be sterile and that he could impregnate her. The regime does not recognize that men can be sterile. Frightened, she declines. At home, she is required to attend the monthly Ceremony. After the Commander reads the Bible to the household, Offred must lie between Serena Joy’s legs while Serena Joy clasps her hands as the Commander has sex with her. Later that night, Offred sneaks downstairs, hoping to steal a flower, and finds Nick, a Guardian and the Commander’s chauffeur, also in the house; he tells her that the Commander wants her to go to his office the following night.

When one of the Handmaids gives birth, all the other Handmaids attend her; a complex ritual showing that the baby really belongs to a Wife accompanies the birthing process. When Offred presents herself in the Commander’s office, she is surprised to find that he wishes to play Scrabble, even though women are forbidden to read. The nighttime meetings continue, and Offred finds the monthly Ceremony uncomfortable now that she has a personal relationship with the Commander. One day Ofglen reveals to Offred that she is a member of an underground resistance movement.


From the Commander, Offred learns that the phrase on the closet floor means “Don’t let the bastards grind you down” and that the Handmaid who carved it had hanged herself after Serena Joy learned of her secret liaisons with the Commander. Weeks later, Serena Joy dangerously arranges for Offred to have sex with Nick in hopes that Offred will conceive; after that assignation, she and Nick continue with an affair. One night the Commander requires Offred to don a sexy costume and takes her out to an unofficially permitted sex club, where Offred sees Moira working as a prostitute.

Later, all the women are required to attend a savage public execution, and Ofglen tells Offred that one of those killed was a member of the resistance. The next shopping day, a different Handmaid identifies herself as Ofglen; the new Ofglen tells Offred that the old one hanged herself before she could be arrested. When Offred returns home she finds that Serena Joy has discovered the costume that she wore to the sex club. A van of the Eyes comes to arrest Offred, but Nick tells her that the Eyes are really resistance fighters. The story ends with Offred being taken away to an uncertain fate. An epilogue then explains that the events of the story, found on tape cassettes. They discuss the story as part of a symposium on Gileadean Studies in 2195 and hints that a more equitable society followed the Gileadean theocracy.

Related: Animal Farm

Literary Devices of The Handmaid’s Tale

Atwood uses satire to display the oppression of women in political, religious and social aspects through the use of allusions to the Cultural Revolution, Salem Witch Trials, the Taliban and the Old Testament. One of the most common type of symbolism in the text is the use of colors.

‘Give me children, or else I die.’. This is also an allusion to a verse from the Old Testament (Genesis 30:1). It refers to Rachel’s words to Jacob when she was unable to become pregnant. In the biblical context, Rachel is telling Jacob that he should get her maid pregnant and then Rachel will claim the child as her own.

Imagery and Colors

The colors denote a person’s role in society:

  • Robin’s-egg blue for the wives
  • Charcoal and black for the husbands
  • Dark brown for the aunties
  • And of course dark red for the handmaids.

The onomatopoeia of “Offred” suggests being of the color red, thereby emphasizing the specific restricted position of handmaids in Gilead. The regime categorizes handmaids by the red garments and force them to wear and therefore limited from social mobility.

Offred describes the irony of Serena Joy’s clear bitterness from living in a world that she helped create. A regime that did not allow women to read or write, or have any power. So Serena Joy can do nothing but stay at home as she once preached that all women should do.

Related: Literary Techniques

The Handmaid’s Tale is speculative fiction. Speculative fiction is an umbrella definition which includes science fiction, fantasy, and dystopian literature.


Margret Atwood adopts an introspective (first person) and nonlinear writing style. Offred ruminates on her past and present and compares them through flashbacks of her memory.

The fragmented narrative structure of The Handmaid’s Tale echoes the sense of shock and disorientation Offred experiences. It is a broken narrative – arranged in disjointed, fragmented sections where memory blurs with reality.

Atwood’s prose is simplistic, sometimes as in the epilogue, it shows that it is academic, while the interspersed slangs, conversation, and occasional dialogs show it is a real story. The sentence style, structure, and length point out the fictional use of the language to suit the purpose.

The tone of The Handmaid’s Tale is dark and bleak. Within the ruthless, totalitarian state of Gilead, the characters—especially women—have lost their freedom and lead miserable lives.

Figurative language is in The Handmaid’s Tale

“To be seen—to be seen—is to be—[Aunt Lydia’s] voice trembled—penetrated.” This powerful metaphor compares seeing a woman’s body to raping her, and explains why the Handmaids’ costumes purposefully obstruct their faces.

What is the foreshadowing in The Handmaid’s Tale?

Foreshadowing Offred’s kiss with Nick foreshadows their eventual affair; the attempted kidnapping of Offred’s daughter foreshadows Offred’s eventual loss of her child; Ofglen’s arrest foreshadows Offred’s own arrest.

Atwood also uses foreshadowing for Moira’s character. The manner in which she escapes—taking off her clothes and putting on the uniform of an Aunt—symbolizes her rejection of Gilead’s attempt to define her identity. From most of the novel Moira represents an alternative to the meek subservience and acceptance of one’s fate that most of the women in Gilead adopt.

Oxymoron in The Handmaid’s Tale

For Offred, night time is when she has her most freedom and is therefore happiest. There is an oxymoron, “you can see night rising“. Which is ironic as we typically describe the night as falling, whereas the sun is typically the thing that rises.

The use of personification shows that the ‘household’ is part of the social system like humans are. However, one could also perceive this declarative sentence as dehumanizing the characters to the inhuman ‘household’, and we see then just as parts of the house rather than people who live there.

Related: Fahrenheit 451

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