The Handmaid's Tale

Jenni Grimshaw teaches English B at Saint George's Duisburg-Dusseldorf

The empty vessel… Margaret Atwood’s ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ is a unique, eye-opening narrative that chronicles the story of an future dystopian society where fertility rates amongst women have plummeted, leaving no other option but the creation of so-called ‘handmaids’ (young, fertile women who serve as child-bearers for wealthy men or ‘Commanders’ with barren wives).

The re-emergence of the popularity of this 1985 novel stems from a recent dramatisation from American online streaming service Hulu. It continues to be its biggest grossing show to date. The show has won eight Emmy’s including Best Actress. Season One sticks fairly closely to Atwood’s original with season Two being a continuance beyond Atwood’s apocalyptic story. Showing parts of Season One’s episodes would certainly be a worthwhile complement to the story and give students a visual representation of life in Gilead and the fascinating central character, played by Emmy-award-winning actress Elisabeth Moss. The ending is a significant cliffhanger, leaving the reader with many more questions than answers.

Structure and narrative

The structure of the novel is interesting and fairly simple and would be accessible to English B students of all levels, with Offred narrating her day-to-day life in Gilead throughout most of the book, with a number of modern flashbacks to a pre-Gilead time where she fondly remembers her old life with her husband and daughter; she does not discover fully what has happened to them.

Themes and symbolism

It does cover some adult themes such as sexual enslavement and fertility but also the more generally accessible themes of the struggle for identity, marriage, femininity and freedom vs. confinement. Is this a religious novel? The elements to life in Gilead society could be interpreted as a religion of sorts. The ritualistic way in which all human behavior and relationships is controlled, and the hierarchical structure imposed on all certainly suggests some sort of religion.

Thoughts to consider:


Is this a feminist novel? If society continued as before, the human race would almost certainly face extinction. Is this a bad thing or is it right to fight for survival, however, it is achieved?

With fertility rates dropping fast, is this systematic way of reproduction the best, or indeed only, way forward for humanity?

What is the price of freedom, particularly for women of a certain age, in Gilead?

What parallels can you see to the treatment of women in today’s world?

What does the colour-coding of women in Gilead symbolize? Scarlet red for the Handmaids, green for the wives, a camouflaging khaki-green for the servant women and the Aunts in brown? How far are the wives modeled on the Virgin Mary?

Language and gender

The unlucky (or lucky, depending on your philosophical viewpoint) Handmaids are given names based on which commander they are assigned to, where their name begins with the prefix ‘Of’, suggesting belonging or ownership. The ending of their names is the name of their Commander. Examples are Offred, Offwarren and Offglen. This gendered language, alongside the irony of the name Serena Joy, the Commander’s Wife, would serve as an interesting class debate.

Religion and social organization

Using quotations from the novel, students could define the rules of Gilead.

The novel introduces an unusual and often surprising, and somewhat horrific, family structure. The Commanders are already married, but to an infertile woman. Consequently, the Handmaid lives with the couple and has to endure the ‘ceremony’ on a regular basis where the Commander attempts to impregnate the Handmaid with the wife present in the room. This makes for an extremely awkward situation, although Offred soon learns to remove herself emotionally.

There is also the spectacle of the ‘Aunts’, particularly Aunt Lydia, who serve as the day-to-day controllers of every aspect of the handmaid’s lives, including applying punitive measures for insubordinate handmaids. This juxtaposition of a, usually familial and positive role model, with the reality of the true nature of job of the Aunts is rather disturbing, but interesting to analyse nonetheless.

A sampler handout

The handout provides a sample which serves as a basis for introducing the concept of the novel to students, with them first reading and discussing the Genesis verse and then moving on to analyse an extract from the beginning of the novel in the form of discussion questions.

The central character, Handmaid Offred, makes frequent allusions to the bible. Here is a verse from Genesis that is used as a prologue to the story (try projecting this using Presentation mode):

Extract 1: The Prologue

‘And when Rachel saw that she bare Jacob no children, Rachel envied her sister; and said unto Jacob, Give me children, or else I die.

And Jacob’s anger was kindled against Rachel: and he said, Am I in God’s stead, who hath withheld from thee the fruit of the womb? And she said, Behold my maid Bilhah, go in unto her; and she shall bear upon my knees, that I may also have children by her.' – Genesis, 30:1–3

Then give out the handout with the extract, and ask the students to read it, reflect on it and then make some notes about the 'Discussion questions' provided.


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