Margaret Atwood’s

The Handmaid’s Tale

Background Information and Context

JC Clapp: English 102

About the Author

Margaret Atwood was born in 1939 in Ottawa and grew up in Canada.

She received her undergraduate degree from Victoria College at the

University of Toronto and her master's degree from Radcliffe


She began writing at the age of six.

More About the Author

Atwood has worked as an English teacher and writer at various universities around the world.

She has received numerous literary awards.

The Handmaid’s Tale was published in 1986.

The Handmaid’s Tale:

Setting and Genre

Futuristic, cautionary, science fiction novel

Setting: The Republic of

Gilead -- which is located in the near future where Boston is now

A highly organized group of right wing religious conservatives succeeds in setting off a revolution. They create a new society known as Gilead where women are stripped of all freedoms.



The novel was published in 1986 during a backlash against the feminist movement. The tide had turned in favor of conservative values, and religious fundamentalism experienced a period of rapid growth of power and influence.

Characters: Offred

Offred is the narrator who belongs to the class of women known as

Handmaids. Handmaids are fertile women forced into surrogate motherhood for elite, barren couples.

She struggles to maintain her faith in the face of her rigidly repressed status in Gilead.

Characters: The Commander

The Commander is the head of the household where Offred is stationed as a


He establishes an unorthodox relationship with Offred by spending time alone with her.

He has a callous attitude toward women.

He is a member of the Gileadean elite and is most likely one of the architects of Gileadean society.

Characters: Serena Joy

Serena is the Commander's Wife who belongs to the class of women with the greatest symbolic status in Gilead.

Before Gilead, Serena sang on a Sunday religious television program and give antifeminist speeches stating that a woman's place was in the home.

She is unhappy and jealously guards her small claims to status, while being vengeful and cruel to the Handmaids in her household.

Characters: Moira

Moira was Offred's best friend before Gilead.

She was a staunch, bisexual feminist. She represents of the rebellious, courageous, resourceful heroine.

She escaped from the Red Center, but the

Eyes recaptured her.

She chooses to work as a prostitute at

Jezebel's rather than going to the Colonies.

Her final fate is unknown.

Characters: Luke

Luke was Offred's husband before Gilead came to be.

Although he is loving toward Offred, he is often sexist in his behavior and beliefs.

Neither Offred nor the reader find out what happened to Luke after his capture.

Characters: Aunt Lydia

Aunt Lydia is a sadistic Aunt at the Red


Lydia belongs to the class of women assigned to the task of indoctrinating the

Handmaids into Gileadean ideology.

Aunts are permitted greater freedom of movement than other women. Unlike other women, they are permitted to read, write, and carry weapons.

Characters: Aunt Elizabeth

Aunt Elizabeth is another one of the

Aunts at the Red


Moira attacks her and steals her costume during her escape from the

Red Center.

Characters: Ofglen

Ofglen is also a handmaid who is Offred's shopping partner.

She reveals the existence of a subversive underground resistance.

Her identity as a subversive is discovered, and when she sees the black van of the Eyes of God coming for her, she hangs herself in order to protect her fellow subversives.

Characters: Nick

Nick is a member of the Eyes of God, the

Gileadean secret police.

He is also a subversive rebel.

Serena Joy orchestrates a sexual encounter between Nick and Offred because she thinks her husband is sterile.

Nick and Offred soon begin a covert sexual affair.

Nick orchestrates Offred's escape from Gilead.

The Historical Notes

The end of the book is written as if scholars in the future are studying


Notice how it’s written in a completely different tone and voice.

Read this section very carefully!