The Handmaid's Tale, Essential Revision Notes

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Table of Contents

Context 4

Summary 5

Analysis 8

Characters 21

Themes, Motifs, and Symbols 26

Important Quotations Explained 30

Context

Margaret Atwood was born in Ottawa, Ontario, on November 18, 1939. She published her first book of poetry in 1961 while attending the University of Toronto. She later received degrees from both Radcliffe College and Harvard University, and pursued a career in teaching at the university level. Her first novel, The Edible Woman, was published in 1969 to wide acclaim. Atwood continued teaching as her literary career blossomed. She has lectured widely and has served as a writer-in-residence at colleges ranging from the University of Toronto to Macquarie University in Australia.

Atwood wrote The Handmaid’s Tale in West Berlin and Alabama in the mid-1980s. The novel, published in 1986, quickly became a best-seller. The Handmaid’s Tale falls squarely within the twentieth-century tradition of anti-utopian, or ‘dystopian’ novels, exemplified by classics like Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and George Orwell’s 1984. Novels in this genre present imagined worlds and societies that are not ideals, but instead are terrifying or restrictive.

Atwood’s novel offers a strongly feminist vision of dystopia. She wrote it shortly after the elections of Ronald Reagan in the United States and Margaret Thatcher in Great Britain, during a period of conservative revival in the West partly fuelled by a strong, well-organized movement of religious conservatives who criticized what they perceived as the excesses of the ‘sexual revolution’ of the 1960s and 1970s. The growing power of this ‘religious right’ heightened feminist fears that the gains women had made in previous decades would be reversed.

In The Handmaid’s Tale, Atwood explores the consequences of a reversal of women’s rights. In the novel’s nightmare world of Gilead, a group of conservative religious extremists has taken...

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