full title The Handmaid’s Tale
author Margaret Atwood
type of work Novel
genre Anti-utopian (or “dystopian”) novel; science fiction; feminist political novel
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
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.