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The Handmaid's Tale

Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale text guide

The Handmaid's Tale Cover 1st EditionThe Handmaid’s Tale, published in 1985, is a dystopian novel. Its Canadian author, Margaret Atwood, would call it ‘speculative’ rather than ‘science’ fiction. It is set in the United States of America in an unspecified near future. She imagines a situation in which a totalitarian theocracy has taken over, after a period of extreme liberalism. The new state calls itself Gilead, after a mountain, named in Genesis 31:22, on which was taken an oath to let God be the judge in human affairs and disputes.

The ‘tale’ of the title is an account by a woman whose real name is never disclosed (though it can perhaps be deduced). Throughout the novel she is known as Offred - ‘of Fred’. In Gilead women are entirely subservient and some, the Handmaids, are slaves to their masters – each is known by her master’s name and is expected to produce his children. Gilead has a dire shortage of children because of toxic pollution of the atmosphere leading to the malformation and death of foetuses, and also because of the easy accessibility of abortions in times past - a practice now punishable in Gilead by death.

Through her writing in The Handmaid’s Tale Atwood presents us with a series of challenges about our own society and also a series of moral dilemmas.

Margaret Atwood

Margaret AtwoodMargaret Eleanor Atwood (who was known for many years as Peggy) was born in Ottawa, Canada, on 18th November 1939. Having decided at the age of 16 that she wanted to be a writer, Atwood was writing throughout her time at University. She started writing The Handmaid's Tale in Berlin in 1984 - a city divided between a "democratic" and a "totalitarian" half. Read more . . .

Atwood's world

20th Century - Source: www.20th.infoThe Handmaid’s Tale is an effective satire, in which Atwood draws her readers’ attention to unpleasant, brutal and horrific events in the recent past and in contemporary society, as well as social trends and the ways in which human beings tend to behave to one another. The twentieth century world Atwood lived in when she wrote this novel had a massive impact on her writing. Atwood herself has said in an interview that ‘there isn't anything in the book not based on something that has already happened in history or in another country.’ Read more . . .

Dive in to The Handmaid's Tale text guide

Synopses and commentary - Chapter by chapter synopsis, commentary and analysis of the entire book.

Characterisation - Detailed analysis of all the important protagonists in Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale.

The Handmaid's Tale Timeline - Helpfully puts history, literary events and Atwood's life side by side so you can make sense of events.

Themes and significant ideas - Research themes and significant ideas that feature in The Handmaid's Tale.

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  • English Standard Version
  • King James Version
1Now Jacob heard that the sons of Laban were saying, Jacob has taken all that was our father's, and from what was our father's he has gained all this wealth. 2And Jacob saw that Laban did not regard him with favor as before. 3Then the Lord said to Jacob, Return to the land of your fathers and to your kindred, and I will be with you. 4So Jacob sent and called Rachel and Leah into the field where his flock was 5and said to them, I see that your father does not regard me with favor as he did before. But the God of my father has been with me. 6You know that I have served your father with all my strength, 7yet your father has cheated me and changed my wages ten times. But God did not permit him to harm me. 8If he said, The spotted shall be your wages, then all the flock bore spotted; and if he said, The striped shall be your wages, then all the flock bore striped. 9Thus God has taken away the livestock of your father and given them to me. 10In the breeding season of the flock I lifted up my eyes and saw in a dream that the goats that mated with the flock were striped, spotted, and mottled. 11Then the angel of God said to me in the dream, Jacob, and I said, Here I am! 12And he said, Lift up your eyes and see, all the goats that mate with the flock are striped, spotted, and mottled, for I have seen all that Laban is doing to you. 13I am the God of Bethel, where you anointed a pillar and made a vow to me. Now arise, go out from this land and return to the land of your kindred. 14Then Rachel and Leah answered and said to him, Is there any portion or inheritance left to us in our father's house? 15Are we not regarded by him as foreigners? For he has sold us, and he has indeed devoured our money. 16All the wealth that God has taken away from our father belongs to us and to our children. Now then, whatever God has said to you, do. 17So Jacob arose and set his sons and his wives on camels. 18He drove away all his livestock, all his property that he had gained, the livestock in his possession that he had acquired in Paddan-aram, to go to the land of Canaan to his father Isaac. 19Laban had gone to shear his sheep, and Rachel stole her father's household gods. 20And Jacob tricked Laban the Aramean, by not telling him that he intended to flee. 21He fled with all that he had and arose and crossed the Euphrates, and set his face toward the hill country of Gilead. 22When it was told Laban on the third day that Jacob had fled, 23he took his kinsmen with him and pursued him for seven days and followed close after him into the hill country of Gilead. 24But God came to Laban the Aramean in a dream by night and said to him, Be careful not to say anything to Jacob, either good or bad. 25And Laban overtook Jacob. Now Jacob had pitched his tent in the hill country, and Laban with his kinsmen pitched tents in the hill country of Gilead. 26And Laban said to Jacob, What have you done, that you have tricked me and driven away my daughters like captives of the sword? 27Why did you flee secretly and trick me, and did not tell me, so that I might have sent you away with mirth and songs, with tambourine and lyre? 28And why did you not permit me to kiss my sons and my daughters farewell? Now you have done foolishly. 29It is in my power to do you harm. But the God of your father spoke to me last night, saying, Be careful not to say anything to Jacob, either good or bad. 30And now you have gone away because you longed greatly for your father's house, but why did you steal my gods? 31Jacob answered and said to Laban, Because I was afraid, for I thought that you would take your daughters from me by force. 32Anyone with whom you find your gods shall not live. In the presence of our kinsmen point out what I have that is yours, and take it. Now Jacob did not know that Rachel had stolen them. 33So Laban went into Jacob's tent and into Leah's tent and into the tent of the two female servants, but he did not find them. And he went out of Leah's tent and entered Rachel's. 34Now Rachel had taken the household gods and put them in the camel's saddle and sat on them. Laban felt all about the tent, but did not find them. 35And she said to her father, Let not my lord be angry that I cannot rise before you, for the way of women is upon me. So he searched but did not find the household gods. 36Then Jacob became angry and berated Laban. Jacob said to Laban, What is my offense? What is my sin, that you have hotly pursued me? 37For you have felt through all my goods; what have you found of all your household goods? Set it here before my kinsmen and your kinsmen, that they may decide between us two. 38These twenty years I have been with you. Your ewes and your female goats have not miscarried, and I have not eaten the rams of your flocks. 39What was torn by wild beasts I did not bring to you. I bore the loss of it myself. From my hand you required it, whether stolen by day or stolen by night. 40There I was: by day the heat consumed me, and the cold by night, and my sleep fled from my eyes. 41These twenty years I have been in your house. I served you fourteen years for your two daughters, and six years for your flock, and you have changed my wages ten times. 42If the God of my father, the God of Abraham and the Fear of Isaac, had not been on my side, surely now you would have sent me away empty-handed. God saw my affliction and the labor of my hands and rebuked you last night. 43Then Laban answered and said to Jacob, The daughters are my daughters, the children are my children, the flocks are my flocks, and all that you see is mine. But what can I do this day for these my daughters or for their children whom they have borne? 44Come now, let us make a covenant, you and I. And let it be a witness between you and me. 45So Jacob took a stone and set it up as a pillar. 46And Jacob said to his kinsmen, Gather stones. And they took stones and made a heap, and they ate there by the heap. 47Laban called it Jegar-sahadutha, but Jacob called it Galeed. 48Laban said, This heap is a witness between you and me today. Therefore he named it Galeed, 49and Mizpah, for he said, The Lord watch between you and me, when we are out of one another's sight. 50If you oppress my daughters, or if you take wives besides my daughters, although no one is with us, see, God is witness between you and me. 51Then Laban said to Jacob, See this heap and the pillar, which I have set between you and me. 52This heap is a witness, and the pillar is a witness, that I will not pass over this heap to you, and you will not pass over this heap and this pillar to me, to do harm. 53The God of Abraham and the God of Nahor, the God of their father, judge between us. So Jacob swore by the Fear of his father Isaac, 54and Jacob offered a sacrifice in the hill country and called his kinsmen to eat bread. They ate bread and spent the night in the hill country. 55Early in the morning Laban arose and kissed his grandchildren and his daughters and blessed them. Then Laban departed and returned home.
1And he heard the words of Laban's sons, saying, Jacob hath taken away all that was our father's; and of that which was our father's hath he gotten all this glory. 2And Jacob beheld the countenance of Laban, and, behold, it was not toward him as before. 3And the LORD said unto Jacob, Return unto the land of thy fathers, and to thy kindred; and I will be with thee. 4And Jacob sent and called Rachel and Leah to the field unto his flock, 5And said unto them, I see your father's countenance, that it is not toward me as before; but the God of my father hath been with me. 6And ye know that with all my power I have served your father. 7And your father hath deceived me, and changed my wages ten times; but God suffered him not to hurt me. 8If he said thus, The speckled shall be thy wages; then all the cattle bare speckled: and if he said thus, The ring-streaked shall be thy hire; then bare all the cattle ring-streaked. 9Thus God hath taken away the cattle of your father, and given them to me. 10And it came to pass at the time that the cattle conceived, that I lifted up mine eyes, and saw in a dream, and, behold, the rams which leaped upon the cattle were ring-streaked, speckled, and grizzled. 11And the angel of God spake unto me in a dream, saying, Jacob: And I said, Here am I. 12And he said, Lift up now thine eyes, and see, all the rams which leap upon the cattle are ring-streaked, speckled, and grizzled: for I have seen all that Laban doeth unto thee. 13I am the God of Bethel, where thou anointedst the pillar, and where thou vowedst a vow unto me: now arise, get thee out from this land, and return unto the land of thy kindred. 14And Rachel and Leah answered and said unto him, Is there yet any portion or inheritance for us in our father's house? 15Are we not counted of him strangers? for he hath sold us, and hath quite devoured also our money. 16For all the riches which God hath taken from our father, that is ours, and our children's: now then, whatsoever God hath said unto thee, do. 17Then Jacob rose up, and set his sons and his wives upon camels; 18And he carried away all his cattle, and all his goods which he had gotten, the cattle of his getting, which he had gotten in Padanaram, for to go to Isaac his father in the land of Canaan. 19And Laban went to shear his sheep: and Rachel had stolen the images that were her father's. 20And Jacob stole away unawares to Laban the Syrian, in that he told him not that he fled. 21So he fled with all that he had; and he rose up, and passed over the river, and set his face toward the mount Gilead. 22And it was told Laban on the third day that Jacob was fled. 23And he took his brethren with him, and pursued after him seven days' journey; and they overtook him in the mount Gilead. 24And God came to Laban the Syrian in a dream by night, and said unto him, Take heed that thou speak not to Jacob either good or bad. 25Then Laban overtook Jacob. Now Jacob had pitched his tent in the mount: and Laban with his brethren pitched in the mount of Gilead. 26And Laban said to Jacob, What hast thou done, that thou hast stolen away unawares to me, and carried away my daughters, as captives taken with the sword? 27Wherefore didst thou flee away secretly, and steal away from me; and didst not tell me, that I might have sent thee away with mirth, and with songs, with tabret, and with harp? 28And hast not suffered me to kiss my sons and my daughters? thou hast now done foolishly in so doing. 29It is in the power of my hand to do you hurt: but the God of your father spake unto me yesternight, saying, Take thou heed that thou speak not to Jacob either good or bad. 30And now, though thou wouldest needs be gone, because thou sore longedst after thy father's house, yet wherefore hast thou stolen my gods? 31And Jacob answered and said to Laban, Because I was afraid: for I said, Peradventure thou wouldest take by force thy daughters from me. 32With whomsoever thou findest thy gods, let him not live: before our brethren discern thou what is thine with me, and take it to thee. For Jacob knew not that Rachel had stolen them. 33And Laban went into Jacob's tent, and into Leah's tent, and into the two maidservants' tents; but he found them not. Then went he out of Leah's tent, and entered into Rachel's tent. 34Now Rachel had taken the images, and put them in the camel's furniture, and sat upon them. And Laban searched all the tent, but found them not. 35And she said to her father, Let it not displease my lord that I cannot rise up before thee; for the custom of women is upon me. And he searched but found not the images. 36And Jacob was wroth, and chode with Laban: and Jacob answered and said to Laban, What is my trespass? what is my sin, that thou hast so hotly pursued after me? 37Whereas thou hast searched all my stuff, what hast thou found of all thy household stuff? set it here before my brethren and thy brethren, that they may judge betwixt us both. 38This twenty years have I been with thee; thy ewes and thy she goats have not cast their young, and the rams of thy flock have I not eaten. 39That which was torn of beasts I brought not unto thee; I bare the loss of it; of my hand didst thou require it, whether stolen by day, or stolen by night. 40Thus I was; in the day the drought consumed me, and the frost by night; and my sleep departed from mine eyes. 41Thus have I been twenty years in thy house; I served thee fourteen years for thy two daughters, and six years for thy cattle: and thou hast changed my wages ten times. 42Except the God of my father, the God of Abraham, and the fear of Isaac, had been with me, surely thou hadst sent me away now empty. God hath seen mine affliction and the labor of my hands, and rebuked thee yesternight. 43And Laban answered and said unto Jacob, These daughters are my daughters, and these children are my children, and these cattle are my cattle, and all that thou seest is mine: and what can I do this day unto these my daughters, or unto their children which they have born? 44Now therefore come thou, let us make a covenant, I and thou; and let it be for a witness between me and thee. 45And Jacob took a stone, and set it up for a pillar. 46And Jacob said unto his brethren, Gather stones; and they took stones, and made an heap: and they did eat there upon the heap. 47And Laban called it Jegarsahadutha: but Jacob called it Galeed. 48And Laban said, This heap is a witness between me and thee this day. Therefore was the name of it called Galeed; 49And Mizpah; for he said, The LORD watch between me and thee, when we are absent one from another. 50If thou shalt afflict my daughters, or if thou shalt take other wives beside my daughters, no man is with us; see, God is witness betwixt me and thee. 51And Laban said to Jacob, Behold this heap, and behold this pillar, which I have cast betwixt me and thee: 52This heap be witness, and this pillar be witness, that I will not pass over this heap to thee, and that thou shalt not pass over this heap and this pillar unto me, for harm. 53The God of Abraham, and the God of Nahor, the God of their father, judge betwixt us. And Jacob sware by the fear of his father Isaac. 54Then Jacob offered sacrifice upon the mount, and called his brethren to eat bread: and they did eat bread, and tarried all night in the mount. 55And early in the morning Laban rose up, and kissed his sons and his daughters, and blessed them: and Laban departed, and returned unto his place.
a vision of a horrible situation or place, the opposite of a utopia which is an earthly paradise
A God-governed state, such as Israel in the Old Testament before the Israelites chose their first king, Saul.
in the Bible, a place meaning 'hill of witness'. It refers to an area east of the River Jordan
The Bible describes God as the unique supreme being, creator and ruler of the universe.
A genre which ridicules some one or something. It can be poetry, drama or fiction.