The "Handmaid's Tale" in comparison to totalitarian regimes of the past and today

Seminar Paper, 2019

22 Pages, Grade: 1,67



Table of contents

1. Introduction

2. Author
2.1 Biography
2.2 Inspiration for the Book
2.3 Awards & Recognitions

3. Plot Summary

4. Narrative Perspective and Setting

5. Characterization
5.1 Offred
5.2 Moira

6. Symbols
6.1 Significance of Clothing
6.2 Significance of Nomenclature

7. Comparison to totalitarian Regimes of the past and today

8. Ending


1. Introduction

“You just raped every woman who’s been raped by a man. You just raped her all over again. This is just a shame, this is a disgrace, this is a travesty” (Filipovic, 2019). This statement was made by Alabama Senate Minority Leader Bobby Singleton during a fierce debate on America’s most stringent anti-abortion law.

In May 2019 the Alabama Senate voted for a regulation that outlaws almost all kinds of abortion. It is in stark contrast to the ruling of the Supreme Court from 1973 which had recognized a woman’s constitutional right to end her pregnancy. The new Alabama law, however, bans and criminalizes abortion at every stage of pregnancy. It charges doctors with felonies and prison sentences of up to 99 years. Furthermore, there is no exclusion for cases of rape or incest- meaning that even if a woman gets abused and impregnated against her will, she is forced to give birth to that child.1 It is noteworthy that the Alabama Senate consists of 31 men and only four women.

Whilst Senator Singleton stood up for women´s rights, numerous activists protesting in front of the building were supporting him, wearing long red dresses and pristine white wimples- the uniform of a Handmaid.

In Margaret Atwood´s dystopian novel “The Handmaid´s Tale” from 1985 women are enslaved and made to be breeding machines for the regime. They do not have the choice whether they want to conceive a baby and have to give the baby to another family.

In Alabama, a liberal abortion law is about to be replaced by a very rigorous one. In Margaret Atwood’s fictional Republic of Gilead, a regime dominated by males passes their restrictive laws after a violent overthrow of a liberal government.

“The Handmaid´s Tale”, even though it was written three decades ago, is still a relevant and important description of an oppressive and unrightful society. Therefore, the comparison between the regime of Gilead and totalitarian regimes of the past and today will be the main topic of this paper.

The aim of this document is to give an overview of “The Handmaids Tale” by Margaret Atwood and to compare Gilead with historic and present totalitarian regimes. The first section is to provide information about the author and her inspiration for the book. Then a plot summary and a characterization of two of the main characters will be made. Subsequent to that, the narrative perspective and the setting will shortly be examined next to the significance of clothing and nomenclature. Finally, comparisons to history and present totalitarian regimes will be made.

2. Author

2.1 Biography

Margaret Atwood was born in Ottawa in 1939. She grew up in northern Ontario, Quebec, and Toronto. Atwood received her undergraduate degree from Victoria College at the University of Toronto and her master´s degree from Radcliffe College of Cambridge, Massachusetts.

She is the author of more than forty books of fiction, poetry and critical essays. Many of her works have been adapted into television and films. She was President of the Writers` Union of Canada and the International P.E.N. Canadian centre which she serves currently Vice-President.

Among her contributions to Canadian literature, Atwood is a founder of the Griffin Poetry Prize and Writers' Trust of Canada.2 Apart from her participation in the range of literature, she is as well active as environmental activist and thus a role model for her readership.3

2.2 Inspiration for the Book

It is important to become acquainted with the intentions of Margaret Atwood behind this novel in order to attain a better comprehension of the story.

Her interest in dystopian literature arouse with the reading Orwell´s “1984”, Huxley’s “Brave New World” and Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451”. During her post-graduate work at Harvard she studied the 17th- and 18th-century- the era of the Puritans- America in depth. This period is of particular interest to her since many of her ancestors had lived in those times in the Puritan World.

An important matter to her is making reference to historic events: “I would not include anything that human beings had not already done in some other place or time, or for which the technology did not already exist”4. The Republic of Gilead in the Handmaid´s Tale is not an invention of the future but a composition of social systems of the past which are adapted in the future. It is a system that- at least with its main features- already had existed in the United States. Therefore, Margaret Atwood adopts her novel as a general warning to humankind what humans already were capable of and if we are not cautious it is possible to become reality again.5

2.3 Awards & Recognitions

Margaret Atwood has been recognized internationally for her work through awards and honorary degrees, including the Man Booker Prize, Arthur C. Clarke Award, Governor General's Award, Franz Kafka Prize, and the National Book Critics and PEN Centre USA Lifetime Achievement Awards.

She has won more than 55 awards- thereof four with "The Handmaids Tale" and is certainly one of the best-known feminist writers.6 Some contemporary writers even call her “the most distinguished novelist (…) currently writing in English.” (Calvin, 2016)

3. Plot Summary

The plot of “The Handmaid´s Tale” is set in the not-too-distant future, during a time of declining birth rates due to chemical spills and pollution.

The narrator is called Offred, which is not her real name. Instead, it represents the Commander Fred Waterford whom she is assigned to as Handmaid. She is forced by the system to adopt the possessive name "Of-Fred".

She tells her story in two types of narrative sections: In the chapters of daytime activities such as “Shopping” or “Household” she focuses on her life in Gilead. During her “Night” chapters she is left alone to her thoughts and memories of her life before Gilead, when she was free, her memories of her capture and the time at Re-education centre called Rachel and Leah Centre where she was prepared for her assignment as a Handmaid.

Before the Sons of Jacob coming into power, Offred had an affair with a married man called Luke. After he divorced his wife and married her, they had a child together. At that time, she took for granted the freedom she was given. Offred´s mother is a feminist activist and hence fighting against abortion policies and pornography.

After the assassination of the President of the United States and the Congress by the Sons of Jacob, the army declares a state of emergency and suspended the Constitution. The new system is based on a very harsh interpretation of the Old Testament, restricting freedom of movement and press. Furthermore, it is prohibiting women not only to hold property, but also having a job.

However, there had been no protests or riots, since the power of the new regime was obvious. After the failed attempt to flee across the border to Canada, Offred’s family had been captured, separated and hasn´t seen each other from then on.

In order to repopulate the Republic, women with functioning ovaries are assigned as Handmaids to Gilead’s Commanders. At the so-called Red Centre, they have indoctrinated the belief that women have to be obedient to men and have the sole concern of bearing children. Then they are sent to a childless couple, forced to have impersonal sexual intercourse with the Commander in the presence of his wife.

Offred is subjected to a rigid schedule which is limited to one morning walk accompanied by another Handmaid called Ofglen in order to spy on each other. She has frequent appointments with a physician to be checked on diseases or anything that could possibly prevent a pregnancy.

Part of this restrictive routine is the “Ceremony”. Once a month, at the right point in her menstrual circle the Commander tries to impregnate Offred in an act without any intimacy. They are fully clothed and his wife, Serena Joy, who holds Offred´s hands- allegedly to support her but much more to express her superordinate position.

This ceremony implies the Commander reading out loud a bible passage to his Household who consists of his wife, his handmaid, his two Marthas - infertile women taking care of the household- named Rita and Cora and his chauffeur Nick.

After several months have gone by without Offred becoming pregnant, Serena proposes the illegal offer to have intercourse with Nick in exchange for a photo of Offred´s daughter. Offred agrees to this trade and secretly sleeps with the chauffeur, ending up in an affair and a pregnancy.

In the meantime, Offred starts a clandestine relationship with her Commander, in which they are playing Scrabble together, reading magazines- which contradict the regulations that forbid women to write and read. In addition to that, one night he takes her out to the brothel of Gilead called Jezebel´s which officially does not exist since men have to abstain from all but marital sex for religious reasons.

Dressed up with clothes and make-up of Serena, Offred simply replaces her uniform to one of the prostitutes. After arriving there she encounters her best friend Moira from the pre-Gilead time. Moira is an outspoken and confident lesbian. Both friends had been to the Red Centre at the same time. Moira managed to escape but was captured just before she arrived at the border. Usually attempts to flee result in the deportation to the colonies. There the air is polluted by toxins and radioactivity and the lifespan is about three years after arrival. Moira was faced with the decision whether she wants to work as a prostitute or deportation to the colonies.

After gaining the trust of Ofglen, Offred finds out about the underground organisation called “Mayday” that is dedicated to overthrowing the regime. Since Offred is in a desperate position with little prospect of reunification with her family, she is willing to help by gathering information about the Commander and transmitting it to the organisation.

Serena cannot bear the fact of being infertile and having a fertile woman sleeping with her husband. She finds out about their secret night out to Jezebel´s and threatens Offred with a punishment. Later that day a black van from the secret policy approaches, which Offred thought would be the promised punishment. However, Nick explains to her that these are Mayday members who have come to liberate her.

Whether she is going into freedom or prison, Offred does not know, either.

The epilogue of the novel is a lecture given by Professor Pieixoto in 2195, long-time after the Republic of Gilead has fallen. He explains the significance of her story, which has been recorded on cassette tapes. Pieixoto assumes that Nick had arranged her escape but her destiny has not been documented.7

4. Narrative Perspective and Setting

Margaret Atwood decided to take Cambridge, Massachusetts a very liberal area of the United States and home of Harvard University as local setting. The novel takes place in the near future. She did this with mindful consideration to demonstrate that even the most liberal region can be turned into a dystopian nightmare.8

In this context, present-day old buildings are being diverted from their intended use. For instance, the dormitories of the Handmaids during their time at the Red Centre are what “once [had] been the gymnasium” (Atwood,1985, p.9). “The street is almost like a museum, or a street in a model town constructed to show the way people used to live” (Atwood, 1985, p.29).

Thereby, Atwood intends to emphasize on how Gilead constructs an alternative reality. A system that continues to use the old infrastructure, trying to pretend to be a better, a utopian society- but is actually using it in bad intentions to oppress everyone that is not a proponent of the system. For instance, for Offred the room she sleeps in, seems like a prison to her.9

Talking about Offred: The reader discovers Gilead trough her eyes. Atwood´s purpose in writing the story in the first person and present tense is to make the reader experience the events from the point of view of Offred. “We are there, with her, in her empty room during the long nights when she can´t sleep. We are with her in bed during the monthly Ceremony” (Jansen, 2011, p. 193). In this way, we interpret the story as she does. Due to this subjective perception we feel the same anger against Gilead, we feel the same hope as she does when she meets Moira10, we are as anxious as Offred is when the black van approaches11.

Whom exactly she is telling this story to, she doesn´t know, either: “Dear You, I´ll say. Just you” (Atwood, 1985, p.45). However, this implies an act of hope. She isn´t telling this story only to herself, but she is hoping that someone may discover it in the future, someone who understands and shares her story.

It can be seen as a form of resistance against Gilead, against the oppressive system that does not allow any freedom of opinion. However, we slowly become aware of the constructed nature of Offred´s story. Almost at the end of the novel, in a “Night” section, she admits that she made up the story she was just in the act of telling. Instead of telling the reader what really happened she once more disrupts her story and says “It didn´t happen that way either. I´m not sure how it happened; not exactly. All I can hope for is a reconstruction” (Atwood, 1985, p.271). Additionally, she adds: “I wish this story were different. I wish it were more civilized. I wish it showed me in a better light” (Atwood, 1985, p.275).

It bothers her that she isn´t in control of it, that she can´t change it. This reliability of hers is furthermore questioned in the Historical Notes by Professor Pieixoto, who considers it to be a reconstruction only12.

5. Characterization

5.1 Offred

The reader is told the entire story through Offred´s eyes. Thereby he is able to draw conclusions and attains an accurate image of her- not only of her physical appearance but, far more important, her personality.

She barely talks about her external identity: “I am thirty-three years old. I have brown hair. I stand five seven without shoes. I have trouble remembering what I used to look like. I have viable ovaries” (Atwood, 1985, p.149). She defines herself by her ovaries- this is exactly what she got indoctrinated at the Red Centre.

The reason for her trouble to remember her outer appearance is the lack of mirrors that she is allowed to look into. It´s her sole purpose to breed and for that assignment it is not necessary to know one´s outer appearance.

Another attempt of Gilead to strip her of her identity is the new name that she is assigned to. “I have another name, which nobody uses now because it is forbidden” (Atwood, 1985, p.90). How important her name and therefore her remaining identity is expressed by the comparison to a “treasure [she´ll] come bag to dig up, one day” (Atwood, 1985, p.90).

This shows the reader that there is still a remaining faith in her. A hope of surviving and escaping. Her strong-minded character is revealed in her determination: “I intend to last” (Atwood, 1985, p.13).

As Offred is only human after all, is expressed in her relief after a “Salvaging” (Atwood, 1985, p.294)- a euphemism for a group execution- that it is not her who got killed but somebody else.

Furthermore, it can be said that she has a need for relationships which is expressed in her affair with Luke while he was still married, and moreover her desire for Nick that overrides on the one side her being of a loyal wife and on the other side her desire to escape.


1 Cf. Filipovic, Jill, Alabama's abortion ban shows the chilling effect of Brett Kavanaugh's appointment,

2 Cf. Biography,

3 Cf. Harvey, Fiona, Margaret Atwood: women will bear brunt of dystopian climate future,

4 Cf. Atwood, Margaret, "Margaret Atwood on How She Came to Write The Handmaid's Tale",

5 Cf. Wassermann, Sophie, "The Handmaid's Tale" by Margaret Atwood - A Handmaid's life - A look into the future?, München 2006, S. 5

6 Cf. Awards& Recognitions,

7 Cf. Atwood, 1985

8 Cf. Jansen, Sharon L., Reading women's Worlds from Christine de Pizan to Doris Lessing - A guide to six centuries of women writers imagining rooms of their own, New York 2011, p.188

9 Cf. Atwood, 1985, p.104

10 Cf. Ibidem, p.246

11 Cf. ibidem, p.301

12 Cf. Jansen, p. 194

Excerpt out of 22 pages


The "Handmaid's Tale" in comparison to totalitarian regimes of the past and today
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
dystopian, handmaids Tale, comparison
Quote paper
Anonymous, 2019, The "Handmaid's Tale" in comparison to totalitarian regimes of the past and today, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


  • No comments yet.
Read the ebook
Title: The "Handmaid's Tale" in comparison to totalitarian regimes of the past and today

Upload papers

Your term paper / thesis:

- Publication as eBook and book
- High royalties for the sales
- Completely free - with ISBN
- It only takes five minutes
- Every paper finds readers

Publish now - it's free