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The setting is the new Republic of Gilead, a country which is at war, where the roles of society are firmly defined, and women have no rights -- especially not handmaids. Our protagonist is a woman who has been trained to be a handmaid, one who conceives and gives birth on behalf of those who are officially wives. A sharp-eyed reader might catch her name in the first chapter; the rest of us just know her as Offred, the name she uses as long as she's with Fred and his wife. Handmaids don't get permanent names.
She gives a portrait of the society. She can remember before, when women still had rights; her mother was a feminist. She was married, but her husband was married before, which became important. It was a cashless society, so when the republic of Gilead took over, they just wiped out jobs for women and money for women at the same time. When things started getting more oppressive, she and her fella tried to flee, but she got caught; since she had been "living in sin," as her husband divorced his first wife, hence invalidating his marriage with her according to the fundamentalists that took over, she was made a handmaid.
It has been about seven years since then, long enough for seven-year-olds not to remember how it was before. AIDS and R-Strain syphilis have made many people sterile; pregnancies are rare, healthy births even rarer. Women are forbidden to read or write; handmaids must wear red and are forbidden to have peripheral vision. It's a simple job; get pregnant, have a live and unmutated birth, try to get along with the family, repeat as necessary. Three failures without a success, and the handmaid is killed or worse. Offred is with a tough family; the husband is a military man, and the wife (who must wear blue) was a singer who used to crusade about women staying at home and being good wives. She is not enjoying her retirement. There are also two "Marthas" who do all the housekeeping.
The previous Offred had committed suicide...
Offred befriends another handmaid, Ofglen, and eventually learns that she belongs to a resistance movement to fight or flee Gilead. She eventually falls head-over-heels with another of its members. Offred enters a second underground through Fred, who is willing to share extra things with her, things normally forbidden to handmaids, to get extra time with her; its motives are less noble....
Very popular in Anglophone high school English classes, although the confronting adult subject matter leads to a crusade to ban the book every five years or so.
Made into a film in 1990 starring the late Natasha Richardson, Robert Duvall and Faye Dunaway.
This book contains examples of:
- Artistic License Biology: No form of pollution fits what's described in the book, and you cannot screw up the oceans that badly without massive repercussions.
- Though the book does acknowledge that Offred is an Unreliable Narrator as she can only speculate on what she is told, which as a handmaid is not much, and even then is filtered through state sponsored propaganda. The Republic of Gilead could be feeding people false information about environmental disasters for all the reader knows.
- Be Careful What You Wish For: Serena Joy spent most of her pre-Gilead career as a televangelist promoting "traditional family values" (i.e. women should stay in the kitchen and aspire to be baby-factories, etc). But now that everything she preached for has been instituted into Gilead's laws, she is less than pleased with the new situation. This may be a Shout-Out to Phyllis Schlafly who campaigned against the Equal Rights Amendment in the US on the grounds that it would destroy women's traditional role in the home, but was herself a lawyer who failed to follow this in her own life.
- Also, Offred's mother, a radical feminist, wished for a separate women's culture and that pornography be eradicated. Both very much happened in Gilead.
- Bolivian Army Ending: Offred's story has one, although the Distant Finale gives away what happened.
- Broken Pedestal: When Offred meets Moira at Jezebel's. Prior to this all she knew was that Moira had overcome an Aunt and escaped - she is understandably shaken to find her in her current position, not just because of the role but because she's finally been broken.
- Bury Your Gays: Or rather, "leave your gays hanging on the gibbet as a warning to others." "Gender treachery" in Gilead is punishable by death, along with many other "crimes."
- Canis Latinicus: "Nolite te bastardes carborundorum" is carved into the closet's wall in Offred's bedroom. She thinks it's a real Latin phrase; later the Commander tells her that it's a fake Latin joke for "don't let the bastards grind you down".
- The Conspiracy: We can assume its of the Group variety. Why? Well, how else did a group formed by Fundamentalist Christians, The Far Right and anti-pornography activists manage to infiltrate the highest echelons of the pre-Gilead government and military?
- Confirmed in the book with a far-right cabal in the US government known as the Sons of Jacob that plots its takeover.
- The fruits of their plan? The President's Day Massacre: In which The President and his cabinet are assassinated, while Congress was decimated and disbanded. In other words, nothing less than the total collapse of the government. Goodbye America, hello Gilead.
- And they blamed it on the Muslim terrorists - at the time pre-dating 9/11 and resulting conspiracy theories of an "inside job" by 16 years.
- There's mention in the book of a school named "after the President they shot" still standing.
- Color Coded for Your Convenience: Women in Gilead are divided into castes, reflected by the color of robes they wear. Wives wear blue, Daughters wear white, Aunts wear brown, Marthas wear green, and Handmaids wear red. Econowives wear garish multi-color robes to show that they play multiple roles.
- Corrupt Church: Fundamentalist Christianity cranked up to the point where it does not even resemble Christianity anymore, and was explicitly compared in the book to the system of Iran.
- Crapsack World: Pretty much so.
- Distant Finale: After (quite a bit less than) 100 years Gilead collapses but the Gileadean civil war with dissident groups has exhausted the Western powers and formerly "3rd World" nations are now dominant (e.g. somehow Nunavut is now the academic centre of the world).
- Also a textbook case of Dystopia Is Hard; the fundamentalists got exactly what they asked for, but actually running a brutal theocracy is a hell of a lot harder than calling for it. It quickly comes crashing down around their heads, and the beginning of the collapse can even be seen in the course of the book. Mind that its falling apart a mere seven years after being founded.
- Future Imperfect: The epilogue
- Faceless Eye: The Republic's secret police are called the Eyes of God, or simply Eyes.
- Fictional Document
- Genre Shift: The emotionally-laden story of Offred is immediately followed by the transcript of a speech given at a Gileadean study symposium that clinically dissects the story, finally dismissing most of it as too vague and unreliable as a primary historical source.
- Happiness in Slavery: Some women like the lifestyle of a Handmaid.
- Especially true for the Marthas.
- Headscratcher (or possibly a Continuity Error). It's implied that women have to have proven their ovaries are "viable" by having at least one child before becoming Handmaids. Moira, a lesbian, is in the Red Centre with Offred. Later, she states "I had my tubes tied years ago," which leads the reader to wonder how she was supposed to be a Handmaid. It's never explained.
- History Repeats: the Epilogue, where it is pretty clear that humanity has learned nothing from the misogynistic Gilead; casual sexism is still alive and well.
- IKEA Erotica: Intentionally invoked to show how passionless, loveless, and chore-like sex has become in Gilead.
- Jerkass: Selena's not-so-subtle attitude towards Offred.
- Literary Agent Hypothesis: The epilogue contains an academic history essay where it is revealed that the novel you are just reading is a transcript of tapes Offred recorded as she is being smuggled out of the country.
- Lady in Red: Played with. Most people assume that Handmaids are massive sluts.
- La Résistance
- Literary Allusion Title: The book is named in the fashion of the stories from The Canterbury Tales. In case you didn't figure this out, it's explicitly spelled out in the epilogue.
- Mandatory Motherhood: Played straight in Gilead, because of the fact many high-ranking women are infertile or too old to get pregnant, so going on the Biblical precedent of Rachel and Jacob, they force "handmaids" to bear a child in their place.
- No Ending: Subverted immediately by the Literary Agent Hypothesis epilogue that follows on the next page.
- No Name Given: Our protagonist, and all other handmaids, but if you really read between the lines, her first name is probably June, implied by a line in the first chapter: "We learned to lipread, our heads flat on the beds, turned sideways, watching each other's mouths. In this way, we exchanged names, from bed to bed: Alma. Janine. Dolores. Moira. June". Everyone in the list appears later in the story, except June.
- Subverted in the 1990 film adaption, Offred's name is Kate
- No-Paper Future
- This is a major plot point as when the Fundamentalists take over, they simply freeze all women's bank accounts so their money is gone, then make it illegal to employ them (Offred mentions having all electronic money made this easier as well. Then women reading is banned...
- No Woman's Land
- Oppressive States of America: Very much so.
- Playboy Bunny: Moira wears one of these costumes when she ends up in a brothel.
- Precision F-Strike: "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."
- Red Oni, Blue Oni: Offred wears red, while Serena Joy, who despises her, wears blue.
- Released to Elsewhere: Possibly, with the TV report about the Children of Ham being "resettled" to "national homelands" (a la apartheid South Africa) in North Dakota.
- Also, Jews are officially "repatriated" to Israel. (Unofficially, many of the ships carrying them are scuttled at sea.)
- Rule 34: Or at least evidence it exists inside Gilead.
- State Sec:
NoneAll are safe under The Eyes of God.
- Stealth Parody: Very few people seem to get the digs Atwood puts in at certain aspects of radical feminism.
- Stealth Pun: "Pen Is Envy."
- Sterility Plague: Declining fertility rates due to chemical pollution are a central theme in both the film and book versions.
- Strange Bedfellows: The anti-pornographic alliance between radical feminists and fundamentalist Christians shown before the United States became Gilead. This undermined them in the end, as their fundamentalist "allies" turned on women in general. This was a then-current strange bedfellows alliance in the early 1980s.
- Take That: Atwood includes a mild dig at the concept of cultural relativism used in anthropology research in the Epilogue.
- Triang Relations: Practically mandatory in Gilead, at least if the man can afford it, but it had better be the correct triangle.
- Twenty Minutes Into the Future
- Unperson: The unwomen.
- Unreliable Narrator: The writer of the epilogue seems to think Offred was one of these.
- She even says "This is a reconstruction. All of it is a reconstruction." There's some initial ambiguity as to whether this refers solely to the following scene or to the entire tale, but she goes on to explain in general terms why her recollections can't possibly be complete and accurate.
- The Un-Reveal: Offred's name.
- A few subtle hints in the book lead some to believe it's June.
- Oddly enough, in the film adaption Offred is called Kate.
- Unfortunate Implications: for a society to be as it is in the book everyone who didn't belong to a particular sect of Christianity would have to be killed/deported/enslaved, it would also require everyone of that sect of Christianity to be fine with the killing/deporting/enslavement it would also require a lot of corpses because there would be no way in hell for this to go easily, scare or not.