4th April 2018

The Handmaid’s Tale notes


Biblical Allusions

  • Jezebels is a reference to a Phoenician queen who ruled beside king Ahab. Jezebel was said to have persecuted prophets of God such as the Biblical character of Elijah. She is associated with false prophets, misleading femme fatale archetypes and women with less-than-pure intentions. Jezebels within the novel are associated with the misleading temptation of the prostitutes within Jezebels and how they represent a wondering eye from God and His word.
  • Rachel and Jacob “And when Rachel saw that she bare Jacob no children, Rachel envied her sister, and said unto Jacob, ‘Give me children or else I die.’ And she said, ‘Behold my maid, Bilhah. Go unto her and she shall bear upon my knees so that I might also have children by her.’ And she gave him Bilhah, their Handmaid, to wife, and Jacob went unto her.” – Genesis 30:1 This Biblical allusion references to the commander and his wife, they are able to have a child because they can use the handmaiden, as she is fertile.
  • Gilead

Freud’s theory/penis envy

Freud’s theory of ‘penis envy’ stems from the ultimate want for paternal approval and how the root of paternal approval is sexual approval/dominance. Women envy men because they learn that the father figure within household structures are dominant and aggressive and that their mothers obey this. “The supposed envy of the male’s possession of a penis, postulated by Freud to account for some aspects of female behaviour (notably the castration complex) but controversial among modern theorists.”


The basis of communism, political theories surrounding a more equal, state-orientated form of economic state.

1984 by George Orwell

1984 by George Orwell has many of the same themes as HMT, it is seen to use the fear of being watched as a control mechanism, as well as restricting the daily lives of the people of Gilead and taking away many items causing a black market. Other references to 1984 that are seen in HMT is that sexual acts are restricted unless you are man and wife, and the totalitarian nature of the state in both novels.

Puritan New England

The Puritans of New England were a group of English Protestants who sought to cleanse the Church and eliminate all Catholicism from the church in the 16th and 17th century. The Puritan way of thinking is the basis of this new regime in HMT and follows all the Puritan values and restrictions. This regime was brought into accord as the fertility rates were dropping and the environment had been poisoned.

Atwood has presented allusions to us in the text, as they make us read a little deeper into the meaning of this text and help us to understand context.


The novel is set in Gilead or possibly somewhere such as Boston or New England in the United States.

It references Harvard University, which was a leading medical university before the Sons of Jacob took over in the book.

We are told that it is a toxic wasteland and that is where the colonies are centred.

Totalitarian governments in the past have been those under the rule of Josef Stalin, Adolf Hitler, and Benito Mussolini. These can be mirrored to Gilead as with a lack of freedom of speech, those who speak badly of the government are often executed.

The town has supermarkets, a river, a previously prominent university, and a wall for hanging those who disobey the law in Gilead.

Jezebel’s is a ‘place of sin’ and is starkly different to the setting, of very strict outside Gilead, with naked women, black market items, and sex everywhere.


Narrative Structure

The past and present tense are tossed between each other. The timeline is slightly jumbled as there is not necessarily a chronological setting.

The story describes a place of restrictions and survival, and Offred’s story mimics this. She doesn’t have anything happen to her as she represents the majority, not the minority, she is just a handmaid as are so many other women in Gilead. She came from a heterosexual cis family, is in a high up family for her duties, and experiences the same thoughts and ideas that most other handmaids probably experience. Whereas her counterpart, Ofglen, was a lesbian woman and regularly put herself in danger in order to fight the regime.



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