The Handmaid's Tale

The Handmaid's Tale

by Margaret Atwood


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#1 New York Times bestseller 

Look for The Testaments, the sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, available now.

An instant classic and eerily prescient cultural phenomenon, from “the patron saint of feminist dystopian fiction” (New York Times). Now an award-winning Hulu series starring Elizabeth Moss.
In Margaret Atwood’s dystopian future, environmental disasters and declining birthrates have led to a Second American Civil War. The result is the rise of the Republic of Gilead, a totalitarian regime that enforces rigid social roles and enslaves the few remaining fertile women. Offred is one of these, a Handmaid bound to produce children for one of Gilead’s commanders. Deprived of her husband, her child, her freedom, and even her own name, Offred clings to her memories and her will to survive. At once a scathing satire, an ominous warning, and a tour de force of narrative suspense, The Handmaid’s Tale is a modern classic.

Includes an introduction by Margaret Atwood

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780385490818
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 03/16/1998
Pages: 336
Sales rank: 2,461
Product dimensions: 5.10(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.90(d)
Lexile: 750L (what's this?)

About the Author

Margaret Atwood, whose work has been published in thirty-five countries, is the author of more than forty books of fiction, poetry, and critical essays. In addition to The Handmaid’s Tale, her novels include Cat’s Eye, short-listed for the 1989 Booker Prize; Alias Grace, which won the Giller Prize in Canada and the Premio Mondello in Italy; The Blind Assassin, winner of the 2000 Booker Prize; Oryx and Crake, short-listed for the 2003 Man Booker Prize; The Year of the Flood; and her most recent, MaddAddam. She is the recipient of the Los Angeles Times Innovator’s Award, and lives in Toronto with the writer Graeme Gibson.


Toronto, Ontario

Date of Birth:

November 18, 1939

Place of Birth:

Ottawa, Ontario


B.A., University of Toronto, 1961; M.A. Radcliffe, 1962; Ph.D., Harvard University, 1967

Read an Excerpt

from the Introduction

In the spring of 1984 I began to write a novel that was not initially called The Handmaid’s Tale. I wrote in long hand, mostly on yellow legal notepads, then transcribed my almost illegible scrawlings using a huge German-keyboard manual typewriter that I’d rented.
The keyboard was German because I was living in West Berlin, which was still encircled by the Berlin Wall: the Soviet empire was still strongly in place and was not to crumble for another five years. Every Sunday the East German air force made sonic booms to remind us of how close they were. During my visits to several countries behind the Iron Curtain—Czechoslovakia, East Germany—I experienced the wariness, the feeling of being spied on, the silences, the changes of subject, the oblique ways in which people might convey information, and these had an influence on what I was writing. So did the repurposed buildings. This used to belong to . . . But then they disappeared. I heard such stories many times.
Having been born in 1939 and come to consciousness during World War II, I knew that established orders could vanish overnight. Change could also be as fast as lightning. It can’t happen here could not be depended on: anything could happen anywhere, given the circumstances.
By 1984, I’d been avoiding my novel for a year or two. It seemed to me a risky venture. I’d read extensively in science fiction, speculative fiction, utopias and dystopias ever since my high school years in the 1950s, but I’d never written such a book. Was I up to it? The form was strewn with pitfalls, among them a tendency to sermonize, a veering into allegory, and a lack of plausibility. If I was to create an imaginary garden, I wanted the toads in it to be real. One of my rules was that I would not put any events into the book that had not already happened in what James Joyce called the “nightmare” of history, nor any technology not already available. No imaginary gizmos, no imaginary laws, no imaginary atrocities. God is in the details, they say. So is the devil.
Back in 1984, the main premise seemed—even to me—fairly outrageous. Would I be able to persuade readers that the United States of America had suffered a coup that had transformed an erstwhile liberal democracy into a literal-minded theocratic dictatorship? In the book, the Constitution and Congress are no longer: the Republic of Gilead is built on a foundation of the seventeenth-century Puritan roots that have always lain beneath the modern-day America we thought we knew.
The immediate location of the book is Cambridge, Massachusetts, home of Harvard University, now a leading liberal educational institution but once a Puritan theological seminary. The Secret Service of Gilead is located in the Widener Library, where I had spent many hours in the stacks, researching my New England ancestors as well as the Salem witchcraft trials. Would some people be affronted by the use of the Harvard wall as a display area for the bodies of the executed? (They were.)
In the novel, the population is shrinking due to a toxic environment, and the ability to have viable babies is at a premium. (In today’s real world, studies in China are now showing a sharp fertility decline in Chinese men.) Under totalitarianisms—or indeed in any sharply hierarchical society—the ruling class monopolizes valuable things, so the elite of the regime arrange to have fertile females assigned to them as Handmaids. The biblical precedent is the story of Jacob and his two wives, Rachel and Leah, and their two handmaids. One man, four women, twelve sons—but the handmaids could not claim the sons. They belonged to the respective wives.
And so the tale unfolds.

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

“A taut thriller, a psychological study, a play on words.…A rich and complex book.”
New York Times

“Atwood has peered behind the curtain into some of the darkest, most secret, yet oddly erotic corners of the mind, and the result is a fascinating, wonderfully written, and disturbing cautionary tale.”
Toronto Sun

“A novel that will both chill and caution readers and which may challenge everyday assumptions.…It is an imaginative accomplishment of a high order. . . . ”
London Free Press

“Moving, vivid and terrifying. I only hope it is not prophetic.”
–Conor Cruise O’Brien

“A novel that brilliantly illuminates some of the darker interconnections of politics and sex.…Satisfying, disturbing and compelling.”
Washington Post

“The most poetically satisfying and intense of all Atwood’s novels.”

“It deserves an honored place on the small shelf of cautionary tales that have entered modern folklore – a place next to, and by no means inferior to, Brave New World and 1984.”
Publishers Weekly

“Deserves the highest praise.”
San Francisco Chronicle

“In The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood has written the most chilling cautionary novel of the century.”
Phoenix Gazette

“Imaginative, even audacious, and conveys a chilling sense of fear and menace.”
Globe and Mail

“Margaret Atwood’s novels tickle our deepest sexual and psychological fears. The Handmaid’s Tale is a sly and beautifully crafted story about the fate of an ordinary woman caught off guard by extraordinary events. . . . A compelling fable of our time.”

“This visionary novel, in which God and Government are joined, and America is run as a Puritanical Theocracy, can be read as a companion volume to Orwell’s 1984 –its verso, in fact. It gives you the same degree of chill, even as it suggests the varieties of tyrannical experience; it evokes the same kind of horror even as its mordant wit makes you smile.”
–E. L. Doctorow

Reading Group Guide

1. Atwood says that her novel’s title was meant to evoke both Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and folktales or fairy tales. Why might she have wanted readers to make those connections?

2. The novel’s first epigraph, from Genesis, reveals the Biblical precedent that Gilead’s founders use to justify exploiting Handmaids. Given their apparent allegiance to the Bible, why do Gilead’s rulers keep it under lock and key?

3. The novel’s second epigraph is from Jonathan Swift’s famously satirical “Modest Proposal,” in which he suggests solving the Irish famine by having the starving peasants sell their children as food for the rich. Beyond signaling her satiric intent, do you think Atwood meant to suggest any deeper connections between Swift’s vision and hers? Does humor have any role in her satire?

4. The third epigraph is a Sufi proverb: “In the desert there is no sign that says, Thou shalt not eat stones.” What do you think this means in the context of this story?

5. Offred’s name vividly represents the erasure of her former identity and of her independent selfhood. Readers have found other evocative echoes in it: “offered,” “afraid,” “off-read.” Do these associations deepen your sense of her character?

6. Why do you think the Aunts participate so enthusiastically in the oppression of their fellow women? Are their motives different from those of the Commanders’ Wives?

7. Serena Joy was instrumental in bringing about the new social order, which now severely limits her role. Does she seem to feel that the trade-offs she has made were worth it?

8. In her introduction, Atwood argues that her novel is not “anti-religion,” but only “against the use of religion as a front for tyranny.” Is her argument persuasive to you? Is it as relevant now as when she wrote the novel?

9. Atwood was concerned that readers might find Gilead’s horrors implausible, so she only included events that had actually occurred at some point in history. She lists examples in her introduction; can you think of more? Does knowing this make it seem more likely that something like Gilead could happen here?

10. Do you think the growing popularity of dystopian novels in recent years reflects increased pessimism about the future? Atwood has denied that The Handmaid’s Tale was meant as a prediction, explaining her intention as “anti-prediction,” meaning that “if this future can be described in detail, perhaps it won’t happen.” Do you think that might be (as she also suggests) wishful thinking?

Customer Reviews

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The Handmaid's Tale 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1515 reviews.
constantreaderML More than 1 year ago
Everyone should read this book. Period. Take it as a warning, of what CAN happen in the U.S., if religious extremism is allowed to infiltrate our society, and if Church and State don't stay separate. And keep in mind that Atwood took the social/political circumstances in the book from real situations that have happened or are happening somewhere in the world. The writing pulls the reader in, and even though the subject is terribly depressing, you just can't quit reading it. Now that I've finished it, I can't quit thinking about it. I want to read about it, and talk about it, and read more by the author. But I won't read it again for a long time, because it's plausibility is just too disturbing. Any author who can instill such strong emotions in her/his readers is a very talented writer.
andrewlin More than 1 year ago
To categorize The Handmaid's Tale as another feminist piece of literature would be inaccurate, as it is really more. Like other novels that present visions of the world in the future, The Handmaid's tale imagines a dystopia that is all at once surreal and convincing, just as Orwell's 1984 or Huxley's Brave New World are. Though Offred's condition may appear unrealistic or even absurd at a glance, as the novel unfolds, Atwood reveals social circumstances shockingly real and in fact similar to our own.
FARIEQUEENE More than 1 year ago
I picked up this book over a decade ago on a break in between classes while I was at school and bored. I remember vividly reading the entire book in a day and re-reading the book so often that when I purchased my nook last December, "The Handmaid's Tale" was the first book I bought. Atwood's glance at a sexist and distopian society is terrifying and the book makes a strong statement about what happens when the state has too much control. The Red Dresses and Blue Dresses haunt me til this day, and yet I read the book over and over again when I cannot find anything else to tempt me.
ReadingQueen12-17 More than 1 year ago
This story is extraordinary.chilling, but extraordinary. As with all of her books, Atwood as a canny ability to insert the very basics of human nature into the most outrageous and horrifying of environments, which is essentially what makes this book believable. I challenge any reader to keep the chills at bay when they come to the part of the story where it is explained how the United States is overtaken by a group of religious fanatics and the world as we know it is mutated to a dystopian hell.
songcatchers More than 1 year ago
The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood is a novel of dystopia set in the near future. In the tale, women are now commodities. They are not allowed to read or gain knowledge in any way. They are not allowed to make conversation with each other. Sex is for reproduction only, not pleasure. They have a job to do and if you happen to be a Handmaid, like the protagonist in this novel, then your job is to get pregnant by the Commander under whose roof you live. Our protagonist lives under a man named Fred so her name is Offred (Of Fred). Throughout this tale she remembers a time when she had her own name, her own husband to make love to, her own daughter to nurture, her own job and money....but those days are gone. She describes in pieces how the government in America changed to the totalitarian Republic of Gilead and how many people, her husband and daughter included, tried to escape it. This novel is chilling and gloomy. Offred describes her life as a handmaid in a dispirited and dejected way. The book is compelling though and thought provoking.
Guacamole More than 1 year ago
Presenting a truly frightening view of the future, Margaret Atwood's novel describes a totalitarian regime oddly reminiscent of Hitler's reign. She creates a world in which no one dared speak against the unreasonable demands of an evil government. Subjugating women to secondary roles in society, Atwood presents herself as an unorthodox feminist writer, whose intent is unclear. While the novel warns against a possible fate for humanity, Atwood leaves the conclusion ambiguous, and readers may interpret it as one of two extremes: salvation or destruction. Paralleling people to lifeless objects, Atwood uses frightening images to define the characters by the roles they play in society. Through the dehumanization of faceless victims, she portrays a society in which any dissent is a sure-fire ticket to a humiliating death. Equating Salvaging victims to scarecrows, she implies that those killed for misdeeds were punished publically as deterrence for potential rebels. Emphasizing the anonymity of victims, this comparison diminishes the executed criminals to mere tools used at the discretion of the government. Thus, Atwood crafts a world modeled after her fears and warns the world of potential dangers. While I personally was extremely disturbed by the content of this book, I respect it as an honest work and a call for reform. Despite its unwelcomed implications, The Handmaid's Tale brought to light issues facing today's society that are commonly overlooked. The idea that time does not equate to progress is manifested in this novel, as Atwood suggests a future similar to the most horrific pasts. As Gilead oppresses its citizens to fear defiance, truth gradually fades to oblivion, as no one dares speak against the government. Those awaiting death sit "like graduating students who are about to be given prizes" and do not protest at all. Such an illustration arouses concern for the future of our society, as we wonder if humanity is headed for the described fate.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I had never heard of the book, and chose it simply because it had good reviews. I was lost in the beginning - it took me a while to realize it takes place in the future but when I did I found it startling. The author has a unique style that keeps the reader enthralled. It was a refreshing change from much of the fiction I have been reading.
CR-Buell More than 1 year ago
I don't know if I've ever been more powerfully affected by a novel than I was by this one. Offred (meeting Ofglen, and it finally dawning on me how the Handmaids are named, was a stunning moment) is so beautifully and painfully rendered; she is a fully human character. Atwood gets inside her head, and Offred becomes real, in a way few characters ever do. From the beginning we are dropped into a horrifying near-future in which all women are subjugated to one degree or another, and Handmaids are on the bottom rung. As the story unfolds and the past is slowly revealed we become more and more horrified, because Atwood shows us how this all came about, and it doesn't seem all that far-fetched. One of the more profound aspects of this book (for me at least) is that Atwood doesn't only focus on the plight of the Handmaids, who have it the worst, but also shows how others have been affected by these societal changes. The Wives, who occupy the highest social rung amongst women, at first seem to be part of the problem; they have freedoms other women can only dream of, and exercise power over women of lesser social standing. But life's not good for them either; they're still not allowed to read, work, own property, or make decisions about the direction of their lives. They are the property of their husbands. And even most men don't have it all that great; lackeys to the great and powerful, forced to follow a strict social doctrine, not allowed to make many of their own life choices, and if they step out of line, just once, just a little bit, they're publicly executed as traitors. That Offred, despite her own suffering, is still able to sympathize with others, who all have it better than her, is deeply moving, and ultimately a sign of hope. Some people seem to have a problem with the prose in this novel. To those people I say, don't ever read Garcia Marquez, Pynchon, or Joyce. To everyone else I say, forget what your 9th grade English teacher taught you, this prose is stunning. If this novel was written as a straightforward narrative it wouldn't be anywhere near as powerful; the stream-of-consciousness prose is what makes this novel so affecting.
divideByZero More than 1 year ago
Can any religion, when taken to its logical conclusion, be anything other than a fundamentalist trap of self delusion? Does censorship help anyone? Freedom to or freedom from ... This is a great book. Buy it and read on ... you won't regret the decision.
Lynie More than 1 year ago
THE HANDMAID'S TALE is not a new book, having been published in 1985. I finally read this very intense and disturbing book by Margaret Atwood and I'm glad I waited. Ms. Atwood's tale is almost a blueprint of how severe changes to our very existence could actually occur. It's a good lesson for us to all protect the freedoms we do have and reminds us to not be so quick to jump on the bandwagon of anything that lessens any one else's personal freedom. Just as women all lost their jobs and access to any of their finances and basically became chattel of the men in society in THE HANDMAID'S TALE whether they were wives, handmaids or Marthas you could just imagine how quickly it could happen. THE HANDMAID'S TALE is a powerful and frightening book and if you haven't read it, you should. Lynn Kimmerle
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The current political tone in D. C. makes this novel seem far too likely. Women's rights, so hard won, are threatened, and the U. S. shows signs of a slide into a totalitarian regime. Chilling accurate.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I loved this book so much! It was written beautifully, and it's very relevant in the time we live in today.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
"Better never means better for everyone, he says. It always means worse, for some." Evaluate situations for yourself, beware of trusting inflated promises, do your own research, make your own decisions, and above all: be kind to one another. We are all we have.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A good read that leaves me wondering just how long we have considering she wrote this 30 sum years ago It starts with censoring or silencing the press. My first Atwood book and she is a colorful and descriptive teller. I was not disappointed.
Linda_K More than 1 year ago
I love science fiction and future fiction, and this is one of my favorite books of all time. The story about the handmaiden who has been separated from her family for the sin of not being married, who is used for her known ability to procreate, who is a prisoner in her own country, is both entertaining and thought provoking. Margaret Atwood is a master when it comes to weaving an interesting story, and excels at telling it. Now that I think about it, I think I'll read this book again! :)
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
What happens when the government is taken over by a religious sect...mayhem for women under the guise of "tradional values".
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
More adult than young adult. Definitely for the conspiracy theorist anti big brother crowd. Cautionary tale, anyone?
lorabele More than 1 year ago
Great story that kept me wanting to read more and more. Loved it. Then it just ended. No ending really at all. No idea what happend. HATE THAT. What a cheap way to end a great story. Would never have read it if I had known.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
omigod, i love this book. and Take a Barnes $10 Off coupons code from
kathleenmrodgers More than 1 year ago
When I read The Handmaid's Tale back in the nineties, I remember feeling chilled but thought this could never really happen in America. I just finished reading it for the 2nd time and it is terrifying because the plot is now so plausible. I saw the HBO movie that came out in 1990. I haven't watched the Hulu series but will eventually. Here's a quote that basically sums up my feelings about this novel: "When almost every day brings another assault upon the personhood of women, can we ALL affirm that women deserve the same inalienable right over their bodies that men claim for their homes and rifles?" Pastor Jim Rigby (Saint Andrews Presbyterian Church, Austin, TX).
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is a book that will truly make you think. The book is beautifully written, and all too possible for the future. I would say this is one of my all time favorite books.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Based on reviews I expected more out of this book. It was a lot of the main chararacters rambling thoughts with a few interesting parts. I got lost in the details of her wandering thoughts and found myself skipping over these parts just to find something worth my time. And then the ending? A total let down. Left me wondering if there was a sequel or something else. It was as if the author just ran out material to write....wish I hadn't spent the money on this read.
skyride More than 1 year ago
Atwood is a really wonderful writer; she is good at turning the mundane into something captivating. However, I'm not sure science fiction/dystopian futures are her strong suit. Dystopian futures are not the mundane, yet she chooses nevertheless to focus on the mundane aspects, which can be a bit of a bore at times. Her writing is poetic and lovely, but given the genre it often feels overly verbose. Periodically I would come across a chapter or paragraph or sentence that struck me as brilliant and wonderful; more often than not it was too much mystery and buildup for too little pay off. That being said, I would still absolutely recommend this book. The very concept is so disturbing that it deserves to be explored and pondered over. Not Atwood's best work, but still a work deserving of attention.
Bonnnniieee More than 1 year ago
Margaret Atwood, in The Handmaid¿s Tale, creates a dystopian world where equality is unknown and the truth is concealed. The risk of betrayal, the fear looming in all under the regime, instills a sense of excitement where one¿s heart stops and breath is held while the story gradually unravels. Alongside the appealing plot, Offred is portrayed as a woman whose words are full of contradictions. Irony looms in every page as Atwood highlights the fear stirring inside every handmaid, in this case Offred.
The plot is simple, a female portrayed as similar to an object and a possession, coerced to live under a government who manipulates the world. In a sense, women were blinded from reality as they were constantly fed deceit in a way that forces them to believe what is given to them. Whether they truly agreed with the regime was completely dependent on who she is. In this novel, we see the development of Offred from a girl who only does what is necessary and hides in fear to a woman who utilizes strategies to endure in a world where truth is unknown. However, irony becomes apparent in her method of survival as her notion of freedom is just another way to pull her back into the hands of oppression. This is due to the fact that her ultimate goal is to become fertile, but in reality by doing so, although seemingly liberation-like, it is only another method for Offred to remain under the slavery condition and in the prison-like situation. By having a child, Offred is indicating her acceptance to the false reality the government reveals to her. Her consideration of a way out is technically a way in. Her form of salvation is ultimately damnation.
By having a substantial amount of controversy evident in this novel, Atwood enables a deeper implication, a mystery, and a method to confuse yet appeal to the readers. Alongside the satisfaction of discovering the irony, there is also puzzlement of what is truly in Offred¿s mind. This novel rich in enigma enables us to continue reading in hope to unravel the secrets behind each and every line.
Although the plot may be straightforward, by it being accompanied with mystery the story evolves into one where questions are proliferating and answers are left awaiting. The excitement is truly alluring and I applaud Atwood for a story remarkable in its ability to enlighten and its style.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A must read today more than ever, given our current political climate and current occupant of the White House.