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The Handmaid’s Tale

Margaret Atwood

Key Facts

Important Quotations Explained

Study Questions & Essay Topics

full title  ·  The Handmaid’s Tale

author  · Margaret Atwood

type of work  · Novel

genre  · Anti-utopian (or “dystopian”) novel; science fiction; feminist political novel

language  · English

time and place written  · Early 1980s, West Berlin and Alabama

date of first publication  ·  1986

publisher  · McClelland & Stewart in Canada, Houghton Mifflin in the United States

narrator  · Offred, a Handmaid in the Republic of Gilead

point of view  ·  The Handmaid’s Tale is told from Offred’s point of view. She tells the story in the immediate present tense but frequently shifts to past tense for flashbacks to life before Gilead and to her time in the Red Center. Much of her narration is concerned not with events or action, but with her emotional state, which is often affected by the memories that well up from her happier past.

tone  · The novel’s tone is dark, and at times elegiac for the lost world before Gilead. Consistently unhappy, Offred finds both refuge and pain in her memories. A sense of fear and paranoia also pervades the novel, since all the characters live under a ruthless, totalitarian government.

tense  · Offred describes her life in the Commander’s home in the present tense but frequently shifts to the past tense to describe flashbacks and memories.

setting (time)  · The not-too-distant future

setting (place)  · Cambridge, Massachusetts

protagonist  · Offred

major conflict  · The Republic of Gilead has subjugated women and reduced Handmaids like Offred to sexual slavery. Offred desires happiness and freedom, and finds herself struggling against the totalitarian restrictions of her society.

rising action  · Offred’s evenings with the Commander; her shopping trips with Ofglen; her visit to Jezebel’s

climax  · After learning that Ofglen committed suicide to avoid arrest, Offred returns home and Serena confronts her about her trip to Jezebel’s.

falling action  · Offred’s arrest or escape at the end of the novel

themes  · Women’s bodies as political instruments; language as a tool of power; the causes of complacency

motifs  · Rape and sexual violence; religious terms used for political purposes; similarities between reactionary and feminist ideologies

symbols  · Cambridge, Massachusetts; Harvard University; the Handmaids’ red habits; a palimpsest; the Eyes

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.

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Cigarettes

by sidlaecarg, October 15, 2013

Offred's thoughts about cigarettes in her new life and the memory of smoking them in her old provides another symbol for control of women's bodies and choices in the Gilead regime. She is a former smoker, but her cigarettes are taken away from her along with many other freedoms when she becomes a handmaid. Offred can no longer smoke because this might harm any children she has yet to bear, though she still yearns for another cigarette whenever she sees one. Offred yearns for the freedoms her old life had to offer. Gilead's removal of cigaret... Read more

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