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Literature / The Handmaid's Tale

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A 1985 novel by Margaret Atwood, set 20 Minutes into the Future. A portrait of a Dystopia.

The tale's setting is the Republic of Gilead, a recently-established theocracy that's still fighting rebellion at its borders in the former United States. Money has been abolished; laws are based on the state's interpretation of Christianity, and many crimes are punishable by public execution. Everyone has a specific role to play — especially women.

Pollution has caused global fertility rates to plunge well below replacement levels. Pregnancy is rare, and one in four of those children will be born with severe birth defects. In Gilead, fertile women are rationed out like everything else. Handmaids are given over to the Commanders and other high-status men of the nation, to bear children for them and their Wives.

The protagonist is known only as Offred — "of Fred", her current Commander. She can remember before, when women still had rights and were allowed to read; her mother, a feminist who raised her alone; her husband, who left his first wife for her; her daughter, who was a toddler seven years ago when the revolution happened and the family tried to flee to Canada. Offred has seen none of them since, though she is told her daughter is happy with her new family.

Offred also remembers her time in the Rachel and Leah Centre, under the training of the Aunts, to become a Handmaid. She remembers her friend Moira, who escaped from the Centre, and the other women, who did not. Now they, like her, live in the homes of the wealthy, going from one assignment to the next, hoping to become pregnant. Failure to bear a healthy baby means death or worse, and Offred is running out of time to produce one.

Very popular in Anglophone high school English classes, although the confronting adult subject matter leads to a crusade to ban the book every five years or so.

Made into a 1990 film, written by Harold Pinter and starring the late Natasha Richardson, Robert Duvall, Faye Dunaway and Aidan Quinn; and a 2017 Hulu TV series starring Elisabeth Moss, Samira Wiley, Joseph Fiennes and Yvonne Strahovski.

A Comic-Book Adaptation with art by Renée Nault, The Handmaid's Tale: The Graphic Novel was released 26 March, 2019.

The Testaments, a follow-up written by Atwood set fifteen years later, was released in September 2019. Compare Christian Nation where the USA also becomes a theocratic dystopia, but at a different point in history and for different reasons.

The Handmaid's Tropes:

  • 20 Minutes into the Future: The setting of the book.
  • Ambiguous Ending: Of Offred's narrative, at least. Is she being spirited away to freedom in Canada, or actually being arrested and led to believe that she's being liberated? The epilogue seems to imply that she was indeed rescued and survived at least long enough to narrate her story, since it's highly unlikely she would have had access to the tapes and recording equipment in the Commander's house.
  • Artistic License – Biology: No form of pollution fits what's described in the book, and you cannot screw up the oceans that badly without massive repercussions. Though the book does acknowledge that Offred is an Unreliable Narrator as she can only speculate on what she is told, which as a Handmaid is not much, and even then is filtered through state-issued propaganda. The Republic of Gilead could be feeding people false information about environmental disasters for all the reader knows.
  • As the Good Book Says...:
    • Gileadian society is full of it. Notably, the Theme Naming of the grocery shops; the bakery is called Daily Bread (Truth in Television, but it is rather an obvious name), the butcher All Flesh, the women's clothing store Lilies of the Field, etc.
    • Offred recounts how they are told that a version of Marx's "From each according to his ability, to each according to his need" (altered to the gender-specific "From each according to her ability, to each according to his need") is Biblical (perhaps they believe Acts 2:44-45 inspired it, as some have theorized).
  • As You Know: Atwood provides much of the description outside of Offred's perspective through this, whether that be from Aunt Lydia or the historiographers in the far future.
  • Baby Factory: How the Handmaids are viewed. A Handmaid is considered little more than a womb with two legs. A woman who indicates that she is fertile (e.g. by having borne a child) and who has done something sinful (as considered by the government) becomes a Handmaid. Fertile women are rare in this society.
  • Bathe Her and Bring Her to Me: Offred always has a bath before the ceremony, which is essentially a ritualized rape. She is forced to have sex with the Commander while his Wife is also present. It's mandatory for all Handmaids.
  • Be Careful What You Wish For:
    • Serena Joy spent most of her pre-Gilead career as a televangelist promoting "traditional family values" (i.e. women should Stay in the Kitchen and aspire to be Baby-Factories, etc). But now that everything she preached for has been instituted by the Republic of Gilead, she is not so pleased with the new situation, let alone with having to share her husband and engage in the humiliating ceremony where he has sex with his Handmaid while essentially lying on top of her. Offred alludes to this while musing about Serena during a monologue:
      She doesn't make speeches anymore. She has become speechless. She stays in her home, but it doesn't seem to agree with her. How furious she must be, now that she's been taken at her word.
    • Mentioned when Offred recalls how her mother, a radical feminist, wished for a separate women's culture and that pornography be eradicated. Both very much happened in Gilead.
  • Bittersweet Ending: We don't know for sure what happened to Offred — if she was being rescued or arrested, and, if the former, if she even managed to survive long enough to escape Gilead for good. Her husband is probably dead, and it's very, very unlikely she'll ever see her daughter again. But, the epilogue tells us that Gilead didn't last forever — Offred was somehow able to get her story out into the world at large, and one of the professors discussing her story is a woman. So, even if Offred died, at least we know Gilead eventually got overthrown, and women have rights again.
  • Blaming the Victim: The Aunts preach that Janine was to blame for her being gang-raped at fourteen, insisting she led her rapists on and that God was "teach[ing] her a lesson". The other Handmaids are forced to repeat this to Janine over and over, until she finally breaks down and 'agrees' that it was her fault. The Aunts in general state that men can't always control themselves and that it's up to women to keep themselves modest so men won't be tempted.
  • Bolivian Army Ending:
    • Luke gets one partway through the book. After fleeing with Offred, he gets a Big Damn Heroes moment of managing to shoot one of the guards...and that's it. Unlike the television adaptation, which confirmed that he survived, Luke is left facing terrible odds...but it's possible that he didn't die.
      • The sequel reveals that he lived in the novel continuity.
    • The epilogue makes mention of Serena and Fred probably being disposed of in the purges, but it's never known for sure. It's possible that they escaped, but seems very unlikely.
    • Discussed in the case of Moira. Offred likes to imagine one of these for her, but there's no confirmation of whether it actually happened. (Although it seems unlikely.)
  • Breeding Slave: This is the function Handmaids have: fertile "fallen" women used to give Commanders (high-ranking officials) children when their Wives can't.
  • Broken Pedestal: When Offred meets Moira at Jezebel's. Prior to this all she knew was that Moira had overcome an Aunt and escaped — she is understandably shaken to find her in her current position, not just because of the role but because she's finally been broken.
  • Bury Your Gays: Or rather, "leave your gays hanging on the gibbet as a warning to others." "Gender treachery" in Gilead is punishable by death, along with many other "crimes". It's somewhat zigzagged in on-page depictions though: Moira, the only LGBT+ character with a name, face and dialogue (she's a lesbian) survives the book, though in a bad state, and she knows once they deem her "useless" she'll get shipped off to the Colonies for a slow death. This also goes for other bi or lesbian women in the Jezebels brothel like her.
  • Canis Latinicus: "Nolite te bastardes carborundorum" is carved into the closet's wall in Offred's bedroom. She thinks it's a real Latin phrase; later the Commander tells her that it's a fake Latin joke for "don't let the bastards grind you down".
  • Catchphrase: In the Handmaids' dormitory, at least in front of their supervisors:
    • "Blessed be the Fruit."note 
    • "Praise be!"
  • Chekhov's Gun: Subverted. Offred manages to smuggle a match into her room and speculates what she could do with it, but never gets a chance to use it for anything.
  • Children as Pawns: Serena is in the habit of sporadically blackmailing Offred with access to her and Luke's young daughter, Hannah.
  • Color-Coded Castes: Women in Gilead are divided into castes and wear different-colored clothing to reflect their status.
    • Wives (married to high-ranking Commanders) wear blue. After a Commander dies, his Wife becomes a Widow and has to dress in black until/unless she remarries.
    • Daughters (girls born to Handmaids and adopted by Wives) wear white.
    • Aunts (in charge of training/disciplining Handmaids and officiating at public ceremonies) wear brown.
    • Marthas (domestic servants) wear green.
    • Handmaids (surrogate mothers) wear red.
    • Econowives (married to lower-ranking men) wear red/blue/green-striped dresses to show that they play multiple roles.
    • Unwomen (exiled to forced-labor camps) wear gray.
  • The Conspiracy: We can assume it's of the Group variety. Why? Well, how else did a group formed by Fundamentalist Christians, The Far Right and anti-pornography activists manage to infiltrate the highest echelons of the pre-Gilead government and military? Confirmed in the book with a far-right cabal in the US government known as the Sons of Jacob that plots its takeover. The fruits of their plan? The President's Day Massacre, in which The President was assassinated, Congress was massacred, the Constitution was suspended, and martial law was declared. In other words, nothing less than the total collapse of the government. Goodbye United States of America, hello Gilead. They blamed it on Muslim terrorists — predating 9/11 and resulting conspiracy theories of an "inside job" by 16 years.
  • Cope by Creating: Offred, the story's narrator, mentions that Wives are not very satisfied with the grim realities of women's life in Gilead either, even though they are the top class women who have servants and their husbands are in power. About the only creative things they can do is gardening or knitting scarves for soldiers who fight at the fronts.
    Many of the Wives have such gardens, it's something for them to order and maintain and care for.
  • Corrupt Church: The country is run by a new Fundamentalist Christian group fulfilling some of the most extreme fears of what the most extreme Fundamentalist Christians might want to do if they had the power. It was explicitly compared in the book with Iran.
  • Crapsack World: The life just sucks for everyone in Gilead, and it's implied it's not that much better in the world. (In the book, Canada is not a safe country because refugees are often repatriated.) There is a severe problem with environmental pollution, resulting in abnormally high rates of birth defects and infertility. People constantly fear they will be reported and executed for the slightest offense, which can apply retroactively. For example, doctors who performed abortions were considered murderers and hanged. Gay and other queer people are gender traitors who are either executed or sent to the Colonies (concentration camps). Remarried divorcees' second marriages were declared unlawful. There is no religious freedom or any other freedom. People are assigned husbands and wives by the state. Informants are sometimes pardoned, but more often they are not. People are scared and can't trust anybody. Women can't read or write. People are forced to participate in public executions (called Salvagings and Particicutions). Clothes and books that are no longer allowed got burned. There is oppression everywhere in every aspect of life. "Better never means better for everyone. It always means worse, for some," according to Offred's Commander. We hardly see anyone whose life is fine or moderately okay. Even the Commander and his Wife are miserable and dissatisfied. And as with other tyrannies and totalitarian regimes, there are purges and executions among the ruling class eventually.
  • Day of the Jackboot: At the time the novel was written, Iran had recently changed from a secular, westernized country into a misogynistic theocracy and Afghanistan was in the process of a similar transformation. It could never happen here, right? Even more on-the-nose in Afghanistan's case, where a teetering, secularist government propped up by the day's enemy, as was drilled into the public consciousness. Said government made radical, public commitments to female enfranchisement (ultimately a position used against it by its opponents). And what of the forces bankrolling the opposition?
  • Cruel Mercy: Fertile women who are assigned as Handmaids amount to having this, since those who become this are such as a punishment for acts they committed prior to the U.S' takeover, such as Offred's husband had previously divorced and his remarriage was rendered null, branding her an adulteress, and Janine having received an abortion at fourteen after she was raped.
  • Deadly Euphemism:
    • "Salvaging" refers to execution by hanging.
    • "Particicution" refers to being tortured to death by enraged Handmaids. The term is a dark reference to ParticipACTION, a Canadian public exercise program.
  • Death by Adaptation:
    • Offred's (Kate in the movie, June in the Hulu series) husband is shot to death by the soldiers while the family stops during their escape from Gilead. This is in contrast to the novel where there is still a 50% chance of him being alive.
    • The Commander himself is killed by Offred in the 1990 movie.
  • Den of Iniquity: Jezebel's, one of the few establishments left in Gilead where prostitution is permitted, but only to entertain the men. It passes itself off as a Smoky Gentlemen's Club to make itself seem respectable in the face of the country's own moral hypocrisy. (The 1990 film makes Jezebel's seem more like a rich person's house party, with decor and dress that wouldn't look too out of place in the early part of that decade.)
  • Disappeared Dad: Offred talks about her radical feminist mother at length, with no mention of her father.
  • Distant Finale: The epilogue reveals that the narrative preceding it is being presented at an academic conference some decades later, with its historical authenticity not conclusively established.
  • Dystopia: Living in Gilead sucks, to put it lightly. Even the men don't have it great. Not even the men in power are satisfied.
  • Dystopia Is Hard: The fundamentalists got exactly what they asked for, but actually running a brutal theocracy is a hell of a lot harder than founding one. There are already cracks showing a mere seven years after the initial coup... although the epilogue mentions the fact that the society survived long enough that historians have designated the story as falling in the "Early" period.
  • Enemy Mine: The anti-pornographic alliance between radical feminists and fundamentalist Christians shown before the United States became Gilead. This undermined them in the end, as their fundamentalist "allies" turned on women in general. This was a then-current pairing in the early 1980s.
  • Evil Old Folks: Unlike the television series, which makes them much younger, Serena Joy and the Commander are both described as being older and having a long history of misogynistic behaviour prior to the establishment of Gilead.
  • Evil Reactionary: The Republic of Gilead embodies this, not just taking women's rights to vote etc. away but even banning them reading. Anyone who won't practice their religion is publicly hanged, along with the LGBT and others who commit a long number of "offenses" that had been long abolished.
  • Expy Coexistence: The religious group that overthrew the government and founded Gilead is obviously based on the Southern Baptist "Moral Majority" of the 80s. However, it's mentioned in passing that Baptists are enemies of Gilead and are one of the many other sects persecuted and hunted down by the regime. Presumably in the world of the story, the two groups were rivals, with the Gilead faction having been the more extreme and ultimately successful group, as they were able to violently seize power.
  • Extinct in the Future: Offred at one point mentions that whales are long gone and wonders if lobsters, soles, scallops, haddock, salmon, tuna and swordfish are as well. The only fish left are those in farms and all of them taste muddy.
  • Fantastic Underclass: Gilead is already the Trope Codifier for a No Woman's Land, with women being completely stripped of their civil rights, but Handmaids are the lowest of the low, being "unacceptable" but fertile women who are thus forced into being natal slaves for the Commanders and their Wives. They are stripped of their own names, instead given a patronymic of "Of-[Commander's name]", are ceremonially raped every month, forbidden to socialize, watched at almost all times, and their survival depends on whether they can rear a healthy baby for their owners—if not, they can be tortured or killed. They're also subject to routine slut-shaming. Even those at Jezebel's (who are more standard sex slaves at brothels for the higher-level men) and Unwomen (who are sent to clean up nuclear waste) have more autonomy, and at least one character expresses that she'd rather be an Unwoman than a Handmaid, despite Handmaids being technically a step up.
  • Female Misogynist: Serena Joy made a living as an advocate before Gilead took over, claiming that women should refrain from taking up careers and fighting for equal rights and instead seek a life of blissful peace in servitude to their husbands. Of course, having been taken at her word, she wound up forced into everything she preached about, and she's not happy about it.
  • Fictional Document: Offred's account of her life in Gilead is dismissed as one by the histiographers in the future who are examining the tapes made of any surviving records of that particular time period and location.
  • Finger in the Mail: According to the epilogue, Gilead had a habit of sending body parts of loved ones to escapees of the regime. This is thought to be one reason Offred never went public with her story, as she wasn't sure whether her husband was still alive or not.
  • Freedom from Choice: Discussed. Under the Republic of Gilead, women have had all their power completely stripped in every meaningful way. Some women adjust well to their new lives, and seem to truly believe that they're better off. Those who were not convinced that this trope was a good thing had it put to them another way; before they had "freedom to" do a lot of things, but now they have "freedom from" a lot of the problems that came with it, and the woman saying this said, quite sincerely, not to undervalue "freedom from". However, it didn't particularly matter if they accepted this or not, since they had no rights and no power anymore.
  • The Fundamentalist: The entire Republic of Gilead is run by a particularly ruthless, scary bunch of religious zealots.
  • Future Imperfect: The epilogue. Gilead is described in the past tense, so that's good. But whoever is speaking in the epilogue is dismissive and misogynistic. They state that the title invented by another academic is not only a Canterbury Tales reference but also a sexual reference to the "tail" of a Handmaid being the part of them relevant to their function. Worse, the speaker pays more attention to Nick's motivations, and the possible identity of the Commander, than they do to Offred's lived experience.
  • Gaia's Lament: The environment is in a state of decline, which spurred the events that lead to the formation of Gilead. Severe air and water pollution, ozone layer depletion, radiation from nuclear meltdowns along the San Andreas Fault after an earthquake, and any number of chemicals and medicines people used; all of this contaminated peoples' bodies to the point that vultures could die just from eating them. Toss in the unchecked spread of AIDS and the emergence of a highly potent strain of syphilis, and humanity found itself confronted with a severe decline in global birth rates. Whales and most fish are also mentioned to be long extinct.
  • Genre Shift: The emotionally-laden story of Offred is immediately followed by the transcript of a speech given at a future study symposium that clinically dissects the story, which dismisses a lot of it as too vague and unreliable to be considered a primary historical source.
  • Girl on Girl Is Hot: Discussed. Moira refers to Jezebel's as "butch paradise", and the women can have sex with other women, if they want.
    Hell, they encourage it. Besides, it sort of turns (the commanders) on.
  • Good Adultery, Bad Adultery: The Handmaids' jobs explicitly involve them having sex with married men. In order to justify this, they're forced to do it in a bizarre ritual designed so that the husband and wife can pretend they're the only people present, and any deviation from this is considered adultery. This creates a dilemma for many Handmaids, as they are liable to be punished for non-conception; however, any attempt to sleep with their Commander under more natural, less stressful conditions, or with somebody else if they fear their Commander is infertile, will put them in danger of an even worse punishment.
    • The regime finds Biblical precedent for this in the stories of figures like Jacob or Abraham who impregnated their wives' handmaids when they couldn't have children (i.e. Genesis 30:1-3).
  • Hanging Around: The regime carries out Public Executions regularly, mostly by hanging, with the bodies left on display to warn others.
  • Happiness in Slavery: Some women like the lifestyle of a Handmaid. Others view sexual slavery as a better option.
  • Hoist by His Own Petard:
    • Serena Joy, who preached of how a woman should stay at home. Now she's forced to, and doesn't like it one bit.
    • Gilead itself is causing this with its own attempts to increase the birth rate. There is very strong (real-world) evidence that being relaxed and comfortable while having sex increases the chances of conception. The Ceremony of husbands having sex with handmaids has deliberately been made as impersonal and uncomfortable as possible for the woman, to the point that any attempt to make it more comfortable or intimate has been made illegal, all of which further reduces the already low number of conceptions. There's also the point that it's implied most of the Commanders themselves are older, not that the regime is willing in any capacity to blame it on a lousy sperm rather than a faulty ovary.
  • The Horseshoe Effect:
    • The book depicts radical feminists as having worked together with far-right religious fundamentalists on at least some issues prior to the foundation of the theocratic state of Gilead. Specifically, both had a similar disdain for things such as pornography and prostitution, among others.
    • The earliest mentions and descriptions of Offred's mother make it sound like Offred was raised in a religious household, what with Offred mentioning watching Serena Joy on TV as a child, or her mother's distaste for pornography and delight in burning it. As we later find out, Offred's mother was on the radical feminist side.
  • How We Got Here: The novel tells how things ended up this way through flashbacks.
  • Hypocrite: For supposedly being a highly religious Christian theocracy, the leaders of Gilead have allowed a government-run brothel to exist within its borders to feed the carnal desires of the men subject to the laws of the land. The Commander and Offred visit one called Jezebel's (also Biblically theme-named) in one of his Pet the Dog moments to his breeding slave.
  • IKEA Erotica: Intentionally invoked to show how passionless, loveless, and chore-like sex has become in Gilead. Even the Commander himself shares with Offred his feelings on how "impersonal" it is to him.
    Serena Joy grips my hands as if it is she, not I, who's being fucked, as if she finds it either pleasurable or painful, and the Commander fucks, with a regular two-four marching stroke, on and on like a tap dripping. He is preoccupied, like a man humming to himself in the shower without knowing he's humming; like a man who has other things on his mind. It's as if he's somewhere else, waiting for himself to come, drumming his fingers on the table while he waits.
  • Illegal Religion: All religions outside the regime's particular branch of fundamentalism are this. Being a Catholic priest is a capital crime, and it's mentioned that the Church ordered clergy to stop wearing the cassock because of this. Quakers are also mentioned as being persecuted, along with Baptists (who have rebelled). Jews are allowed to convert or leave for Israel. Those who stay but practice Judaism in secret are executed.
  • Ironic Name: Serena Joy, the televangelist who becomes the Commander's wife, whose name becomes ironic when the very things she preaches about comes true and she is forced into retirement because of it (though it turns out that this isn't her real name, but one Offred apparently gave her in the recordings, possibly as a pseudonym that contained a Take That! against her less-than joyful or serene manner).
  • Ivy League for Everyone: Moira and Offred probably met at Harvard, although it's never called that, but it's set in Cambridge, Massachusetts with a version of Harvard Square.
  • I Will Punish Your Friend for Your Failure: True to totalitarian regimes, Offred is scared to join the resistance against the fundamentalist Gilead even though she hates her monitored life without freedom and would love to fight against it. She fears pain and torture and possible execution, but even more she fears that if she is arrested, something bad might happen to her daughter (who she knows lives and still is in Gilead) or her husband (who might or might not be alive). It's also mentioned in the epilogue and historical notes: the scholars mention that the Gileadean regime was not above such drastic measures and actually used them to discourage adverse publicity in foreign countries from refugees.
    More than one incautious refugee was known to receive a hand, ear, or foot, vacuum-packed express, hidden in, for instance, a tin of coffee.
  • Jerkass: Serena's not-so-subtle attitude towards Offred.
  • Knitting Pregnancy Announcement: Subverted and played with. Serena spends hours knitting scarves with human figures in a motif along the bottom, and Offred comments that these are the only children Serena is making these days. She also hypothesizes that the scarves get sent out, unraveled back into yarn, and re-knitted.
  • Laser-Guided Amnesia: Invoked and played with. "There must have been needles, pills, something like that. I can't have lost that much time without help." The author thereby skips much of the backstory, allowing more room for lengthy atmospheric descriptions.
  • Lady in Red: Played with. The Handmaids have to wear red and most people assume that Handmaids are massive sluts.
  • La Résistance: There are at least two known organizations that fight against the Republic's regime. Who's part of it, however, is hard to say. One is called Mayday which is a secret group that works to bring Gilead down from the inside. The second one is called the Underground Femaleroad, which is a resistance and rescue organization that helps the persecuted escape.
  • Literary Allusion Title: The book is named in the fashion of the stories from The Canterbury Tales. In case you didn't figure this out, it's explicitly spelled out in the epilogue.
  • Mandatory Motherhood: Played straight in Gilead, because of the fact many high-ranking women are infertile or too old to get pregnant, so going on the Biblical precedent of Jacob, Rachel and Leah, they force "handmaids" to bear a child in their place. It's speculated in-universe (though never openly during Gilead's reign) that in some cases it may be the men who are sterile, but Gilead rejects that possibility on theological grounds. Forcing women into reproductive slavery is almost a reaction to fundamentalist theology running headlong into reality and choosing the bad theology over risking heresy. A doctor who examines the Handmaids for fertility offers to "help out" Offred in case the Commander is the one who's sterile. She rejects him, but later on the Wife has her have sex with their driver for the same reasons which she accepts.
  • Meaningful Name:
    • "The Sons of Jacob", with the name Jacob meaning "supplanter". The far-right group that used this name ended up supplanting the United States government with the theocratic Republic of Gilead.
    • Frederick, the Commander whom Offred serves, means "Peace Ruler".
    • Nick, who helps Offred escape: Nicholas means Victory of the People (good name for a rebel).
    • The Marthas are named for the biblical Martha (which means "Lady"), who cooked supper and fussed over guests while her sister Mary listened to Jesus.
    • Moira is an Irish form of Mary, which means "bitter" and has many Biblical connections.
    • In the first chapter, we're given the name June. June is the month of marriages and named for the goddess Juno, who rules marriage and childbirth but is also a military symbol. Readers have speculated that's the narrator's real name because other names mentioned in the passage are identified later in the story (for example, Moira is the narrator's friend; Janine appears as another Handmaid later; only June doesn't reappear...)
    • The Handmaids are given patronymic names based on the men they are assigned to, by prefixing the word "of" to the man's first name: Offred, Ofglen, Ofwarren, for example. The name indicates that the Handmaids belong to the men.
    • According to Atwood, Offred has a second, hidden meaning: "Offered", as in a religious offering or a sacrificial offering.
      • Perhaps less intentionally, "Offred" can also be interpreted as "off red", making it her condition and her goal.
  • Never My Fault: Men in Gilead are never blamed for being the cause of lack of conception among either their wives or their Handmaids, even when the doctors suggest that it's the men who are sterile. Gileadean doctrine puts all the blame on the women, giving men all the excuses in the world to do what they deem is fitting toward their wives or Handmaids.
  • No Name Given: Our protagonist and all other Handmaids, but if you really read between the lines her first name is probably June, implied by a line in the first chapter: "We learned to lipread, our heads flat on the beds, turned sideways, watching each other's mouths. In this way, we exchanged names, from bed to bed: Alma. Janine. Dolores. Moira. June". Everyone in the list appears later in the story, except June. And then we consider that June (the month) is named after Juno, the Roman goddess of marriage and childbirth... Although, it's revealed in the first chapter that she has apparently changed the names of the others (Moira, Fred, Nick etc.) to protect her friends remaining in Gilead, so potentially the whole list of names given is made up. Though it could also be an author Easter Egg as the theme of summer is strong in the text. Atwood has said that it was not her intention to imply that Offred's real name is June "but it fits so readers are welcome to it if they wish." The narrator gets explicitly Named by the Adaptation: in the 1990 film adaptation, where Offred's name is Kate and the 2017 TV show adaptation, where it's June.
  • Non-Indicative Name: In-universe, the Rachel and Leah Center — it's designed to train women to do what Bilhah and Zilpah did for Rachel and Leah, not to be like Rachel and Leah.
  • No-Paper Future: Paper still exists but paper money disappeared before the dystopia came into existence. It actually made things a lot easier when it was suddenly decided that women could not own property or have a job. When the Fundamentalists take over, they simply freeze all women's bank accounts so their money is gone, then make it illegal to employ them (Offred mentions having all-electronic money made this easier as well). Notably, reading is banned for women, punishable by amputation of a hand for the third offense.
  • No Woman's Land: Trope Codifier for the modern Western audience. Even women who are seen as socially acceptable have no rights, and no say over what happens to them — the narrator mentions one does not see any older women at all. Econowives have it hard and must take care of themselves and their families, should they be lucky to have some. Marthas are forced to serve for food and board only. Unwomen are sent to Colonies to clean toxic waste and die a slow, horrifying death; only the luckier ones get sent to work in agriculture. The prostitutes have at least some autonomy, but death is their only way out. Handmaids are monitored extremely closely and are basically sex slaves that must procreate in 6 years, or else they are declared Unwomen. Aunts have some power and privileges, but only over other Handmaids, and they have to torture and brainwash their charges. Even the Wives and Daughters, members of the elite, are severely dissatisfied with their lack of agency and the paradise their husbands and fathers created.
  • One-Word Title: Most of the section titles fit this ("Household," "Shopping," etc.) With one exception, every odd-numbered section is titled "Night."
  • Oppressive States of America: It's unclear how much of the former USA constitutes Gilead, but the professor in the epilogue vaguely mentions that the revolution "redrew the map". The story takes place in New England. Some areas, like West Virginia, appear to be in open rebellion.
  • Original Position Fallacy: Before the revolution, Serena Joy (and presumably other women like her) had a career preaching Biblical womanhood and the happiness to be found in being a stay-at-home wife. Now that she's lost her career and is just another wife, she's miserable.
  • Our Nudity Is Different: When Offred sees female Japanese tourists who wear knee-length skirts and don't cover their hair, she muses about how they seem almost nude to her, even though not so long ago she dressed just like them.
  • Out of Order: In-Universe, well, maybe. It is implied here and there that since Offred's story is based on a collection of tape recordings, her story might not necessarily be presented in exact chronological order, but rather based on qualified guesses and the best efforts of in-universe scholars.
  • Patched Together from the Headlines: The novel essentially imagines that the Iranian revolution took place in Reagan-era America, and features expys of Phyllis Schafly and the religious right during that period, including gay conversion camps and the anti-abortion movement..
  • Playboy Bunny: Moira wears one of these costumes when she ends up in a brothel. Offred tries and fails to work out why men find the rabbit motif sexy.
  • Police Brutality: The Eyes of God simply take people who resist, and nobody can do anything.
  • Pop-Star Composer: The 1990 film is scored by former Yellow Magic Orchestra member Ryuichi Sakamoto.
  • Precision F-Strike: "My red skirt is hitched up to my waist, though no higher. Below it the Commander is fucking. What he is fucking is the lower part of my body."
  • Public Execution: The regime carries these out routinely, mostly by hanging, with the bodies left on display to warn others. One special form is where the women (usually with no power in their society) tear apart male convicts. This appears to be when they were convicted of crimes against women. Of course, Ofglen claims that the man we see killed by them didn't actually rape and murder a woman—he was part of the resistance. She knocks him out so he won't suffer, though this reveals her to the Eyes of God.
  • Punny Name: The location of the convention at the end of the book is Denay, Nunavit—Deny none of it.
  • Recursive Canon: The epilogue is the transcript of a presentation at an academic conference decades later where it is revealed that the novel you just read is a transcript of tapes Offred recorded as she was being smuggled out of the country.
  • Red Oni, Blue Oni: Offred wears red, while Serena Joy, who despises her, wears blue.
  • Released to Elsewhere:
    • Possibly, with the TV report about the Children of Ham being "resettled" to "national homelands" (a la apartheid South Africa) in North Dakota, although Offred suspects that in fact this is just a front for Gilead to execute them.
    • Also, Jews can convert or go to Israel, most choosing the latter (however, many of the ships carrying them are in fact scuttled at sea).
    • Being sent to the Colonies initially sounds like it might be a cushy alternative to living in Gilead proper. Then it's revealed that they're forced labor camps in which people clean up nuclear waste, i.e. a sentence to inevitable, painful death from radiation poisoning.
  • Rule 34: Or at least evidence it exists inside Gilead.
  • Sadistic Choice: All of the Handmaids are given one, per Offred: go to the colonies (and die a lonely, unpleasant death from radiation) or become a Handmaid?
  • Secret Police: The Republic's secret police are called the Eyes of God, or simply Eyes. The historical notes section does mention that lots of them were double or triple agents who spied for the Commanders but were also required to spy on them, and lots of them were also members of the resistance group Mayday.
  • Shout-Out: A few celebrities get shout-outs in the Distant Finale: Elvis Presley, Boy George, and Twisted Sister.
  • Shoot the Dog: Luke kills Offred's cat before the family tries to escape to Canada, as they can't take it with them and they can't leave it behind.
  • Slut-Shaming: This happens as part of Handmaid training. They encourage the women to confess to sexual activity in their former life (anything outside of procreative sex within marriage now being considered obscene), and then use the information to try to break their spirits. This goes so far as to have a group shaming session for one member who was gang-raped when she was 14 as having "led them on". As if that wasn't bad enough, there's an unspoken implication that they should be ashamed of the job they're currently being forced to do.
  • Smoky Gentlemen's Club: The secret club the commander brings Offred to, nicknamed Jezebel's. She soon finds Moira there.
  • Snicket Warning Label: After she first sleeps with Nick, Offred bemoans the sadness of her story and implies that it doesn't get much better.
    I told you it was bad.
  • Stealth Pun:
    • "Pen Is Envy."
    • One of the more mundane discomforts for women in Gilead is that skin lotions and moisturizers are forbidden as vanity products, a microcosm of the general harshness of a life without human comforts. Or to put it another way, there is no balm in Gilead.
  • Sterility Plague: Declining fertility rates due to AIDS, "R-Strain Syphilis", and nuclear fallout when the reactors in California melt down from its earthquake is a central theme in both the film and book versions. However, Gileadean doctrine forbids men to be mentioned as the ones who are sterile and instead places all the blame on women.
  • Straw Misogynist: The Republic of Gilead are entirely run by these, who have abolished all women's rights and made them wives, servants or breeding slaves, aside from the Aunts (female enforcers of their policies). One part of the backstory is that they actually got into power by allying with Straw Feminist groups on the many issues they agreed on, then backstabbing them.
  • Take That!:
    • Atwood includes a mild dig at the concept of cultural relativism used in anthropology research in the Epilogue.
    • Against radical feminists for allying against pornography alongside the Christian fundamentalists.
    • The character of Serena Joy is most likely a negative shout-out to conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly, who campaigned against the Equal Rights Amendment in the US on the grounds that it would destroy women's traditional role in the home, but was herself a lawyer who failed to follow this in her own life; Joy could also be based on Tammy Faye Bakker, a similarly conservative televangelist who was known for emoting on TV and crying tears of runny mascara.
  • Taken During the Ending: The book ends with Offred being ushered into a car. She hopes (but doesn't know) that they're being driven by Nick's allies who will take her and her baby to safety, but they could be Eyes who are taking her to be executed.
  • Tampering with Food and Drink: The Handmaids may be drugged during their training. The narrator notes they are suspiciously drowsed.
  • Textile Work Is Feminine: Lots of the Wives are into knitting. Offred notes that Serena Joy keeps knitting scarves with elaborate patterns for the Angels (soldiers fighting for the country).
  • The Theocracy: Gilead is ruled by an insanely extreme androcentric religious sect.
  • Title Drop:
    • The one for the title of the work as a whole, from the Historical Notes on The Handmaid's Tale section:
      "Problems of Authentication in Reference to The Handmaid's Tale."
    • Some for the section titles:
      • Household: Chapter 14:
        I wait, for the household to assemble. Household: that is what we are.
      • Waiting Room: In chapter 9:
        I'm waiting, in my room, which right now is a waiting room.
  • Uncertain Doom: Almost everyone.
    • Luke may have been able to escape to Canada, but it seems unlikely.
    • Offred herself, of course. Did she escape or was she actually betrayed?
    • Moira. Offred admits that she likes to imagine that Moira rebelled against the oppressive regime and went down in a blaze of glory, but it seems tragically unlikely, in which case Moira was probably just left to be "worn out" in Jezebels.
    • Serena Joy and The Commander were probably executed in the purges.
    • Offred's daughter. All we see of her is a photograph given to Offred, where it seems that her and Luke's daughter will become a Handmaid.
    • Janine completely breaks from reality during the Particution. Given Moira's earlier warning that they won't even try to find out what's wrong, it's very unlikely she lives much longer after this.
  • Unreliable Narrator: The writer of the epilogue seems to think Offred was one of these.
    • She even says "This is a reconstruction. All of it is a reconstruction." There's some initial ambiguity as to whether this refers solely to the following scene or to the entire tale, but she goes on to explain in general terms why her recollections can't possibly be complete and accurate.
    • The epilogue notes that there's uncertainty as to which of two possible historical figures Fred might have been, and expresses puzzlement over why she didn't tell her story once she got out, assuming she did.
  • Van in Black: The Eyes use all-black, oddly quiet vans with tinted windows and their symbol painted on the side to abduct dissidents.
  • Very Loosely Based on a True Story: Margaret Atwood based all of the elements of Gilead's dystopia on real events. Most prominently, she was inspired by a strange event in the United States where a radical and somewhat obscure Christian cult somehow managed to supplant a local Catholic congregation in a small town. Said cult referred to its female members as "handmaidens".
  • Virgin in a White Dress: The virgin daughters of Gilead wear these until marriage, when they switch to blue (Wives) or multicolored (Econowives).
  • We ARE Struggling Together: Invoked in regards to the wives and the handmaids. The Republic of Gilead encourages wives to look down on and mistreat the handmaids, ensuring that the two groups of oppressed women won't team up and overthrow the regime.
  • Where the Hell Is Springfield?: The story is set in an unnamed American city, but certain clues point to it as Cambridge, Massachusetts: specifically Harvard Square. Margaret Atwood stated in the foreword for the TV show's tie-in edition that this is a Call-Back to colonial-era Puritanism.