The Handmaid's Tale

by Margaret Atwood

Essay on Book and Movie

by David H. Kessel


This is a story about a POSSIBLE future in America. Set in the early 21st century, it is a story of a society gone wrong...where most women are sterile as a result of ecological disasters, although there IS a group of women who can still reproduce. It is a story of a violent fascist takeover of the United States and the establishment of a Theocracy (called the Nation of Gilead) by the religious right (and white!). It is a story of at least THREE struggle of the leaders of Gilead to complete their takeover; second...the struggle of people to live their everyday lives within this theocratic system; and third...the struggle of people to resist and overthrow the pervasive control of the security forces of Gilead.

All this is portrayed through the recollected thoughts of one of the remaining fertile women, a "Handmaid" whose real name we never learn...and thus, her "Tale" while being enslaved as a baby-producer (surrogate mother) for the ruling elite of the highly stratified Gilead. The wives of this elite are mostly sterile and, based upon Biblical precedence, enslave the Handmaids to bear their children. The narrating Handmaid, known only to us as Offred (indicating the name of her Commander), weaves the description of her current situation with memories of her previous life, painting a picture of both subtle and overt violence. In the end she is rescued by the Underground forces...hidden safely away...during which time she records her Tale on old music cassette tapes. Although her ultimate future is not revealed, we are led to believe that by the late 22nd century things have changed once again...given the "Historical Notes" of the Gileadean Research Association located at the end of the book.


Margaret Atwood has provided us with a vivid and horrifying vision of what COULD happen in our society. She doesn't write a social or technological fantasy, but rather, utilizes current views, beliefs, and tendencies...all taken to their extreme conclusions. She extrapolates from current realities to possible realities...especially involving the roles of men and women. Yet, at its core, her novel is a sociological portrayal of how power and control is once again used to further the particular morality of a given group of people. All overt dissent has been stifled in Gilead, anyone who is "different" in some way is removed or killed. It's security force, The Eyes, continues to root out and make an example of those citizens who previously (and currently) violated the official version of moral living in Gilead. Liberated women, homosexuals, Jews, blacks, other minorities, subversive thinkers, and religious sects wh won't support the ruling Theocracy...all these and others are eliminated...there's literally a whitewashing of America...a kind of hosing-down of the perverts, radicals, and subversives...i.e. anyone defined as immoral by the new "moral majority" who now, not so incidently, have most of the weapons.

Ironically (and like a number of other "future" books in the Science Fiction genre), this is a story of both gloom and hope. It is also a kind of "finger-wagging" by the author...warning us about what might happen if we don't pay closer attention to what is now actually happening in our society today. It is a story about people defining "social problems" according to a particular standard of what "ought to be" and the resulting actions taken to enforce that standard. It is not a "fun" or "lighthearted" look at a possible future, but rather, is a very grim and depressing vision of what we are and what we might become.

In addition, in order for the reader to better understand this story, I offer the following clarifications. Atwood uses the thoughts and observations of Offred as a narration. As Offred clearly states, all these events are a later a later time in her life. So, the story is told on three levels. First, Offred is telling the story as she experiences life in her a Handmaid in her Commander's house...with his wife, Serena Joy. Second, while a Handmaid she is remembering the past...both her previous life before being captured and enslaved...and...her experiences since her capture. Third, as a fugitive after her rescue, she is taping all of this. Thus, at times it can get confusing as to what exactly Offred is talking about. However, if you keep this in mind, you'll be able to recognize when she slips back into the past (what she calls "attacks of the past")...especially when recalling her stolen daughter and her probably-dead husband. Also, Offred often talks about herself to herself. She makes many references to the possibility of killing well as what others think of her. Given her situation, one can hardly not empathize with her plight and her desires.

Finally, as mentioned earlier, this is not a happy-time story. It can get depressing and sometimes downright gruesome. The stratified and fortified society of Gilead is indeed fictional. However, it is a fictional account with an all too real quality to it. The story is a veritable "sociological lab" from which to learn about the present as well as for the future.


As most of us know, there are often differences between a literary work and a movie based upon it. This is certainly true of this particular book and movie. Some of these differences are minor and others are fairly major. Some are simply due to the requirements of filmmaking and others are due to the need to make a commercial (i.e. money-making) film. Nevertheless, on the whole, even the major ones don't ultimately affect its message or the issues it raises. But, to keep things straight, I'll list below some of the major differences followed by a few of the minor ones.


BOOK: Handmaids wear hats with wings to block sideviews

MOVIE: Handmaids wear red veils

BOOK: Offred's real name is not revealed

MOVIE: Offred's real name is Kate

BOOK: She never knows what happens to her husband

MOVIE: She sees her husband, Luke, killed at the border

BOOK: Her Commander is taken away in a purge

MOVIE: Offred kills her Commander

BOOK: This is her 3rd Handmaid assignment

MOVIE: This is her first Handmaid assignment

BOOK: No mention of returning to Red Center

MOVIE: Returns to Red Center when Commander is away

BOOK: After first Ceremony she returns to her room fairly calm

MOVIE: After first Ceremony she gets angry, rips off her clothes, and washes her face

BOOK: Serena Joy is very distant most of time...very little sense of equality between them

MOVIE: Serena Joy is relatively friendly and understanding...offers a kind of equality with her

BOOK: Nick openly warns her and begins early on to identify himself as a revolutionary

MOVIE: She has almost no contact with Nick at warnings to her about anything till helps her escape


Some of the minor differences are...In the Movie...:

Ofglen (another Handmaid as well as revolutionary) tells Offred/Kate she might need to kill her Commander

There's only one victim at the Women's Salvaging ceremony

Her Commander forces a kiss

Her Commander tells Offred about the previous Handmaid hanging herself in her room

Offred's mother is not mentioned at all

Kate and Luke (her husband) don't appear at the Border with fake passports

Kate has very difference experience with Nick the first time she goes to him for sex

In conclusion, whether one reads the book or views the movie, details of Gilead society emerge...the point gets across either way...Atwood's warning is clear. I would personally suggest reading the book first and the seeing the movie second.