The Handmaid's Tale Book Summary - The Handmaid's Tale Book explained in key points
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The Handmaid's Tale summary

Margaret Atwood

A Dystopian Novel Set in a Totalitarian, Loveless Police State

4.6 (83 ratings)
18 mins

Brief summary

"The Handmaid's Tale" by Margaret Atwood is a dystopian novel about a woman's struggles in a totalitarian society where her identity, fertility and freedoms are suppressed. Through Offred's journey, the book highlights the dangers of extremist religious beliefs and the importance of individual resistance.

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    The Handmaid's Tale
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    Gilead – a dystopia with real-world roots

    Welcome to Gilead.

    It wasn’t always known by that name, though. Formerly, it was the United States of America. But in the early 2000s, the US government was overthrown by a religious fundamentalist group called the Sons of Jacob. After their successful coup, the Sons of Jacob established their own theocratic dictatorship: the Republic of Gilead.

    The citizens of Gilead are bound by many rules. They must dress, behave, and even speak in certain ways – rather than hello, citizens greet each other with “Blessed be the Fruit” or “Under his Eye.” Most of all, they must never venture past the Wall, a tall red brick structure that separates Gilead from the outside world.

    For the most part, the citizens of Gilead follow these rules. After all, the Eyes – the secret police – are everywhere, eager to report infractions – and any infraction is met with harsh punishment. Rule-breakers could be exiled to the Colonies, tracts of territory that have been polluted with radioactive waste. Or they could be executed and their bodies hung from the top of the Wall as a warning to others.

    But the citizens whose lives are most circumscribed are women. In Gilead, women are sorted into several different classes.

    Wives are the most powerful class of women – they’re the spouses of high-ranking Commanders. Although they enjoy status, they have little power outside of their own households. They’re identified by wearing only teal-colored robes.

    Handmaids are fertile women of childbearing age. Fertile women are a rarity in Gilead – in this world, fertility has sharply declined and the birthrate is perilously low. Handmaids are assigned to Commanders and have regular sex with them while the Commander’s wife looks on, with the objective of falling pregnant with their Commander’s child. Handmaids don’t have names. They are referred to by the prefix Of- followed by the name of their Commander. For example, Ofglen is the handmaiden of Glen; Ofwarren the handmaiden of Warren. They are only allowed out in the company of a Guardian, the male soldiers in Gilead’s army. Handmaids wear bright red robes and bonnets that hide their faces from view.

    Marthas are servants who work in the homes of the Commanders. They wear gray robes.

    Aunts act as supervisors to the Handmaidens – they are responsible for their behavior and religious education. They’re the only women in Gilead permitted to read or write. They wear brown robes.

    Jezebels are prostitutes.

    Unwomen are women who fail to cooperate with the state; as punishment, they’re sent to the Colonies.

    ANALYSIS

    The author of The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood, has written that when she began the novel in the mid-1980s, she was inspired by recent and contemporary events, like World War II and the rise of the Iron Curtain. These were events, to her mind, that showed how easily the seemingly normal order of the world could be overturned – how easily ordinary people could find themselves living in totalitarian dystopias like Gilead. But, on the novel’s publication in 1985, Atwood wondered whether its premise, that the totalitarian state of Gilead had been established in place of the democratic USA, would strike readers as far-fetched – even though Gilead’s ruthlessly puritanical politics were inspired by events in American history such as the Salem witch trials.

    Decades after its publication, though, many people believe that, rather than far-fetched, the novel was uncannily prescient. The 2010s and early 2020s have seen a rise in populist politics across the globe. And in the USA, where the novel is set, right-wing politicians have rolled back reproductive rights in a manner that strikes many observers as Gileadesque – most notably when the Supreme Court overturned Roe v Wade, in 2022. In the USA, and around the world, many women have dressed in red handmaid robes as a symbol of protest against the oppression of women’s rights.

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    What is The Handmaid's Tale about?

    The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) is a contemporary classic – the story of a patriarchal dystopia that inspired the hit television series of the same name and remains as relevant today as it did when it was first published.

    The Handmaid's Tale Review

    The Handmaid's Tale (1985) is a thought-provoking dystopian novel that explores the terrifying consequences of a society plagued by oppression. Here's why this book is worth reading:

    • It offers a frightening glimpse into a future where women are reduced to mere vessels for procreation, challenging our understanding of gender roles.
    • Rich with symbolism and allegory, the book is a captivating critique of patriarchy, power, and the fragility of freedom.
    • Through its riveting narrative and vivid portrayal of characters, the book grips readers, making it impossible to put down.

    Who should read The Handmaid's Tale?

    • Literature lovers who want to brush up on a modern classic
    • Feminists seeking an introduction to this iconic critique of the patriarchy
    • Speculative fiction fans who want to learn more about a notable literary dystopia

    About the Author

    Margaret Atwood has published more than 50 books, including The Blind Assassin, winner of the Man Booker Prize in 2000, and The Testaments, cowinner of the Man Booker Prize in 2019.

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    The Handmaid's Tale FAQs 

    What is the main message of The Handmaid's Tale?

    The main message of The Handmaid's Tale is the importance of freedom, individual agency, and resistance against oppressive systems.

    How long does it take to read The Handmaid's Tale?

    The reading time for The Handmaid's Tale varies depending on the reader's pace. However, the Blinkist summary can be read in just 15 minutes.

    Is The Handmaid's Tale a good book? Is it worth reading?

    The Handmaid's Tale is a compelling and thought-provoking book that is definitely worth reading. It offers a cautionary tale about the dangers of totalitarianism and the importance of standing up for what is right.

    Who is the author of The Handmaid's Tale?

    The author of The Handmaid's Tale is Margaret Atwood.

    How many chapters are in The Handmaid's Tale?

    There are no chapter titles in The Handmaid's Tale.

    How many pages are in The Handmaid's Tale?

    The Handmaid's Tale contains 311 pages.

    When was The Handmaid's Tale published?

    The Handmaid's Tale was published in 1985.

    What to read after The Handmaid's Tale?

    If you're wondering what to read next after The Handmaid's Tale, here are some recommendations we suggest:
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    • The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas S. Kuhn
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