The Handmaid's Tale Context

Focuses on context that is part of the specification.


Margaret Atwood

  • Atwood is the daughter of a forest entomologist- The importance here is that Gilead has been damaged by pollution and nuclear waste (Colonies) that the consquences are that women are infertile and rely on those who are not. Her focus is to us that we should be concerned about looking after the environment.
  • Atwood was born in Ottawa, Ontario. (Canada)- The significance here is that Canada in the novel is where the female underground is stationed allowing those to escape free. Ironic too that Canada is set as the 'good' country because of today's affairs and the usual grudge the two neighbouring countries hold.
  • Atwood tends to write open-ended stories-The importance here is that in the novel, we are not sure if Offred makes it out alive. Was Nick trustworthy? Or was he just another Eye, sniffing out those against the state?
  • Atwood campaigns for human rights- This is best shown by the fact Gilead controls its people. Women are in particular deprived of their rights.
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Margaret Atwood

The Edible Woman- This novel focuses on about how a woman who cannot eat and feels she is being eaten alive. Links towards the theme of 'female liberation'. Feeling like you are indepedent and not strictly controlled or subjected.

Her work is often gothic-The events like the Particicution and Salvaging are grim as they are literally mass murderings in front of a crowd.

Atwood is a leading feminist writer- Characters are Offred's Mother who was an activist and Moira who shown real strenght, are two examples of this. Example one of her other books: Surfacing; focuses on how a daughter investigates her father's disapperance (example of female lead).

Focuses on dangers of ideology- Gilead is the product of those wishing to bring Gilead back to Judeo-Christian period (Old Testament) however it is oppressing its people. Offred's thoughts on the past also make us think on the things we take for granted.

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Historical Context

The banner year was 1986- This was the year against dystopia literature. It was focus on the coversative revival of those in power: Ronald Reagan and Thatcher. (Reagan making it difficult for the civil rights movement to pass forward). Gilead is against sexuality, freedom of speech and rights for the minorities that modern times do not suppress.

The genre of the novel is dystopia, speculative, science fiction and utopia- Gilead is oppressed nation where women are controlled and the supremacy of men is witheld. It looks on to predict and warn of totalitrian power. Parts of does have aspects of Utopia, Offred does mention this: no headlines of women being ***** and there is more protection. This is only a minute good thing. Not only that but these genres are weaved in because Offred was not born into it but she is no visitor either to the culture.

Seen as Metafiction- Offred keeps reminding us that it is 'A story I'm telling.'

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Historical Context

Those against feminist movement-We can see characters like Serena Joy are based off those like Phyllis Schlafly as they see a woman's place is to be at home. Ironically, though, Serena campaigned for it over many years but the grim reality is, quite different. She is still oppressed herself and watches as another woman is 'intimate' with her husband.

Roe vs Wade 1973- This case involved the right for a woman to have control over her body. In Gilead, Handmaids do not have the choice. They are treated like 'scared vessels' with the purpose to breed. There is no avaliability of contraception or abortion rights no more.

Romanina's Decree 770-Due to falling birth rates, contraception was made illegal in 1966. There was mandatory monthly checks for women over 25. Similar, to Gilead where Handmaids have to visit the Doctor for monthly checks over their ferility and health.

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Historical Context

The White Rose Group-The resistance group against the Nazis, similar to Gilead with the Mayday who are an known resistance that Offred discovers working against the state. Always element of those not willing to submit.

The Feminist Movement (1970s)-Demonstrated those seeking female liberation. In the novel, Offred's Mother is a feminist who has a child at 37 (Offred) and takes her to rallies burning *********** magazines and fighting for a woman's right. Offred catches a glimpse of her Mother at the Colonies on a video. Gilead is against female liberation, no *********** is allowed or for the Gurdians for example to relieve themselves by masturbation. Ironically, though, that is not the case for Jezebels is a place where Moira ends up and sleeps around with the men who visit.

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Critics' Opinions on The Handmaid's Tale

Katy Murr- 'Atwood gathered her ideas for Offred's narrative from the external world.'

Grace O' Duffy- 'Atwood's choice of first person narrative means Offred is less estranged from us, becoming less of a character and more of a real person.'

The New Yorker- 'Yes, The Handmaid's Tale is feminist.'

Doris Grumbach- "gripping in its horrendous details, striking in the extensions Atwood makes from what is true now of our society to what might possibly be true in time to come."

Critics' opinion who are against:

Brad Hooper, Booklist- 'Offred's montonous manner of expression just drones and drones.'

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Overall summary

Use these examples and any other you come across to add as part of your essay in the exam. It will help you gain the best marks by adding in external knowledge to show you understand the context of the novel than just analysing the passage by itself.

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Historical Context

Massachusetts-The area where Gilead is founded, historically, it is known for the well-populated area of Puritans that were the fathers of America. This group were oppressed in Puritan England yet when they headed over to the New World, they only revoked the same actions upon other minorities. 

Harvard University- This establishment is where the salvaging takes place. The University symbolises the freedom of knowledge but Gilead has turned this upside down and denies this. Also suspected base for the Eyes. Metaphorical significance that they watch; stop free will. 

Old Testament- Gilead is founded on this, more significantly rejects science and 20th psychologists lecture that men need more than one sexual partner. Part of nature. Refers to exactly what the commander says to Offred in their nightly visits. 

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Margaret Atwood

Atwood's early life was dominated by WW2 and saw witness to the controversional atomic warfare over the bombings on Hiroshima and Nasaki in Japan--In Gilead, nuclear waste caused massive devasation to the environment and people are forced to work in these areas who do not comply to the state. 

Atwood's relative, Mary Webster, in 1863 was hung for suspicion of being a witch--In Gilead, hanging is used both for enemies against the state. At the wall and Salavings. 

Atwood's visit to Afghanistan and Iran- Elements are used in the Gilead as similar to the laws like the Sharia Law in Sudan that does not allow women to drive and that they must be accompanied by a male. In Gilead, guardians must be assigned to take Handmaids for like their daily check-ups. Other elements include how women must be covered; Gilead adopts this where Offred is unable to allow her hair to be on show. 

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Historical Context

Quakers- In real-life and both Gilead, these are devoted Chritians who believe in no war. They help Moira nearly escape. Reference to them is also found in Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852). 

Whores- In Gilead, the whores of Jezebels, the name orginating from the Judo-Christian Queen who was guilty of sexual desires. 

1980s-PCBs increased with solar pollution. During this, it was fears there was PCBs in the polar caps that were reason to believe in the male polar bear's inferility. Links to Gilead where it is more than likely the male population is sterile. 

Slavery Movement- The Children of Ham in Gilead represent the black population and are displaced from the state. 

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Critics' Opinions on The Handmaid's Tale

The Handmaid's Tales take the element from the Sorcerer Apprentice where they are unable to stop the salt grinder. In Gilead, Margaret has emphasised this on the case of nuclear warfare and the other consquences of discouraging a healthy environment. 

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Margaret Atwood

Atwood is partnership of the Future Library where the paper for the publication of her story in years to come will be printed off the trees planted in Norway; reason-to contribute to storytelling but the effect she won't know the readers--it will act as the message in a bottle---This is similar to Offred's story, she knows not who is listening to her story and the tapes she had left behind will hopefully spread her message across. 

The novel is a narrow part of the spectrum for Dystopia whereas novels like Orwell's 1984 focuses on overall domination of society, Handmaids focuses on the daily chore of life making it appear more realistic. 

It is a satire fiction-Offred uses humour throughout the novel/ sarcasm to put light on the dangerous and bad situation that she is in. 

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Great resource 



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