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Research Papers on The Handmaid's Tale

The Handmaid’s Tale is a dystopian novel by Canadian author Margaret Atwood. First published in 1985, the novel is set in a future America that has been taken over by Christian fundamentalists, called the Republic of Gilead. The story is told from the perspective of a woman character known only as Offred (Of Fred).

In this future, women are classified by their various roles and named only by their owner: Ofglen, Offred, etc. Offred is a handmaid, a concubine kept because the upper class wives cannot bear children. Her sole purpose is to bear children for The Commander. Other classes of women include the Marthas, older women reduced to domestic servants.

Although the Commander is only supposed to have sex with Offred during a special ceremony, he soon begins an illicit affair with her, introducing her to a secret world full of contraband. The Commander’s wife, Serena Joy, also arranges for Offred to have sex with their driver, Nick, in an effort for her to get pregnant. Nick, however, turns out to be part of the underground resistance, the Mayday. Offred is taken away by the secret police, but Nick assures her that they are the resistance.

The novel ends with a postscript set further in the future, relating how a professor studying the Gilead Period came across Offred’s story, that she recorded on cassette tapes.

Atwood has been quoted many times as having said that everything in the Gilead state exists in nascent form in contemporary America.

  1. The Handmaid's Tale First published in the mid 1980s, when the “religious right” began to look like it might acquire real political power in the United States, the book warns us of the dangers posed by this.
  2. This is a book in which historical context is very important. Just as the growth of secular totalitarianism alarmed George Orwell and formed the basis of his dystopian novel, 1984, so The Handmaid’s Tale reflects Atwood’s alarm over the direction in which the country seemed to be headed in the mid-1980s.
  3. Like Orwell’s 1984 and Huxley’s Brave New World this dystopian novel is an extrapolation into the future of current trends.

As it has turned out, the power of the religious right, while still formidable, has been greatly curbed, this in part because restriction of abortion rights is unpopular with the mainstream. Abortion in the Gilead state is, of course, a capital crime and it is so ex post facto. Of the bodies hanging on the hooks in what had been Harvard Yard, some are those of physician’s who had performed abortions in the past, when they were legal (32-3). The Gilead state is trying to increase and multiply the population in the face of a horrible demographic situation in which environmental degradation stemming from nuclear accidents and chemical pollution have damaged the gene pool. In our own time this has not happened yet, but birth rates have declined in the United States and Northern Europe and it is certainly the case that environmental worries are very salient in the public mind. All of this, plus the central issue of female autonomy, when taken together indicate that the novel is essentially a commentary on the direction that history seems to be taking us.

Now it is the nature of dystopian novels to be alarmist and to exaggerate; it is from the depiction of radical historical change that they derive their power. They would not hold the reader’s interest if they did not portray horrible discontinuities with time present. The Gilead state is probably not the direction in which history will take us. One of the weak points of the book from the standpoint of plausibility is the depiction of the way in which the Gileadites manage to take over—a coup d’etat involving a “suspension” of the constitution by the military after a Gilead engineered murder of the entire Congress and the President (174). This implies that right-wing religious conservatives could somehow acquire control over the military in this country and that the professional officers of the military would work to over-throw civilian control. This is a rather far-fetched idea. But the function of dystopian literature is to give us a good scare and, in warning us of what might lie ahead if things get out of hand, they serve a useful purpose. A totalitarian night did not descend over the whole earth as Orwell predicted, but by calling public attention to the danger that lies implicit in totalitarianism and totalitarian methods, Orwell did the world a good service. The historic direction in which we are headed respecting female autonomy is probably much more benign than Atwood’s novel would have us believe. Praise be. But Atwood does good service in warning us of dangers posed by the political activism of the religious right and by their views regarding gender roles. It is to be noted that the quotation from I Timothy 2:9-15 often shows up in fundamentalist literature and fundamentalist sermons.

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