The Handmaid’s Tale is a dystopian novel by Canadian author Margaret Atwood, originally published in 1985. It is set in a near-future New England, in a totalitarian state resembling a theonomy, which has overthrown the United States government. The novel focuses on the journey of the handmaid Offred. Her name derives from the possessive form “of Fred”; handmaids are forbidden to use their birth names and must echo the male, or master, who they serve.
The Handmaid’s Tale explores themes of women in subjugation in a patriarchal society and the various means by which these women attempt to gain individualism and independence. The novel’s title echoes the component parts of Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, which is a series of connected stories (“The Merchant’s Tale”, “The Parson’s Tale”, etc.).
The Handmaid’s Tale is structured into two parts, night and other various events. This novel can be interpreted as a double narrative, Offred’s tale and the handmaids’ tales. The night sections are solely about Offred, and the other sections (shopping, waiting room, household, etc.) are the stories that describe the possible life of every handmaid, though from the perspective of Offred. In many of these sections, Offred jumps between past and present as she retells the events leading up to the fall of women’s rights and the current details of the life which she now lives.
The Handmaid’s Tale won the 1985 Governor General’s Award and the first Arthur C. Clarke Award in 1987; it was also nominated for the 1986 Nebula Award, the 1986 Booker Prize, and the 1987 Prometheus Award. The book has been adapted into a 1990 film, a 2000 opera, a television series, and other media.