Analysis

Margaret Atwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale has become a classic of feminist literature and a key example of a dystopian novel from the second half of the 20th century. 

The novel’s structure is largely chronological, but it includes a very large number of flashbacks both to Offred’s time in the Handmaid training center and to her life before the revolution. It is divided into titled sections, which are subdivided into chapters. The novel ends with an epilogue chapter which is in the form of a transcript from an academic conference about Gileadean Studies happening in the future in the year 2195.

The main character is the unnamed narrator, known in Gilead as Offred. Before the revolution, she had a job, a husband named Luke, and a child. After Gilead takes over, she is forced to become a “handmaiden”: a woman used to have children by government officials. The Commander (the government official in whose home Offred has been placed) is another key character. He shows Offred the illegal, seedy side of the system he has helped to create. His wife, Serena Joy, dislikes Offred, but she is desperate for a child, so she is also willing to break the rules. She arranges for Offred to have an affair with the chauffeur, Nick, in the hope that Offred will get pregnant. Other characters in the novel include Aunt Lydia (who “trained” the handmaids), Moira (Offred’s friend from before the revolution), and Offred’s husband Luke. 

The story’s setting is Gilead, a fictitious dystopian society. Most of the novel is set in the small neighborhood where the Commander lives, which is a pretty, old-fashioned place. Gilead society is patriarchal; women are considered secondary to men, and they are not even allowed to read. It is also a very violent place. Crimes are punished with mutilation and death, creating a culture of fear. The novel is set in the future, at a time when environmental and nuclear disasters have poisoned the land and caused extensive infertility. Women like Offred are valued in Gilead because they might still have the ability to have children. 

The story is told by a first-person narrator. We do not know her real name, but in Gilead she is named after her Commander (whose name is Fred). The final chapter of the novel, however, comes in the form of a transcript from an academic conference in the future. It is narrated first by the conference chair, and then by Professor Piexoto, who shares his research into the Handmaid’s Tale manuscript. 

The language includes a number of words used by the Gilead regime which are either invented or have new meanings. For example, Offred has to attend a Prayvaganza (in which prayers are said and Commanders’ daughters are married) and a Salvaging (in which women who have committed crimes are publicly executed).

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