Need help understanding the Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood? In this article, we discuss Atwood's novel with an eye to Year 11 Module A: "Narratives that Shape our world."
Are you struggling to wrap your head around Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale? Need help with The Handmaid’s Tale text analysis? Don’t worry, in this article we break down the key themes and scenes so you can unpack for your studies.
The Handmaid’s Tale, written by Margaret Atwood in 1985 is an inherently complex narrative. It speaks of oppression, suffering and rebellion; all universal concerns that audiences can relate to in any time period.
Some students may feel overwhelmed when studying The Handmaid’s Tale, as there are so many thematic concerns, characters and plot details to unpack! Though, it is worth remembering that the essays and analyses reproduced by students can only be so long, and students are not expected to write about every single aspect of their set texts. Rather, their writing should focus on the most important elements and themes in the novel, and relate them back to the module they are studying!
Let’s take a look at The Handmaid’s Tale, and discuss how it can be used to engage with the Year 11 module ‘Narratives That Shape Our World’!
Atwood’s novel tells the story of Offred, who lives in the Republic of Gilead, formerly known as the United States of America. Following an age of climate destruction and declining birth rates, Gilead is ruled under a patriarchal, totalitarian regime that reduces women to mere commodities. Within this dystopian society, the people are categorised into various classes; the Commanders (the male ruling class), the wives of Commanders, Handmaids (the women still able to reproduce), Aunts (those who train and oversee Handmaids), Marthas (the domestic servants) and Econopeople (the poor, lower class workers and their wives).
Offred is a Handmaid, tasked with producing children for the society’s Commanders and their wives. The text details the day-to-day life of Offred, interspersed with flashbacks from before the rise of Gilead. The audience learns of Offred’s past life, her husband and daughter that were forcibly separated from her, as well as her current situation under the control of her Commander, Fred Waterford, and his wife Serena Joy. Though it is now illegal, Offred and Commander Waterford begin a relationship outside of Offred’s duties as a Handmaid, playing Scrabble after midnight. It is through her Commander that Offred is able to gather more information surrounding Gilead. She also gains news of an underground resistance group known as Mayday through her shopping partner, Ofglen, who plan to overthrow the Gileadean forces.
However, when Serena Joy suspects that the Commander may be infertile, as therefore unable to bear her a child through Offred, she arranges for Offred and the Commander’s personal assistant, Nick, to begin a sexual relationship of their own. The novel ends on a cliffhanger, with Offred suspecting she has fallen pregnant and the secret police, known as “The Eyes”, leading her away in a black van. It remains unclear whether Offred has truly been apprehended, or if the van in fact belongs to Mayday.
The Handmaid’s Tale is a common text studied for Module A: Narratives that Shape Our World.
This module is, essentially, a contextual study. This means you must look at the context surrounding Atwood’s novel, and consider the ways in which the social, or historical, period and values of the time influenced Atwood in her composition of the novel. Some key questions to ask yourself may be:
The module also asks you to consider the importance of storytelling and narratives in connecting people from various cultures and time periods, and inspiring these readers to consider their own values and cultural practices. One way in which Atwood is able to achieve these goals through her novel is through the discussion of universal themes. That is, themes that people from any era or country can relate to. In including themes such as suffering and the loss of individuality in her novel, all readers are able to understand the struggles of Offred, and use her experience as a means by which they challenge their own. It may be useful to ask yourself:
Remember; you want to be linking back to the text’s contextual concerns in every paragraph! Use context as a means by which you explain why you think your theme is represented in a certain way, and then back up this argument with examples from the text!
The Handmaid’s Tale is set within Gilead, an oppressive, theocratic society in which all of its people are controlled by the few powerful men responsible for its creation. The society itself restricts the rights of all, but especially the women. Female characters within Atwood’s novel are treated as the property of Gilead’s men. They are nothing more than their fertility; vehicles by which men are able to craft the next generation of Gileadeans.
It is useful to note that The Handmaid’s Tale was published in 1985, a time during which many directly opposed the second-wave feminist movement. This movement had been arguing for women’s social and legal rights, though Atwood’s novel imagines a future in which the traditionalist ideologies of men resulted in the dissolving of gender equality.
Ask yourself: Why do you think Atwood decided to set Offred’s story in this form of society? What is she trying to say about feminism?
Let’s consider the example below to analyse how the novel deals with the theme of feminism:
“We’ve given them more than we’ve taken away, said the Commander. Think of the trouble they had before. Don’t you remember the singles’ bars, the indignity of high school blind dates? The meat market. Don’t you remember the terrible gap between the ones who could get a man easily and the ones who couldn’t? Some of them were desperate, they starved themselves thin or pumped their breasts full of silicone, had their noses cut off. Think of the human misery.”
Technique: Infantilizing Diction, Anaphora, Aporia and Hyperbole.
Effect: Commander Waterford speaks down to Offred here, treating her as though she is a child as he explains why it is more beneficial for women to have less freedom. He lists the various struggles women perhaps faced in their lives before Gilead, creating doubt as to whether Offred’s past was truly better. The anaphoric repetition of the directive phrases “think of” and “don’t you remember” marks the Commander as all-knowing, and infantilizes Offred into an individual that must be taught, or reminded, of the blessings she now has. The hyperbolic descriptions of the apparent lengths women would go to for the attention of men further represent the males in power as ‘saviours’; women are free within Gilead, or so says the Commander.
Another interesting aspect of Gilead is the way in which language is used to quash the individuality of each of its citizens. Standardised greetings and phrases (for example, “blessed day”, “under his eye”, “blessed be the fruit”) create another form of oppression that prevents individual expression.
Gilead’s naming conventions also reflect the society’s male domination. Women are stripped of their right to a name, instead being referred to purely by their status. Serena Joy is referred to almost exclusively as “Mrs. Waterford”, and all Handmaids are given names that signal whose child they will be producing. Offred’s name comes from the name of her Commander, Fred Waterford. She is, literally, of Fred. Fred owns her; she is his property.
Let’s consider the example below to analyse how the novel deals with the loss of individuality:
“‘Has Ofglen been transferred so soon?’ I ask…‘I am Ofglen’, the woman replies. Word perfect”
Technique: Truncated sentence.
Effect: When Offred’s initial shopping partner is replaced by another Handmaid assigned to the same household, the name Ofglen is taken from the previous Handmaid and given to her replacement. Her curt, State mandated response to Offred’s question affirms her adoption of Gileadean discourse, though also strips her character of any unique identity. Her language is ‘perfect’, aptly reflecting the desires of Gilead’s regime. For the entirety of the novel, Ofglen is fated to be exactly that; a person of Glen. A handmaid belonging to Glen. Ofglen loses her individuality in settling into the language and naming conventions of Gilead.
Suffering as a theme is explored heavily within The Handmaid’s Tale, especially as an effect of extreme cultural/societal change. Much of the audience’s understanding of Offred’s suffering within Gilead comes from Atwood’s juxtaposing of her life as a handmaid with flashbacks of her memories from before. It is this previous, normal life that audiences are more likely to relate to. As a result, placing these moments in between Offred’s current experiences in Gilead allow for her suffering to appear heightened, and more realistic. We, too, can imagine having our livelihoods stripped away, and we can feel that loss just as Offred does.
Let’s consider the example below to analyse how the novel deals with the theme of suffering:
“You are the transition generation, said aunt Lydia. It is the hardest for you. We know the sacrifices you are being expected to make. It is hard when men revile you. For the ones who come after you, it will be easier. They will accept their duties with willing hearts.
She did not say: Because they will have no memories of any other way.”
Technique: High Modality Language.
Effect: Though Gilead may appear tortuous to women within the novel, Aunt Lydia proposes that a time will soon come where Gileadean life is all women will know. Girls born within the regime will not know of a past life, like Offred. Women will not be taught to read, or given the opportunity to take on roles beyond the domestic sphere. Handmaids will appear normal. This suffering, then, will not last. Aunt Lydia passionately asserts this, repeating the phrases “it is hard”, and “they/you will”. This yearning that Offred has to return to the freedoms of life before Gilead is something that ‘will’ pass, and become easier to manage. Her suffering will end, thus, when life in Gilead takes over her conception of normal. Her suffering ends when she accepts the regime.
The power of storytelling is shown throughout Atwood’s novel as a means of rebellion. To tell one’s own story is to express their own beliefs and opinions surrounding a certain event, or idea. Though women in Gilead are not allowed to write, or read, Offred’s retelling of her experiences marks the story itself as inherently defiant. The novel, structurally, is presented as a transcript of a recording made by Offred, detailing her life in Gilead. The fact that we, as the audience, are reading her story means that her words were able to escape the clutches of those in power, and present her representation of Gilead without refinement. Her words become an alternative narrative, breaking down the propagandic stories of Gilead no doubt told by those in power.
Further, stories and storytelling confer a different, smaller power within the border of Gilead. The short, mostly secret, conversations between Handmaids function as tiny rebellions in and of themselves. The women defy and ignore the language conventions thrust upon them, give their own opinions, and speak of the resistance.
Let’s consider the example below to analyse how the novel deals with the power of storytelling:
“I would like to believe this is a story I’m telling. I need to believe it. I must believe it. Those who can believe that such stories are only stories have a better chance. If it’s a story I’m telling, then I have control over the ending. Then there will be an ending, to the story, and a real life will come after it. I can pick up where I left off.”
Effect: Here, stories become a symbol of survival and control. In viewing her life as a story, rather than a mere collection of memories and events, Offred takes back the reins of her own existence from the Commanders of Gilead and is able to write her own ending. Offred is not a silent, subservient character in someone else’s tale; she is the author, the omniscient God. Once she finishes telling her story, Offred hopes that the world she inhabits will be revealed as fictional, and reality will begin once again. Thus, her narrative is both a rebellious voice emanating from a voiceless minority, and a means by which she believes she can return to her old life.
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