The Handmaid’s Tale

The following is an excerpt of an online course on Canadian literature that I last taught in 2011. The course covered six novels by three writers from Canada: Volkswagen Blues and Mr. Blue (Le Vieux Chagrin) by Jacques Poulin, The Handmaid’s Tale and Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood, and Running in the Family and In the Skin of a Lion by Michael Ondaatje.

The Handmaid’s Tale: Introduction

Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is undoubtedly one of the most, if not the most widely read and studied Canadian novel outside of Canada; it more than any other single work of Atwood’s helped to win her wide recognition around the world. The novel, as one might imagine, has received an especially wide readership in the United States, where the novel is set. One of the aspects of the book that has made it so compelling for readers over the last twenty is how it imagines a dystopic not-so-distant future for the United States in which the country has fallen apart and is mired in wars between various religious factions. One of the societies that is created out of this is the Republic of Gilead, which seems in the novel to be located in what was once Cambridge, Massachusetts. Within the Republic of Gilead, fertile women are forced to serve the Republic by becoming “handmaids,” whose role it is to bear children for the rich and powerful.

Like those classic examples of the dystopic novel, Huxley’s Brave New World and Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, The Handmaid’s Tale does not purport either to predict the future or to create and entirely fictional world from that bears no connection to the world and time in which the author lived when she wrote the book. Rather, Atwood uses the novel to imagine a future extrapolated out of the events and currents in society and politics she saw developing around her in the middle of the 1980s. This “what if” scenario might seem rather far-fetched at first, but as Atwood has pointed out on numerous occasions there is nothing in this novel that has not happened before at a particular point in history. What makes her novel unique is how she brings all of these ideas together in such a way that makes it all seem to be frighteningly possible.

At the time Atwood wrote The Handmaid’s Tale, there was much concern on the political Left in the United States about the increasing influence of “The Religious Right.” Among other things, the growing number of evangelical and religiously-oriented political organizations had played a key role in electing Ronald Reagan and were rallying against what they saw to be the collapse of the ways and traditions that made America great; the American society was, they argued, a society that was, to quote Aunt Lydia, “dying of too much choice.” During this same era, the feminist movement around the world and especially in North America was rallying against pornography and violence against women. Movements like the “Take Back the Night” marches sprung up during this era calling for a society where women would be free to walk alone at night without having to fear for their safety. Atwood plays with all of these aspects of politics and life in the early 1980s, by imagining many of these ideas taking new and nearly unimaginable manifestations in a future United States of America.

Over the last several years, there has been a great resurgence in interest in Atwood’s novel. An opera of the novel has had productions in Europe, the US, England, and Canada and the book seems to be making it onto more and more reading lists at the university and even the high-school level, where it has in some places in the United States been met with fierce resistance from some parent groups who demanded the book be pulled from the curriculum. One of the reasons perhaps for this renewed interest in the book is that over the last twenty years is that many parts of the world imagined by Atwood seem more realistic than ever. Everything from the dropping sperm counts of men in industrialized nations around the world and the commonness today of women acting as surrogate mothers to the rapidity of complete political and social change in the former USSR and South Africa to the events of the Oklahoma City bombing and September 11th, 2001 suggest that the status quo is more fragile than it may seem.

Click on the following links to hear Margaret Atwood discuss her novel.

The Handmaid’s Tale: Beginnings

I always begin teaching a book by asking students about the books’ epigraphs. With The Handmaid’s Tale, even the book’s dedications are significant, though their relevance is not something you can easily discover on your own. Although not present in some US editions, there are two dedications on one of the first pages of the book. One is to Mary Webster, an early ancestor of Atwood’s, a painting of whom Offred notices in the Commander’s house. Webster was tried in Salem for being a witch and somehow survived an attempted execution. The other dedication is to Perry Miller, a former Harvard University professor who taught Atwood in a course on early American history and the Puritan Church state. Both of these periods of history, as one can see, are key influences in Atwood’s imagining of the Republic of Gilead.

Perhaps the most important, or at least the most overt source from which Atwood develops one of the most fundamental aspects of the Gileadean society is the Bible. The first epigraph of the novel is taken from the book of Genesis and describes Rachel’s decision to give Jacob children by having her maid Bilhah bear them on her behalf. This serves, of course, as both the inspiration and justification for this practice in Gilead, but it is also significant how the power of the Bible in the book is held only in the hands of those in power. The Bible is kept under lock and key in the Commander’s study so as to allow the Bible to continue how that text is interpreted. While the Bible is used to justify the exploitation and control of the women (and men) in the Gileadean society, it is also deemed too dangerous to fall into the hands of the average citizen.

The second and third epigraphs are much more challenging to interpret. The second is a passage from Jonathan Swift’s famous satire, A Modest Proposal, the complete title of which is A Modest Proposal for preventing the children of poor people in Ireland, from being a burden on their parents or country, and for making them beneficial to the publick. In A Modest Proposal, Swift savagely satirizes the British’s treatment of the Irish by proposing, via a seemingly serious proposal, that the British could reduce the poverty of the Irish and make the Irish children useful to society by allowing a trade in tasty Irish children’s flesh. The mere allusion to Swift here in The Handmaid’s Tale places the book squarely in the realm of satire; this book is not Atwood warning about what she believes the future of America will be, but rather a satirical look at the world in which she lives. Like for Swift, satire here is not comic, though Atwood’s sly humor is hard to miss at times in the novel, but rather a calculated means of showing the foibles of American society and the dangers to freedom in any attempt to control the liberty of others, however well intentioned (i.e. the distinction between the freedom to and freedom from).

The third epigraph, a Sufi proverb that goes “In the desert there is no sign that says, Thou shalt not eat stones,” also sets a crucial tone for the novel. Sufism is not an organized religion but a highly individual approach to spirituality. A number of Sufism’s general characteristics are echoed in Offred’s situation:

    • the principle of asceticism (Offred’s very spare existence at the Commander’s house)
    • a personal quest for values and truth. Sufism sees one as only being able to understand God on an individual basis
    • a fascination with wordplay and proverbs, and with finding the complexity in the very simple
    • an emphasis on personal rituals
    • Night is a time of profound spiritual quest
    • Sufism celebrates female strength and leadership

But what does this proverb mean in the context of The Handmaid’s Tale? What do you think? Go now to the Discussion board and weigh in on this epigraph’s connection to the novel.

A Question of Control

As we learn more about Gilead, we see how society is controlled via the establishment of a hierarchical system. Every member of society, it seems plays a role and that role is refleced in clothing they wear, just as we too in our own society make assumptions about what someone does and how much economic power they possess simply by virtue of what they are wearing. In The Handmaid’s Tale this sort of differentiation by appearance is mandated by the law. Everyone is divided not only by the type of clothing they wear but by the colors they are assigned.

Here’s a quick chart of the various roles people play in the Gileadean society and what the colors they wear may represent

Name Role Color Significance
Wives Wives of
the elite get to keep their homes, etc.
Powder Blue Virgin Mary: asexual, virgin birth; bluebloods: privilege; blue mood: melancholy, depressed etc.
Handmaids Single women, divorcees, some widows, and even former nuns able to bear children Red Blood: fertility, birth; passion: the scarlet letter, adultery; anger?
Aunts infertile, but dedicated to the ideas of the regime of the Sons of Jacob khakhi emotionless and drab; paramilitary: reminiscent of the fascist uniforms of the Second World War
Marthas servants dull green functional, not eye-catching
Econowives Wives of the working class; perhaps fertile and looking after their own children Stripes of Handmaid red, Wife blue, and Martha green serve in all three roles
Daughters daughters of the Wives White Virginal, innocent, the promise of maturity and fertility
Unwomen undesireables: elderly, nuns who won’t recant, “gender traitors”, radicals who refuse to conform. Sent away to exile or labour camps
Jezebels prostitutes for the rich and powerful, showing the hypocrisy of Gilead bizarre clothing their uniforms show their place outside the regimented divisions in society, outsiders visually as well as individually
Commanders of the Faith the elite who control the society, husbands of the Wives Black power, evil, lack of emotion, death
Eyes spies for the Republic no particular uniform, black vans anonymous, impossible to spot
Angels of the Appocalypse and Angels of Light soldiers
Guardians of the Faith police
Workers husbands of the econowives

While clothing and the roles that one is assigned help control the society what are some of the other key means of social control that we witness here in Gilead? How, in other words, does the Republic keep people from reacting against the system and even trying to overthrow it? Go to the discussion board now and answer this question.

Language and Words

Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale poses a number of challenges to the reader, particularly in the first few chapters. As readers, we are thrust directly into the action of the story with no exposition from a narrator to help us get our bearings. As the narrative begins in Chapter One, part of the first of seven “Night” sections in the novel, everything seems quite routine. As we learn in the first few lines about the narrator sleeping with others in a gymnasium, we have the sense that something has happened to cause the gymnasium to no longer serve its original purpose. As the narrator describes sleeping in cots, we might conclude that there has been some sort of natural disaster that has led to a mass evacuation. It’s only when we learn that their “army-issue blankets” were “old ones that still said U.S.” do we begin to glean that there is something truly awry. Two sentences later, we see the names of “Aunt Sara and Aunt Elizabeth,” names which might evoke the comfort and security of a family member’s presence until they are juxtaposed immediately with the word “patrolled” (4). Within the very same sentence, the Aunts presence takes a sinister turn when we read that they are carrying “electric cattle prods slung on thongs from their leather belts” (4).

Our disorientation as readers mounts further when we read that the Aunts are only one in a chain of people supervising the people in the the gymnasium (we haven’t even learned at this point that they are all women) and that they are not in complete control of the situation for not even the Aunts can be “trusted with guns. Guns were for the guards, specially picked from the Angels” (4). The placement of another word from everyday life, this one from a Christian context, into this new and strange environment makes us realize that everything we know from our own world has been turned upside down and that we can make no assumptions about what something means just through the word used to describe it; these are not “Angels” as we would imagine them in our own early 21st century setting. The Angels in the narrator’s world are “objects of fear” but also a potential means of escape (4). The revelation that they keep their backs to the prisoners allowed out suggest that the prisoners have some sort of potential power over the Angels. “If only we could talk to them,” the narrator thinks (4). “Something could be exchanged, we thought, some deal made, some tradeoff, we still had our bodies. That was our fantasy” (4.) The implication here is that the “we” might be able to trade sexual favors for freedom, or at least escape, and this is the first hint that those who are being held against their will are women. In fact, it’s only in the last sentence of the chapter that we have any solid indication of who the prisoners are and of what little freedom they actually have: “We learned to lipread, our heads flat on the beds, turned sideways, watching each other’s mouths. In this way we exchanged names, from bed to bed: Alma. Janine. Dolores. Moira. June.” These last lines, too, are chilling as there we come to realize that the gender of the prisoners may well have something to do with their imprisonment.

I’ve spent so much time on a close reading (and even then we’ve only scratched the surface) of this short first chapter of The Handmaid’s Tale to show how masterfully Atwood drops up in to the dystopic future she has imagined. This first chapter catches us completely off guard, throws us into the world of the novel without the reassurances that background information, an initial description of setting or characters, and/or a more open first-person narrator can provide us with as we try to find our bearings. The use of familiar words that promptly take on new and unsettling meanings sets some ground rules for us as readers: we will have to do a lot of the work in trying to fill in the blanks; we must read every word carefully and pay attention to the new context in which they are being used; we must rid ourselves immediately of any assumptions that the world of the novel will mirror the world that we are living in now and yet we also need to pay attention to the traces of our own world, for they are clres that will help us to understand what has happened to move us from the world we live in to the world our narrator inhabits.

Discussion question:

One of the many enjoyable things about reading this book is simply seeing all the different ways in which Atwood imagines a revision of the English language. What did you find to be the most interesting ways in which she plays with language in this novel? What did you think about her use of language in this way? Is it too much? Or, do you think it’s effective in helping to paint a picture of Gileadean society?

Language and Power

As we saw yesterday, language plays a fascinating role in The Handmaid’s Tale. First, we have the way in which Atwood uses language to give us very subtle clues as to what’s happening to the narrator. The book begins in medias res (in the middle of the action) and the reader is left to try to piece together what’s happening. Atwood reveals crucial details in such a subtle manner, resisting what might be an overwhelming temptation to provide extensive exposition, filling the reader in on the background of the Gilead régime, or on Offred’s past. All of those details are left out, though the author clearly has worked out the details of all that background information. We find some of this history in the “Historical Notes” section at the end of the novel, but even then there are many gaps that we are left to attempt to fill for ourselves. Early on, the entire narrative seems to be structured in a nearly random order, though the Historical Notes section also helps us understand why this is. More on this section tomorrow.

We spent a fair bit of time yesterday looking at the first chapter of the book. Let’s move on to the second, in which the use of language is equally subtle and interesting. The first thing you will notice is the striking, almost comical contrast between the ominous end of the first “Night” chapter and the seemingly trivial title of the next section: “Shopping.” Once again, as this chapter begins, we find ourselves in a new setting, unsure of what is going on. We do have more detailed description from the narrator to work with, this time about the room in which she finds herself. It all seems rather unremarkable at first, even banal.

Let’s take a closer look at these lines from the first paragraph: “A chair, a table, a lamp. Above, on the white ceiling, a relief ornament in the shape of a wreath, and in the center of it a blank space, plastered over, like the place in a face where the eye has been taken out. There must have been a chandelier, once. They’ve removed anything you could tie a rope to” (7). Who are “They” and why would they be concerned about someone tying a rope to a chandelier? Again, this is something that she leaves us to wonder about, but the obvious implication is that “they” are trying to prevent anyone from committing suicide.

The paragraph that follows immediately returns to the quite banal descriptions of the room (note, however, the mention that the window “only opens partly” before including the information about the braided rug that “is the kind of touch they like: folk art, made by women, in their spare time, from things that have no further use. A return to traditional values” (7). The question here, of course, is whose idea of “traditional values” are we talking about. We still hear this phrase all the time today, don’t we? Here again we see the power of language, of naming. Who can argue with the importance of “traditional values”? We often don’t really know what values those are, though. Clearly, though, this rather warped idea of “traditional values” is coming from the narrator’s oppressor(s), though we don’t even know who those forces are at this point in the novel. It’s important to note, too, that she’s using their language here. They don’t seem to be Offred’s “traditional values.”

As this first page of chapter two closes, we have our first glimpse of a connection between the first “Night” chapter and this one. The narrator wonders “Does each of us have the same print, the same chair, the same white curtains, I wonder? Government issue?” Who “us” is remains unclear, until we read the name in the sentence that immediately follows this one: “Think of it as being in the army, said Aunt Lydia.” Suddenly we see a link between these two seeming unrelated chapters.

I focus on this first page so closely again to look at how brilliantly Atwood uses the style of narration here to give us only the smallest and sometimes incredibly vague details out of which we build our interpretation of what is happening. The narrator seems to clearly believe that her audience knows who “they” are. But we don’t. Why?

Language here, of course, becomes a way of controlling society. You name someone as a Handmaid, or declare them to be a traitor, you rename places and objects, you create a vocabulary to describe certain practices such as “the salvagings,” and you use language to reinterpret certain beliefs: “Where I am is not a prison, but a privilege, as Aunt Lydia said, who was in love with either/or” (8). Yet, language is also, as you know from looking at Offred’s narrative, a way for her to control her situation and to try to remain true to herself on the inside, while appearing compliant on the outside.

Discussion question:

Find and discuss two cases of how Offred uses language to try to control or even escape her situation. (Post on Discussion Board)

As we get into chapter three we again see one of the ways in which language is used to control people. In any totalitarian society, where power is at stake, language (words, speech, writing, reading) is controlled. The régime in power will limit freedom of speech; you are not allowed to speak freely in public and even in private in some cases, there is no freedom of the press, and, equally important, you limit people’s access to technology (books, paper, pens, computers) that will allow them to communicate with one another.

As mentioned earlier, the naming and renaming of people, things, and places is again a crucial means of control. Think for instance, about how colonizers, such as the Spanish, British, and French have all renamed things upon their arrival in North America to claim it for their own or how the residential school systems that aimed to assimilate First Nations/Native American children would immediately rename children with “Christian” names immediately upon their forced arrival to the “school.” Here, in a very similar way, the Handmaids are renamed every time they get a new placement with a Commander and his Wife. Offred, Ofglen, Ofwarren and so on are names that strip the women of any individuality and indicate only their function (“of”) and whose household to which they are attached (“Fred”).

The Handmaids, too, are only allowed to communicate in mandated ways, through the use of this entirely archaic, and rather cryptic language that we see Offred and Ofglen using when they greet each other: “‘Blessed be the fruit,’ she says to me, the accepted greeting among us. “‘May the Lord open,’ I answer.” Saying anything more to another handmaid, as we see, is dangerous, because in true Totalitarian style, one never knows if the other person will turn you in: “The truth is that she is my spy, as I am hers. If either of us slips through the net because of something that happens on one of our daily walks, the other will be accountable. [. . .] During these walks she has never said anything that was not strictly orthodox, but then, neither have I. She may be a real believer, a Handmaid in more than name. I can’t take the risk” (19). Here we see the fear of reprisal as being something that limits her ability to speak and prevents the handmaids from communicating with one another.

As the Handmaids walk through the town, “the heart of Gilead,” we see how things have changed from a town (Cambridge, MA) where “Doctors [. . .], lawyers, [and] university professors” once lived. Gilead is a place, but more importantly it is an idea, a constant presence that affects how the Handmaids act, speak, and think: “The Republic of Gilead, said Aunt Lydia, knows no bounds. Gilead is within you” (23). That fear of Gilead being there to catch you if you rebel, to “salvage” you if you transgress is incredibly powerful and, as we see in this interaction between Offred and Ofglen is one that prevents the germination of even the smallest a seed of rebellion.

Chapter 5, one in which we get some extended flashbacks describing Offred’s previous life, is a really useful one for giving us background information as to how Gilead came to be. We see here how certain changes in society happened so gradually that Offred didn’t really notice, until the point when she loses her job and access to her bank accounts. In terms of the use of language, this chapter helps us to see ways in which it changes in this new society, and how concepts like “freedom” or “protection”­ the meaning of which we frequently assume to be self-evident ­ become radically altered in Gilead.

It’s important to remember here, as I said in our opening online lecture, how many aspects of Gilead are an extrapolation, a perversion even, of many of the events and ideals of the mid-1980s and how even some of these aspects of Gilead seem even closer to the world of today than they have ever been before. Offred thinks back to her childhood and says, ironically it seems, “women were not protected then” (24). Now, in Gilead, all the things that the feminist movement has criticized are gone: “we walk along the same street, in red pairs, and no man shouts obscenities at us, speaks to us, touches us. No one whistles. / There is more than one kind of freedom, said Aunt Lydia. Freedom to and freedom from. In the days of anarchy, it was freedom to. Now you are being given freedom from. Don’t underrate it.” Note how, as Offred says earlier, we see Aunt Lydia articulating things in terms of either/or. If one is to have “freedom from,” “freedom to” has to be reduced or eliminated. Much of the more radical religious right in the 1980s was arguing that the traditional values of America were being lost, that the United States was, as Aunt Lydia puts it, “a society dying [. . .] of too much choice.” The solution that the Gilead régime comes up with is to restrict in quite drastic ways the “freedom to” of everyone, but especially women.

In the audio lecture for today, we’re going to look at how Offred reacts to her situation and that unsettling balance between a lack of “freedom to” and a supposed abundance of “freedom from.”

Audio lectures (part 1)

In the summer of 2005, when I was teaching this class for the very first time, I struggled trying to turn my regular classroom lectures into the written lectures you’ve just been reading. This is a novel for which I love just coming into class and talking about in a spontaneous way. There’s so much going on at every turn, that one of the great pleasures we have as readers is being able to look carefully at sometimes the shortest of passages. Even at that micro level we discover that there’s not a word wasted in this book, that every detail contributes to the larger themes of the book. Faced with this dilemma, I decided late one July night that for the rest of our discussion of The Handmaid’s Tale I would record lectures for you to download.

Aside from the fact that I decided to pull an all-nighter in my Old Mill office recording these they turned out pretty well and the students really liked the change of pace. There are four lectures in all. The first one, which I’ve left here in case your interested covered everything we just discussed in the online lecture you’ve just read. Rather than writing out the second audio lecture, though, I’m going to ask you to download it. The great thing about doing these lectures as podcasts is that you can listen to them anywhere. Take it with you to a cafe along with your book, or listen to it as you’re driving somewhere (I recommend against reading and driving).

Ideally, though, you should be sitting down with your book in hand to be looking at the passages to which I’m referring. You might also want to take notes, as unlike our written content, it’s more difficult to go back and review the things I’ve said if you’ve not taken any notes.

  1. The Handmaid’s Tale audio lecture 1: Language and Power (39:11)
  2. The Handmaid’s Tale audio lecture 2: Paths of Resistance (25:45)
  3. The Handmaid’s Tale Audio lecture 3: Telling Stories (43:20)
  4. The Handmaid’s Tale audio lecture 4: Historical Notes (11:00)


This is a lot of audio (nearly two hours over four lectures), so stretch it out if you need to. Take it with you somewhere and bring your book. You might also want to take some notes, as it dawned on me to mention sometime during the recording of the third lecture. 🙂

“Historical Notes” discussion questions: Why does Offred feel that she needs to be writing her story for an audience? What is significant about Offred’s reminder here that she doesn’t have a pen or pencil and paper?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *