The Handmaid and History

“The Handmaid’s Tale,” written by Margaret Atwood, has drawn from many historical sources to flush out the events and world of Gilead. This is because Margaret Atwood herself was born on November 18, 1939. She has seen drastic changes in society and put some historical parallels into “The Handmaid’s Tale”. Atwood said, “ When I wrote The Handmaid’s Tale, nothing went into it that had not happened in real life somewhere at some time. Some key events that would inspire Atwood in her life are World War II, the beliefs of Nazi Germany, and the rise of the conservative Christian right in the 1980s. In this essay, I will be focusing on the two influences that helped shape the world of Gilead.

Margaret Atwood was born three months after the start of World War II. Her early childhood was filled with memories of seeing her neighbors being sent off to war. World War II, more specifically, Nazi Germany, inspired the world of Gilead in major ways. The most direct parallel between Nazi Germany and the world of Gilead are the handmaids and the extra wives of SS men. Heinrich Himmler was an avid supporter of polygamy. The Nazis claimed that monogamy was satanic and created by the Catholic Church. Many high-ranking Nazi officials would claim these extra wives or mistresses. This was called the Lebensborn program. These women would be used to birth children of “racial purity”. You can draw clear parallels between the SS men, the commanders, the handmaids, and the extra wives. During the creation of “The Handmaid’s Tale,” a movement raged through America that sought to return America to “traditional” values. This movement was known as the conservative Christian movement. The Conservative Christian Right is a movement dating back to the 1940s and is the second major inspiration for the society of Gilead. Gilead is hinted at to be America throughout the story.

“We had flannelette sheets, like children’s, and army-issue blankets, old ones that still said U.S.”- page 4

“The Handmaid’s Tale” takes place in a theocratic nation where belief in Christianity is compulsory, and gender roles are rigid and driven to their extremes. In Gilead those who go against its norms will be either banished, killed, or beaten ruthlessly.

“What they are hanging from is hooks. The hooks have been set into the brickwork of the Wall, for this purpose.”… “Each has a placard hung around his neck to show why he has been executed: a drawing of a human fetus. They were doctors, then, in the time before, when such things were legal.” – Page 32

Gilead is the ideal American future for Christian conservative movement. In the book, there are characters directly based on key figures of the conservative Christian movement. For example, you have Serena Joy, who was based on Phyllis Schlafly, an anti-feminist. You can see this in the book.

“She was good at it. Her speeches were about the sanctity of the home and about how women should stay home. Serena Joy didn’t do this herself. She made speeches instead, but she presented this failure of hers as a sacrifice she was limiting for the good of all.” Page 45

This is a direct parallel to the real woman. Phyllis Schlafly was a woman who preached the same beliefs and was a key figure in the conservative Christian right.

“The Handmaid’s Tale” is a cautionary tale in addition to being a brilliant work of fiction. “The Handmaid’s Tale,” written by Atwood, presents a society in which social emancipation has only regressed while time has advanced. Atwood draws these stark similarities to actual historical occurrences. From Nazi Germany to the conservative Christian movement, Atwood was warning the reader against allowing these regressive and conservative ideas to corrupt and swallow them. Hopefully after reading “The Handmaid’s Tale” you will take this message to the real world.