Places: The Handmaid’s Tale

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1985

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Psychological realism

Time of work: The future

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places DiscussedGilead

Gilead. Handmaid’s Tale, TheFuture name for the northeastern section of the United States. In Margaret Atwood’s vision of the future, the government of the United States has been overthrown by a group of right-wing, conservative Christians bent on transforming what they see as a decadent society into a theocracy. Atwood draws on the culture of the United States in 1985 and extrapolates what might happen if trends present in that year were to continue into the future. For example, in Gilead, birth rates have plummeted as a result of widespread contamination of the air, water, and earth. Further, Christians, sickened by divorce, pornography, and abortion, outlaw all three. They also take away a woman’s right to own property or have money of her own; everything is in her husband’s name. Women who have been divorced but who are proven to be fertile, such as the main character in the novel, are found guilty of the crime of adultery, and are given to the rulers of Gilead in order to provide children for childless couples.

Atwood deliberately places Gilead in New England; landmarks such as the library and the wall are clearly taken from Cambridge, where Harvard University is located. The irony in this location is twofold: In the first place, Massachusetts was first established as a theocracy by the pilgrim fathers, who applied a strict interpretation of the Bible to all aspects of life. Indeed, it was the Puritans of the seventeenth century who were responsible for the Salem witch trials and subsequent burnings.

As a side note, Atwood, a Canadian writer, dedicates the novel to her ancestor, Mary Webster, a woman convicted of witchcraft in Salem and sentenced to hang. When she was cut down from the scaffold in the morning, she was found to be still alive and was thus set free. Webster immigrated to Canada soon after. The second irony is that Harvard University is the premier site of learning in the United States. Gilead, by contrast, is a country ruled by keeping people ignorant. Written language is reserved for only the most powerful men; pictographs replace signs, and women are not permitted to read. Furthermore, Atwood’s second dedication is to Perry Miller, her professor of American literature at Harvard University. In the closing sequence of the book, an academic recognized by critics as being a parody of Miller addresses a large academic assembly. The academic reveals himself to be both ignorant and patronizing in his analysis of the state of Gilead.


Colonies. Unspecified location where infertile women, or “unwomen,” and divorced women are sent to clean up toxic waste. The major threat made against the handmaids is that they will be sent to the colonies if they do not comply with the demands of the commanders and Gileadian society. In addition, handmaids who have three assignments without producing an offspring are automatically sent to the colonies. Postmenopausal and divorced women who refuse to become handmaids are also sent to the colonies. Life is extremely cruel in this location, and most women survive only a short time.


*Canada. While none of the action of the book takes place in Canada, the country represents freedom to the persecuted of Gilead. Indeed, the narrator of the book and her husband are arrested as they try to flee to Canada with their daughter. The final section of the book suggests that the narrator once again tried to flee to Canada and hid for a time in a barn in Maine, a hideout on the underground “frailroad,” modeled on the Underground Railroad instituted by abolitionists in the years before the American Civil War.

BibliographyGrace, Sherrill E., and Lorraine Weir, eds. Margaret Atwood: Language, Text, and System. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1983. Includes nine essays examining Atwood’s literary “system” and her development of style and subject matter up to the publication of The Handmaid’s Tale.Greene, Gayle. Changing the Story: Feminist Fiction and the Tradition. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991. The author discusses Atwood and other contemporary women writers who employ narrative strategies that incorporate women’s perspectives and challenge traditional modes of storytelling. She sees The Handmaid’s Tale as less feminist in vision than Atwood’s previous novels.Hammar, Stephanie Barbe. “The World As It Will Be? Female Satire and the Technology of Power in The Handmaid’s Tale.” Modern Language Studies 22, no. 2 (Spring, 1990): 39-49. The article discusses The Handmaid’s Tale as a work with satiric intent. Atwood warns of the abuses of technology, the domination of women by men, and the propensity to allow oneself to be trapped in a rigid role.Kostash, Myrna, et al. Her Own Woman: Profiles of Ten Canadian Women. Toronto: Macmillan of Canada, 1975. Contains a biographical essay by Valerie Miner, “Atwood in Metamorphosis: An Authentic Canadian Fairy Tale,” that examines the evolution and maturation of Atwood’s writing.McCombs, Judith, ed. Critical Essays on Margaret Atwood. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1988. This valuable volume contains thirty-two reviews, articles, and essays on Atwood’s prose and poetry. The essays are arranged in chronological order. The volume contains a primary bibliography to 1986.Mendez-Engle, Beatrice, ed. Margaret Atwood: Reflections and Reality. Edinburg, Tex.: Pan American University Press, 1987. This selection of critical essays on Atwood’s work includes an interview with Atwood. The essays trace Atwood’s development as a writer and include a discussion of her use of fables.Rigney, Barbara Hill. Margaret Atwood. Totowa, N.J.: Barnes & Noble Books, 1987. An analysis of Atwood as poet, novelist, and political commentator, all from a feminist perspective. Includes a useful bibliography.Rosenberg, Jerome H. Margaret Atwood. Boston: Twayne, 1984. A concise literary biography of the Canadian novelist and poet that provides a useful introduction to her works.Van Spanckeren, Kathryn, and Jan Garden Castro, eds. Margaret Atwood: Vision and Forms. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1988. This useful collection contains essays on Atwood’s works that are of uniformly high quality. Several essays deal with The Handmaid’s Tale.
Categories: Places