The Handmaid’s Tale

Illustration by Zoa Studio of The Handmaid's Tale
Illustration by Zoa Studio of The Handmaid’s Tale

Today 18 November we wish Happy Birthday to the wonderful writer Margaret Eleanor Atwood by dedicating an article to her best-known novel: The Handmaid’s Tale. This was the work of the cult TV series The Handmaid’s Tale, the novel’s original title. You can’t describe one without the other.

Margaret Atwood

Margaret is of Canadian descent and is one of the best known writers and poets in the world. She is labeled a feminist and an environmentalist. I wonder, then, what he would think of his use in the previous sentence of a writer and poet rather than a writer and poet. Oriana Fallaci on her headstone has been engraved SCRITTORE. I’ve always found it a very punk thing. And I have always found in this ambiguous use of the term, the strength and invective that the female declination necessarily loses. Writer encompasses writer but the gender specification: female writer. Writer says, he defines a profession. At the bottom of the reader is that the novel is a good novel regardless of the author’s gender. A writer’s job is to be a good writer.

Political science fiction

The novels are published all over the world and have won many awards. Mostly they are science fiction novels that draw on real news stories.  In some ways it is to be mentioned as a reference 1984 by Orwell, Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury or V for Revenge by Alan Moore. All the atrocities that are told in The Handmaid’s Tale, were found in the history books and in the pages of the newspapers by the author. But above all, they are reflections on current society, gender equality, the status quo and man’s relationship with Nature. The last published novel is called The Testaments and tells the repercussions, 15 years later, of the events that are narrated in The Handmaid’s Tale.

The Handmaid’s Tale, a novel

The handmaicraft’s story was first published in 1985. The drafting begins a year earlier, in West Berlin. The title is inspired by Geoffrey Chaucer‘s Canterbury tales where each chapter is titled “The Tale of ” followed by one of the 14th century “crafts”: The Miller’s Tale, The Doctor’s Tale, The Knight’s Tale, etc.

The Republic of Galaad

In Atwood’s novel, in the near future, pollution has made the majority of women no longer fertile. Through a state coup in America thus a theocratic totalitarianism is established called the “Republic of Galaad” (or Gilead), which has very little of a republic. It is a paramilitary organization that bases its laws on biblical verses For the series: “Old Testament style, Jesus Christ, who?”

Galaad’s social categories


Society is divided by categories, as in the Middle Ages. At the top of the food chain we find the Commanders who are the men who orchestrated the coup and who rewrote the laws with an absolutely Patriarchal perspective. They maintain control of the population through summary executions, a ban on reading and the establishment of gulags: forced labour camps where rebels are used for the disposal of toxic waste and then sent to die.

Wife and Handmaids

Alongside the Commanders, we find the Wives who are mostly sterile. Using a verse from Genesis in which Rachel offers her servant Bila to her husband Jacob to have a child, a third category is established: the Handmaids. The Handmaids are fertile women who are “catalogued”, kidnapped, indoctrinated through fear, and send one for each Commander to take the place of the servant Bila. Once a month they will be forced to participate in the “Ceremony” during which the Commander will have to join the handmaiden who “if blessed” will give birth to a child. Blessed Be the Fruit is in fact their greeting. The son will of course have the Commander and the Wife as his parents, and the handmaima will be sent to the house of another Commander who wishes to have an heir.

Offred, Aunt Lydia and Wives
Offred, Aunt Lydia and wives.

Mars, Zie, Angels and Keepers

Women who are not fertile or too old to still be useful in their most humble jobs are declared “non-women” and eliminated. Infertile women, but still skilled are Mars, that is, the servants and their male counterparts are called Keepers. Both of them are not allowed to have relationships.

In a regime we need spies called the Eyes and military called Angels who will be allowed to have wives approved by the Commanders. Then we find: the Aunts, that is, the guardians of the Handmaid’s Islands, the Economists, married to men of low social class, and prostitutes, whose existence is not officially admitted.

In the Republic of Galaad women cannot read, they count less than zero, there is only the state religion. Ergo, all other religious denominations are illegal, in addition to marriages outside the Church. A great itchy society. Where the only fixation is who goes with whom and onanism becomes the true state religion.

Difred / Offred

The real name of the protagonist of the story is not revealed. We know her by the name that is imposed on her by Gilead: Offred in English, Difred in Italian. Literally: Of Fred, or Di Fred. She’s the one who’s going to belong to Fred. Fred is the name of the Commander to whom the handmaid is assigned. Ergo, the handmaid will change her name depending on the house in which she will have to lend her womb.

Offred tells us about his life before the coup in which he had a partner and a daughter. We are given fragments of how the Patrirchto managed to take power through the protagonist’s first-person account. And then we are told about Offred’s life in Gilead. His attempts to escape, torture, resistance and all the horror he witnessed.

From one day to the next Offred, like the other women, was first deprived of all good, then of all rights and finally of freedom. His story was found engraved on music more than a century later by scholars.

The Handmaid’s Tale, the TV series

In 2017 the US distributor Hulu airs the first season of The Handmaid’s Tale, in Italy visible on Tim Vision based on the novel of the same name. The series won the 9 emmy awards and 2 Golden Globes and has been praised by critics. On the Rotten Tomatoes site it received 95% positive reviews and on Metacritic it has a score of 92/100.

In July 2019, the series was renewed for a fourth season.  And in September 2019, it was announced that Hulu and MGM were developing a sequel series, based on Atwood’s 2019 novel The Testaments.

The protagonists

The part of Offred is entrusted to Elisabeth Moss, best known for her performance in Mad Men. It makes me smile a little bit that Elisabeth is part of Scientology in this context. It must be said that it is extraordinary in the part. Another great performer is Alexix Bledel. We all remember her in A Mom for Friend. Both manage to capture the viewer’s attention with the looks. Also because there is a lot of silence in Gilead. The repressive climate leaves no room for sound. Ann Down, aka Aunt Lydia is a bastard like few. And we had already known her ambiguity in The Leftovers, another great TV adaptation of a novel. We can’t forget to mention the most hated man in the entire TV series starring Joseph Finnes who as charming Shakespeare becomes the smear Commander Fred.

Features of the TV series

The TV series aesthetically is gorgeous. Photography and costumes are perfect. Each social category is associated with a color and a uniform: the Handmaids are in red with this puritanical white cap that hides their face and like the blinkers of a horse occludes their peripheral sight. The Wives are in blue-green, the Commanders and the military in black, the Marta in gray and the aunts in brown. The choral scenes become so spectacular.

The TV series is characterized by a constant psychological tension. Always on the verge of a nervous breakdown. The director manages to interpret Offred’s point of view and the viewer manages to empathize and get during the unfolding of the narrative. It is a TV series that does not serve to stretch the nerves, but to keep the consciences awake. We always think the worst is in the past and can’t come back. We think we’ve learned from history. Margaret teaches us that you are never too careful. And that regression is around the corner.

What Washington DC looks like in The Handmaid's Tale
What Washington DC looks like in The Handmaid’s Tale (photogram)

The iconography of The Handmaid’s Tale

For thirty years The Handmaid’s Tale has been a “to read” book. Suggested especially among feminist readings. But the TV series, which aired soon after Trump’s election and the advent of the #metoo movement, brought it into mass culture. Over the past three years, around the world, handmaided uniforms have been worn during many women’s rights demonstrations. Especially when it comes to the proreaction and advocacy of the right to abortion by women, who with the advent of Trump and the disturbing Vice President Mike Pence called himself “Christian, conservative and Republican, in this order” received heavy restrictions in America. And I have a problem with the “in that order” part.

In Gilead’s dystopian society, I’m not even telling you that if the only valid marriages are those regulated by the “sacred” bond of marriage, the LGBTQ community cannot exist. We should ask China how to deny a factual reality. For years with the one-child policy, the Chinese government has tried to regulate Nature. In the name of the common good, the state, for years, had women aborted at the ninth month of pregnancy because it was the second child and gave freedom to suppress a fetus if female in favor of the only male heir who would carry on the family’s surname. And now entire villages are now made up of 80% of men.

Bunny Marlon Bundo

Continuing to talk about factual data, some religious communities that support Vice President Mike Pence believe that homosexuality can be “cured.” Perhaps someone should let them know that homosexuality also exists in Nature among insects, mammals and birds. And that’s why I want to advertise a project advertised by Jon Oliver: A Day in the Life of Marlon Bundo. Who is Marlon Bundo? He’s the American Vice President’s bunny. Coinciding with the release of Mike Pence’s book: A day in the life of Vice Preseident where the home rabbit tells of the Vice President’s life, the irreverent author of Last Week Tonight with John Oliver published this book in which Marlon falls in love with another male bunny. I’m not telling you that A Day in the Life of Marlon Bundo has shredded his competitor’s in the charts. By the way, all the proceeds will go to charity. You can find it here: (


We in Italy still have to deal with the high tax of conscientious objectors in public structures that should allow termination of pregnancy under the 1978 law. The health minister assures that there is no criticality. Honestly reading the Bulgarian percentages in some regions about the presence of conscientious objectors to me there is the doubt that there may be criticisms, yes.

In short, great steps have been made in the world, but much still has to be done. What The Handmaid’s Tale teaches us is that although much has been done, we can always go back. And in order not to go back we must always be vigilant, not look back and that freedom of choice is the most precious asset we have.



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