Key Facts


full title  ·  The Handmaid’s Tale

author  · Margaret Atwood

type of work  · Novel

genre  · Anti-utopian (or “dystopian”) novel; science fiction; feminist political novel

language  · English

time and place written  · Early 1980s, West Berlin and Alabama

date of first publication  ·  1986

publisher  · McClelland & Stewart in Canada, Houghton Mifflin in the United States

narrator  · Offred, a Handmaid in the Republic of Gilead

point of view  ·  The Handmaid’s Tale is told from Offred’s point of view. She tells the story in the immediate present tense but frequently shifts to past tense for flashbacks to life before Gilead and to her time in the Red Center. Much of her narration is concerned not with events or action, but with her emotional state, which is often affected by the memories that well up from her happier past.

tone  · The novel’s tone is dark, and at times elegiac for the lost world before Gilead. Consistently unhappy, Offred finds both refuge and pain in her memories. A sense of fear and paranoia also pervades the novel, since all the characters live under a ruthless, totalitarian government.

tense  · Offred describes her life in the Commander’s home in the present tense but frequently shifts to the past tense to describe flashbacks and memories.

setting (time)  · The not-too-distant future

setting (place)  · Cambridge, Massachusetts

protagonist  · Offred

major conflict  · The Republic of Gilead has subjugated women and reduced Handmaids like Offred to sexual slavery. Offred desires happiness and freedom, and finds herself struggling against the totalitarian restrictions of her society.

rising action  · Offred’s evenings with the Commander; her shopping trips with Ofglen; her visit to Jezebel’s

climax  · After learning that Ofglen committed suicide to avoid arrest, Offred returns home and Serena confronts her about her trip to Jezebel’s.

falling action  · Offred’s arrest or escape at the end of the novel

themes  · Women’s bodies as political instruments; language as a tool of power; the causes of complacency

motifs  · Rape and sexual violence; religious terms used for political purposes; similarities between reactionary and feminist ideologies

symbols  · Cambridge, Massachusetts; Harvard University; the Handmaids’ red habits; a palimpsest; the Eyes

foreshadowing  · Offred’s kiss with Nick foreshadows their eventual affair; the attempted kidnapping of Offred’s daughter foreshadows Offred’s eventual loss of her child; Ofglen’s arrest foreshadows Offred’s own arrest.

Context

M argaret Atwood was born in Ottawa, Ontario, on November 18, 1939. She published her first book of poetry in 1961 while attending the University of Toronto. She later received degrees from both Radcliffe College and Harvard University, and pursued a career in teaching at the university level. Her first novel, The Edible Woman, was published in 1969 to wide acclaim. Atwood continued teaching as her literary career blossomed. She has lectured widely and has served as a writer-in--residence at colleges ranging from the University of Toronto to Macquarie University in Australia.

Atwood wrote The Handmaid’s Tale in West Berlin and Alabama in the mid-1980s. The novel, published in 1986, quickly became a best-seller. The Handmaid’s Tale falls into a category of twentieth-century tradition of anti-utopian or “dystopian” novels, which mimics some classics written by other authors. Novels in this genre present imagined worlds and societies that are not ideals, but instead are terrifying or restrictive. Atwood’s novel offers a strongly feminist vision of dystopia. She wrote it shortly after the elections of Ronald Reagan in the United States and Margaret Thatcher in Great Britain, during a period of conservative revival in the West partly influenced by a strong, well-organized movement of religious conservatives who criticized what they perceived as the excesses of the “sexual revolution” of the 1960s and 1970s. The growing power of this “religious right” increased feminist fears that the gains women had made in previous decades would be reversed.

In The Handmaid’s Tale, Atwood explores the consequences of a reversal of women’s rights. In the novel’s nightmare world of Gilead, a group of conservative religious extremists has taken power and turned the sexual revolution on its head. Feminists argued for liberation from traditional gender roles, but Gilead is a society founded on a “return to traditional values” and gender roles, and on the controlling of women by men. What feminists considered the great triumphs of the 1970s—namely, widespread access to contraception, the legalization of abortion, and the increasing political influence of female voters—have all been undone. Women in Gilead are not only forbidden to vote, they are forbidden to read or write. Atwood’s novel also paints a picture of a world undone by pollution and infertility, reflecting 1980s fears about declining birthrates, the dangers of nuclear power, and environmental degradation.

Some of the novel’s concerns seem dated today, and its implicit condemnation of the political goals of America’s religious conservatives has been criticized as unfair and overly paranoid. Nonetheless, The Handmaid’s Tale remains one of the most powerful recent portrayals of a totalitarian society, and one of the few dystopian novels to examine in detail the intersection of politics and sexuality. The novel’s exploration of the controversial politics of reproduction seems likely to guarantee Atwood’s novel a readership well into the twenty-first century.

Atwood lives in Toronto with novelist Graeme Gibson and their daughter, Jess. Her most recent novel, The Blind Assassin, won Great Britain’s Booker Prize for literature in 2000.

A Dystopia- is in literature, an often futuristic society that has degraded into a represive and coltrolled state. Dystopian literatre has underlying cautionary tones, warning society that if we continue to live the way we do, this will be the consequence.

Subjugation- to bring under conrol ‘women by men’.

Synopsis

Offred is a Handmaid in the Republic of Gilead, a totalitarian ( A political system where the state is usually under the control of one single political person) and theocratic state ( A form of government where god or deity is recognised as the state's supreme civil ruler) that has replaced the United States of America. Because of dangerously low reproduction rates, Handmaids are assigned to bear children for elite couples that have trouble conceiving. Offred serves the Commander and his wife, Serena Joy, a former gospel singer and advocate for “traditional values.” Offred is not the narrator’s real name—Handmaid names consist of the word “of” followed by the name of the Handmaid’s Commander. Every month, when Offred is at the right point in her menstrual cycle, she must have impersonal, wordless sex with the Commander while Serena sits behind her, holding her hands. Offred’s freedom, like the freedom of all women, is completely restricted. She can leave the house only on shopping trips, the door to her room cannot be completely shut, and the Eyes, Gilead’s secret police force, watch her every public move.

As Offred tells the story of her daily life, she frequently slips into flashbacks, from which the reader can reconstruct the events leading up to the beginning of the novel. In the old world, before Gilead, Offred had an affair with Luke, a married man. He divorced his wife and married Offred, and they had a child together. Offred’s mother was a single mother and feminist activist. Offred’s best friend, Moira, was fiercely independent. The architects of Gilead began their rise to power in an age of readily available pornography, prostitution, and violence against women—when pollution and chemical spills led to declining fertility rates. Using the military, they assassinated the president and members of Congress and launched a coup, claiming that they were taking power temporarily. They cracked down on women’s rights, forbidding women to hold property or jobs. Offred and Luke took their daughter and attempted to flee across the border into Canada, but they were caught and separated from one another, and Offred has seen neither her husband nor her daughter since.

After her capture, Offred’s marriage was voided (because Luke had been divorced), and she was sent to the Rachel and Leah Re-education Center, called the Red Center by its inhabitants. At the center, women were indoctrinated into Gilead’s ideology in preparation for becoming Handmaids. Aunt Lydia supervised the women, giving speeches extolling Gilead’s beliefs that women should be subservient to men and solely concerned with bearing children. Aunt Lydia also argued that such a social order ultimately offers women more respect and safety than the old, pre-Gilead society offered them. Moira is brought to the Red Center, but she escapes, and Offred does not know what becomes of her.

Once assigned to the Commander’s house, Offred’s life settles into a restrictive routine. She takes shopping trips with Ofglen, another Handmaid, and they visit the Wall outside what used to be Harvard University, where the bodies of rebels hang. She must visit the doctor frequently to be checked for disease and other complications, and she must endure the “Ceremony,” in which the Commander reads to the household from the Bible, then goes to the bedroom, where his Wife and Offred wait for him, and has sex with Offred. The first break from her routine occurs when she visits the doctor and he offers to have sex with her to get her pregnant, suggesting that her Commander is probably infertile. She refuses. The doctor makes her uneasy, but his proposition is too risky—she could be sent away if caught. After a Ceremony, the Commander sends his gardener and chauffeur, Nick, to ask Offred to come see him in his study the following night. She begins visiting him regularly. They play Scrabble (which is forbidden, since women are not allowed to read), and he lets her look at old magazines like Vogue. At the end of these secret meetings, he asks her to kiss him.

During one of their shopping trips, Ofglen reveals to Offred that she is a member of “Mayday,” an underground organization dedicated to overthrowing Gilead. Meanwhile, Offred begins to find that the Ceremony feels different and less impersonal now that she knows the Commander. Their nighttime conversations begin to touch on the new order that the Commander and his fellow leaders have created in Gilead. When Offred admits how unhappy she is, the Commander remarks, “[Y]ou can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs.”

After some time has gone by without Offred becoming pregnant, Serena suggests that Offred have sex with Nick secretly and pass the child off as the Commander’s. Serena promises to bring Offred a picture of her daughter if she sleeps with Nick, and Offred realizes that Serena has always known the whereabouts of Offred’s daughter. The same night that Offred is to sleep with Nick, the Commander secretly takes her out to a club called Jezebel’s, where the Commanders mingle with prostitutes. Offred sees Moira working there. The two women meet in a bathroom, and Offred learns that Moira was captured just before she crossed the border. She chose life in Jezebel’s over being sent to the Colonies, where most political prisoners and dangerous people are sent. After that night at Jezebel’s, Offred says, she never sees Moira again. The Commander takes Offred upstairs after a few hours, and they have sex in what used to be a hotel room. She tries to feign passion.

Soon after Offred returns from Jezebel’s, late at night, Serena arrives and tells Offred to go to Nick’s room. Offred and Nick have sex. Soon they begin to sleep together frequently, without anyone’s knowledge. Offred becomes caught up in the affair and ignores Ofglen’s requests that she gather information from the Commander for Mayday. One day, all the Handmaids take part in a group execution of a supposed rapist, supervised by Aunt Lydia. Ofglen strikes the first blow. Later, she tells Offred that the so-called rapist was a member of Mayday and that she hit him to put him out of his misery.

Shortly thereafter, Offred goes out shopping, and a new Ofglen meets her. This new woman is not part of Mayday, and she tells Offred that the old Ofglen hanged herself when she saw the secret police coming for her. At home, Serena has found out about Offred’s trip to Jezebel’s, and she sends her to her room, promising punishment. Offred waits there, and she sees a black van from the Eyes approach. Then Nick comes in and tells her that the Eyes are really Mayday members who have come to save her. Offred leaves with them, over the Commander’s futile objections, on her way either to prison or to freedom—she does not know which.

The novel closes with an epilogue from 2195, after Gilead has fallen, written in the form of a lecture given by Professor Pieixoto. He explains the formation and customs of Gilead in objective, analytical language. He discusses the significance of Offred’s story, which has turned up on cassette tapes in Bangor, Maine. He suggests that Nick arranged Offred’s escape but that her fate after that is unknown. She could have escaped to Canada or England, or she could have been recaptured.

Character List

Offred -  The narrator and protagonist of The Handmaid’s Tale. Offred belongs to the class of Handmaids, fertile women forced to bear children for elite, barren couples. Handmaids show which Commander owns them by adopting their Commanders’ names, such as Fred, and preceding them with “Of.” Offred remembers her real name but never reveals it. She no longer has family or friends, though she has flashbacks to a time in which she had a daughter and a husband named Luke. The cruel physical and psychological burdens of her daily life in Gilead torment her and pervade her narrative.

The Commander -  The Commander is the head of the household where Offred works as a Handmaid. He initiates an unorthodox relationship with Offred, secretly playing Scrabble with her in his study at night. He often seems a decent, well-meaning man, and Offred sometimes finds that she likes him in spite of herself. He almost seems a victim of Gilead, making the best of a society he opposes. However, we learn from various clues and from the epilogue that the Commander was actually involved in designing and establishing Gilead.

Serena Joy  -  The Commander’s Wife, Serena worked in pre-Gilead days as a gospel singer, then as an anti-feminist activist and crusader for “traditional values.” In Gilead, she sits at the top of the female social ladder, yet she is desperately unhappy. Serena’s unhappiness shows that her restrictive, male-dominated society cannot bring happiness even to its most pampered and powerful women. Serena jealously guards her claims to status and behaves cruelly toward the Handmaids in her household.

Moira -  Offred’s best friend from college, Moira is a lesbian and a staunch feminist; she embodies female resourcefulness and independence. Her defiant nature contrasts starkly with the behavior of the other women in the novel. Rather than passively accept her fate as a Handmaid, she makes several escape attempts and finally manages to get away from the Red Center. However, she is caught before she can get out of Gilead. Later, Offred encounters Moira working as a prostitute in a club for the Commanders. At the club, Moira seems resigned to her fate, which suggests that a totalitarian society can grind down and crush even the most resourceful and independent people.

Aunt Lydia -  The Aunts are the class of women assigned to indoctrinate the Handmaids with the beliefs of the new society and make them accept their fates. Aunt Lydia works at the “Red Center,” the re‑education center where Offred and other women go for instruction before becoming Handmaids. Although she appears only in Offred’s flashbacks, Aunt Lydia and her instructions haunt Offred in her daily life. Aunt Lydia’s slogans and maxims drum the ideology of the new society into heads of the women, until even those like Offred, women who do not truly believe in the ideology, hear Gilead’s words echoing in their heads.

Nick -  Nick is a Guardian, a low-level officer of Gilead assigned to the Commander’s home, where he works as a gardener and chauffeur. He and Offred have a sexual chemistry that they get to satisfy when Serena Joy orchestrates an encounter between them in an effort to get Offred pregnant. After sleeping together once, they begin a covert sexual affair. Nick is not just a Guardian; he may work either as a member of the Eyes, Gilead’s secret police, or as a member of the underground Mayday resistance, or both. At the end of the novel, Nick orchestrates Offred’s escape from the Commander’s home, but we do not know whether he puts her into the hands of the Eyes or the resistance.

Ofglen -  Another Handmaid who is Offred’s shopping partner and a member of the subversive “Mayday” underground. At the end of the novel, Ofglen is found out, and she hangs herself rather than face torture and reveal the names of her co-conspirators.

Cora -  Cora works as a servant in the Commander’s household. She belongs to the class of Marthas, infertile women who do not qualify for the high status of Wives and so work in domestic roles. Cora seems more content with her role than her fellow Martha, Rita. She hopes that Offred will be able to conceive, because then she will have a hand in raising a child.

Janine -  Offred knows Janine from their time at the Red Center. After Janine becomes a Handmaid, she takes the name Ofwarren. She has a baby, which makes her the envy of all the other Handmaids in the area, but the baby later turns out to be deformed—an “Unbaby”—and there are rumors that her doctor fathered the child. Janine is a conformist, always ready to go along with what Gilead demands of her, and so she endears herself to the Aunts and to all authority figures. Offred holds Janine in contempt for taking the easy way out.

Luke -  In the days before Gilead, Luke had an affair with Offred while he was married to another woman, then got a divorce and became Offred’s husband. When Gilead comes to power, he attempts to escape to Canada with Offred and their daughter, but they are captured. He is separated from Offred, and the couple never see one another again. The kind of love they shared is prohibited in Gilead, and Offred’s memories of Luke contrast with the regimented, passionless state of male-female relations in the new society.

Offred’s mother  -  Offred remembers her mother in flashbacks to her pre-Gilead world—she was a single parent and a feminist activist. One day during her education at the Red Center, Offred sees a video of her mother as a young woman, yelling and carrying a banner in an anti-rape march called Take Back the Night. She embodies everything the architects of Gilead want to stamp out.

Aunt Elizabeth -  Aunt Elizabeth is one of the Aunts at the Red Center. Moira attacks her and steals her Aunt’s uniform during her escape from the Red Center.

Rita -  A Martha, or domestic servant, in the Commander’s household. She seems less content with her lot than Cora, the other Martha working there.

Professor Pieixoto -  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.

Analysis of Major Characters

Offred

Offred is the narrator and the protagonist of the novel, and we are told the entire story from her point of view, experiencing events and memories as vividly as she does. She tells the story as it happens, and shows us the travels of her mind through asides, flashbacks, and digressions. Offred is intelligent, perceptive, and kind. She possesses enough faults to make her human, but not so many that she becomes an unsympathetic figure. She also possesses a dark sense of humor—a graveyard wit that makes her descriptions of the bleak horrors of Gilead bearable, even enjoyable. Like most of the women in Gilead, she is an ordinary woman placed in an extraordinary situation.

Offred is not a hero. Although she resists Gilead inwardly, once her attempt at escape fails, she submits outwardly. She is hardly a feminist champion; she had always felt uncomfortable with her mother’s activism, and her pre-Gilead relationship with Luke began when she became his mistress, meeting him in cheap hotels for sex. Although friends with Ofglen, a member of the resistance, she is never bold enough to join up herself. Indeed, after she begins her affair with Nick, she seems to lose sight of escape entirely and suddenly feels that life in Gilead is almost bearable. If she does finally escape, it is because of Nick, not because of anything she does -herself. Offred is a mostly passive character, good-hearted but complacent. Like her peers, she took for granted the freedoms feminism won and now pays the price.

The Commander

The Commander poses an ethical problem for Offred, and consequently for us. First, he is Offred’s Commander and the immediate agent of her oppression. As a founder of Gilead, he also bears responsibility for the entire totalitarian society. In person, he is far more sympathetic and friendly toward Offred than most other people, and Offred’s evenings with the Commander in his study offer her a small respite from the wasteland of her life. At times, his unhappiness and need for companionship make him seem as much a prisoner of Gilead’s strictures as anyone else. Offred finds herself feeling sympathy for this man.

Ultimately, Offred and the reader recognize that if the Commander is a prisoner, the prison is one that he himself helped construct and that his prison is heaven compared to the prison he created for women. As the novel progresses, we come to realize that his visits with Offred are selfish rather than charitable. They satisfy his need for companionship, but he doesn’t seem to care that they put Offred at terrible risk, a fact of which he must be aware, given that the previous Handmaid hanged herself when her visits to the Commander were discovered. The Commander’s moral blindness, apparent in his attempts to explain the virtues of Gilead, are highlighted by his and Offred’s visit to Jezebel’s. The club, a place where the elite men of the society can engage in recreational extramarital sex, reveals the rank hypocrisy that runs through Gileadean society.

Offred’s relationship with the Commander is best represented by a situation she remembers from a documentary on the Holocaust. In the film, the mistress of a brutal death camp guard defended the man she loved, claiming that he was not a monster. “How easy it is to invent a humanity,” Offred thinks. In other words, anyone can seem human, and even likable, given the right set of circumstances. But even if the Commander is likable and can be kind or considerate, his responsibility for the creation of Gilead and his callousness to the hell he created for women means that he, like the Nazi guard, is a monster.

Serena Joy

Though Serena had been an advocate for traditional values and the establishment of the Gileadean state, her bitterness at the outcome—being confined to the home and having to see her husband copulating with a Handmaid—suggests that spokeswomen for anti-feminist causes might not enjoy getting their way as much as they believe they would. Serena’s obvious unhappiness means that she teeters on the edge of inspiring our sympathy, but she forfeits that sympathy by taking out her frustration on Offred. She seems to possess no compassion for Offred. She can see the difficulty of her own life, but not that of another woman.

The climactic moment in Serena’s interaction with Offred comes when she arranges for Offred to sleep with Nick. It seems that Serena makes these plans out of a desire to help Offred get pregnant, but Serena gets an equal reward from Offred’s pregnancy: she gets to raise the baby. Furthermore, Serena’s offer to show Offred a picture of her lost daughter if she sleeps with Nick reveals that Serena has always known of Offred’s daughter’s whereabouts. Not only has she cruelly concealed this knowledge, she is willing to exploit Offred’s loss of a child in order to get an infant of her own. Serena’s lack of sympathy makes her the perfect tool for Gilead’s social order, which relies on the willingness of women to oppress other women. She is a cruel, selfish woman, and Atwood implies that such women are the glue that binds Gilead.

Moira

Throughout the novel, Moira’s relationship with Offred epitomizes female friendship. Gilead claims to promote solidarity between women, but in fact it only produces suspicion, hostility, and petty tyranny. The kind of relationship that Moira and Offred maintain from college onward does not exist in Gilead.

In Offred’s flashbacks, Moira also embodies female resistance to Gilead. She is a lesbian, which means that she rejects male-female sexual interactions, the only kind that Gilead values. More than that, she is the only character who stands up to authority directly by make two escape attempts, one successful, from the Red Center. The manner in which she escapes—taking off her clothes and putting on the uniform of an Aunt—symbolizes her rejection of Gilead’s attempt to define her identity. From then on, until Offred meets up with her again, Moira represents an alternative to the meek subservience and acceptance of one’s fate that most of the Handmaids adopt. When Offred runs into Moira, Moira has been recaptured and is working as a prostitute at Jezebel’s, servicing the Commanders. Her fighting spirit seems broken, and she has become resigned to her fate. After embodying resistance for most of the novel, Moira comes to exemplify the way a totalitarian state can crush even the most independent spirit.

Themes, motifs and Symbols

Themes

Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.

Women’s Bodies as Political Instruments

Because Gilead was formed in response to the crisis caused by dramatically decreased birthrates, the state’s entire structure, with its religious trappings and rigid political hierarchy, is built around a single goal: control of reproduction. The state tackles the problem head-on by assuming complete control of women’s bodies through their political subjugation. Women cannot vote, hold property or jobs, read, or do anything else that might allow them to become subversive or independent and thereby undermine their husbands or the state.

Despite all of Gilead’s pro-women rhetoric, such subjugation creates a society in which women are treated as subhuman. They are reduced to their fertility, treated as nothing more than a set of ovaries and a womb. In one of the novel’s key scenes, Offred lies in the bath and reflects that, before Gilead, she considered her body an instrument of her desires; now, she is just a mound of flesh surrounding a womb that must be filled in order to make her useful. Gilead seeks to deprive women of their individuality in order to make them docile carriers of the next generation.

Language as a Tool of Power

Gilead creates an official vocabulary that ignores and warps reality in order to serve the needs of the new society’s elite. Having made it illegal for women to hold jobs, Gilead creates a system of titles. Whereas men are defined by their military rank, women are defined solely by their gender roles as Wives, Handmaids, or Marthas. Stripping them of permanent individual names strips them of their individuality, or tries to. Feminists and deformed babies are treated as subhuman, denoted by the terms “Unwomen” and “Unbabies.” Blacks and Jews are defined by biblical terms (“Children of Ham” and “Sons of Jacob,” respectively) that set them apart from the rest of society, making their persecution easier. There are prescribed greetings for personal encounters, and to fail to offer the correct greetings is to fall under suspicion of disloyalty. Specially created terms define the rituals of Gilead, such as “Prayvaganzas,” “Salvagings,” and “Particicutions.” Dystopian novels about the dangers of totalitarian society frequently explore the connection between a state’s repression of its subjects and its perversion of language (“Newspeak” in George Orwell’s 1984 is the most famous example), and The Handmaid’s Tale carries on this tradition. Gilead maintains its control over women’s bodies by maintaining control over names.

The Causes of Complacency

In a totalitarian state, Atwood suggests, people will endure oppression willingly as long as they receive some slight amount of power or freedom. Offred remembers her mother saying that it is “truly amazing, what people can get used to, as long as there are a few compensations.” Offred’s complacency after she begins her relationship with Nick shows the truth of this insight. Her situation restricts her horribly compared to the freedom her former life allowed, but her relationship with Nick allows her to reclaim the tiniest fragment of her former existence. The physical affection and companionship become compensation that make the restrictions almost bearable. Offred seems suddenly so content that she does not say yes when Ofglen asks her to gather information about the Commander.

Women in general support Gilead’s existence by willingly participating in it, serving as agents of the totalitarian state. While a woman like Serena Joy has no power in the world of men, she exercises authority within her own household and seems to delight in her tyranny over Offred. She jealously guards what little power she has and wields it eagerly. In a similar way, the women known as Aunts, especially Aunt Lydia, act as willing agents of the Gileadean state. They indoctrinate other women into the ruling ideology, keep a close eye out for rebellion, and generally serve the same function for Gilead that the Jewish police did under Nazi rule.

Atwood’s message is bleak. At the same time as she condemns Offred, Serena Joy, the Aunts, and even Moira for their complacency, she suggests that even if those women mustered strength and stopped complying, they would likely fail to make a difference. In Gilead the tiny rebellions of resistances do not necessarily matter. In the end, Offred escapes because of luck rather than resistance.

Motifs

Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.

Rape and Sexual Violence

Sexual violence, particularly against women, pervades The Handmaid’s Tale. The prevalence of rape and pornography in the pre-Gilead world justified to the founders their establishment of the new order. The Commander and the Aunts claim that women are better protected in Gilead, that they are treated with respect and kept safe from violence. Certainly, the official penalty for rape is terrible: in one scene, the Handmaids tear apart with their bare hands a supposed rapist (actually a member of the resistance). Yet, while Gilead claims to suppress sexual violence, it actually institutionalizes it, as we see at Jezebel’s, the club that provides the Commanders with a ready stable of prostitutes to service the male elite. Most important, sexual violence is apparent in the central institution of the novel, the Ceremony, which compels Handmaids to have sex with their Commanders.

Religious Terms Used for Political Purposes

Gilead is a theocracy—a government in which there is no separation between state and religion—and its official vocabulary incorporates religious terminology and biblical references. Domestic servants are called “Marthas” in reference to a domestic character in the New Testament; the local police are “Guardians of the Faith”; soldiers are “Angels”; and the Commanders are officially “Commanders of the Faithful.” All the stores have biblical names: Loaves and Fishes, All Flesh, Milk and Honey. Even the automobiles have biblical names like Behemoth, Whirlwind, and Chariot. Using religious terminology to describe people, ranks, and businesses whitewashes political skullduggery in pious language. It provides an ever-present reminder that the founders of Gilead insist they act on the authority of the Bible itself. Politics and religion sleep in the same bed in Gilead, where the slogan “God is a National Resource” predominates.

Similarities between Reactionary and Feminist Ideologies

Although The Handmaid’s Tale offers a specifically feminist critique of the reactionary attitudes toward women that hold sway in Gilead, Atwood occasionally draws similarities between the architects of Gilead and radical feminists such as Offred’s mother. Both groups claim to protect women from sexual violence, and both show themselves willing to restrict free speech in order to accomplish this goal. Offred recalls a scene in which her mother and other feminists burn porn magazines. Like the founders of Gilead, these feminists ban some expressions of sexuality. Gilead also uses the feminist rhetoric of female solidarity and “sisterhood” to its own advantage. These points of similarity imply the existence of a dark side of feminist rhetoric. Despite Atwood’s gentle criticism of the feminist left, her real target is the religious right.

Symbols

Symbols are objects, characters, figures, or colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.

Cambridge, Massachusetts

The center of Gilead’s power, where Offred lives, is never explicitly identified, but a number of clues mark it as the town of Cambridge. Cambridge, its neighboring city of Boston, and Massachusetts as a whole were centers for America’s first religious and intolerant society—the Puritan New England of the seventeenth century. Atwood reminds us of this history with the ancient Puritan church that Offred and Ofglen visit early in the novel, which Gilead has turned into a museum. The choice of Cambridge as a setting symbolizes the direct link between the Puritans and their spiritual heirs in Gilead. Both groups dealt harshly with religious, sexual, or political deviation.

Harvard University

Gilead has transformed Harvard’s buildings into a detention center run by the Eyes, Gilead’s secret police. Bodies of executed dissidents hang from the Wall that runs around the college, and Salvagings (mass executions) take place in Harvard Yard, on the steps of the library. Harvard becomes a symbol of the inverted world that Gilead has created: a place that was founded to pursue knowledge and truth becomes a seat of oppression, torture, and the denial of every principle for which a university is supposed to stand.

The Handmaids’ Red Habits

The red color of the costumes worn by the Handmaids symbolizes fertility, which is the caste’s primary function. Red suggests the blood of the menstrual cycle and of childbirth. At the same time, however, red is also a traditional marker of sexual sin, hearkening back to the scarlet letter worn by the adulterous Hester Prynne in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s tale of Puritan ideology. While the Handmaids’ reproductive role supposedly finds its justification in the Bible, in some sense they commit adultery by having sex with their Commanders, who are married men. The wives, who often call the Handmaids sluts, feel the pain of this sanctioned adultery. The Handmaids’ red garments, then, also symbolize the ambiguous sinfulness of the Handmaids’ position in Gilead.

A Palimpsest

A palimpsest is a document on which old writing has been scratched out, often leaving traces, and new writing put in its place; it can also be a document consisting of many layers of writing simply piled one on top of another. Offred describes the Red Center as a palimpsest, but the word actually symbolizes all of Gilead. The old world has been erased and replaced, but only partially, by a new order. Remnants of the pre-Gilead days continue to infuse the new world.

The Eyes

The Eyes of God are Gilead’s secret police. Both their name and their insignia, a winged eye, symbolize the eternal watchfulness of God and the totalitarian state. In Gilead’s theocracy, the eye of God and of the state are assumed to be one and the same.