A powerful and challenging read, Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel will prompt students to pause and wonder about what it would be like to live in a bleak, patriarchal society that oppresses women to an extreme level. The Handmaid’s Tale is a great option for exploring dystopian and speculative fiction and comparing its fictional world to current and past societies. Atwood’s inclusion of feminist ideas can facilitate discussion of topics like sexism, persecution, and the importance of female empowerment.

When teaching The Handmaid’s Tale, you might inform students that Atwood’s vision of a depressing future was inspired by actual social issues that she then heightened to emphasize crucial themes. Consider providing historical background on the social climate toward feminist ideals and sexuality in the 1980s. At the time, feminists protested religious groups seeking to ban pornography in order to “protect women.” This idea of religious zealots restricting women’s freedom for “protective” reasons is prominent in Atwood’s work.

The novel also examines the manipulation of power within a theocratic dictatorship and illustrates how people find ways to regain some control under a totalitarian regime. Have your students analyze the ways in which Offred, Serena Joy, and the other women find opportunities to defy authority.

For more information about teaching this dystopian novel, read on.

Summary of The Handmaid’s Tale

Key Facts

  • Publication Date: 1985
  • Length: 309 pages
  • Lexile® Measure: 750
  • Recommended Grade Band: 11-12
  • Arthur C. Clarke Award for Best Science Fiction (1985); Governor General’s Award (1985); Los Angeles Times Best Fiction Award (1986)

The Handmaid’s Tale is a dystopian novel set in the repressive Republic of Gilead, a theocracy run by religious fundamentalists. Pollution and sexually transmitted diseases have rendered most of the women infertile; therefore, the women who have been proven fertile are trained to be “handmaids” to bear children for wealthy and powerful men in order to restore the human race. Told through the perspective of a handmaid named Offred, the story flashes between her daily experiences and memories of her past life before the Republic of Gilead took control of society.

Content Warning: The Handmaid’s Tale includes sexual content, profanity, violence, and mature themes.

What Your Students Will Love About The Handmaid’s Tale

  • The setting of a dystopian future
  • The empowering female figures

Potential Student Struggles With The Handmaid’s Tale

  • Understanding Offred as an unreliable narrator
  • Explicit depictions of the treatment of women

Learning Objectives for The Handmaid’s Tale

  • Define and identify characteristics of dystopian literature and speculative fiction.
  • Explain how Atwood uses literary elements, such as point of view, character, and setting, to propel the plot and develop the novel’s themes.
  • Analyze the social stratification of women, explaining specifically the roles, duties, and significance of each group of woman.
  • Evaluate the effect of 1980s feminism on the novel.
  • Examine Atwood’s use of ambiguity, particularly as it relates to language, the narrator’s identity, and the narrator’s acceptance of her role in the Gilead regime.
  • Explore how characters find subtle ways to take back power and social standing.
  • Connect the society portrayed in the novel to real-life repressive regimes.

Literary Elements in The Handmaid’s Tale

  • Allusion
  • Ambiguity
  • Dystopia
  • Feminism
  • Foreshadowing
  • Parallel Construction
  • Paradox
  • Parody
  • Speculative Fiction
  • Symbolism
  • Theme
  • Unreliable Narrator
  • And more!

Major Themes in The Handmaid’s Tale

Identity — Characters, particularly women, have been stripped of their real names and grouped into demeaning vocations.

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Femininity — The society in The Handmaid’s Tale represses women, forbidding them from working outside the home, reading, and spending money. Their minds are denied, their bodies concealed, and the few fertile women are used as empty childbearing vessels.

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Love — The characters in The Handmaid’s Tale have had significant relationships taken from them; for many of them, love seems only a memory. Even when characters do have feelings for each other, they try to repress these emotions.

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Freedom and Confinement — Most characters in the novel lead a restricted life, most notably the handmaids—they remain trapped by both their low social status and their fertility.

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Other Resources for The Handmaid’s Tale