Atwood, Margaret - The Handmaid's Tale - A Science Fiction Novel written by a Woman

Pre-University Paper, 2003

18 Pages, Grade: 1+ (A+)


Table of Contents

1. About the Author

2. Definition: Science Fiction

3. The Gileadean Society

4. Introduction of the Main Characters

5. Summary of the Plot

6. Explanations: Historical Notes

7. The Handmaid’s Tale: A Science Fiction Novel written by a Woman

8. References

9. Statement

1. About the Author

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Margaret Eleanor Atwood was born the 18. 11. 1939 in Ottawa, Canada.

She went to Victoria College, then attended the University of Toronto and Harvard University. She loved writing since she was a young girl and so she began to publish her poems when she was 19 years of age.

In 1961 her first collection of poems named “Double Persephone” came out.

Between 1964 and 1973 she was a lecturer of English literature at several Canadian universities, for example at the University of Toronto from 1972 till 1973.

During that period of time, she continued writing.

Her first novel, “The Edible Woman” was published in 1969, followed by “Surfacing” in 1972, “Lady Oracle” in 1976, “Dancing Girls and Other Stories” in 1977, “Life before Man” in 1979, “Bodily Harm” in 1982 and finally “The Handmaid’s Tale”, first published in 1986.

By that time, Margaret Atwood had managed to become a writer with international success.

Her books have been translated into many different languages and have been published in countries all around the world.

Her novel “ The Handmaid’s Tale” won the Los Angeles Times Book Award, the Arthur C. Clarke Award for Science-Fiction and the Governor-General’s Award. It was also shortlisted for the Booker Prize and turned into a movie in 1990. She was also involved in the feminist movement in the early 1980s, which influenced some of her work, especially “The Handmaid’s Tale”.

During her time as a writer and lecturer, she never stopped writing poems, which were very successful, too. Some of her early poems were “The Animals in that Country”, published in 1968, “You are Happy”, published in 1975 and “Two-Headed Poems” in 1978.

One of her newer poems is possibly also her most successful one: “Morning in the Burned House”, which came out in 1995 and won the Trillium Award.

Motivated by her success as a writer and poet, she continued writing novels and poems like “Cat’s Eye” in 1989 which was also shortlisted for the Booker Prize. In 1993 she published her novel “The Robber Bride” and three years later “Alias Grace”.

Her newest work is called “The Blind Assassin”. It was released in the year 2000 and won the Booker Prize as well as the Dashell Hammett Prize.

But Margaret Atwood didn’t only write fiction-novels and poems, she also wrote books for children and four collections of non-fiction.

Her children-books include “Up the Tree” published in 1978, “For the Birds” in 1990 and finally “Princess Prunella and the Purple Peanut” which came out in 1995.

In 1982 she received the Welsh Art Council’s International Writer’s Prize for her lifework and in 1986 the “Ms-Magazine” named her “Woman of the Year”.

Today, Margaret Atwood lives with her husband, the writer Graeme Gibson and their daughter in Toronto.

Without a doubt she is one of the most important contemporary writers of the English-speaking world.

2. Definition: Science Fiction

In encyclopaedias, the term “science fiction” is defined as a literary genre with fantastic or utopian contents.

Science fiction has not to be realistic, it rather deals with issues like the future of mankind or the confrontation with aliens. In almost all the science fiction stories, technical or scientific progress have been taken place and somehow changed the lives of many or all people of the world.

In the very beginning of science fiction people wrote about discovering space, like in one of the first science fiction novels, called “Utopia”, written by Sir Thomas Mores in the year 1516. Another early science fiction novel is the well known “Gulliver’s Journey” by Jonathan Swift, published in 1726.

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley first brought the idea of creating an artificial human into life when she wrote “Frankenstein” in 1818, which is also considered to be a science fiction novel. Another very famous author of early science fiction was Jules Verne with his works “The Journey to the Middle of the Earth” in 1864 and “From Moon to Earth” in 1865. He was the first one to write about submarines, spacecrafts, helicopters or air-conditioning as inventions of the future.

Later, the idea of travelling in time fascinated the people and H.G.Wells, an English writer wrote his novel “The Timemachine” in 1895.

Another issue in the genre of science fiction was the biological progress. People started to think about cloning and their possible future together with artificial intelligence.

But not all science fiction novels were positive about the time to come. For example George Orwells “1984”, written in 1949 tells a story about a future, where everyone is being supervised. So “1984” is a dystopian story, because it suggests that the future takes a worse turn.

In the 1920s, science fiction magazines came up. One of the first ones was “Amazing Stories” written by Hugo Gernsback and published in 1926.

One of the most important science fiction writers was Arthur C.Clark. His novels include “The last Generation”, published in 1953 and “2001: Odyssey in Space”, published in 1968. Arthur C.Clark was so important for this literary genre that an important award for science fiction was named after him: the Arthur C.Clark Award for Science Fiction.

But people didn’t only want to read about the future visions of the authors, so, in the 1960s, they began to turn the most successful science fiction novels into movies. Examples are “Planet of the Apes”, first turned into a movie in the year 1968 or the classical “2001: Odyssey in Space” first turned into a film by Stanley Kubrick in 1968. The newer science fiction movies are for example Steven Spielbergs “E.T.” that came first into the cinemas in 1982 or “Star Wars” in 1977.

So, is Margaret Atwoods “The Handmaid’s Tale”, according to this definition, a science fiction novel at all?

Yes, it definitely is. Perhaps it is not the typical science fiction novel you would expect, but science fiction is not only visions about the future in space, future inventions, living with aliens or the technical progress. Science fiction can also base on social changes as well as on technical ones. In fact, science fiction novels based on social issues have been quite numerous since the early 1950s.

“The Handmaid’s Tale” is a utopian vision about the future based on radical social changes that changed the lives of many people, so that is why you can definitely call it a science fiction novel.

3. The Gileadean Society


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4. Introduction of the Main Characters

- Offred:

Offred is the main character in Margaret Atwood´s “The Handmaid’s Tale”.

She is 33 years old and works as a Handmaid, what insists, that she is still fertile.

The Commander she works for is called Fred and that is why her new name in the Republic of Gilead is Offred. All Handmaids have been given new names, consisting of the syllable “Of” and the first name of the Commander they belong to.

She is the first generation of Handmaid’s and was about 30 years of age, when the revolution happened and the Regime took over control. That’s the reason why she can hardly accept her new life as a subordinated woman without any rights.

Before the revolution, Offred was married to a man she calls Luke. They had a daughter, who was 5 years old when the regime came into their lives. Before her marriage with Luke, Offred had been divorced from her 1st husband, that’s why she had to choose between a life as a Handmaid or an Unwoman.

After the regime took over control, Offred was separated from her family and brought to a “Red Centre”, where she was taught the rules of the Regime and her future position as a Handmaid.

Fred is Offred´s 2nd Commander, so she is under a certain pressure, because with her 1st Commander, she didn’t manage to become pregnant and if she fails again, she might be declared an Unwoman and sent to the Colonies.

- Fred:

Fred is Offred´s Commander. He is a man in a high position and works for the Regime.

He is very rich and lives with his Wife, named Serena Joy, his Handmaid Offred, his two Marthas and his chauffeur in a huge mansion. He can afford a huge car and product from the black-market, which are forbidden in the Republic of Gilead. The fact, that he does things, that aren’t allowed anymore shows that he isn’t really loyal to the Regime.

Offred is Fred’s 2nd Handmaid after the 1st one didn’t become pregnant and finally killed herself.

Because the Regime doesn’t allow divorces, Fred lives together with his wife Serena Joy, who he doesn’t love and whom doesn’t understand him.

He also isn’t really happy with the present situation but he knows, that he has to play his role within the society if he doesn’t want to take the risk of being persecuted. He liked the world the way it was before the revolution and so he can’t believe that the Republic of Gilead has been built up for good.

- Serena Joy:

Serena Joy is the wife of Fred. Before the revolution, she was a famous singer and her name was Pam. Like the Handmaid, she has been given a new, biblical name.

When she was young, she was a very beautiful woman, but know she is kind of dried out and very upset with her life. Because of the dramatic increase of nuclear power-plants, she became infertile even before the revolution, but her high social position and the fact, that she hasn’t been divorced and was married to a man in a high position saved her from being declared an Unwoman and so she became a Wife.

The fact that she can’t become pregnant makes her really unhappy, because she doesn’t feel attractive for her husband anymore and also feels useless. She sits at home all day long, is not allowed to work, not even in the household, and has to bear, that her husband is having sex with their Handmaid for the reason of saving the future of Gilead by giving birth to a child. Serena Joy knows that children are the most important thing for the Regime and since she hasn’t got one and can therefor not help saving Gilead´s future, she fells useless and fears, that one day, the Regime decides to get rid of Wives like her. So all she really desires is a Handmaid who becomes pregnant and gives birth to a baby. The baby would be legally hers and so she would have something to care about and to look after.

A baby is her only hope to change her life to a better. Even though she is quite mean, you can sometimes understand her and even feel pity for her.

- Rita:

Rita is one of the two Marthas in the household of the Commander Fred. She is an elderly woman who managed to accept her new destiny as a servant in a household of rich people.

She feels contempt for the Handmaids, because for her, it is like prostitution.

Rita is an authority for the other Martha and for Offred.

Even though she knows that children are the most important thing in Gileadean society, she isn’t very keen on having one in her own household.

It is quite surprising that a woman of her age has managed to accept the new, stricter rules of the Regime and even her nes life as a subordinated woman with no rights.

- Cora:

Cora is the 2nd Martha in the household. She is much younger than Rita and seems to have accepted her new role. She doesn’t despise Offred as Rita does, because she knows about the important role Offred plays for the Commander and therefor for the whole household. She even kind of likes Offred, after all, they have almost the same age. Cora talks to Offred, she is the one responsible for the bath-day of the Handmaid and after she found the first Handmaid of the household hung up in her closet, she is very anxious that Offred will try the same one day and so put shame on the household again.

Cora, just like Serena Joy, really longs for a baby in the household. Perhaps she had never had the chance of getting a baby herself and her social position in the Republic of Gilead now makes it impossible for her.

- Nick:

Nick is a Working Man. He works as a chauffeur for the Commander. Sometimes he behaves a little bit strange, so he could be an Eye, although he seems to be totally loyal to his Commander.

Nick isn’t married and lives in a room upstairs the garage of the mansion.

He respects Offred because he knows, what she is worth.

- Moira:

Moira is Offred´s best friend, even before the revolution. She is a lesbian and therefor, her new life under the Regime won’t be very easy. Moira also decides to become a Handmaid and spends some time in the same “Red-Centre” as Offred, but one day, she tries to escape and after her 2nd attempt, she vanishes.

5. Summary of the Plot

“The Handmaid’s Tale” by Margaret Atwood is a diary of the Handmaid Offred. It is set in the near future in a place named Gilead, in the territory of the former United States of America. Because of the incredible increase of nuclear power plants, almost all the women became infertile and so the number of births sank rapidly. The government didn’t know what to do. That’s why a new era for the American people has begun:

A group of right-winged religious extremists have been taken over complete control. It started with the assassination of the president of the USA and the congress, then they suspended the Constitution. To avoid panic, they told the people, it would only be temporary and new elections would be held. So they managed to keep the people calm. Their aim was to built up a new society and to save the future of this new society by declaring fertile women as Handmaids, whose only job it was to give birth to as many children as possible. To reach that goal, they divided the people into different social groups.

The new elections never came and the Regime, as the leading group is now called, starts to censure newspapers ant television programs. They even close some TV-stations and newspapers down.

The usual passport isn’t valid anymore, that’s why everybody has to have an Identipass, that’s a new sort of passport, invented by the Regime. Roadblocks begin to appear and brothels are shut down, as well as prostitution is forbidden.

Until that moment, people aren’t really worried, although they feel something is going on, they still believe, the Regime will keep their promise and everything is just temporary.

After the first changes, the Regime starts to cut down women’s rights.

One day, the main character of the book, Offred, goes shopping and her credit card is not valid anymore. She is totally puzzled, because she can’t imagine why. After that incident, Offred goes to work and her boss has to fire all the female workers, because the Regime has put up a law which forbids women to work.

Offred calls her best friend Moira and she explains, that the Regime has put up some new laws which forbid women to hold property and to work. She also knows, that all the property of a woman will be transferred to her husband or to her next male relative.

So, at that time, all the women totally depend on their husbands. For lesbians like Moira it was even more difficult. They needed to hire a gay man and have all their property transferred to him.

Offred realises, that Luke, her husband, has complete power over her. She is not able to do anything without his knowledge. Although Luke tries to calm her, he starts patronising her.

After these radical changes, people started to react. There were marches, mostly by women but sometimes even joined by men. Offred doesn’t take part in these marches, she tries to take her mind of her worries by doing the household or playing with her daughter, who is about 4 or 5 years old.

But after a time of living like that, Offred can’t take it anymore and they decide to try to escape to Canada. Of course, that is illegal and so they have to be very careful not to leave the least appearance of leaving. They only pack a few things and Luke gets some faked Ids. At the border to Canada, they are being controlled and the Angel at the checkpoint doesn’t believe their story about an one-day-trip to Canada. So, Offred takes her daughter and runs away. That was the last time, she saw Luke. After that, we don’t know, what happened to her or her daughter, because she didn’t manage to remember.

She tells these things in a flashback later in the book. The very beginning of the book is the time after the attempt to escape, the time, when Offred is staying at a “Red-Centre”. Red-Centres are places, where future Handmaids live and learn all about their new life. These centres are run by Aunts, elderly women in the service of the Regime. Inside, no men are allowed, but outside, Angels with machine guns patrol around the building. Offred´s “Red-Centre” was a former gymnasium and her Aunt was called Aunt Lydia. The girls in the centres have to live with strict rules: praying, learning, eating and sleeping.

Their timetable is very strict and they are not allowed to do anything not written down in their schedule, for example, they are not allowed to read or write anymore or even to talk to each other. The Aunts try to cut down every emotional bonds between the girls because they say, it would be easier for them in their future lives. Moira is in the same centre as Offred, but she can’t take it any more and so she tries to escape. Her first attempt fails and after she was captured, they did terrible things to her. But that didn’t discourage her and so she tries it again. She really manages to get out of the centre, but after that, Offred doesn’t see her again and she doesn’t know what happened to her.

The next chapter is set much later. Offred is in her 2nd household, the household of Fred and Serena Joy. The Handmaid’s rooms are very simple, a chair, a table, a lamp, a closet and a bed. The window can not be opened and everything, the Handmaid could try to kill herself with, has been removed. There are no pictures on the walls and it makes Offred fell like being in the army.

Offred´s day is very well planed: The time is measured by bells and the first one rings at 6 o’clock in the morning. Offred has to get up, get dressed and then Cora brings her the breakfast. After that, Offred goes shopping.

They don’t have money anymore, they have token and after Offred fetched some tokens from Rita, she starts her shopping tour. It is the same one every day. She is accompanied by another Handmaid, called Ofglen. They are only allowed to walk in pairs. They mustn’t speak except for welcoming. On their way to the several shops, they have to pass some checkpoints, occupied by Guardians. The Guardians have to salute them, because they know that the future of Gilead depends on the Handmaids. On their first walk, Offred and Ofglen meet some Japanese tourists, what shows, that the revolution has only taken place in the former USA.

As they’ve finished their shopping, they visit “the Wall”. The Wall is the wall of a former university. It is used for salvaging. After the hanging, the dead bodies are hung out on hooks in the wall to warn the people. Every dead body has a drawing around his neck that shows, why he has been executed, for example a baby which means, that the one was executed, because he or she spoke up for abortion, and because babies are the most important thing for the Regime and abortion is against God’s will, this is a major crime.

After the shopping, Offred returns to the house and, for the first time, Nick talks to her, although he is not allowed to. Offred is really puzzled about that and for the first time she thinks that Nick might be an Eye. She also discovers that the Commander must have been in her room, what would be illegal. So, she starts to look at the things in her room more closely and discovers, that somebody lived there before, because that somebody wrote something on the bottom of the closet:


She doesn’t know what that means and asks Rita about the woman that lived in her room earlier. Rita then tells her, that the Handmaid before Offred couldn’t manage to become pregnant and when Serena Joy found out, she killed herself by using a rope and a hook in her closet.

Offred has to go to a doctor every few weeks to check, if she is still fertile and could possibly become pregnant. So a Guardian picked her up and took her to the doctor. The doctor isn’t allowed to see or talk to his patients, but after he read Offred´s file, he starts talking to her. He suggests that he could help her becoming pregnant, because he knows, that, if Offred doesn’t become pregnant soon, she might be declared an Unwoman. Offred is very surprised about that offer. Of course, that would be illegal and so she can’t understand why someone she doesn’t even know, wants to help her. But after all, the doctor could also be an Eye, trying to fool her and so she refuses.

Through all that time, Offred wonders what happened to her daughter and Luke. Everytime she passes the Wall, she watches out for a dead body, looking like Luke, but she can’t find a body of his stature.

As time goes by, the first Ceremony in Offred´s new household comes up. Before the Ceremony, the whole household comes together in the sitting room, Serena Joy’s territory, and the Commander reads out of the Bible.

After that, they all are allowed to watch the news on TV. They show that Gilead is in a war with Montreal, Canada. The evenings of the Ceremony are the only possibility for Offred to get to know what happens outside the walls of Gilead or even outside her house.

The Ceremony is described as something usual. Because Serena Joy is infertile, Fred is having sex with Offred to father a child. This act is called the Ceremony. Rita, Cora and Nick leave the room, Serena Joy, Offred and Fred are staying. Serena Joy lies on the bed, fully clothed, and between her legs lies Offred. She is fully clothed too, except for the white underdrawers. Now it is the Commander’s turn. He commits the act without any emotion, it is a job for him, like for Offred. At that evenings, Offred almost fells sorry for Serena Joy, because she has to bear that her husband has sex with a younger woman and can’t do anything against it. She is even wondering for whom the Ceremony is worse, for her or Serena Joy?

After this event, Offred does something totally illegal: she doesn’t return to her room, as she is supposed to, but walks through the corridor of the house and for the first time, she fells like doing a thing on her own. Just when she was a bout to return to her room, she notices someone standing behind her. It is Nick, who tells her, that the Commander wants to see Offred.

The Commander isn’t allowed to talk to Offred, she is just important for him in the nights of the Ceremony, so his wish is quite unusual.

Before it comes to a meeting between Fred and Offred another great event is taking place: a birth.

In the morning, Offred wakes up by sirens, she hurries into her clothes and then she sees the red Birthmobile, a red van that picks up the Handmaids from their household and takes them to the household where the birth is happening. Today, all the Handmaids are freed from their tasks, they don’t have to go shopping, the Marthas will do that for them, so days like these are special. Although only one Handmaid is giving birth, all the others celebrate with her, they celebrate this event as a success for all of them.

This birth takes place in the household, where Janine, a Handmaid who has been in the same “Red-Centre” as Offred, is serving. Janine is now called Ofwarren and will give birth to a child in the next few hours. After the Handmaids have arrived at the house, the blue Birthmibile, the one for the Wives, arrives. Ofwarren is upstairs with the other Handmaids and the Wives are downstairs, chatting, eating and looking forward to the birth. The Wives celebrate Warrens Wife, although it is not her, but Ofwarren, who will save the future of Gilead by giving birth to a child. As the time has come, all the Wives go upstairs in the master bedroom, where Ofwarren is lying on the bed. Now she has to sit on a birthing stool and Warren’s Wife sits above her. The Handmaids encourage Ofwarren by singing or telling her how to breathe. Finally, she gives birth to a healthy girl. In the moment after the birth, the baby is taken away from his mother and given to Warren’s Wife. The Wives congratulate her and she names the girl Angela. The Handmaids are all exhausted and get something to drink, but nobody cares for Ofwarren. She has done her job, she has given her Commander a baby, not a boy though, but most important of all, not an Unbaby. Unbabies are disabled or not fathered by a Commander. After the birth, Ofwarren is transferred to another household to become pregnant again.

Offred and the other Handmaids go home again. Offred feels, that she has failed, because she hasn’t been pregnant once and in that moment of worries, she can’t help thinking about her earlier life, her daughter and her husband Luke.

After the birth, Offred is the one who knows the latest gossip and so the Marthas allow her to stay in the kitchen and tell them everything about the baby. Cora tells, that she thinks, it is time now to have a birthday in their house and that makes Offred fell even more useless. She knows, that all the hopes or Cora and also Serena Joy base on her success or failure.

In The following night, the first meeting between Offred and Fred takes Place. Nick knocks on Offred´s door and takes her to the Commander’s room. She knows, that she will be declared an Unwoman if somebody will find out, because it is not allowed, that the Handmaids are alone with their Commanders.

But on the other hand, she can’t refuse an order from her Commander, she steps in. After they talked a little bit, the Commander tells Offred why he wanted her to come: He wants her to play Scrabble with him. Offred can’t believe that, because she isn’t allowed to read or write and she doesn’t understand, why the Commander takes the risk of asking her instead of asking Serena Joy. She doesn’t dare asking and so they play two games of Scrabble before she returns to her room.

After that meeting, she feels exited, because after all that time, she was finally able to do something, that pleased her, she could talk to someone, could read and write and, for a few moments, forget about her situation.

The meetings between Offred and Fred become regular. After a time, Offred doesn’t even feel guilty about it anymore. She gets to know the Commander and also his relationship to Serena Joy. Fred tells her that Serena Joy doesn’t understand him and therefor he needs someone to talk to: Offred.

By the time she knows the Commander better, she dares to ask him, what the words NOLITE TE BASTARDES CABORUNDORUM, that she found in the closet, mean. She knows, it must be Latin and she has seen a Latin dictionary in one of the shelves in his room. Even though the Commander really likes her, he never allowed her to read one of his books, although he knew that she would love to do it. But that evening changed quite a few things. After he told her that the Latin words meant DON`T LET THE BASTARDS GRIND YOU DOWN, he starts taking her serious.

She is allowed to read his books, he even gives her some handlotion, what is illegal, too. He even tells her the truth about the former Handmaid. She was in the same situation Offred was now, she met with the Commander regularly. One day, Serena Joy found out. She told the Handmaid that she was going to report her to the Angels and that the Handmaid would be declared an Unwoman. After that, the Handmaid killed herself.

The Commander and Offred have an arrangement: Nick. If he polishes the car when Offred goes shopping, it means that the Commander wants to see Offred. But that doesn’t make the situation more bearable, it makes it even worse. Before, the Ceremony was a job for both of them, now it is different, because they got to know each other. They also have to fear that Serena Joy will find out if they behave different at the night of the Ceremony.

The time goes by and it’s another shopping-day again. Offred and Ofglen walk together again and after some time, Ofglen tells Offred something about a secret network, helping Handmaids to escape. Offred can’t believe, that something like that really exists but she is also quite happy about that fact. In times, when she can hardly accept the present situation, it helps her to get over her depressions.

When she comes home from that walk, Serena Joy wants to talk to her. Offred is surprised, but follows the order. Serena Joy has been thinking about their situation and suggests Offred to arrange a meeting between her and Nick, so they could find out if it was the Commander’s fault that Offred wouldn’t become pregnant.

Offred doesn’t know what to answer because she never thought of it that way. She never thought that it might be the Commander’s fault and not hers. Also she can’t understand why Serena Joy wants to help her, after all, she is only a Handmaid and if she fails, the next one will come.

But she knows that this offer might be a chance for her and so she accepts.

The day of Thanksgiving is still celebrated in Gilead, though in a different way. Thanksgiving means that the daughters of the Wives are married to Angels. That always is a great event. This time it is the possibility for Offred to talk to Ofglen about the secret network. Ofglen tells her that the network knows about the meetings between Offred and her Commander and so she can put her under pressure. She wants Offred to spy on Fred and tell the network everything she can find out.

Back home, Serena Joy visits Offred in her room and gives her a present: a Polaroid print from her daughter. She has stolen it from somewhere and has to hand it back quite soon, so Offred can only have a quick look.

Her girl is grown-up, she has already had her first communion and she seems to be in good hands. But what causes Offred pain is the fact, that she seems to have forgotten about her mother. Serena Joy has to take the print back and Offred wished, she would never have seen it, because in her mind, she had accepted the fact, that her daughter was dead and now she sees that picture and doesn’t have a possibility to find out more about her. Even if Serena Joy really wanted to do her a favour with that picture, she made things even worse.

During another meeting with the Commander, Offred is being surprised once more. Fred takes out an old costume, with glitter and feathers and all the forbidden things. He wants Offred to put it on, he even gives her a lipstick and rouge. Then he takes her out. Offred has never been out before since the Regime took over control. The Commander asked for Nick and Nick drove them to a former hotel. Before they went in, Fred told Offred not to talk to much, to stay at his side and do what he says. So they finally went in.

What was once a hotel was now a meeting point for Commanders. They sat in the lobby with their black uniforms, surrounded by women in playboy-costumes. Offred couldn’t believe what she saw: clubs like these where forbidden since the early days of the Regime. The Commander told her that the women working here could choose between a life as an Unwoman or a life as a prostitute for the Commanders. In that former hotel, she meets Moira again. She is overjoyed that her friend is alive and Moira tells her, that the secret network Ofglen was talking about helped her. She almost managed to cross the border but just before they wanted to leave, they were captured and Moira had to decide whether to go to the colonies or to live here. She was quite happy with her life in the hotel because during the day, the women were allowed to move around freely and they only needed to work at nights. Moira calls this club “Jezebel’s”.

After her chat with Moira, the Commander wants her to come upstairs with him. Offred feels, that she owes Fred a favour but she can’t stand the thought of having sex with him unless for the Ceremony. Although she is unable to fell anything she knows that she has to satisfy him, what makes the relationship between them even more complicated.

After the night in the club, Serena Joy has arranged the meeting between Offred and Nick. Offred visits Nick in his room and without much talking they have sex. Offred feels empty and happy at the same time, because she feels used but she also remembered the feeling of touching somebody. After that first meeting, they met frequently and everything happened exactly the way it went before: not much talking, having sex and leaving again. Everytime Offred knocks at Nick’s door she is afraid that he might not open because it is a great risk for him, too. If someone notices, Nick might be hanged. But he always opened his door. Offred soon tells Nick everything, she tells him about Luke, Moira and her daughter, she even tells him her real name, without even thinking of Nick being an Eye. By the time, Nick was something like a substitute for Luke.

Time goes by and there was another great event: a women’s salvaging. They are quite rare. Two Handmaids and one Wife are to be hanged. The crime of the Wife must have been very major, because usually no Wives are hanged.

So the Handmaids and Wives meet in a former university, the two Handmaids and the Wife have been picked up by a black van and brought to the front of the room. The Handmaids kneel in the first rows, the Wives are sitting behind them. There are also TV-cameras. Then an Aunt explains why the three women are to be hanged. After that, they all pray for their sin-sick souls and the execution takes place. During all that, Offred was kneeling next to Ofglen.

After the execution, a particicution is following. A man, definitely not a Commander is brought in and the Aunt tells the Handmaids that he is a rapist and therefor he deserves death-penalty. The Wives step back, because the criminal raped a Handmaid, it is their job to kill him. At the blow of a whistle, all the Handmaids start to kick and box the man to death. Later Ofglen tells Offred that this man hadn’t been a rapist but a man who supported the secret network to help the Handmaids. But the other Handmaids didn’t know that, of course.

After the particicution things go back to normal. But on the next shopping-day, Ofglen has disappeared. Offred wonders about that, she feels like she had lost a friend. But after thinking about the vanishing it becomes clear to her, that Ofglen has been sent to the colonies because she knew about the network and supported it.

Offred returns from her shopping-tour and Serena Joy stands in the garden, waiting for her. She seems very angry and shows Offred the Commander’s coat on which you can see some of the lipstick, Offred wore when the Commander took her out. So, Serena Joy finally found out. She swears at Offred, telling her what she did for her and then she sends her to her room with the order to wait for the things to come.

Offred is puzzled and very frightened, because she doesn’t know what Serena Joy will do. She assumes that Serena Joy will report her to the Eyes and that the black van will come and take her to the colonies. Once more, she is thinking about killing herself.

She sits there, waiting, realising that she has failed. She might never see her Commander or Nick again just because of some lipstick.

After some time, a black van stops in front of the house. Offred knows what black vans mean: salvaging or colonies. She accepted that fact and just wants the whole thing to be finished.

Suddenly someone knocks on the door, it is Nick. She opens it and Nick tells her to trust him and to come out to the black van. Offred follows him and at the door of the house two Guardians are waiting, taking her over and leading her to the van.

Until that moment, Offred was sure that Serena Joy has called the Guardians and the van but now Serena Joy stands next to the door, asking the Guardians why they take Offred with them. The Commander is puzzled, too. The Guardians don’t say a word and by then, Offred realises, that Serena Joy hasn’t called the van.

So she has no other chance as to follow the Guardians to an unknown future.

6. Explanations: Historical Notes

In the book you can find an appendix to the plot, the Historical Notes.

They try to explain the plot and his ending the way, Margaret Atwood wanted it to be understood and are therefor a part of the whole plot.

These notes take place in the year 2195 at the University of Denay, Nunavit. A professor is telling his students about “The Handmaid’s Tale”. This professor studies the history of the Republic of Gilead, what insists, that it doesn’t exist anymore.

Professor Pieixoto found out, that “The Handmaid’s Tale” is set in the early years of Gilead. He and a colleague found this document in the form of audio-cassettes an a metal footlocker. They weren’t sure, whether the tapes were authentic, but after some research, they where quite sure about their authenticity. He explains that on all of the tapes, the same woman is speaking and that she tried to camouflage the tapes by recording one or two songs at the beginning of each cassette. For the Professor and his colleagues it was quite difficult to listen to the cassettes, because they needed an expert who was able to built a cassette-player. After that succeeded, Prof. Pieixoto tried to find out who the narrator was. He hasn’t got many fact, because he assumes that the names of the people were just used as pseudonyms to protect them. One important fact is the secret network, the “Underground Femaleroad” which did really exist in the Republic of Gilead.

He ties to concentrate on the name of Fred, the Commander and finds out that, in area where they found the tapes, two men named Fred existed, but none of them had a wife called Serena Joy.

He also explains the principles of the Gileadean regime: stop of birth control.

You can’t really tell, if he agrees with these principles or not. He points out the social structure of Gilead and stays quite neutral through his whole lecture.

In the end, he comes to the conclusion, that the tapes are an authentic diary of a Handmaid in the early days of Gilead, but he can’t tell, whether the recordings have been made during her time in Gilead or afterwards because he found evidences for both possibilities. He also can’t help us with the question of the end of the recordings, in his opinion, the Handmaid could have been taken to the Colonies, she could have lived her further life in “Jezebel’s” or could even have been executed.

So, to put it all in a nutshell, in my opinion, the Historical Notes are even more puzzling than useful for the reader.

7. “The Handmaid’s Tale”-a Science Fiction novel written by a woman

“The Handmaid’s Tale” by Margaret Atwood shows the woman’s role during the time. It is a result of the feminist movement in the 1970s and 1980s, of which Atwood was a part. She feared, that if we would go on like now, one day the anti-feminists could turn back the clock.

With science fiction, she found a possibility to express her thoughts about the future. In her science fiction novel the main part is not the technical progress or the fact, that the story is set in the future, the role of the woman is a much more important fact. For her, the radical changes in society are the main issue. With that novel, she wants to show the possible problems of a patriarchal society, where women are reduced to do the things, men are not able to do.

Although the Gileadean Regime wanted a better situation for the women by closing down brothels to avoid that women are seen as a sexual object, their measures just did that: They reduced women to sexual objects. That’s what Atwood feared.

The whole novel is full of biblical references, the names of the characters, shops or events for example, which gives the whole plot a certain authenticity.

But I think, she didn’t want her novel to be too realistic because that might have frightened the people, but after all, she was able to give a hint to the right direction.

I came to the conclusion, that this novel is an extraordinary good and terrific one, because it shows a complete different future that rather reminds us of the past with all the biblical principles. It is also a little bit frightened, because it shows how women still depend on men, at least in some matters.

But I think, that the book was even more stunning when it was first published in 1986, because in that time, the feminist movement was on it’s beginning and the women didn’t know what the future would bring.

After all, it is still a great book, and I think Margaret Atwood was able to put her thoughts into the right frame.

8. References

- “The Handmaid’s Tale”, Margaret Atwood
- Course Book English, Ilfracombe College
- Brockhaus- Enzyklopädie
- Pons Dictionary
- Encarta Enzyklopädie, Microsoft 1998
- Internet sources:

9. Statement

Hiermit erkläre ich, dass ich die vorliegende Arbeit selbstständig und ohne fremde Hilfe verfasst und alle benutzten Quellen und Hilfsmittel im Quellenverzeichnis angegeben habe.

Leopoldshafen, den 07.07.2003

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Atwood, Margaret - The Handmaid's Tale - A Science Fiction Novel written by a Woman
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Saskia Friedrich (Author), 2003, Atwood, Margaret - The Handmaid's Tale - A Science Fiction Novel written by a Woman, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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