The Handmaid's Tale Book Poster Image

The Handmaid's Tale



Gripping dystopian novel of religious state against women.

What parents need to know

Educational value

The Handmai'd Tale is a highly regarded example of dystopian fiction, a piece of satire specific to its date of origin and still relevant many years later and in many other cultures. Nominated for the Booker Prize and a winner of the Arthur C. Clarke Award, it is frequently required reading in school and is often the target of censorship campaigns. It can serve as a springboard for discussions about religion, law, feminism, and many other topics.

Positive messages

Like most dystopian novels, The Handmaid's Tale instructs by negative example. Gilead is shown to be a hierarchical, monotheocratic patriarchy. Women have no autonomy, no control over finances, their bodies, or their intellectual pursuits. Author Margaret Atwood is most harsh in her depiction of fundamentalism of any kind, rather than any particular form of religion or government.

Positive role models

The narrator, known as "Offred," has the courage to question her captivity and hope for a day of freedom. Over the course of the novel, she begins to rebel in subtle ways.


The threat of corporal punishiment hangs over all the characters in The Handmaid's Tale. The corpses of dissidents are hung in public as grim reminders of the cost of rebellion. Offred does not witness much violence firsthand, but she learns of handmaids who have committed suicide by hanging. The most violent scene in the novel involves a Salvaging, a public ceremony where the women are whipped into a frenzy and then allowed to beat an accused prisoner to death.


Nonreproductive sex is prohibited in Gilead, punishable by exile or even death. As a handmaid, Offred must participate in the Ceremony, in which she lies between the legs of the Commander's Wife and then has sex with the Commander. (This is the novel's most sexually explicit scene.) Later, Offred spends time at a brothel as a guest of the Commander and even develops a sexual relationship with another character.


Profanity is prohibited in Gilead, but swear words cannot be completely eradicated. "S--t" is used relatively frequently, as both an explitative and as a reference to feces. "Bitch," "tits," "damn" and "goddamn" are employed once or twice each. "F--k" and variations of it are used in the Ceremony scene.

Not applicable
Drinking, drugs, & smoking

Drinking, recreational drugs, and smoking are all prohibited in Gilead. Offred eventually learns, however, that alcohol and tobacco are available to the most powerful men. Scenes late in the novel are set in a brothel where drinking and smoking occur.

Parents Need to Know

Parents need to know that The Handmaid's Tale is a powerful, potentially disturbing dystopian satire set in a future America where women have been stripped of all their civil rights. It features strong language, emotional and physical violence, and a couple of graphic sex scenes. The corpses of dissidents are hung in public as grim reminders of the cost of rebellion. There is mention of handmaids who have committed suicide by hanging. The most violent scene in the novel involves a public ceremony where women are whipped into a frenzy and then allowed to beat an accused person to death.

What's the story?

The narrator of THE HANDMAID'S TALE, known only as \"Offred,\" tells of her life in the monotheocracy of Gilead, in what used to be the United States, sometime in the near future. She is a handmaid, kept to breed with \"the Commander\" and provide an heir at a time when the human birthrate is dangerously low. As she remembers the years before her captivity and begins to dream of an end to her captivity, Offred develops new relationships with the Commander, his Wife and their driver. But can she trust any of them?

Is it any good?


Details matter to Margaret Atwood, and Offred's tale is related with precision and deep compassion. The Handmaid's Tale is one of the most acclaimed dystopian novels of the 20th century. An uncompromising portrait of a totalitarianism and institutional misogyny, it critiques fundamentalism in all its forms. 

Families can talk about...

  • Families can talk about why dystopian novels -- like The Handmaid's Tale (1985) and The Hunger Games (2008) -- continue to be such a popular genre.

  • Why do you think author Margaret Atwood appends "Historical Notes" to the main narrative of the novel?

  • Do you think women's rights are in jeopardy today? Where and how?

  • In what ways can religion can shape government -- and vice versa?

Book details

Author:Margaret Atwood
Genre:Literary Fiction
Book type:Fiction
Publisher:Anchor Books
Publication date:September 13, 1985
Number of pages:311
Publisher's recommended age(s):16 - 17

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Educator Written byMGuillet June 28, 2014

One of the most important dystopian novels ever written

Let me begin by stating that I would not recommend this novel for younger adolescents, due to the rather blunt treatment of sex and violence in its dystopian setting. Parents should, of course, use their discretion. If in doubt, please read it first, and determine for yourselves the age you feel is appropriate. With that clarified, I am confident that most parents and teachers would agree that Margaret Atwood's "The Handmaid's Tale" is an extraordinary work of fiction. In summary, the novel tells of a near-future dystopian America, in which a militaristic dictatorship, with a distinctly Christian flavor, has seized control. Under this new regime, a harsh return to old values has meant that women no longer have access to any kind of financial or sexual autonomy, and that their primary (nearly sole) societal value rests in their ability to give birth. The main character, through her first-person chronicle, reveals ever more details of this society's structure, and how it came to be, as the story moves forward. Atwood's societal insights are very astute, and frightening, making it in my judgment a must-read for older aldolescents, and, of course, for adults who have not discovered it yet.
What other families should know
Educational value
Great messages
Teen, 17 years old Written byaleea03 August 19, 2013

Give It A Go!

This is one of the books we had to read for the second year if our English Literature A-Level so I bought it and read it straight away. At first, the ambiguity as to what is actually happening and the constant flashbacks can be a little confusing and I personally think that if you quite easily give in on reading a book if you aren't captured right away, then this may be a difficult book to finish. I'm the sort of person who will finish a book once started and I'm really glad I did because it's a brilliant, thought provoking story which once you get into, you will demand to know the end of. I would definitely encourage anyone 16 and onwards to give this book a chance because it manages to make you think whilst also being an incredible story.
What other families should know
Educational value
Too much violence
Too much sex
Too much swearing
Kid, 12 years old January 13, 2015

Thoughts on the Dystopia

The Handmaid's Tale is a gripping tale of a dystopian society based on the Old Testament. Thanks to this, this society heavily discriminates against women. This book is very good. Lovers of speculative fiction will love thinking about why the women are oppressed in this book. However, there are two sex scenes, (one more graphic than the other) a brothel, multiple uses of cigarettes, and people being discriminated/killed for their religion/sexuality. If you know your kid can handle this book, then let them read it. Otherwise, I'd recommend it for older audiences.
What other families should know
Great messages
Great role models
Too much violence
Too much sex
Too much swearing
Too much drinking/drugs/smoking