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The Handmaid's Tale | Study Guide

Margaret Atwood

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The Handmaid's Tale | Context


Is The Handmaid's Tale a representative example of Canadian literature, a feminist novel, a bleak look at a possible conservative and fundamentalist future, or a criticism of humanity's violent and oppressive tendencies? As it turns out, the novel might fit all of these descriptors.

Canadian Literature

Atwood grew up within a Canadian culture that struggled for an identity of its own. Of her childhood, she writes in Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature about being caught between U.S. and British culture: "At school we were being taught to sing 'Rule, Britannia' and to draw the Union Jack; after hours we read stacks of Captain Marvel, Plastic Man, and Batman comic books." Over time, Atwood developed a theory that most Canadian literature has two underlying themes—victimhood and survival—that make it distinct from both U.S. and British literatures.

While The Handmaid's Tale is distinctly Canadian in its examination of one woman's victimhood and survival, it is also a novel that speaks to the author's cross-cultural identity. The novel is dedicated to Mary Webster, about whom Atwood also wrote the poem "Half-Hanged Mary." Webster, an American Puritan ancestor of Atwood's, was tried and hanged as a witch, but survived and lived another 11 years. Webster, like Offred, was victimized by authoritarian male figures, yet she, too, survived this British-American brand of oppression. In The Handmaid's Tale, Atwood offers Canada as a refuge for those who would flee Gilead and its oppression.


Although feminists generally respect her work, Atwood maintains that she did not set out to write feminist literature and does not consider herself a feminist—she simply draws ideas from real life. If women suffer in her stories, it is because they suffer in the real world. Although the novel takes place in the future (circa 2015–2045), Atwood insists that she limits the events of Gilead to real events from world history that are technologically possible. While these actions and technologies may take on slightly different forms and applications in the novel, they are strictly based on real elements already present in human history and society.

Despite Atwood's dislike of the label, feminism and debates within the feminist movement play a central role in The Handmaid's Tale. For example, feminist views on marriage differ. Some feminists believe that marriage is a patriarchal institution that is inherently misogynistic. Others believe that the nature of marriage is evolving into a relationship of equals. In the novel, Offred's marriage to Luke is based on love and shared responsibility for the care of their family. Yet their marriage suffers when Offred loses her job and her income and thus her power to be an equally contributing partner or self-sufficient, if need be. In contrast, in Gilead, marriage has been reformed to stand on unquestioned and clearly defined patriarchal roles, even if the institution now lacks love and romance. The conflicting feminist views represented in the novel suggest that social reforms intended to protect some of the concerns of women often come at the unintended cost of other freedoms.

Conservatism and Religious Fundamentalism

The basis of Christian religious fundamentalism is the belief that the Bible is the word of God and that the Bible should be read and followed literally. Beginning in the 1920s, fundamentalists avoided the political arena as a place of un-Christian impurity. However, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, a small but vocal percentage of fundamentalists known as the Christian Right became interested in the idea of rebuilding the United States as a Christian theocracy. This movement was a response to changes in U.S. culture that fundamentalists viewed as direct threats to biblical practice, such as the civil rights and women's movements. This shift was the beginning of a social trend toward conservatism that was supported by Ronald Reagan's rise to the presidency in the United States (1981) and Margaret Thatcher's rise to prime minister in Great Britain (1979). Feminists became worried that important gains would be lost in this new political climate. In The Handmaid's Tale, written right after Reagan's election, it is just such a group of religious fundamentalists who have overthrown the U.S. democratic government and replaced it with a theocracy. Atwood shines a harsh light on the hypocrisy of these fundamentalists, who manipulate biblical text for their own selfish political gains.

Dystopian Fiction

While a utopia is a perfect society, a dystopia is its opposite—a deeply flawed, even nightmarish, society. Dystopian novels, such as The Handmaid's Tale, frequently depict a future in which social or political structures established to form a utopian society are revealed to be oppressive. These novels often provide criticism of real governments, laws, and social norms by removing them from their real-life contexts and making them more extreme. In this case, Atwood posits the question, how could someone take over the United States?

Atwood developed a taste for dystopian literature by reading 1984 (George Orwell, 1949), Brave New World (Aldous Huxley, 1932), and Fahrenheit 451 (Ray Bradbury, 1953). The Handmaid's Tale shows the influences of these novels: the idea of surveillance from 1984, the eradication of individuality and government-controlled procreation from Brave New World, and the power of language from Fahrenheit 451.

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