Story Analysis: The Handmaid’s Tale

Although The Handmaid’s Tale is a novel originally published and set during the 80s, the T.V. Hulu show is set during modern times. Despite this, as Professor Bond pointed out on my Youtube Introduction, the overarching themes in The Handmaid’s Tale are overall the same.

The Handmaid’s Tale is an aggressive and clear critique of American society as it exists to exploit and single out individuals. In the story, a religious, totalitarian group establishes rule over America as we know after civil war breaks out in response to rapidly declining fertility rates and environmental destruction. After the government is overthrown, America is no more and Gilead is in control of everything. Gilead dismantles the rights of women and homosexual individuals, reducing them to strict, slave-like roles or killing them entirely. I haven’t read the book yet, but Gilead is a racist group as well but this is for some reason not depicted in the T.V. show. 

The Handmaid’s Tale is excellent at world-building and showing the audience the story without exposition dump or explicit narration. The audience is shown hints of “before” the term used to describe life before the Gilead takeover and flashbacks of various characters to reveal how their lives changed. As a story structurally, the timeline is not completely linear, which I enjoy. This is a very common tactic especially in film or visual media, and the decision to show the conception of Gilead’s takeover in random parts of the story makes it all the more compelling.

The horror and hook of the show is honestly the terrifying realism of some of the acts committed by Gilead. Living in 2019, the environment is a major concern, and the thought of the dying world affecting bodies and leading to societal destruction or poverty is a terrifying aspect. In addition to the environmental commentary, the main focus is on women’s rights and the exploitation of women’s bodies. Gilead negatively utilizes the Bible in order to control women and take away their agency. For example, women are not allowed to read, and on a first offense, will lose a finger. Women are separated into roles depending on their status as a good Christian woman, their fertility or their sexual orientation. 

The story follows Offred, a handmaid who is assigned to the house of Fred and Serena Joy Waterford. A perfect example to how the Bible is used by Gilead to strip women of their humanity. Offred is not her real name, it is only given to her because she is “owned” by Fred Waterford (hence of-fred) and the only purpose of a handmaid is to produce a child for a high-ranking man and his barren wife.
This story is very unlike other 80s content I have consumed, considering I’ve only watched pretty pretty light-hearted movies, but the themes of dystopia or imagined future is a common theme. People are always fascinated by the future, negative or positive, and The Handmaid’s Tale is a drama which takes the worst-case scenario of the near future.

One Reply to “Story Analysis: The Handmaid’s Tale”

  1. Great analysis. I wonder how Vonnegut would graph it out. I’m interested in the point that The Handmaid’s Tale is not like light-hearted 80s movies. It’s right of course, but as I’ve been revisiting some of those movies, I’ve been much more conscious of the casual and pervasive sexism in so many of them, like Sixteen Candles for example. I think Atwood shows where that attitude can take us.

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