The Handmaid's Tale Summary

Margaret Atwood's wrote her dystopian novel The Handmaid's Tale in 1985. This novel offers a strong feminist vision of dystopia.

The Handmaid's Tale Plot

In the country of Gilead (formerly the United States), military authorities receive military power, and they begin to revive "true Christian values." After the victory of the officers of Gilead, the government, concerned about the low birth rate, takes decisive measures. Special centers gather women who now have to fulfill their main mission - to give birth to children for sterile women of a higher status, wives of officers. Those who are unable to give birth are declared to be non-women and sent to camps where they work in complex sectors, for example, on the processing of toxic waste where they quickly die. Those who are capable of giving birth are called handmaids. They have no rights other than the sacred women's mission. They cannot read, wear clothes of their choice (only a uniform - a scarlet raincoat and a white cap). In a marvelous new world, women do not have the right to own property, work, love, read and write. They are forbidden to marry. They left only one function.

The Main Characters of This Novel

  • Offred: She is the narrator and protagonist. Offred belongs to the class of handmaids. She is forced to give birth to children for elite infertile couples. She remembers her real name and her family. Once a day, Offred can go shopping. Once a month she meets her master to conceive a healthy child.
  • The Commander: The head of the household, where Offred works as a handmaid. He often seems like a decent, well-intentioned person. Sometimes Offred seems that she loves him.
  • Serena Joy: She is the wife of Commander. Serena worked as an evangelical singer, then as an anti-feminist activist and crusader for "traditional values." She is very unhappy and jealous of the handmaid.
  • Ofglen: Another handmaid with whom Offred goes shopping.
  • Nick: he works as a gardener and chauffeur in the commander's house. He and Offred have a secret romance. At the end of the novel, Nick organizes Offred's escape from the Commander's house
  • Moira: She is the best friend Offred from college. Moira is a lesbian and a convinced feminist. She actively tries to escape and eventually, she manages to escape.
  • Luke: Former husband Offred. When Gilead comes to power, he tries to escape to Canada with Offred and their daughter, but they are captured. He is separated from Offred, and the couple never sees each other again.

Analysis and Context of the Handmaid’s Tale

Atwood wrote “The Handmaid’s Tale” in West Berlin and Alabama in the mid-1980s. This novel was published in 1986. Very quickly became a bestseller. “The Handmaid’s Tale” is directly in the tradition of anti-utopian or "dystopic" novels of the twentieth century.

In novels in this genre, imaginary worlds and societies are usually represented. Often they are not ideal and terrifying. They are not ideals, but instead are horrendous or restrictive. In “The Handmaid’s Tale,” Atwood examines the consequences of the abolition of women's rights. In the world of the nightmares of the novel Gilead, a group of conservative religious extremists took power and turned the sexual revolution into her head. Feminists advocated the liberation from traditional gender roles, but Gilead is a society based on a "return to traditional values" and gender roles, as well as the subordination of women to men. What feminists considered being the great triumphs of the 1970s, namely, widespread access to contraception, the legalization of abortion and the growing political influence of female voters, were all abolished. Women in Gilead not only prohibit voting, but they are also forbidden to read or write. The Handmaid’s Tale is a powerful image of a totalitarian society and one of the few dystopic novels to consider in detail how politics and sexuality intersect. This novel by Margaret Atwood also shows a picture of the world destroyed by pollution and infertility, reflecting the fears of the 1980s regarding the decline in fertility, the dangers of nuclear power and environmental degradation.

What Symbols Are There in This Novel?

In the novel, there is always a red color. Offred extends the symbolic power of color, using it to describe blood, sometimes as the life force that passes through her body. Sometimes the red color shows violence and death, like blood on executed criminals.

The novel is filled with eyes that represent key themes, such as paranoia, observation and the power of Gilead. Eyes - terrible, violent and secretive security officials of the laws of Gilead.

Makeup contains a sense of power and sexuality. Femininity, the past and the lost freedom Offreda control her appearance. But others, like the commander, believe that the lack of make-up in a woman is a source of freedom because women now do not need to conquer men.

The Main Idea

In this “The Handmaid’s Tale,” Atwood presents religious fanaticism. She warns about what can happen if extremist religious ideology is used as a solution to social problems. It shows that if religious fundamentalists are allowed to govern the government, the result will be injustice, cruelty, and oppression. The specific goals of the novel are fundamentalist Protestants in America, sometimes called Christian law, because of their conservative views on social issues such as abortion, women's rights, and gay rights. Atwood also raises the question of the importance and need for respect for the environment. Through her novel “The Handmaid’s Tale,” she shows what the chemicals and wars have been made with the environment. In such way, she tries to warn the today and future generation.

The Critique

But even today, many reviewers believe that Atwood's novel remains as a premonition because of its foundation in historical fact. However, when her book was first published in 1985, not all critics were convinced of the “cautionary story” that Atwood presented. To date, the work of Atwood is actively criticized. Many said that “The Handmaid’s Tale” criticizes the typical notions of feminism because it undermines women's ideals. Other critics described the “The Handmaid’s Tale” as “white feminism.” Treating that Atwood borrows largely from African-American experience and applies it to white women.

Here You Can Find Topics for Your Essay

Each student faces Margaret Atwood's dystopian novel “The Handmaid's Tale.” Often, students need not only read this novel but also carry out a number of academic assignments to it. One of these tasks is writing an essay. Here are possible topics ideas for your essay.

  • What do you think about the Atwood's novel? Is it a feminist work of literature, or it presents a criticism of feminism?
  • What do you think about the form of handmaids? Is there a hidden meaning in their uniform?
  • Discuss the symbols in this story. What value do they have?
  • What can you say about the Commander? What kind of person is he really?
  • What is love and death in the society of the Gileadean?
  • Discuss the political context in the story of the handmaid.
  • What is the social commentary in "The Handmaid’s Tale" by Margaret Atwood?
  • Discuss narrative methods as a study of society in the story of a handmaid.