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English Literature   >   Atwood: The Handmaid's Tale


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Atwood: The Handmaid's Tale

In this course, Dr Madeleine Davies (University of Reading) explores Margaret Atwood's 1985 novel, the Handmaid's Tale. We begin by thinking about some of the contexts – political, religious, literary – that are relevant when reading the novel, before considering the novel's title, its epigraphs and its opening paragraphs. In the third module, we think about how the narrative is presented in the novel – in particular related to questions of authenticity – before turning in the fourth module to the theme of identity. In the fifth module, we consider the importance of surveillance in Gilead, focusing in particular on the themes of sight, seeing and being seen, before moving on in the sixth module to the connected themes of ideology and indoctrination. In the seventh module, we think about the impact that living in Gilead has on how one perceives the female body – especially one's own body – while in eighth we think about words and silence, focusing in particular on the scenes in which Offred plays Scrabble with the Commander. In the ninth module, we turn to the Historical Notes at the end of the novel, in which a future, post-Gileadean society tries to make sense of Offred's account, before turning in the tenth and final module to consider the longer-term relevance of the Handmaid's Tale – including looking at the 2017 TV adaptation of the novel starring Elizabeth Moss and Joseph Fiennes.


In this module, we think about some of the contexts that are important to keep in mind when reading the novel. In particular, we think about where and when Atwood wrote the novel, her engagement with contemporary politics – both the totalitarianism of Soviet Russia and the religious extremism of the New Right in the United States –, and the influence of texts such Anne Frank's Diary, Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, and George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949).

Cite this Lecture

APA style

Davies, M. (2018, August 15). Atwood: The Handmaid's Tale - Contexts [Video]. MASSOLIT.

MLA style

Davies, M. "Atwood: The Handmaid's Tale – Contexts." MASSOLIT, uploaded by MASSOLIT, 15 Aug 2018,


Dr Madeleine Davies

Dr Madeleine Davies

Reading University