Critical Essays Literary Analysis of The Handmaid's Tale


A one-of-a-kind tour de force, Margaret Atwood's futuristic The Handmaid's Tale refuses categorization into a single style, slant, or genre. Rather, it blends a number of approaches and formats in a radical departure from predictable sci-fi or thriller fiction or feminist literature. Paramount to the novel's success are the following determinants:

  • existential apologia a defense and celebration of the desperate coping mechanisms by which endangered women survive, outwit, and undermine devaluation, coercion, enslavement, torture, potential death sentences, and outright genocide. Like Zhukov in Alexander Solzhenitsyn's One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Offred clings to sanity through enjoyment of simple pleasures: smoothing lotion on her dry skin and smoking a cigarette with Moira and her lesbian sisterhood in the washroom at Jezebel's; remembering better times with her mother, husband, and daughter, even the veiled sniping between Luke and his mother-in-law; recollecting the pleasant frivolities and diversions that women once enjoyed — for example, eye makeup, fashions, and jewelry, and women's magazines; and allowing herself moderate hope for some alleviation of present misery, although Offred never gives way to a fantasy of rescue, reunion with her family, and return to her old life.
  • oral history a frequent vehicle of oppressed people who, by nature of their disenfranchisement through loss of personal freedoms, turn to the personal narrative as a means of preserving meaningful experience, and to recitation of eyewitness accounts of historical events in an effort to clarify gaps, myths, errors, and misconceptions. Similar to Jane, the participant in the Louisiana civil rights movement and title character in Ernest Gaines' fictional Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, and to Jack Crabb, the bi-national spokesman and picaresque participant at the Battle of the Little Big Horn in Thomas Berger's Little Big Man, Offred offers an inside view of the effects of political change on ordinary citizens — that is, the powerless, who are most likely to suffer from a swift, decisively murderous revolution. As a desperate refugee on the "Underground Frailroad," her harrowing flight contrasts the knowing titters of the International Historical Association studying Gilead from the safety of women's rights and academic freedom two centuries in the future.
  • speculative fiction a form of jeremiad — an intentionally unsettling blend of surmise and warning based on current political, social, economic, and religious trends. As a modern-day Cassandra, Offred seems emotionally and spiritually compelled to tell her story, if only to relieve the ennui of her once nun-like existence and to touch base with reality. Her bleak fictional narrative connects real events of the 1980s with possible ramifications for a society headed too far into conservatism and a mutated form of World War II fascism. By frequent references and allusions to Hitler's Third Reich and its "final solution" for Jews, Atwood reminds the reader that outrageous grabs for power and rampant megalomania have happened before, complete with tattoos on the limbs of victims, systemized selection and annihilation, virulent regimentation, and engineered reproduction to produce a prevailing Caucasian race.
  • confession an autobiographical revelation of private life or philosophy intended as a psychological release from guilt and blame through introspection and rationalization. Like the weeping survivors of the doomed boy-kingdom in William Golding's Lord of the Flies and Holden Caulfield rehashing his failures and foibles from a private California psychiatric hospital in J.D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye, Offred frequently castigates herself for trying to maintain her humanity and fidelity to cherished morals and beliefs in a milieu that crushes dissent. In frequent night scenes, during which Offred gazes through shatterproof glass into the night sky in an effort to shore up her flagging soul, her debates with herself reflect the thin edge that separates endurance from crazed panic. By the end of her tale, she has undergone so much treachery and loss of belief and trust that the likelihood of total mental, spiritual, and familial reclamation is slim. The most she can hope for is physical escape from the terrors of Gilead and the healing inherent in telling her story to future generations.
  • dystopia an imaginary world gone sour through idealism that fails to correspond to the expectations, principles, and behaviors of real people. In the face of rampant sexual license, gang rape, pornography, venereal disease, abortion protest, and the undermining of traditional values, the fundamentalists who set up Gilead fully expect to improve human life. However, as the Commander admits, some people are fated to fall short of the template within which the new society is shaped, the ethical yardstick by which behavior is measured. His chauvinistic comment is significant in its designation of "some people." These "some people" are nearly all female, homosexual, underground, and non-fundamentalist victims — a considerable portion of the U.S. population.

Indigenous to dystopian fiction is the perversion of technology, as evidenced in Brave New World, 1984, Anthem, and R.U.R. In Margaret Atwood's Handmaid's Tale, loss of freedom begins with what appears to be merely a banking error. Only after repeated attempts to access her funds does Offred realize that control of assets no longer exists for the women of Gilead. From credit card subversion, the faceless radical hierarchy moves quickly to presidential assassination, murder of members of Congress, prohibition of women from schools and the work force, control of the media, and banning of basic freedoms. Without books or newspapers, telephones or television, Offred has no means of assessing the severity of society's deprivations. Controlled by Identipasses, Compudoc, Computalk, Compucount, and Compuchek, she must rely on the most primitive measures of gaining information and securing hope, even the translation of scrawled Latin doggerel on her closet wall. Interestingly, Atwood does not resort to farfetched wizardry. Her astute use of televangelism, cattle prods, credit cards, roadblocks, border passes, computer printouts, barbed wire, public executions, and color-coded uniforms reflects the possibilities of subversion of current technology and social control devices.