The Handmaids Tale

The Handmaid’s Tale 

The Handmaid's Tale, originally published in 1985, is a dystopian novel written by Canadian author Margaret Atwood. It is set in a near-future New England, in a totalitarian state resembling a theonomy that overthrows the United States government. 


Main Characters’ early description


Physical description

Throughout the novel, we notice that Offred is hiding her thoughts quite often, so it is very hard to understand what she is really thinking sometimes. She is full of memories of her life before Gilead, and her observations and honest emotions have shown that sometimes even the system like this can be powerless over its subjects.

Serena Joy:

Physical description



S.J. is hostile in the description but also in interaction, for example, when she says "you give me trouble, I give you trouble back". She is also very possessive of her husband as is shown in the quote: "as for my husband …. final".   Particularly "perfectly clear" & "till death do us part" shows that S.J. will not accept anything from Offred except why she is there.

The Commander:

Physical description

The Commander can be said to have an air of secrecy(mystery) around him, for example, he hardly ever leaves his quarters when at home. He is also described as potentially aggressive as it is seen at the end of chapter 8 in which Offred describes him as being potentially ready to "attack" and asks herself the question of whether he was "invading". Both words implying hostility & a person of fear.


Physical description

We don’t know his real motivations behind his actions. He is a risk-taker, he does not care about the others in the society, he is someone Offred is attracted to. Since Offred tells us a lot of things indirectly, we have to resolve some things ourselves. Ex: She wants to know how this guy is smelling, hence she wants to be close to him. Nick and Offred are prompt to have a relationship, and it is obvious from the early pages. He is considered trustworthy by the Commander and Serena Joy, but still can be considered quite a mysterious character, as we don’t really get the chance to know his real thoughts, as Offred struggles with it as well.

Character development

Themes in the Handmaid’s Tale

  1. Sexism has detrimental effects on society.
  2. Freedom and the right to an opinion are valuable goods.
  3. Religious extremism can be dangerous.
  4. Be kind to one another even in difficult times.
  5. Religious fundamentalism undermines freedom of expression.

A tie between characters and themes




Freedom and the right to an opinion are valuable goods


In the gymnasium, she was forced to confess her sins (as perceived by Aunt Lydia) but she is unwilling to say it as such. As a result, she is punished for something that is not her fault


Moira is closely associated with that theme. Even though she is trapped in the system of Gilead like everybody else, she stills tries to get at least a bit of freedom - she prefers to work at Jezebel's rather than be a handmaid, as there is a bit more freedom there. She is the person that will never come to terms with her situation and give up. She always desperately tries to escape realising that it might cost her life, she thinks it is better to at least try and get out than to live under that regime.

Religious extremism can be very dangerous

Entire society by the Handmaids in particular

Suppression of their freedom, the rape in the form of a Ceremony, future uncertainty, and suicide

Religious fundamentalism undermines freedom of speech 


This is seen in the effects on every character the Commander comes into contact with, for example, the fashion magazines he shows Offred are illegal in Gilead, yet his way of trying to seduce Offred. They are symbolic of how his suppression affects everyone and everything. The Commander himself is also affected by the very rules he helped set up.


Offred is the victim of this regime, she, just like every other woman in Gilead, is not allowed to read, to dress however she wants, to work, and so on…

Sexism has detrimental effects on society


When she talks about being gang-raped and is subsequently blamed by other women, rather than comforted, the actual perpetrators go free. The encouragement of women shaming each other only furthers the detrimental effects of the rape on Ofwarren.

An important note on the organization of the novel

Offred thinking on language (p.21)

Reading the novel attentively, you might have noticed that sometimes Margaret Atwood writes specific words italicized. The significance of this is discussed below.


Fraternize - to behave like a brother. To behave like a sister - Sororize.

I think the reader's attention is brought so we could reflect upon this particular statement because when it comes to think about it, is there an actual difference between behaving like a sister or a brother. I would, for example, never distinguish between those two. It emphasizes the inequality of men & women (women are not allowed to use language at all --> not even words in the supermarket but only pictures of the things you could buy)

Stillborn, it was. Or, Stabbed her with a knitting needle, right up in the belly. Jealously, it must have been, eating her up. Or, tantalizingly, It was a toilet cleaner she used. Worked liked a charm, though you'd think he'd of tasted it. Must've been that drunk; but they found her out all right.

A wife killing a handmaid… A handmaid killing a commander… Offred tells us how the whole society she lives; already after 20 pages we read about killing someone with toilet cleaner, which is referring to the fact that hard suítuations are not of a seldom occurrence in this society.

The significance of colors

All the handmaids wear red:

All the wives wear blue: 

All the Marthas wear green:

All econwives wear mixed colors:

All Commanders wear black:

Freedom to & freedom from

Freedom to means making your own choices. In the context of “The Handmaid’s Tale” it is talking to others, going to wash your own clothes, go running. All of it is now unavailable to women.

Freedom from means freedom from specific behaviors of people e.g people are not allowed to whistle at women, they are not being catcalled on the streets, they are not being touched unwantedly.

An important question to ask oneself:

What type of society would I prefer to live in? With freedom to do things or freedom from something?

Things to consider when answering:

The tone throughout the novel

Page number



Page 35

"dying, said Aunt Lydia, of too much choice"


"They wore blouses with buttons down the front that suggested the possibilities of the word undone. These women could be undone; or not. They seemed to be able to choose. We seemed to be able to choose, then. We were a society dying, said Aunt Lydia, of too much choice."


Undone is italicized, it means unfinished, failed. Women back then had a choice either to succeed or fail.

Page 36

"One of them was vastly pregnant: her belly under her loose garment, swells triumphantly"


It shows jealousy associated with times when a Handmaid manages to get pregnant.

Page 37

"I'll tell it to the Marthas; it is the kind of thing they enjoy hearing about.

Judgemental. It also shows that the fawning is really nothing out of place in this society, as Offred is trying to do something to please the Marthas, who are in a higher position of power than her.

Page 38

"I used to dress like that. That was freedom, Westernized, they used to call it.

Someone from the far East is Westernized, so the roles are switched.

Page 39

"Modesty is invisibility, said Aunt Lydia. Never forget it. To be seen - to be seen - is to be - her voice trembled - penetrated. What you must be, girls, is impenetrable. She called us girls."


"There is a silence. But sometimes it's as dangerous not to speak.


“Yes, we are happy,' I murmur. I have to say something. What else can I say?"

Invisible is equated to impenetrable

"violation", "penetrated", "forbidden", "hidden", "black" "dangerous to speak". All of those imply VULNERABILITY. 

Page 40

"We already know which way we are going to take, because we always take it"

First, she says they have a choice, but then she says they always take the same route. There is an illusion of choice created.

Page 42

"There must have been a Men's Salvaging early this morning. I didn't hear the bells. Perhaps I've become used to them.

She is trying to not conform to the rules throughout the book, but here we can see that this world is becoming a part of her, just like she is a part of it.

Page 43

"What we are supposed to feel towards these bodies is hatred and scorn. This isn't what I feel.

The main character is disconnected from the group. She is not something she is supposed to be.

Page 49

"There's always someone else. Even when there is no one."


"Tell, rather than write, because I have nothing to write with and writing is in any case forbidden"


"It isn't a story I'm telling"

"It's also a story I'm telling"

Her hope is that one day there will be the time when her isolation ends and she is able to tell someone her story. Because it is only a story of you tell it to someone.

The book not internally consistent in its logic because she was not allowed to write but still the book is completely written in present. 

She is trying to convince herself  "It isn't a story I'm telling" BUT "It's also a story I'm telling"

It is a story about her own life, but there is nobody around to hear it, apart from herself or the people she created in her mind (when appealing with the pronoun YOU)


Comparing 2 chapters

Chapter 16 (the night of the ceremony)

Chapter 17 (in the kitchen with Nick)

·       Extremely out of the ordinary

·       Offred without choice

·       Human emotion suppressed & cut off

·       Commander seen as dispassionate and without secrets

·       Focus purely on the room, and what is happening there and then.

·       Almost completely normal, everyday start

·       Offred does something of her own choice

·       Human emotions and desire

·       Commander seen as having wants and having secrets, going against the rules

·       Thoughts of the future, there may be life after all this.



Choice - a moral decision to act in a certain way as opposed to all other presented alternatives.

The way Offred describes the Ceremony is impersonal, impatient, and almost has a sense of nostalgia for the past. This can be seen in language choices such as:

"What he is fucking is the lower part of my body"

This is because she is referring to her own body as something disconnect to her. Also, the verb used here in contrast with all other descriptions of the act, which emphasizes the lack of passion.

"Kissing is forbidden. This makes it bearable"

The word "bearable" with its implications of just being able to stand it, highlights the fact that this in no way romantic for Offred particularly as "kissing" is usually seen as an expression of romance.

Ceremony 1:

Ceremony 2:


Zygote - a science term that signifies the first stage of development of the new organism. It is a fertilized egg cell. Symbolic of the reason Offred is there in the begin with. Zygote shows that the sole purpose of sex now is procreation.

Quince - Adam & Eve. Biblical allusion - forbidden fruit. It is a fruit that brought sin (supposedly, because no-one knows whether it was an apple, a pear or a quince).

Larynx - voice box, symbolic of the women's lack of speech. Offred is now allowed to express herself (ironic).

Valence - curtain at the top of the window, symbolic of concealing, being out of sight. The images Offred describes during the Ceremony.

Limp - action without energy, emphasizes that what happens during the Ceremony and how Offred experiences it. It refers to walking with difficulty, which symbolizes that women are not allowed the freedom of movement and actions.

Gorge - to stuff oneself. Now that Offred has the opportunity to use words and express herself, she will take as much as she can from it. It also signifies a narrow rocky valley - Offed is walking a thin line, a dangerous path when she is visiting the Commander.  

IX Night

Some stylistic devices in this part

  1. Metaphors
    1. Lead them around by the nose.
    2. Men are sex machines.
  2. Similes
    1. Your own skin like a map, a diagram of futility.
    2. Like the golden mottoes over the Saints.
    3. Through the curtains gauzy as a bridal dress, as ectoplasm.
  3. Repetitions
    1. It could be important, it could be a passport, it could be my downfall.
    2. I need to be earnest about it, I need to ponder it.
  4. Euphemisms
    1. This is one of the most bizarre things that’s happened to me, ever.
  5. Analogies
    1. But that’s where I am, there’s no escaping it. Time’s a trap, I’m caught in it.
    2. The whole analogy about the mistress, the Jewish maid.
  6.  Allusions
    1. Concentration camps, Holocaust & second World War.

The analogy of the woman who had an affair with a Nazi Camp Commander

Offred's view of the Commander has shifted after the Scrabble game. She now sees him as more than just the master of the household. In the analogy, Offred states "How easy is it to humanize someone" when speaking of the Camp Commander. There is a clear connection of her and the Commander. Offred herself can be seen as Commander's mistress. She is just there for his amusement. This analogy, therefore, appears at this point because it is when Offred starts visiting the Commander in his office, she is starting being his "mistress".


Origin: Jezebel is a queen of Israel who tempted her husband away from God to worship the God of the underworld.

The death of Jezebel

Modern-day usage: An angry, cunning, shameless woman often associated with loose morals.

Why used in the book:


What is it associated with:

  1. Lust
  2. Love
  3. Desire
  4. Intimate relations
  5. Reciprocal
  6. Traditionally between two people, but is in no way restricted to it.
  7. Excitement
  8. Passion
  9. Chemistry
  10. Emotion

Do Nick and Offred have a romance?



Commander’s take on romance

"Those years were just an anomaly."

     An anomaly usually refers to a deviation from the norm or a standard. So, when the Commander is saying that phrase, he already thinks that there is or there should be some sort of a rule that everyone should abide by, and that his opinion is representative of that rule. The thought of him being right is so strongly integrated into his head, he thinks it is the only appropriate way to go around things.

"The husband might just get fed up and take off"

     The fault is not on the husband. It implies that women have driven him to leave, which reveals a lot about the Commander's views of women/marriage.

"Ignorant women", "wretched little paycheck"

     It reinforces that he sees Gilead's way of life as the best one. His rule of "little" for example minimizes the importance of women being independent.

The historical notes

"I warn against judgment against Gilead as they have a cultural bias."

Has this kind of society actually existed?

If you are looking at "The Handmaid's Tale" from the intertextuality area of exploration point of view, it is worth looking at the TV series produced by HULU. Or just watch it for fun, it is a very cool show, although don't do it instead of reading the book, as they are quite different in terms of timeline and even the plot!


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