The Handmaid’s Tale – Context

Image © Stephanie Marshall

You won’t be able to get above a certain grade in the Prose exam if you don’t include context (AO3). Contextual information could be in the form of relevant historical or political information, a feature of the genre which is evident in the text, a quote from a critic or a link to the author’s own life or views, but to get the best marks for including it, you must link it to the argument in your thesis (for example, “Critic Anton Franks suggests that “Frankenstein himself [became] a kind of monster” in the act of bringing the creature to life, implying that the horror of witnessing the results of his research brought about a fundamental change in Victor’s personality, destroying his happiness and ambition, and thus dooming him as a victim of his own science.”). Examples of context for The Handmaid’s Tale include:

Historical and Political:

  • Phyllis Schlafly – An outspoken right-wing activist who believes that a woman’s place is in the home as a mother (she herself has six children), and is a staunch opponent of abortion, same sex marriage and modern feminism, along with many other things. Closely mirrors Offred’s description of Serena Joy before the Gilead regime took over.
  • The Cultural Revolution – A mass purge of high level government officials in Mao’s China between 1966 and 1976. Echoes what is presumed (from the Historical Notes) to be the fate of the Commander, highlighting that no-one is safe in a totalitarian regime, regardless of their social status.
  • The White Rose Group (and similar movements) – An underground resistance group in Nazi Germany, formed of students from the University of Munich. Links to the Mayday movement in Gilead, and emphasises that a totalitarian regime cannot fully control its people, as it cannot truly eliminate independent thought.
  • Romania’s Decree 770 – Due to a rapidly falling birth rate, abortion and contraception were criminalised in Romania in 1966, with very few exceptions to the law. This was coupled with mandatory monthly gynecological check-ups for women over the age of 25. These policies link closely to Gilead’s control of fertility, and remind the reader that Gilead is merely an escalated version of our own society.

Historical context is generally considered to be less valuable than generic or critical context, so if you put it in you must make sure to link it explicitly to your argument.

The Author:

  • Margaret Atwood is a prolific environmental campaigner, and patron of the organisation Friends of the Earth. This could explain why she links the environmental problems of the US to the infertility crisis which led to the development of the Handmaid system.
  • Atwood believes firmly in the idea of “ustopia” (a term she made up), as she feels that utopia and dystopia are not entirely separate entities, but that “each contains a latent version of the other”. An example from The Handmaid’s Tale which reflects this point is when the Commander tells Offred “Better never means better for everyone … It always means worse, for some.”

Generic Features:

  • Postmodernism – This is the idea that there is no one specific ‘truth’, and that things considered to be ‘facts’ are simply widely accepted interpretations of an event or theory. Offred shows great awareness of this, frequently reminding the reader that her narrative is “a reconstruction” (indeed, as we learn in the Historical Notes, it is a reconstruction of a reconstruction).
  • Metafiction – The novel draws attention to the fact that it is a work of fiction, as Offred repeatedly addresses the reader directly, calling her narrative “a story I’m telling”.
  • Parallels – Gilead is strikingly similar to our own world; many countries in the Western world have fears about the control of fertility, the environment, and how best to protect people (particularly women) from abuse, among other issues addressed in the novel. These links send a warning to the reader that a society like Gilead is not an impossibility, should current social and environmental problems continue to escalate.
  • Fears over the misuse of science – It is clear that the interference of mankind with nature created several issues which catalysed the formation of the Gilead regime. The use and misuse of science is a contentious issue in today’s society, with continual and highly polarised debates about topics such as abortion, cloning and GM crops.
  • Secrets and withheld information – In Gilead, withholding information bestows power on those who have access to it. For example, information about the war in Gilead is largely withheld from the public to allow the government to control people by fear, while Offred’s concealment of the writing she discovers in her wardrobe gives her symbolic power over the regime’s language restrictions.
  • Highly restricted language – Women in Gilead (and, it is suggested, lower status men) are forbidden from reading and writing, while conversations must follow a stilted set of stock phrases – even simple greetings such as “Hello” are banned.

Critical Quotations:

  • “language is highlighted as the main instrument of ideological and social control” – Rebecca Stokwisz
  • “Atwood’s choice of first-person narrator means Offred is less estranged from us, becoming less of a character and more of a real person” – Grace O’Duffy
  • On the use of écriture feminine: “Focusing on vague, symbolic emotions cloaks some of the truth of what goes on in Gilead, and some might say that we never even see the extent of the horrors of what goes on there, because Offred tries her best not to give it too much thought.” – Grace O’Duffy
  • “The Handmaid’s Tale is a novel that is about words, the manipulation of words, the construction of text – in and out of context – and the tensions that often result, or the meanings that still slip out.” – Margaret Reynolds
  • “As the fictional Professor Piexioto informs us, ‘there was little that was truly original’ about Gilead and this was deliberate on the part of its real author. Atwood garnered her ideas for Offred’s narrative from the external world” – Katy Murr

14 thoughts on “The Handmaid’s Tale – Context

    • year12englishblog says:

      Hi, glad you liked it! It might be a good idea to make a list of themes that are in both texts and then find quotes from each which link to them, or perhaps to find one or two significant quotes for each chapter.


  1. Sarah says:

    HI! I am doing Handmaids and Frankenstein aswell, will you be posting more sample essays before the exam? It would be so useful!


    • year12englishblog says:

      I will try to, if I have time (most of them are hand written so i have to spend time typing them all up haha)


  2. Amy says:

    Thank you so much for producing this blog!! It is super helpful. Any tips on revising? I am really struggling on comparing HT and Frankenstein, and then relating it back to exam Q’s, also due to limited exam papers/resources I am struggling to think of potential questions- perhaps you could be of some help with this? Thank you so much!


    • year12englishblog says:

      Hi, glad you’re finding the blog useful! The comparisons between The Handmaid’s Tale and Frankenstein generally centre on the course theme (science and society), so you could look at themes like the use of sciene to manipulate nature in both texts, the conflict between science and religion, the role of society in shaping evil, etc, but there are also similarities and differences in terms of characterisation, structure and narrative voice. In terms of questions, they will usually either be a theme question (e.g. ‘Compare how the authors present the theme of gender’) or a narrative one (e.g. compare how the authors end their novels), but they will always be vague, as not everyone doing the exam will be doing the same novels, and the questions need to cover all of them. Hope that helps!


  3. Shruthi Sailesh says:

    Your comparison between Serena Joy and Phylis Schlafly was a brilliant observation! I’d love to quote you for an answer I’m posting on Quora (a question and answer website). Whose names should I cite?


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