The Handmaid’s Tale: Overview and Implications

Have you ever heard of The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood? Maybe you have heard about it, but don’t know what it is about - like my roommate who thought it was about mice. 

Well I can assure you it is not about any rodents. It is actually an extraordinary work of dystopian feminist fiction. 

The novel depicts a fundamental Christian regime taking over the New England region of the U.S., creating the Republic of Gilead. 

In fact, the book is set at Harvard University in Cambridge, MA. A symbolic spot that once upheld the value of progress has become the heart of altruistic evil. 

Gilead is rigidly structured based upon the founder’s interpretation of biblical values. Men are in charge and women must be submissive. 

Women are no longer allowed to read, everyone is forced to wear role identifying uniforms, and those who resist get tortured and publicly hung for all to see.  

Each household has a commander, wife, and handmaid among other roles. The handmaid’s sole purpose is to provide the family with a child. Each month she is forced to have intercourse with the commander in order to make this happen. 

The nation’s founders derived this arrangement through biblical stories like that of Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar. Ancient surracgy and motherhood dynamics make a comeback and procreation is once again seen as divine blessing. 

These women are reduced to their physical form as they become treated like breeding animals - simply vessels for the future generations of strong men. 

The novel’s narrator is one of these handmaids, Offred. Her name is a combination of “Of Fred”, referring to the submissive nature between her and the commander. Every handmaid’s name is structured like this. Using the names of their past is outlawed. 

She is a part of the first generation of Gilead, those who tried to escape the rapid formation of the regime, but instead got caught and forced to comply. 

Offred reminses in her memories from the time before Gilead when she had her own house, a job, a husband, a daughter. All of these things have been striped from her in this reality. 

Atwood wrote this novel in the 1980’s, but the parallels to society remain striking. Reproductive rights, religious induced socio-political harm, rigid gender norms, biological essentialism, and so on maintain the book’s relevance.  

One of the most interesting attributes of this “dystopian” book is that Atwood did not include any events that had not already happened at some point in human history. In her author's note she writes, “If I was to create an imaginary garden, I wanted the toads in it to be real” (XIV). 

She invented nothing new. Gilead is a version of our own reality. 

As another feminist dystopian writer, Naomi Alderman, stated in her article Dystopian dreams: how feminist science fiction predicted the future, “If my novel is a dystopia, we’re living in a dystopia today”. 

This novel is so intriguing because it illuminates the horrific evils already in existence in our world. We may not wear the red cloaks, but we live in an extension of the same world. 

The plot is fascinating and the implications of this novel are vast, so I encourage you to check it out! Spring break finally allows us some free time, so I recommend you cozy up in your pajamas and dive into the world of The Handmaid’s Tale.