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Handmaid's Tale, The

Literature Reference: American Literature, English Literature, Classics & Modern FictionEncyclopedia of Literature: Bernard Gutteridge Biography to Hartshill Warwickshire

a novel by Margaret Atwood, published in 1986. It is at once a feminist reworking of the traditional narrative mode of women's Gothic, and a cautionary tale in the manner of Orwell, projecting its vision of a Christian fundamentalist dystopia on the America of the future. Offred, the narrator and heroine of the novel, is a woman whose ordinary life has been devastated by the radical overhaul of the political system. The present regime, relying on a reactionary reading of the Old Testament, has decreed that all women whose past morals fail to meet the standards required by the new fanaticism should become the concubines of leading officials with childless marriages. Atwood deftly interweaves images of woman-as-chattel (the concubines and surrogate mothers) and woman-as-collaborator (the powerful wives and teachers in charge of upholding prevalent patriarchal ideological institutions) in an ambitious philosophical meditation on the ruler and the ruled. Offred's narrative is interspersed with harrowing flashbacks of attempted escape and eventual capture, and images of incarceration and death by violence. Atwood succeeds in conveying a threatening premonition of a world at war with itself, destroyed by human—predominantly male—greed. This vision is all the more compelling for its reflection of contemporary political trends. The narrative nevertheless builds up to a conclusion that offers hope for the heroine and the future. See also Utopia and Anti-Utopia.

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