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The Handmaid’s Tale. Margaret Atwood The HT: Plot & General Criticism HT as a dystopia fiction & satire Gilead The narrator’s ways of resistance Household The novel and the film. Concerned with Canada’s cultural identity; Feminist concerns Survival (1972)

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the handmaid s tale

The Handmaid’s Tale

Margaret AtwoodThe HT: Plot & General CriticismHT as a dystopia fiction & satireGileadThe narrator’s ways of resistance


The novel and the film

margaret atwood
Concerned with Canada’s cultural identity; Feminist concerns

Survival (1972)

Duality “Tricks with Mirror”; Two-Headed Poems (1978)

Victim mentality

The Circle Game

(1966, poetry)

Survival (1972, non-fiction)

The Edible Woman (1969, novel)


(1973, novel)

Lady Oracle

(1977, novel)

Dancing Girls

(1977, short)

Life Before Man

(1979, novel)

Dancing Girls and Other Stories (1982, short stories) Bodily Harm

(1982, novel)

The Handmaid's Tale (1985, novel) Bluebeard's Egg (1987, short stories)

Selected Poems: 1965-1975 (1987, poetry)

Margaret Atwood
margaret atwood 2
42 books; 10 novels

Postmodern, self-reflexive mode

mixing poetry and fiction, mixing a lot of genres (Gothic, detective story, fairy tales, family romance, comedy, allegory, etc.)

Selected Poems II: 1976-1986

(1987, poetry... US)

Cat's Eye

(1989, novel)

Wilderness Tips

(1991, short stories)

The Robber Bride

(1993, novel)

Good Bones and Simple Murders (1994, short stories)

Alias Grace (1996, novel) A Quiet Game(1997, The Blind Assassins (2000)

Margaret Atwood (2)
the handmaid s tale plot
The Handmaid’s Tale: Plot
  • The simple, constrained life of a handmaid and her memories.
    • Her life: shopping, eating, bathing, waiting, ceremonies– intercourse, birthing, Salvaging.
    • “Night” sections – memories, meeting Nick, etc.
  • In-between the commander and his wife:

Commander – meetings in the study,


Wife – Nick

the handmaid s tale general criticism
The Handmaid’s Tale: General Criticism
  • Critique of patriarchal control –
  • How does the handmaid resist? Is she passive? e.g. Not actively involved in May Day underground group, loves hand cream, Vogue, Sleeps with both the Commander and Nick, the ending.
general criticism 2 ht as a national allegory using conservative feminism
General Criticism (2):HT as a national allegory using conservative feminism?
  • -- "[The Handmaid's Tale]'s understanding of female independence is determined by Atwood's sexually coded understanding of Canada and America. In this, Atwood's full-scale parody of American society, what concerns her is not a feminist politics of emancipation, but the nationalist politics of self-protective autonomy, an autonomy which, as I will argue, eventually translates into an advocacy of traditional femininity." (Sandra Tomc 74)
general criticism 3 offred too passive and un political
General Criticism (3): Offred too passive and un-political?
  • “[Atwood] seems to privilege the female existential will, the realm of private consciousness, as an adequate recompense for. . . enslavement.” (Glenn Deer 85).
  • “. . . when [Offred] is finally contacted by the resistance, she is curiously uninterested. She has sunk too far into the incestuous little household she serves. . . “ (Barbara Ehrenriech.)
ht 1985 as a dystopian sci fi satire
HT (1985) as a dystopian Sci-fi & satire
  • features of Dystopian works: (e.g. Brave New World, 1984, Blade Runner )
  • Fantasy and Fear of the future
  • Power , Totalitarianism, War and Environmental Pollution(the extreme outcome of technology (radiation, computerization – HT. credit card, infertility)
  • Two-Dimensional characterization and Binary Opposition: e.g. HT p. 10
targets of ht s satire
Targets of HT’s Satire
  • Three epigraphs: Genesis, Swift’s “Modest Proposal” and a Sufi proverb.
  • American Fundamentalism and Puritanism
  • The New Right in the 80’s and its backlash of feminism.
  • Feminist controversies: 1. Anti-pornography, 2. Abortion: Pro-choice vs. pro-life.
  • U.S. domination over Canada
american fundamentalism
American Fundamentalism
  • conservative movement in American Protestantism;
  • emphasizing as fundamental to Christianity the literal interpretation and absolute inerrancy of the Scriptures, the imminent and physical Second Coming of Jesus Christ, the Virgin Birth, Resurrection, and Atonement. In opposition to modernist tendencies in American religious and secular life.
u s canada
U.S. -- Canada
  • Atwood’s 1987 essay opposing the Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement: “Canada as a separate but dominated country has done about as well under the U.S. as women, worldwide, have done under men; about the only position they’ve ever adopted towards us, country to country, has been the missionary position, and we were not on top.” (82)
ht s general concerns
HT’s General Concerns
  • gender fascism Women’s or Canada’s autonomy.
  • Ways of constructing one’s self-identity (memories, story-telling, etc.) and uniting resisting forces.
  • When does the story happen and where is Gilead?
  • How does Gilead control women?
  • What are the biblical allusions in the novel?
  • Most probably in 1990’s, with 1980’s as “the time past”
gilead s location
Gilead’s Location:
  • Clues:
  • Offred escape north of Maine; the Historical notes: “Maine” p. 381
  • News broadcast: p. 107
    • The underground organization has sent resources to Canada.
    • Five Quakers were arrested in a place which used to be Detroit.
    • Montreal Satellite station is blocked. 105
gilead s location 2
Gilead’s Location (2):
  • Atwood’s interpretation: Boston.
  • “The Wall is the wall around Harvard yard. All those little shops and stores mentioned are probably there at this very minute. I lived in Boston for four years. It’s also the land of my ancestors. . . . They were Puritans of the 1630 – 1635 immigration. . . . “ (87).
literary association of gilead
Literary Association of Gilead
  • Scarlet Letter
  • American Renaissance (e.g. scholars such as Leslie Fieldler, Harry Levin.)
gilead s control spatial constraints
Gilead’s Control: Spatial constraints
  • I. Gilead's geography:
  • Commander's Compound (Kitchen, lawn with flowers, handmaid's room); gate 18; p. 23
  • Red Center, --punishments p. 118
  • the streets and the stores (Lilies, Milk and Honey, All Flesh) pp. 31
  • the Wall, pp. 42-
  • Jezebel
gilead s control spatial physical constraints 2
Gilead’s Control: Spatial/Physical constraints (2)
  • I. Offred’s Room: p. 9 –10
  • Archaic,
  • Reduced to the basic facilities.
gilead s control 2 thought control
Gilead’s Control 2: Thought Control
  • No talking, no thinking – p. 10; total control of news broadcast 105-107
  • salutes and sayings:
  • "Blessed be the fruit"; "May the God open"--p. 25; "Praise be." p. 26; farewell = "Under His Eye" p. 59.
  • "Waste not, want not." p. 9;

"Think of yourself as seeds." p. 25; "The Republic of Gilead knows no bounds. Gilead is within you." p. 31; two kinds of freedom p. 33; "Modesty is invisibility" p. 38; "All Flesh is weak" p. 60. "Men are sex machines" 186

gilead s control 3 hierarchy
Gilead’s Control 3: Hierarchy
  • Gilead‘s hierarchy and names:
  • Commander, Eye (24, 29; 38),
  • Angel, Guardian of the Faith (27-28),
  • Guards, 30
  • Wife, 16, 18-19; 20-21-22
  • Aunt, pp. 4, 25; 33
  • Handmaid—their names, Janine p. 35, 36; Martha, p. 13-; 28; Econowives p. 32, widow, p. 32, Unwoman
  • Gilead's color: black, blue, etc. pp. 12, 29

Tourists p. 37-38

the handmaid s tale gilead
The Handmaid's Tale: Gilead
  • Gilead's Thought Control: Aunt pp. 25; 33
  • the Eye -- anybody can be the Eye
  • Why is there such an authoritarian nation, Gilead?
    • Feminist controversies over porn, abortion, Feminism backlash, computerization, environmental pollution, etc.
the handmaid s tale themes intertexuality
The Handmaid's Tale:Themes & Intertexuality
  • Intertextuality:
  • Bible,
  • The Little Red Riding Hood, p. 11; garden p. 16; red tulips 44
  • Scarlet Letter, etc.
the handmaid s tale themes intertexuality1
The Handmaid's Tale:Themes & Intertexuality
  • Biblical Allusions –
  • Martha, devoted herself to housework while her sister Mary sat and listened to Jesus.
  • Jezebel -- tried to kill the Lord's prophets and encouraged Ahab to do evil. the dogs would devour Queen Jezebel's body
the handmaid s identity
The Handmaid’s identity
  • Question:
  • How does the narrator, Offred, re-construct her identity after she is reduced to just the role of being a handmaid?
offred june
Offred – June
  • “I keep the knowledge of [my] name like something hidden, some treasure I’ll come back to dig up, . . .” (108)
  • Self – 1. senses: her smell 1, p. 10, empathy 29, look 24; desire 39
  • Body: enjoys the power of a dog bone 30;

her idea of freedom 38;

  • Relate to the others: yearning 4-5; talk 13-14; Nick 24; 28-29-30; 45 Ofglen; the previous girl,
offred june1
Offred – June
  • Language redefined: -- no reading, no store names. P. 33
    • Habits 33
    • food (date rape 50 );
  • Night p. 49 & memory:
  • Memory – p. 16; 32- Moira, Mother; about Luke 15, 44; daughter pp. 51-52
  • Criticism p. 25; and correcting Aunt's lessons in her head 25; 60 “All flesh is weak. All flesh is grass.”
the bible
The Bible
  • P. 251- “My God. Who Art in the Kingdom of Heaven, which is within.
  • I wish you would tell me Your Name, the real one I mean. But You will do as well as anything. . . .
  • I have enough daily bread, so I won’t waste time on that. It isn’t the main problem. The problem is getting down without choking on it.
  • Deliver us from evil.
  • Then there’s Kingdom, power, and glory. It takes a lot to believe in those right now. But I’ll try it anyway. In Hope, as they say on the gravestones. . . .
handmaid s identity 2
Handmaid’s identity (2)
  • Keen desire & physical senses desire (e.g. Nick & the guardian)
  • Relate to people around her
  • re-constructions of the past.
  • What are the purposes of turning sexual intercourse into a public ceremony? How is Offred treated in the Ceremony? Does this happen today?
  • How does she maintain her sense of self when it is denied by the others?
gilead s control of sexuality
Gilead’s control of sexuality
  • Not about romance, passion or desire; only a matter of duty. p. 122
    • The man can still enjoy it with two women.
    • Women turned into “ailing mothers” p. 123.
  • Sexual intercourse ritualized; endorsed by the Bible.
  • Offred: like a furniture, arms being held by Serena p. 121
offred june s self assertion
Offred/June’s self-assertion
  • Language -- Re-definition of household p. 103-104; tense, tensed 127; Offred, Off-red.
  • Relating to others: Feeling her contact with Nick 104;
  • Praying "Nolite te bastardes carborundorum": "Don't let the bastard grind you down." p. 117
  • Watching him (returning the gaze p. 113)
offred june s self assertion1
Offred/June’s self-assertion
  • Remembering as a way of escape:
    • pp. 108-109 (escape);
    • p. 115 (Moira),
  • Self-assertion after the ceremony p. 124
  • Which of the above is the most powerful way of resistance?Are they all internal thinking and thus not actually powerful?
differences between the film and the novel

Memory—escape scene, quiet

The woman as still an object of gaze. e.g. after the 1st ceremony.


More thinking, remembering, narrating and feeling.

e.g. after the 1st ceremony

Differences between the film and the novel
differences between the film and the novel 3

The ending: killed the commander, rescued by Nick


After the ceremony: self-nourishing; want to see, want to steal. pp. 125 –

With Nick: different possibilities in chap 40.

ambiguous ending

Differences between the film and the novel (3)

“Neither of us say the word love. . . “ (347)

“And so I step up, into the darkness within, or else light.” (378)

the historical notes
The Historical Notes
  • 12th Symposeum of Gilead Studies in 2195.
  • University of "Denay“("deny“; native group in The Northwest Territories); Canada criticized.
  • Explains the source of the tale (30 something tapes), their inability to identify Offred, the Gilead’s ways of arresting women and possible reasons for infertility.
  • Similarities between Pre-Gilead period and Gilead period: birth services; polygamy, totalitarianism (e.g. KGB) p. 386- 87
the historical notes1
The Historical Notes
  • Gender structure unchanged:
  • Professor Pieixoto flirting with Crescent Moon –”enjoy” her
  • “Underground Femaleroad” “The Underground Frailroad” 381
  • His distrust of the narrator.
  • “Our job is not to censure, but to understand.” 383