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Author Study: Margaret Atwood Curated by Samuel Yang '18: The Handmaid's Tale (1986)

A LibGuide on the finest living Canadian novelist, poet, environmental & human rights activist

The Handmaid's Tale

The theme of gender inequality is most obvious in The Handmaid’s Tale, which is known as the most popular book of Margaret Atwood and the most powerful. When Houston Chronicle reviewed the book, they said, “The Handmaid’s Tale is an excellent novel about the directions our lives are taking . . . Read it while it's still allowed”. In a future society, a tyrannical sect rules the United States and uses religious imagery and quotations to support the oppression of women. In this state of toxic waste and nuclear radiation, few women can bear children. So those who can are enslaved to become handmaids, breeders of the country. Handmaids are told very little and are barely allowed to speak. They are giving only two opportunities to leave the house, which is to buy food for the family she stays at. Each handmaid will be paired with another handmaid to walk to the market side by side, and speak only in religious terms. For example, this is how a handmaid would great another: 

"Blessed be the fruit," she said to me, the accepted greeting among us. 

"May the lord open," I replied, the accepted response. 

Handmaids are limited to do only a number of things and while they are a ‘scare resource’ they are treated with despise. What better way to portray gender inequality of females than enslaving women in a tyrannical society?


The main genre of The Handmaid's Tale is obviously dystopian fiction. A dystopian novel is essentially the exact opposite of an utopian novel. While an utopian novel takes place in a perfect paradise, a dystopian novel takes place in an undesired and unpleasant wasteland. In The Handmaid's Tale, protagonist Offred lives in an ordeal America suffering decreasing population. To attack this problem, the government forces women with available ovaries such as Offred to become handmaids, whose single purpose is to bear children. While complete order was forced upon the citizens, people found the strict restrictions and religious phrases used for political purposes vile. Almost all of the characters in The Handmaid's Tale disliked, if not hated, the life they live. 


The Handmaid's Tale, written in 1986, was before the rise of feminism and the push for gender equality. While many believe Atwood wrote this book in support of feminism, she disagreed with the statement. Atwood says she writes what she sees and not necessarily in support of any specific agenda. 


In The Handmaid's Tale, Atwood depicts a sinister story that revolves around the dark thoughts of Offred and everyone around her through actions and facial expressions. There are many graphic scenes in The Handmaid's Tale and they are explicitly described. There is no better way to express imagery than with pictures so here we are: The Handmaid's Tale in pictures. These artworks are in no way mine, all credit belongs to Anna and Elena Balbusso. 

As the book is a dystopian novel, there are many disturbing scenes. 

“I’ve seen it before, the white bag placed over the head, the women helped up onto the high stool as if she’s being helped up the steps of a bus, steadied there, the noose adjusted delicately around the neck, like a vestment, the stool kicked away. I’ve heard the long sigh go up, from around me, the sigh like air coming out of an air mattress, I’ve leaned forward to touch the rope in front of me, in time with the others, both hands on it, the rope hairy, sticky with tar in the hot sun. I don’t want to see it anymore. I look at the grass instead. I describe the rope.” 

Public executions are shown to everyone including the Handmaids, as to demonstrate power and check loyalty among the Handmaids. These executions are called Salvaging. Salvaging the good. Dumping out the bad.