Student Notes: The Handmaid’s Tale – Book by Margaret Atwood

The Handmaid's Tale student notes

Student Notes – The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood


The Handmaid’s Tale, written by Margaret Atwood and published in 1985, is a dystopian novel that depicts a future society called Gilead, where women are stripped of their rights and reduced to reproductive vessels. This haunting and thought-provoking novel explores themes of power, control, gender, and identity. These comprehensive student notes delve into the setting, historical context, characters, plot, key themes and symbolism, as well as analysis and discussion points, offering a deeper understanding of Atwood’s chilling vision and the social commentary embedded in the narrative.



  • The Handmaid’s Tale is set in the Republic of Gilead, a totalitarian regime that has replaced the United States. The story takes place in the near future, where environmental disasters and declining fertility rates have led to a society characterized by strict social hierarchies and the oppression of women.


Historical Context:

  • Atwood’s novel was influenced by the rise of conservative religious movements in the 1980s, the feminist movement, and ongoing debates surrounding reproductive rights. It reflects concerns about the erosion of women’s rights and the potential consequences of fundamentalism in society.



Offred (June):

  • The Protagonist: Offred is a Handmaid, a fertile woman forced to bear children for the ruling class. Her struggle for survival, longing for freedom, and search for identity form the core of the novel.

The Commander:

  • The High-Ranking Official: The Commander is a high-ranking member of the ruling class. He establishes a forbidden relationship with Offred, challenging the oppressive regime.

Serena Joy:

  • The Commander’s Wife: Serena Joy is a former televangelist and the Commander’s wife. Despite her privileged position, she is trapped within the confines of the patriarchal society she helped create.


  • Offred’s Friend: Moira is a rebellious woman who serves as Offred’s confidante. She embodies resistance and defiance against Gilead’s oppressive regime.


Plot Summary:

  • The Handmaid’s Tale follows Offred’s life as a Handmaid in Gilead. She navigates the strict social structure, ritualized ceremonies, and constant surveillance while reminiscing about her life before the regime’s rise to power. Offred becomes entangled in a dangerous web of alliances and secret relationships as she yearns for freedom and reunification with her family.


Key Themes and Symbolism:

Oppression and Control:

  • The novel explores the consequences of extreme patriarchal control and the ways in which oppressive regimes strip individuals of their autonomy and agency.

Female Identity and Resistance:

  • Atwood delves into the complexities of female identity, highlighting the ways in which women navigate and resist societal expectations. Characters like Offred and Moira embody resilience and rebellion against the constraints imposed upon them.

Reproductive Rights and Female Agency:

  • The Handmaid’s Tale explores the commodification of women’s bodies and reproductive rights, provoking discussions about reproductive autonomy and the societal control of women’s fertility.

Language and Narrative Power:

  • Atwood’s use of language and narrative perspective serves as a symbolic representation of power dynamics. The manipulation of language reflects the control exerted by the regime and emphasizes the importance of storytelling and individual voices.


Analysis and Discussion Points:

  • Atwood’s critique of religious fundamentalism and its impact on society
  • The role of memory and nostalgia in maintaining individual identity
  • The exploration of gender roles and the societal construction of femininity and masculinity
  • The parallels between Gilead and real-world socio-political issues



The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood serves as a poignant and cautionary tale, exploring themes of power, control, gender, and identity in a dystopian future. Through these student notes, readers gain a deeper understanding of the novel’s setting, historical context, characters, plot, key themes, and symbolism. Atwood’s powerful narrative invites readers to reflect on the potential consequences of oppressive regimes, the importance of individual agency, and the necessity of challenging societal norms. The Handmaid’s Tale continues to resonate as a significant work of feminist literature and a testament to the enduring power of storytelling.

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