Introduction to The Handmaid’s Tale
The Handmaid’s Tale is written by the Canadian Nobel laureate, Margaret Atwood. It was published in 1985. This dystopian novel sets a new trend in postmodern, futuristic fiction by presenting a totalitarian regime of Gilead in the United States in the aftermath of civil war, a patriarchal future government. The story revolves around the narrative of Offred, a woman heading the group of women called handmaids assigned to produce children of the state for the ruling class of commanders. The novel presents the theme of feminine individuality under patriarchal subjugation, winning Booker, Arthur C. Clark, and Nebula Awards in quick succession for Atwood.
Summary of The Handmaid’s Tale
The story revolves around Offred, a handmaid, in the state of Gilead, which is a new republic. The state has just replaced the United States with its totalitarian setup through theocratic narrative. The newly formed state was militarized, gave no rights to women making them natal slaves, and are not allowed to read or possess any property. The handmaids have been employed to produce children of the elite class on account of the low birthrate. Although Offred (addition of the prefix Of- to the first name of the man she is with) is not a wife, she serves Serene Joy and her husband, Commander Fredrick Waterford. Serena Joy is a former singer of the gospel and preaches traditional values to be adhered to in Gilead.
Offred is doing her job without showing her personality and emotions and has to copulate with the Commander at the end of her menstrual cycle every month in the presence of Serena, holding her. This restriction of freedom, however, does not span over her shopping spree, though the Eyes, the spying agency, keeps a strict watch on all handmaids to control the rebellion. Constructed of her flashbacks, the narrative moves back and forth into Gilead, the state where she had a former paramour, Luke, who married Offred a second time after divorcing his first wife to have a child from her. Although both Luke and Offred try to leave for Canada, they are caught and separated from each other to work in Gilead. Their daughter was taken away from her and sent to be adopted by the higher class.
Offred is unaware of her daughter’s whereabouts. Being a daughter of a feminist, she befriends Moira, another feminist, who is living in Gilead where excessive usage of chemicals has deprived women of fertility. The new elite class has taken over the presidential, congressional, and other seats in a coup, claiming to wield power for a brief period after imposing their agenda. Offred is, then, sent to Leah Re-education Center, for her re-education where she goes through the Gilead indoctrination to be ready for becoming a handmaid. In the supervision of Aunt Lydia, she learns to be subservient to the patriarchal set up to work on child-producing tasks, a sole task of women in this republic. She meets her former friend Moira over there but she flees the center.
After she leaves the center, she starts leading a restrictive life with the Commander and goes with Ofglen, another handmaid for shopping. She also visits the Wall which used to be Harvard University where rebels are sent to gallows. At the Commander’s house, she has to undergo medical tests as well as attend the “Ceremony” of the Bible reading by the Commander before going to bed. In the morning, she visits the doctor, Nick again, who suggests her to be pregnant with him, suggesting the infertility of the Commander. Seeing risks in this venture, she refuses after which she comes backs. Sensing something doubtful, the Commander calls not only his gardener and driver but also Offred to his study, but she finds him inviting them to play Scrabble and read Vogue. Surprisingly, these secret meetings only lead to his kissing that she endures regularly.
In her routine of shopping, Ofglen once tells her that she should join her underground organization “Mayday” which is working to replace Gilead. Following this, she finds even the Ceremony as a routine, while their nocturnal meetings have disclosed to her that the Commander is also interested in bringing a new order. Seeing no pregnancy of Offred, Serene comes forward with a suggestion of having her pregnant through Nick and pass it on as Commander’s baby, a risky venture. But she frequently starts having intercourse with Nick without anyone’s knowledge. The next night the Commander takes her to Jezebel, a club of prostitutes formerly career professionals or academics who couldn’t settle in any role under the Gilead. She finds Moira there who discloses that she was captured on the border and chose to live at Jezebel’s.
After this, she never comes across her, while she also feigns enjoying sex with the Commander despite having no interest in it. After her arrival back home, she joins hands with Serena to copulate with Nick for a child as both have agreed that the Commander is perhaps infertile. When this happens, Offred ignores requests of Ofglen about information while they participate in hanging a rapist, who was in fact the member of Mayday under the supervision of Aunt Lydia. Later it transpires that the dead was the Mayday member. When Offred leaves for shopping, she meets a new Ofglen who informs her about the suicide of the old Ofglen, stating the reason for her suicide because she saw secret police coming for her. Soon Serene comes to know about her trip to Jezebel’s and sends the Eyes after her after locking her in a room. However, Nick arrives just in the nick of time to inform her that they are the Mayday member and that they are coming to take her and she is soon with them to her unknown destination.
The epilogue of the novel shows the downfall of Gilead through the writing of a professor, James Darcy Pieixoto who discusses its novel customs and reforms. He touches on the story of Offred in his research saying that it has existed somewhere in the past and was found in the cassette tapes in Bangor. Analyzing the escape of Offred with Nick, the professor presents his inconclusive analysis, saying that she could have fled to the United Kingdom or Canada or might have been recaptured. This book is written for adults only and contains graphic descriptions that are not suitable for young readers.
Major Themes in The Handmaid’s Tale
- Power: The theme of power in The Handmaid’s Tale is presented through the regime change that Gilead has brought in the shape of a theocracy where patriarchy has taken hold of every field of life. Although it seems to Offred that the Commander has all the power, when it comes to sex and other such needs, she senses that even the Commander is a tool in some big scheme of things. Therefore, she uses the power of sexuality over others, the reason that Serena understands that the Commander has lost his carnal power after which she makes him copulate with Nick so that they could have a child. This use and abuse of power extend to the woman, making them handmaids, and to the other men, creating a force of the guardians, angels, and eyes to take care of the regime to stop it from crumbling.
- Sexuality: The theme of sexuality is clear from Offred and other handmaids how they control the commanders and other male members of this establishment. It is observed that gays and lesbians are put to death, explicit video contents and sensual clothing are abolished, while abortion has become an anathema. The compartmentalized biblical teachings have become the ethos of this system’s main narrative so that nobody should voice dissidence to cause any change. However, despite these measures, the intimate relationship of Offred with Nick in secret with the connivance of Serena, the Commander’s wife, shows that sexuality, a natural phenomenon cannot be suppressed with artificial bans and restrictions. The secret life of the Commander and his visits to Jezebel’s demonstrate the power of sexuality and how it drives the patriarchy.
- Individual and Society: The novel also sheds light on individuality, arguing the case of individuals whether the society could be preferred over an individual or vice versa. The importance of the Historical Notes in the story points out that the Gilead society has transformed due to the shortage of individuals, the reason that special circumstances have been created to produce more children despite restrictions on the show of sexuality. The regime has allowed the use of certain women to enlist them first and subsequently isolate them for sex and reproduction to increase the population. Therefore, individuality has been put on the backburner and utilitarianism has been brought forward to ensure the happiness of the largest segment of the population. In fact, this theocratic establishment has given cold logic about the individuality; be it of a man or a woman, violating their rights, the reason that handmaids, as well as the commanders, frequently violate the very rules on which the foundation of Gilead has been laid down.
- Feminism: As the title of the novel suggests that it has some feminine streak in it despite having the sense that most of the females are feeling a sense of suppression. Offred, despite her being a slave handmaid to serve the purpose of producing the children of the Commander, knows that she has the power of her own. When she finds Moira enjoying life despite her arrest and subsequent disappearance, it becomes clear that Atwood’s purpose is to show that femininity is part of life whether religious bureaucracy or the elite class likes it or not. It is also clear from Offred, the daughter of a staunch feminist, that she does not know it before the Gilead has come into being, and she considers that it would rather alienate her. Therefore, the novel presents both sides of the coin to present a balanced argument about feminism.
- Language: Language and its interpretation is another major theme of the novel in that Offred’s story shows that reinterpretation of everything is done to create the Gilead regime. Even theology is reinterpreted in new lights to create a narrative for the elite administration. Although she uses language in different ways, her thoughts about different words point to the use of language and its power. The act of playing Scrabble by Commander also shows that Offred is in confusion about language and is using it to hide her confusion.
- Fertility and Femininity: The novel shows the significance of fertility that despite being specific women having a specific role for reproduction, infertility in the upper crust of the society has become problematic. Offred could not become pregnant due to the infertility of the Commander where the femininity of Serene asserts itself in the shape of suggestion for Offred to copulate with Nick and yet she keeps it a secret. Therefore, fertility is an issue but it is not of femininity; it is of patriarchy.
- Rebellion: The novel shows that despite excessive restrictions and surveillance, there is a rebellion; first Offred rebels but is caught and sees in Jezebel’s that her colleague, Moira, who has rebelled with her is caught and thrown over there. Yet, Moira again rebels against the regime. Offred also rebels when she accepts Serena’s proposal of sleeping with Nick and she comes to know that eyes, too, are coming to save her as they are going to launch a rebellion against this oppressive regime.
- Love: The theme of love is significant in the novel that Offred often thinks about love when she loses her heart and escapes with Nick only due to her love. She also sees that it is a source of strength for her more than her colleague, Moira, or another handmaid, Ofglen. This is her love for her daughter and mother that keeps her alive in this oppression.
- Research and Storytelling: The novel shows that story could be told from a future perspective embedded in historical research. The prologue that is actually an abstract of the symposium shows that the storytelling could be made convincing by using research or likely future research about something. The remarks of Professor James Pieixoto show that this could have been real.
Major Characters The Handmaid’s Tale
- Offred: Living in the new regime of Gilead, Offred is the narrator and the main protagonist on account of the role allotted to her, as she is declared a “wanton” lady due to her previous lifestyle. Her separation from her family during her escape has transformed her into a handmaid of the Commander to live with the family including his wife, Serena, who later joins hands with her to let her copulate with Nick, their driver. As a slave name, her name connotes not only her role but also her relationship with the Commander to work as a reproduction tool for him. She narrates her story in flashbacks, including her impressions of the past and the present and the secrets of her life. As she knows the inner working of Gilead, she also knows that ‘The Eyes’ are on her to stop the Mayday, though when she senses that she is going to be caught soon, she comes to know that even the eyes are part of the Mayday. It is revealed by the end that her real name is June, but the author implies that it is left to the readers to make assumptions.
- The Commander: The Commander is one of the elite members of the Gilead establishment with a handmaid, Offred, the narrator, and his wife, Serene Joy, who connives with Offred to let her copulate with their drive. It transpires that he has been a scientist in his pre-Gilead days and has been involved in setting up the new regime. Despite his post and the ban on intellectualism, he has been involved in the word games with Offred, his handmaid with whom he is supposed to have sex for reproduction. Although Professor James Peixote speculates about his name as Fred or Frederic R., it is not sure whether he is the same person. His role in the novel is limited to his relationship with Offred.
- Ofglen: As the friend and comrade of handmaids, Ofglen is her neighbor and visits Offred often to console her about their situations. As she is a member of the resistance movement called Mayday, she is also expected to police Offred and others on account of the roles they have been allotted in Gilead. Although she is a handmaid, she is bold enough to kill a spy to stop his pain. She later commits suicide when she is caught on the suspicion of being a spy.
- Serena Joy: Serena Joy is a significant character in the novel on account of her being the wife of the Commander and a former member of the televangelists. The Gilead establishment has robbed her of her former powers and married her to the Commander to keep an eye on him. Offred has identified her role and ruminates about it with her. Although she regularly takes part in the Ceremony, a monthly ritual going on in the Gilead to make the handmaids pregnant, she also connives with Offred to sleep with Nick to make Offred pregnant, knowing that her husband is infertile.
- Moira: A close former friend of Offred, Moira appears in the novel when Offred is almost fed up with her routine life. However, her appearance is associated with resistance, as she is caught in her first attempt and disappears in the second. She hates homophobia prevalent in Gilead and appears in Jezebel’s when Offred visits it with the Commander. After that, she disappears from the scene.
- Nick: Although Nick appears for a short time. He lives with the Commander above the garage and is intimate with Offred instead of the Commander, who seems to have become infertile. Despite living with the Commander and having affiliations with the establishment, his ambiguity creates mystery around his character.
- Luke: The significance of Luke lies in his being the husband of Offred in the pre-Gilead social setup. As he has divorced his previous wife, it has become a legal injunction in Gilead due to which Offred becomes a handmaid and an undeclared wife of the Commander. Luke’s daughter is also declared illegitimate. It seems that he has succeeded in his escape to Canada after which he gets no mention in the storyline.
- Aunt Sara and Aunt Elizabeth: Both of these infertile women appear in the tale of the handmaid on frequent occasions, showing them as trainers of the handmaids. Their tasks involve training the ladies to be handmaids and work for the propagation of the human race through selected sex and reproduction.
- Janine: The character of Janine is significant in the novel in that, though, she becomes submissive, still she does not accept her routine life and threatens to overturn it any time.
- Pieixoto: The importance of the character of Pieixoto lies in his appearance in the epilogue to argue the case of the tale whether it is authentic or not. This is added to lend credence to the story of the novel.
Writing Style of The Handmaid’s Tale
Margret Atwood adopts an introspective and nonlinear writing style for this story of Offred who ruminates on her past and present and compares them through flashbacks of her memory. Although the diction is not fully academic, sometimes as in the epilogue, it shows that it is academic, while the interspersed slangs, conversation, and occasional dialogs show it is a real story. The sentence style, structure, and length point out the fictional use of the language to suit the purpose.
Analysis of the Literary Devices in The Handmaid’s Tale
- Action: The main action of the novel comprises the story of Offred working as a handmaid. The falling action occurs when Serena Joy, the wife of the Commander, comes to know about Offred going to the club, while the rising action occurs when Offred sees that the eyes are coming not to arrest her but to help her.
- Anaphora: The novel shows examples of anaphora such as,
i. A window, two white curtains. Under the window, a window seat with a little cushion. When the window is partly open – it only opens partly – the air can come in and make the curtains move. I can sit in the chair, or on the window seat, hands folded, and watch this. Sunlight comes in through the window too, and falls on the floor, which is made of wood, in narrow strips, highly polished. (Chapter-2)
ii. Leave it on the porch. She said this to the Guardian, who was carrying my bag. The bag was red vinyl and not large. There was another bag, with the winter cloak and heavier dresses, but that would be coming later. (Chapter-3)
iii. Perhaps he was merely being friendly. Perhaps he saw the look on my
face and mistook it for something else. Really what I wanted was the
Perhaps it was a test, to see what I would do.
Perhaps he is an Eye. (Chapter-4)
The examples show the repetitious use of “window”, “my bag” and “Perhaps” to show the use of anaphora.
- Alliteration: The Handmaid’s Tale uses alliteration in few places which is more common in poems. For examples,
i. We stood face to face for the first time five weeks ago, when I arrived at this posting. The Guardian from the previous posting brought me to the front door. (Chapter-3)
ii. I would like to steal something from this room. I would like to take some small thing, the scrolled ashtray, the little silver pillbox from the mantel perhaps. (Chapter-14)
Both of these examples from the novel show the use of consonant sounds such as the sound of /f/ and /s/ occurring after an interval to make the prose melodious and rhythmic.
- Allusion: The novel shows good use of different allusions as given in the below examples,
i. She’s in her usual Martha’s dress, which is dull green, like a
surgeon’s gown of the time before. The dress is much like mine in shape, long and concealing, but with a bib apron over it and without the white wings and the veil. She puts the veil on to go outside, but nobody much cares who sees the face of a Martha. (Chapter-2)
ii. Sometimes when I couldn’t find any I would watch the Growing Souls Gospel Hour, where they would tell Bible stories for children and sing hymns. (Chapter-3)
iii. It said In God We Trust. My mother said people used to have signs beside their cash registers, for a joke: In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash. That would be blasphemy now. (Chapter-28)
The first example shows the reference to the Biblical story of Martha, the second to the Gospel, and the third to the American official motto of Florida state.
- Antagonist: The Gilead regime is the antagonist of the novel as it engulfs everything in it, including women and the elite class that runs it.
- Conflict: The novel shows both external and internal conflicts. The external conflict is going on between the handmaids’ desire for freedom and Gilead’s oppression, while the internal conflict is going on in the mind of Offred about her responsibilities and her role in the freedom movement.
- Characters: The novel shows both static as well as dynamic characters. The protagonist, Offred, is a dynamic character as she shows a considerable transformation in her behavior and conduct by the end of the novel. However, all other characters are static as they do not show or witness any transformation such as the Commander, Nick, Luke, or Serene Joy.
- Climax: The climax of the novel occurs when Offred comes to know that Ofglen has committed suicide instead of facing arrest.
- Epigraphs: The novel has used three epigraphs as given below,
i. And she said, Behold my maid Bilhah, go in unto her; and she shall bear
upon my knees, that I may also have children by her.
– Genesis, 30:1-3
ii. But as to myself, having been wearied out for many years with offering
vain, idle, visionary thoughts, and at length utterly despairing of success, I
fortunately fell upon this proposal …
– Jonathan Swift, A Modest Proposal
iii. In the desert there is no sign that says, Thou shalt not eat stones.
– Sufi proverb
These three examples show the use of epigraphs borrowed from different classics. The first one is from the Bible, the second from an essay by Swift, and the third is from some mystic’s writings.
- Hyperbole: The novel shows various examples of hyperboles such as its own future story as well as the epilogue such as,
i. Sometimes, though, the movie would be what Aunt Lydia called an Unwoman documentary. (Chapter-20)
ii. The man went inside with our passports, after we’d explained about the picnic and he’d glanced into the car and seen our daughter asleep, in her zoo of mangy animals. (Chapter-35)
Both of these examples exaggerate things as the documentary to be unwoman and men going inside the passport.
- Imagery: The Handmaid’s Tale shows the use of imagery such as,
i. These two are very young: one moustache is still sparse, one face is still blotchy. Their youth is touching, but I know I can’t be deceived by it. The young ones are often the most dangerous, the most fanatical, the jumpiest with their guns. (Chapter-4)
ii. A small thin woman, she lies on the floor, in a white cotton nightgown, her greying hair spreading like mildew over the rug; they massage her tiny belly, just as if she’s really about to give birth herself. (Chapter-20)
These two examples show images of color and touch.
- Metaphor: The Handmaid’s Tale shows good use of various metaphors as given in the examples below,
i. The car is a very expensive one, a Whirlwind; better than the Chariot, much better than the chunky, practical Behemoth. (Chapter-4)
ii. Nevertheless Moira was our fantasy. We hugged her to us, she was with us in secret, a giggle; she was lava beneath the crust of daily life. (Chapter-22)
These examples show that several things have been compared directly in the novel such as the first shows comparing a car to a whirlwind, and the second Moira to a giggle.
- Mood: The novel shows various moods; it starts with a dark tone and move to become ironic and satirizing but ends up causing a sense of fear and terror.
- Motif: Most important motifs of the novel are religion, rape, sexual violence, and reproduction.
- Narrator: The novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, is narrated by Offred (first-person point of view), who is also the protagonist. The novel starts with her and ends with her experiences and journey.
- Personification: The novel shows examples of personifications such as,
i. Sunlight comes in through the window too, and falls on the floor, which is made of wood, in narrow strips, highly polished. (Chapter-2)
ii. The carpet bends and goes down the front staircase and I go with it. (Chapter-3)
iii. Two lines led downwards from the corners of her mouth; between them was her chin, clenched like a fist. (Chapter-3)
iv. The sun is coming weakly through the clouds, the smell of wet grass warming up is in the air. (Chapter-22)
These examples show as if the sunlight, carpet, lines, and the sun having life and emotions of their own.
- Protagonist: Offred is the protagonist of the novel. The novel starts with her entry into the story and moves forward as narrates her tale.
- Rhetorical Questions: The novel shows good use of rhetorical questions at several places such as,
i. I drop my head and turn so that the white wings hide my face, and keep walking. He’s just taken a risk, but for what? What if I were to report him? (Chapter-4)
ii. What if I were to come at night, when he’s on duty alone – though he would never be allowed such solitude – and permit him beyond my white wings? What if I were to peel off my red shroud and show myself to him, to them, by the uncertain light of the lanterns? (Chapter-5)
This example shows the use of rhetorical questions posed but different characters not to elicit answers but to stress upon the underlined idea.
- Setting: The setting of the novel is a fictional city in the United States that is now called the Republic of Gilead.
- Simile: The novel shows excellent use of various similes such as,
i. The pregnant woman’s belly is like a huge fruit. Humungous, word of my childhood. (5)
ii. It makes the men look like dolls on which faces have not yet been painted; like scarecrows, which in a way is what they are, since they are meant to scare. (Chapter-6)
iii. You’ve killed her, I said. She looked like an angel, solemn, compact,
made of air. (Chapter-7)
These are similes as the use of the word “like” shows the comparison between different things such as between the belly and fruit, then men and dolls, and then the lady and an angel.