Course Hero Logo

The Handmaid's Tale | Study Guide

Margaret Atwood

Get the eBook on Amazon to study offline.

Buy on Amazon Study Guide
Cite This Study Guide

How to Cite This Study Guide

quotation mark graphic


Course Hero. "The Handmaid's Tale Study Guide." Course Hero. 28 July 2016. Web. 9 June 2023. <>.

In text

(Course Hero)



Course Hero. (2016, July 28). The Handmaid's Tale Study Guide. In Course Hero. Retrieved June 9, 2023, from

In text

(Course Hero, 2016)



Course Hero. "The Handmaid's Tale Study Guide." July 28, 2016. Accessed June 9, 2023.


Course Hero, "The Handmaid's Tale Study Guide," July 28, 2016, accessed June 9, 2023,

The Handmaid's Tale | Themes


The struggle to define and maintain identity within the context of culture and gender is a central theme in The Handmaid's Tale. The conflict to define this identity is tangled with membership in varying cultural and gender groups and roles. How does a character such as Offred define herself in a world that defines her as a wife, a mother, and ultimately as a Handmaid? How do the laws that shape and govern a society affect individual definition and fulfillment? The book's underlying message does not support those who choose suicide over the difficult struggle. Instead, the book seems to champion those, like Offred, who are conscious of the need to construct and reconstruct their own stories. Offred apologizes for the fragmentary nature of her story, which is itself, as readers learn in the Historical Notes, pieced together from taped recordings.


In Gilead, markers of an individual's identity are reduced, and inhabitants interact according to strictly defined and controlled social roles. Every person has a class, or caste, to which he or she belongs. These classes are identified by colors, and people in the group must wear clothing of that color. A person's class and representative color (blue for purity, red for sexuality) are considered more important than the person's name or individuality. The Handmaids, unlike other classes, are completely stripped of their names. The Handmaids are renamed with the prefix Of- combined with their Commanders' first names to indicate ownership—thus, the Handmaid of Glen is named Ofglen, while the Handmaid of Fred becomes Offred. This theme is introduced in Chapter 1, when the Handmaids at the Red Center secretly tell one another their names. The narrator's true name is never revealed, and even her substitute name, Offred, is not divulged until Chapter 14. Convicted criminals are executed with bags over their heads, obscuring their faces, and signs identifying the crimes are placed around their necks as they hang on the Wall so that their crimes become their identities.


Language is a powerful tool in Gilead, one that is used to control and oppress its citizens. Spoken language is restricted. The Handmaids greet one another with ritualistic language. When Nick speaks freely to Offred in Chapter 8, it is a surprise. Written language is even more tightly controlled. The written names of shop signs have been replaced with symbols. The women are not allowed any reading material. Although the society and its customs are supposed to be based on the Bible, the text is often changed when quoted so that it supports Gilead's laws. Because most people are not allowed access to the Bible itself, they cannot verify the accuracy of quoted scripture and are at the mercy of those in charge.

This focus on language plays out in interesting ways. When the Commander invites Offred to their clandestine meetings, his private study is filled with books, and they play Scrabble among these books. He then offers her a magazine and other reading material. Breaking the rules in this way gives him the pleasure of playing the role of benevolent master, which seems to be sexually arousing to him. In addition, Offred constantly reflects on words and their meanings. She explains many times over that she uses words to both create and reconstruct her story and herself.

In these ways, language becomes both a tool of oppression and a tool of freedom.

Gender Roles

Women and men in Gilead's society have strictly defined roles and functions. Men have military ranks, including Commanders, Guards, Angels, and Eyes. They father children, guard, spy, and punish. Women are stripped of all rights and liberties and are useful only for their physical abilities. Marthas do the housework and cook, while Aunts oversee the training, punishment, and indoctrination of other women. Wives manage the household and serve their husbands, and Handmaids bear the children. Expressions of sexuality that are not for the purpose of procreation are not allowed. Pornography, masturbation, homosexuality, and birth control are against the law. Marriages that existed before the establishment of Gilead—such as Offred and Luke's—are no longer considered legal.

Liberty and Captivity

Because everyone lives according to some restrictions, real liberty is impossible. However, people find ways to have a kind of liberty by breaking rules—meeting behind closed doors, frequenting brothels, or buying cigarettes on the black market. The theme of captivity, or the lack of liberty, is introduced immediately with the prison-like setting of Chapter 1. Later, Offred tells readers that she can go places in her mind that are not allowed in the physical world. She also has the freedom to construct this narrative as she pleases, sometimes changing details or imagining events differently than they actually occur, flashing back to events, and thinking forbidden thoughts.

The question of defining liberty proves important as the narrative progresses. The women are told that their freedom to make choices has been replaced by something better: freedom from events such as rape and violence. Here, again, language is manipulated to distort the reality of the society and offer the illusion of security.

The idea that a small amount of liberty or control can keep oppressed people from rising up and rebelling is also explored. The Wives have their gardens to take care of, and the hierarchy allows higher ranks power over lower ones. Once Offred has her affair with Nick, she loses interest in joining or helping the resistance because she selfishly wants to hold onto this small measure of control over her life.

Documents for Themes

View all

Questions for Themes

View all
Objectives A large percentage of the writing we do in the workplace involves writing routine, neutral, and/or goodwill messages. Routine and neutral messages cover a wide range of topics, from the ord
What is the difference between passive voice and active voice?
Which empire claimed England before the Germanic tribes settled there?
ead the following passage in your Norton Field Guide textbook on pgs. 750-757 "Our Fear of Immigrants" by Jeremy Adam Smith You will respond to question #5 on page 758: Question: Immigration also rais
Cite This Study Guide

information icon Have study documents to share about The Handmaid's Tale? Upload them to earn free Course Hero access!