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The Handmaid’s Tale

Margaret Atwood
Main Ideas

Key Facts

Main Ideas Key Facts

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.