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The Handmaid's Tale is a feminist dystopian novel, a work of science fiction or speculative fiction, written by Canadian author Margaret Atwood and first published by McClelland and Stewart in 1985. Set in the near future, in a totalitarian theocracy which has overthrown the United Statesmarker government, The Handmaid's Tale explores themes of women in subjugation and the various means by which they gain agency.

The Handmaid's Tale won the 1985 Governor General's Award and the first Arthur C. Clarke Award in 1987, and it was nominated for the 1986 Nebula Award, the 1986 Booker Prize, and the 1987 Prometheus Award. It has been adapted for the cinema, radio, opera, and stage.

Plot summary

The Handmaid's Tale is set in the Republic of Gilead, a country formed within the borders of what was formerly the United States of Americamarker by a racist, chauvinist, nativist, theocratic-organized military coup motivated by an ideologically-driven response to the pervasive ecological degradation of the land, widespread infertility, and attendant social dislocations. Beginning with a staged terrorist attack killing the President and ousting Congress, the coup leaders launched a revolution which overthrew the United States government and abolished the US Constitution. The new theocratic military dictatorship, styled "The Republic of Gilead", moved quickly to consolidate its power and reorganize society along a new militarized, hierarchical, compulsorily-Christian regime of Old Testament-inspired social and religious orthodoxy among its newly-created social classes.

The story is presented from the point of view of a woman called Offred (not her real name; it is a patronymic slave name that means "Of Fred", referring to the man she serves). The character is one of a class of individuals kept as a concubine ("handmaid") for reproductive purposes by the ruling class. In the novel's fictional epilogue, the events of the novel occur shortly after the beginning of what is called "the Gilead period." The epilogue itself is a "transcription of a Symposium on Gileadean Studies written some time in the distant future (2195)," and according to the symposium's "keynote speaker" Professor Pieixoto, he and "a colleague" Professor Knotly Wade discovered Offred's narrative recorded onto "thirty" supposedly unnumbered "cassette tapes," placed these tapes in a "probable order" and transcribed them, calling them collectively "the handmaid's tale" -- a reference to the Canterbury Tales of Geoffrey Chaucer. Offred's narrative is disjointed in a grim, internal stream of consciousness style, out of order, and unfinished, ending abruptly when she indicates that she is about to be escorted away in a van to an unknown fate.


Offred, the Handmaid
The protagonist was separated from her husband and child after the formation of the Republic of Gilead and is part of the first generation of Gilead's women: those who remember pre-Gilead times. Having proven fertile, she is considered an important commodity and has been placed as a handmaid in the home of the Commander Fred and his wife Serena Joy to bear a child for them.

Offred is a patronymic slave name which describes her function: she is "Of Fred", i.e. she belongs to her Commander, Fred, as a concubine. It is implied that her birth name is June. The women in training to be handmaids whisper names across their beds at night. The names are "Alma. Janine. Dolores. Moira. June", and all are later accounted for except June. In addition, one of the Aunts tells Offred to stop "mooning and June-ing". Miner suggests that "June" is a pseudonym, as "Mayday" is the name of the Gilead resistance, and it could be an attempt on the protagonist's part to invent a name; the Nunavit conference that takes place in the epilogue is held in June.

The only physical description of Offred presented in the novel is the one she gives of herself. Offred describes herself as: "I am thirty-three years old. I have brown hair. I stand five [feet] seven [inches] without shoes" (Atwood, Handmaid's Tale 143). Notably, this description appears about halfway through the novel, so for a significant portion of the book the reader remains ignorant of her physical appearance.

The Commander
His background is never officially described, as Offred does not have a chance to learn of his past, although he does volunteer, in one of their later meetings, that he is a sort of scientist and was previously involved in something like market research. Later, it is hypothesized, but not confirmed, that he might have been one of the architects of the Republic and its laws. His name is presumably "Fred".

Serena Joy
A former televangelist who seems loosely based on Anita Bryant, as well in parts Tammy Faye Bakker and Phyllis Schlafly, she is now a Wife in the fundamentalist theocracy she helped to create. All power and public recognition have been taken away from her by the state, as for all women in Gilead. Assumed to be sterile (although the possibility is raised that it is the Commander who is actually sterile), she bears and resents the indignity of having a Handmaid and being present every month during a fertility ritual wherein the Commander has intercourse with the Handmaid while both are lying atop the Wife. According to Professor Pieixota, in the epilogue, Serena Joy is a pseudonym for the character's actual name, Pam.

A neighbour of Offred's and fellow Handmaid, partnered with Offred to do the shopping for the household each day, so that the Handmaids are never alone and police each others' behaviour. Ofglen is a member of the Mayday resistance (a secret organization rebelling against Gilead). In contrast to the relatively passive Offred, Ofglen is very daring, even leaping forward to knock out a spy who is to be tortured and killed in a "Particicution" (an event in which the handmaids are turned loose to kill a man accused of rape and infanticide) in order to save him the pain of a violent death. Ofglen later commits suicide before the government comes to take her away for being part of the resistance.

She is replaced as Offred's shopping partner by another handmaid, also named Ofglen, who does not seem to share the original Ofglen's feelings about Gilead, and warns Offred against retaining any similar sentiments.

The Commander's chauffeur, who lives above the garage. On Serena Joy's suggestion and arrangement, Offred starts a sexual relationship with him to try to increase her chances of getting pregnant and saving herself from being shipped to the Colonies in disgrace. Offred subsequently starts to develop real feelings for him, even going so far as to tell him her pre-Gilead name, a revealing act of trust. Nick is an ambiguous character, and Offred does not know if he is a party loyalist or a member of the resistance, until near the end of the story and her time in the Commander's household, when he proves himself to be a member of the resistance and arranges her escape.

Moira has been a close friend of Offred's since college, hinted in the book to be either Harvard Universitymarker or Radcliffe College. An important aspect of Moira is her homosexuality and resilience to the new homophobia which rules society. Moira is taken to be a Handmaid shortly after Offred, but both women arrive at the indoctrination center (officially called the Rachel and Leah Center, informally referred to by the Handmaids as the Red Center) at the same time. While at the center, Moira manages to escape, while the more passive Offred declines. The narrator tells of her escape, in which Moira steals an Aunt's clothes and leaves the Center wearing them. Offred then loses track of her for several years but encounters her at Jezebel's, a party-run brothel. Moira has been caught and offered the choice between being sent to the colonies and prostitution.

Luke was the narrator's husband prior to the formation of the Republic. He had been divorced. Divorce, which is illegal in Gilead, is used as an excuse to annul subsequent marriages, take custody of any children, and kill the partners or force them into labor. Luke, the narrator, and their daughter try to escape to Canada, but are captured. She constantly expects to see him hanged at the displaying Wall but never sees him there and never learns his fate.

Professor Pieixoto
The "co-discoverer [with Professor Knotly Wade] of Offred's tapes" and "keynote speaker at the Twelfth Symposium of the Gileadean Research Association," where he "speaks about the 'Problems of Authentication in Reference to The Handmaid's Tale'."

Social groups

In this novel characters are segregated by categories and dressed according to their social functions. The complex sumptuary laws (dress codes) play a key role in imposing social control within the new society and serve to distinguish people by sex, occupation, and caste.

Caste and class

African Americans, the main non-white ethnic group in this society, are called the Children of Ham; Jews are called Sons of Jacob, which is also the name of the fundamentalist group which rules the Republic of Gilead. In the body of the novel, it is explained that the Jews were offered a choice of converting to Christianity or emigrating to Israel, and that most chose to leave. But in the epilogue, Professor Pieixota says that many Jews were dumped into the sea on the way over to Israel in boats, as a result of privatization of the "repatriation program" in order to maximize private profits.

Gender and occupation

The sexes are strictly divided. A major value of this society is that it values reproduction by white women more than reproduction by other women: women are categorised "hierarchically according to class status and reproductive capacity" as well as "metonymically colour-coded according to their function and their labour" (Kauffman 232). The Commander makes it clear that women are considered intellectually and emotionally inferior. Women are not permitted to read and girls are not educated.

Women are as visually segregated as men are. The men are equipped with military or paramilitary uniforms, constraining but, perhaps, empowering them as well. All classes of men and women are defined by the colours they wear (as in Aldous Huxley's dystopia Brave New World), drawing on color symbolism and psychology. All lower status individuals are regulated by this dress code. All non-persons banished to the Colonies, both men and women, wear grey clothing. Only rare civilians (who are increasingly persecuted) and Commanders seem to be free of sumptuary restrictions.


According to their particular roles and duties, men are classified into five main categories:
  • "Commanders of the Faithful" - the ruling class. Because of their status, they are entitled to establish a patriarchal household, with a Wife, a Handmaid if necessary, Marthas (servants) and Guardians. They have a duty to procreate but many are possibly infertile, as a possible result of exposure to a biological agent in pre-Gilead times. They wear black to signify superiority. They are allowed cars.
  • "Eyes" - the internal intelligence agency who attempt to discover those violating the rules of Gilead.
  • "Angels" - soldiers who fight in the wars in order to expand and protect the country's borders. Angels may be permitted to marry.
  • "Guardians of the Faith" - soldiers "used for routine policing and other menial functions". They are unsuitable for other work in the republic being "stupid or older or disabled or very young, apart from the ones that are Eyes incognito" (chapter 4). Young Guardians may be promoted to Angels when they come of age. They wear lime-green uniforms.
  • "Gender Traitors" – Males who engage in homosexuality or related acts are declared "Gender Traitors" and either executed or sent to the "Colonies" to die a slow death.


There are seven main categories of "legitimate" women, who make up mainstream society, and two main categories of "illegitimate" women, who exist outside of mainstream society:
  • "Wives" are at the top social level permitted to women. They are married to the higher-ranking functionaries. Wives always wear blue dresses, presumably as a reference to the traditional depictions of the Virgin Mary. (After the death of her husband, a Wife becomes a Widow and must dress in black.)
  • "Daughters" are the natural or adopted children of the ruling class. They wear white until marriage. The narrator's daughter has been adopted by an infertile Wife and Commander.
  • "Handmaids" are fertile women whose social function is to bear children for the Wives. They dress in a red habit with a white head-dress that obscures their peripheral vision, both to keep them from seeing the world around them and to prevent their being seen and possibly tempting men. Handmaids are produced by re-educating fertile women who have broken the gender and social laws. Owing to the need for fertile Handmaids, Gilead gradually increased the number of gender-crimes. The Republic of Gilead justifies the nature of the handmaids through the biblical stories of Jacob's wives (Gen. 30:1-2) and Abraham (Gen. 16:1-6).
  • "Aunts" train and monitor the Handmaids. The Aunts attempt to promote the role of the Handmaid as an honorable one and seek to legitimize it by removing any association with gender criminality. They do the dirty work of the men running Gilead—being an Aunt is the only way these unmarried, infertile, often older women may have any autonomy. It is also the only way to avoid going to the "colonies" for such women. Aunts dress in brown. They are also the only class of women permitted to read. ("The Aunts are allowed to read and write." Vintage Books, p.139. However, in the Anchor Books edition, it says: "They played it (the Beatitudes) from a tape, so not even an Aunt would be guilty of the sin of reading. The voice was a man's. (p.89.)" In the Vintage Books edition: "They played it (the Beatitudes) from a disc, the voice was a man's." p.100.)
  • "Marthas" are older infertile women whose compliant nature and domestic skills recommend them to a life of domestic servitude. They dress in green smocks. The title of "Martha" is based on a story in Luke 10:38-42, where Jesus visits Mary, sister of Lazarus and Martha; Mary listens to Jesus while Martha is preoccupied "by all the preparations that had to be made".
  • "Econowives" are women who have married relatively low-ranking men, meaning any man who does not belong to the ruling elite. They are expected to perform all the female functions: domestic duties, companionship, child-bearing. Their dress is multicoloured red, blue, and green to reflect these multiple roles.

The division of labor between women engenders some resentment between categories. Marthas, Wives and Econowives perceive Handmaids as sluttish, and Econowives resent their freedom from domestic work. The narrator mourns that none of the various groups are able to empathize with the others; women are taught to hate and fear other women.

  • "Unwomen" are sterile women, widows, feminists, lesbians, nuns, and politically dissident women, all women who are incapable of social integration within the Republic's strict gender divisions. They are exiled to "the colonies", areas of both agricultural production and deadly pollution, as are handmaids who fail to produce a child after three two-year assignments.
  • "Jezebels" are prostitutes and entertainers, available only to the Commanders and their guests; some are lesbians and attractive, educated women unable to adjust to handmaid status. They have been sterilized, which is illegal for other women. They operate in unofficially state-sanctioned brothels, and they seem to exist unbeknownst to most other women. Jezebels, whose title comes from the Biblical character, dress in the remnants of sexualized costumes from "the time before" viz. cheerleaders' costumes, school uniforms, and Playboy Bunny costumes. While Jezebels have some degree of freedom in that they can wear makeup, drink alcohol, and socialize with men, they are still tightly controlled by Aunts. Once their usefulness for sex is over, they are sent to the Colonies.


In this society, birth defects have become increasingly common.

There are two main categories of human offspring:
  • "Unbabies", also known as "shredders", are babies that are born physically deformed or with some other birth defect. They are quickly made to vanish; Ofglen does not know exactly how, and she comments that she does not wish to know. Having an Unbaby is a constant fear among pregnant Handmaids, as they do not know whether they are carrying one until after birth. In the Republic of Gilead, there is no need for amniocentesis, ultrasound, or other modern prenatal health detection techniques, since abortion is not a legal option and medical doctors were executed and their corpses displayed on The Wall for performing abortions in the pre-Gileadan era.
  • "Keepers" are babies that are born alive with no defects.

Generic classifications of the novel

As dystopian literature

Dystopian literature investigates how the human impulse to create utopia (a perfect world) goes awry when it meets the power to make such a place a reality, creating a dystopia instead.

In The Handmaid's Tale, those who establish Gilead do so through the use of emergency laws, para-military organizations, surprise, and relative disinterest on the part of the populace. Having enacted a theocratic fascist state, the novel chronicles the ways in which the state was effective only in doing injury, not in transforming individuals to higher-minded ideals.

As science fiction or speculative fiction

In interviews and essays Atwood has discussed generic classification of The Handmaid's Tale as "science fiction" or "speculative fiction", observing: "I like to make a distinction between science fiction proper and speculative fiction. For me, the science fiction label belongs on books with things in them that we can't yet do, such as going through a wormhole in space to another universe; and speculative fiction means a work that employs the means already to hand, such as DNA identification and credit cards, and that takes place on Planet Earth. But the terms are fluid."Hugo-winning science fiction critic David Langford observed in a column: "(…The Handmaid's Tale, won the very first Arthur C. Clarke award in 1987. She's been trying to live this down ever since.)" and goes on to point out: "Atwood prefers to say that she writes speculative fiction—a term coined by SF man Robert A. Heinlein. As she told the Guardian, 'Science fiction has monsters and spaceships; speculative fiction could really happen.' She used a subtly different phrasing for New Scientist, Oryx and Crake is not science fiction. It is fact within fiction. Science fiction is when you have rockets and chemicals.' So it was very cruel of New Scientist to describe this interview in the contents list as: 'Margaret Atwood explains why science is crucial to her science fiction.' … Play it again, Ms Atwood—this time for the Book-of-the-Month Club: "Oryx and Crake is a speculative fiction, not a science fiction proper. It contains no intergalactic space travel, no teleportation, no Martians." And one more time: on BBC1 Breakfast News the distinguished author explained that science fiction, as opposed to what she writes, is characterized by 'talking squids in outer space.' "

In distinguishing between these genre labels science fiction and speculative fiction, Atwood stated that while others might be using the terms interchangeably, whether classified as "science fiction proper" or as "speculative fiction", her narratives give her the ability to explore themes in ways that "realistic fiction" cannot do.


Sex for reproduction only, not pleasure

Human sexuality in Gilead is regulated by the notion that sexual intercourse is fundamentally degrading to women. Men are understood to desire sexual pleasure constantly, but are obliged to abstain from all but marital sex for religio-social reasons. The social regulations are enforced by law, with corporal punishment inflicted for lesser offences and capital punishment for greater ones.

"The Ceremony" is a non-marital sexual act sanctioned solely for the purpose of reproduction, based on a Biblical passage described below. This Gileadian enactment has the Handmaid lying supine upon the Wife during the sex act itself. The handmaid is to lie between the Wife's legs as if they are one person. In this way, the Wife has to invite the Handmaid to share her power by inviting her to lie in her own personal space, which is considered both humiliating and offensive by many wives. Offred describes the ceremony:

"My red skirt is hitched up to my waist, though no higher. Below it the Commander is fucking. What he is fucking is the lower part of my body. I do not say making love, because this is not what he's doing. Copulating too would be inaccurate, because it would imply two people and only one is involved. Nor does rape cover it: nothing is going on here that I haven't signed up for." (page 94)

Once a Handmaid is pregnant, she is venerated by her peers and the Wives. After the baby is born, if it is not an "unbaby" or a "shredder", it is given to the Wife of her Commander, and she is reassigned to another household. She has the guarantee that she will never be declared an "Unwoman".

Pre-Gileadian society

The novel indicates that pre-Gileadian society was not favorable for women. This society was a late 20th-century version of the United States as Atwood envisioned it developing at the time of its writing (1985). In this society, women feared physical and sexual violence, and despite long-running feminist campaigns (approximately 1970–2000 within the text), they had not achieved equality. Feminist campaigners like Offred's mother and Moira were persecuted by the state. Radical feminism had teamed up with social conservativism in campaigns against pornography. In addition, mass commercialization had reached a nadir of "fast-food" and "home delivery" sexuality. Women outside of prostitution in "the former times" were subject to a socially constructed vision of romantic love that encouraged serial monogamy in favour of men's social and sexual interests.

In pre-Gileadean society, despite holding a university degree, Offred was a menial white collar worker whose colleagues were all women, with a male boss. Aside from having had to cope with oppressive cultural and social phenomena, women lacked full and meaningful control over their economic lives.

The book also hints that the birth rate was in decline due to unspecified circumstances prior to the revolution by noting that the Center where Moira and Offred were kept was a high school that had been closed sometime in the mid-1980s due to a lack of students.

In the novel, women are depicted as the property of men in both societies, in the United States as private property and in Gilead as social property.

The novel appears to be set in the Harvard Squaremarker neighborhood of Cambridge, Massachusettsmarker, where Atwood studied at Radcliffe College, and many locations in the novel are recognizable. Victims of "Salvagings" (public executions) are hanged on the wall of Harvard Yardmarker; Fred's home is on the famous "Professor's Row"; and the Brattle Theatre, Memorial Hallmarker and Widener Librarymarker make very prominent cameos.

Biblical references

Some of the underpinnings of the Republic of Gilead come from the Bible, especially the Book of Genesis. The primary reference is to the story of Rachel and Leah (Genesis 29:31–35; 30:1–24). Leah, Rachel's sister and the first wife of Jacob, was fertile and was blessed by God; but Rachel, Jacob's second wife, was thought to be infertile until much later in her life. Rachel and Leah compete in bearing sons for their husband by using their handmaids as proxies and taking immediate possession of the children they produce. In the context of Atwood's book, the story is one of female competition, jealousy, and reproductive cruelty.

Another story in Genesis concerns the infertile Sarah and Hagar, who conceives on her behalf. This story is different from the previous one, mainly because of the active role played by Hagar, who keeps her own child, and Sarah's fertility, which is restored by God at an advanced age. Atwood was aware of the similarity between these stories, and was using it to show the hypocrisy of Gileadean interpretation: this Biblical story shows a relationship between a wife and a handmaid which did not involve sexual and reproductive subjugation. Additionally, it was ultimately the choice of the wives in the Bible, whereas Wives in Gilead (such as Serena Joy) are forced.

The name "Gilead" is also from Genesis and means "hill of testimony" or "mount of witness".

Key words and phrases

In this context of this novel's fictional futuristic fundamentalist social hierarchy, sterile is an "outlawed" word (161).

Atwood emphasises how changes in context affect behaviours and attitudes by repeating the phrase "Context is all" throughout the novel, establishing this precept as a motif (e.g., 144, 192). Playing the game of Scrabble with her Commander illustrates the key significance of changes in "context"; once "the game of old men and women," the game became forbidden for women to play and therefore "desirable" (178–79). Through living in a morally-rigid society, Offred has come to perceive the world differently than earlier. Revealing clothes and makeup were part of her former life; yet, when she encounters some Japanese tourists wearing these, she is intrigued by her feeling that they are inappropriately dressed.

Another ironic motif in the novel derives from Offred's inability to understand the phrase "nolite te bastardes carborundorum" carved into the closet wall of her small bedroom: a well-known mock-Latin aphorism mockingly signifying "Don't let the bastards grind you down."

Social critique

The Handmaid's Tale comprises a number of social critiques. Atwood sought to demonstrate that extremist views might result in fundamentalist totalitarianism. The novel presents a dystopian vision of life in the United States in the period projecting forward from the time of the writing (1985), covering the backlash against feminism. This critique is most clearly seen in both Offred's memories of the slow social transformation towards theocratic fascism and in the ideology of the Aunts.

Immediately following the overthrow of the government, but before the new order had completely changed things, women begin to lose whatever freedoms they had previously had. Offred describes the loss of her own bank account as it is transferred to her husband's control, and then the loss of her job, before she, her husband and her daughter attempt to flee. An "Aunt" describes women's rights prior to the overthrow as "freedom to" (i.e., women having the freedom to do as they pleased), while the time after is described as "freedom from" (i.e., women having the freedom from difficulties, responsibilities, and fear).

In the chapter "Soul Scrolls", Offred reflects on what happened. "I guess that's how they did it", she thinks to herself, regarding electronic banking, which allowed the government to freeze women's bank accounts when the fundamentalist Sons of Jacob had taken power by assassinating the President and all of Congress, blaming it on Muslim terrorists. A state of emergency was declared and the Constitution suspended by the army, run by Sons of Jacob members. Mass pornography burnings took place; later, women are decreed unable to work, their bank accounts transferred into their husbands' or male relatives' control, and the Sons of Jacob set up a Christian fundamentalist state church, which causes rebellion by Catholics, Baptists, and other denominations, who reject it. The backdrop was "The Big One" in California, which caused radioactive waste spills and produced "R-Strain Syphilis" that, along with AIDS, caused widespread infertility. This is alternate history wherein a far-right messianic Christian movement forms in the government and military, who make a pact with the USSRmarker to deal with rebellions occurring in their spheres of influence. The latter was explained at the end of the book in a future historical lecture on the Republic of Gilead, which had long-since disappeared.

Atwood mocks those who talk of "traditional values" and suggest that women should return to being housewives (see Barefoot and pregnant). Serena Joy, formerly a television preacher with a high public profile, has been forced to give up her career and is clearly not content. The religious and social ideology she has spent her entire long career publicly promoting has, in the end, destroyed her own life and happiness.

Atwood also offers a critique of contemporary feminism. By working against pornography, feminists in the early 1980s opened themselves up to criticism that they favoured censorship. Anti-pornography feminist activists such as Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon made alliances with the religious right, despite the warnings of sex-positive feminists. Atwood warns that the consequences of such an alliance may end up empowering feminists' worst enemies. She also suggests, through descriptions of the narrator's feminist mother burning books, that contemporary feminism was becoming overly rigid and adopting the same tactics of the religious right.

Most notably, Atwood critiques modern religious movements, specifically fundamentalist Christianity in the United States, with a reference to Islamic fundamentalism such as the theocracy founded in Iran in 1979. An American religious revival in the mid-1970s had led to the growth of the religious right through televangelism. Jimmy Carter, then president, had avowed his renewed and reaffirmed Christianity; Ronald Reagan was elected as his successor using a specifically Christian discourse.

Atwood pictures revivalism as counter-revolutionary, opposed to the revolutionary doctrine espoused by Offred's mother and Moira, which sought to break down gender categories. A Marxist reading of fascism explains it as the backlash of the right after a failed revolution. Atwood explores this Marxist reading and translates its analysis into the structure of a religious and gender revolution. "From each according to her ability… to each according to his needs" (117) is a deliberate distortion of Marx's phrase, "From each according to his ability, to each according to his need" — the latter, an ideological statement on class and society; the former, a stance taken by Gileadian society towards gender roles.


Frequent challenges, ALA conference, and controversy

The American Library Association (ALA) lists The Handmaid's Tale as number 37 on the "100 Most Frequently Challenged Books of 1990–2000".

Atwood participated in discussing The Handmaid's Tale as "the subject of the ALA's first conference-wide discussion series, 'One Book, One Conference,' which was so successful that its Public Programs Office was considering hosting a second series in 2004."

According to Education Reporter Kristin Rushowy of the Toronto Star (16 Jan. 2009), in 2008 a parent in Torontomarker, Canadamarker, wrote a letter to his son's high school principal, asking that the book no longer be assigned as required reading, stating that the novel is "rife with brutality towards and mistreatment of women (and men at times), sexual scenes, and bleak depression." Rushowy quotes the response of Russell Morton Brown, a retired University of Torontomarker English professor, who acknowledged that "The Handmaid's Tale wasn't likely written for 17-year-olds, 'but neither are a lot of things we teach in high school, like Shakespeare. … 'And they are all the better for reading it. They are on the edge of adulthood already, and there's no point in coddling them,' he said, adding, 'they aren't coddled in terms of mass media today anyway.' … He said the book has been accused of being anti-Christian and, more recently, anti-Islamic because the women are veiled and polygamy is allowed. … But that 'misses the point,' said Brown. 'It's really antifundamentalism.' " In her earlier account (14 Jan. 2009), Rushowy indicates that, in response to the parent's complaint, a Toronto District School Board committee was "reviewing the novel"; while noting that "The Handmaid's Tale is listed as one of the 100 'most frequently challenged books' from 1990 to 1999 on the American Library Association's website," Rushowy reports that "The Canadian Library Association says there is 'no known instance of a challenge to this novel in Canadamarker' but says the book was called anti-Christian and pornographic by parents after being placed on a reading list for secondary students in Texasmarker in the 1990s."


The 1990 film The Handmaid's Tale, based on a screenplay by Harold Pinter and directed by Volker Schlöndorff, stars Natasha Richardson as Offred, Faye Dunaway as Serena Joy, Robert Duvall as Fred, Aidan Quinn as Nick, and Elizabeth McGovern as Moira. It was released on DVD by MGM in 2001.

A dramatic adaptation of the novel for radio was produced for BBC Radio 4 by the award-winning John Dryden in 2000.

An operatic adaptation, The Handmaid's Tale, by Poul Ruders, premiered in Copenhagenmarker on 6 March 2000, and was performed by the English National Opera, in London, in 2003.

A stage adaptation of the novel, by Brendon Burns, for the Haymarket Theatremarker, Basingstokemarker, Englandmarker, toured the UKmarker in 2002.


Translated into

French as La Servante écarlate.

Vietnamese as Chuyện người tùy nữ (sponsored by Canada Council for the Arts).

Dutch as Het Verhaal van de Dienstmaagd.

German as Der Report der Magd.

Spanish as El relato de la criada.

Hungarian as A szolgálólány meséje.

Estonian as Teenijanna lugu.

Danish as Tjenerindens fortælling.

See also

Related works by Atwood
Related works by other authors
Related topics


  1. "About Speculative Fiction", in The Handmaid's Tale Study Guide, Gradesaver, Gradesaver LLC, 1999–2009, Web, 22 May 2009.
  2. Atwood, "Aliens Have Taken the Place of Angels": "If you're writing about the future and you aren't doing forecast journalism, you'll probably be writing something people will call either science fiction or speculative fiction. I like to make a distinction between science fiction proper and speculative fiction. For me, the science fiction label belongs on books with things in them that we can't yet do, such as going through a wormhole in space to another universe; and speculative fiction means a work that employs the means already to hand, such as DNA identification and credit cards, and that takes place on Planet Earth. But the terms are fluid. Some use speculative fiction as an umbrella covering science fiction and all its hyphenated forms - science fiction fantasy, and so forth - and others choose the reverse. … I have written two works of science fiction or, if you prefer, speculative fiction: The Handmaid's Tale and Oryx and Crake. Here are some of the things these kinds of narratives can do that socially realistic novels cannot do."
  3. Cf. Langford, "Bits and Pieces".
  4. "Short Summary", in The Handmaid's Tale Study Guide, Gradesaver, Gradesaver LLC, 1999–2009, Web, 22 May 2009.
  5. "Character List", in The Handmaid's Tale Study Guide, Gradesaver, Gradesaver LLC, 1999–2009, Web, 22 May 2009.
  6. "Character List", The Handmaid's Tale at SparkNotes, Web, 22 May 2009: Professor Pieixota is "The guest speaker at the symposium that takes place in the epilogue to The Handmaid's Tale. He and another academic, working at a university in the year 2195, transcribed Offred's recorded narrative; his lecture details the historical significance of the story that we have just read."
  7. Atwood, Margaret. The Handmaid's Tale.' New York: Anchor Books, 1986. Pg. 220. Print
  8. See Madonne Miner, " 'Trust Me': Reading the Romance Plot in Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale," Twentieth Century Literature 37 (1991): 148-168.
  9. The Handmaid's Tale is the inaugural winner of this award for the best science fiction novel published in the United Kingdom during the previous year.
  10. The Prometheus Award is an award for libertarian science fiction novels given out annually by the Libertarian Futurist Society, which also publishes a quarterly journal, Prometheus.
  11. "The100 Most Frequently Challenged Books of 1990–2000". [Some of the ALA's links are no longer active. The ALA website does not update and redirect its moved links automatically; if they are update, one must perform a new search for them.])
  12. "Conference: One Book, One Conference", in "Conferences and Workshops," Annual Report 2002–2003, American Library Association, American Library Association, June 2003, World Wide Web, 21 May 2009. [Concerns inaugural program featuring Margaret Atwood held in Toronto, 19–25 June 2003.]
  13. Rushowy, "Atwood Novel Too Brutal, Sexist for School: Parent": "Committee reviews 'fictional drivel' alleged to violate board policy on respect, profanity." In his letter to his son's school principal (quoted by Rushowy), a parent, Robert Edwards, observes that The Handmaid's Tale "is rife with brutality towards and mistreatment of women (and men at times), sexual scenes, and bleak depression," adding: "I can't really understand what it is my son is supposed to be learning from this fictional drivel. … I have a major problem with a curriculum book that cannot be fully read out loud in class, in front of an assembly, directly to a teacher, a parent, or, for that matter, contains attitudes and words that cannot be used by students in class discussion or hallway conversation. Let alone a description of situations that must be embarrassing and uncomfortable to any young woman in that class – and probably the young men, too." Rushowy reports: "According to [Toronto District School] board policy, any complaint that can't be solved at the school level goes to a review committee. … Such a committee is now reviewing The Handmaid's Tale … . It met yesterday [15 Jan. 2009] … and will eventually make a recommendation to the director of education. If Edwards still isn't satisfied, he can appeal to trustees."
  14. Rushowy, "Complaint Spurs School Board to Review Novel by Atwood": "Committee to consider objection to book; concern may centre on sexuality, religion."

Works cited

Alexander, Lynn. "The Handmaid's Tale: Working Bibliography". Department of English, University of Tennessee at Martinmarker ( The University of Tennessee at Martin, n.d. Web. 22 May 2009. [Hyperlinked to online resources for Women Writers: Magic, Mysticism, and Mayhem, taught by Dr. Alexander in Spring 1999. Includes entry for book chap. by Kauffman.]

American Library Association (ALA). "The100 Most Frequently Challenged Books of 1990–2000". American Library Association. American Library Association, 2009. Web. 22 May 2009.

Atwood, Margaret. "Aliens Have Taken the Place of Angels". Guardian Media Group, 17 June 2005. Web. 21 May 2009.

–––. The Handmaid's Tale. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1985. ISBN 0771008139. New York: Anchor Books (Div. of Random House), 1998. ISBN 038549081X (10). ISBN 9780385490818 (13). (Parenthetical page references are to the 1998 ed.) "Digitized Jun 2, 2008" according to Google Books. (311 pages.)]

–––. La Servante écarlate. Trans. Sylviane Rué. Paris: J'ai Lu, 2005. ISBN 2290347108 (10). ISBN 9782290347102 (13). [Translation of The Handmaid's Tale.]

Kauffman, Linda. "Special Delivery: Twenty-First Century Epistolarity in The Handmaid's Tale." 221–44 (chap. 6) in Writing the Female Voice: Essays on Epistolary Literature. Ed. Elizabeth Goldsmith. Boston: Northeastern UP, 1989. [Cited in Alexander.]

Langford, David. "Bits and Pieces". SFX 107 (Aug. 2003). Web. 9 May 2009.

Miner, Madonne. " 'Trust Me': Reading the Romance Plot in Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale." Twentieth Century Literature 37 (1991): 148-168.

Rushowy, Kristin. "Atwood Novel Too Brutal, Sexist for School: Parent". Toronto Star ( The Toronto Star, 16 Jan. 2009. Web. 9 May 2009.

–––. "Complaint Spurs School Board to Review Novel by Atwood". Toronto Star ( The Toronto Star, 14 Jan. 2009. Web. 21 May 2009.

Further reading

External links

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