A Beginner’s Guide to The Handmaid’s Tale Universe

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Elisabeth Moss in The Handmaid’s Tale. Photo: George Kraychyk/Hulu

As it grows ever harder to distinguish between dystopian fiction and reality, an adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale — one of the great works of unsettling near-future fiction — heads to Hulu as a television series. Originally published in 1985, Atwood’s novel imagined a United States where democracy has been overthrown by a totalitarian military theocracy. Now called the Republic of Gilead, this new fundamentalist Christian government imposes an extreme interpretation of the Bible on society, one that violently curtails human rights in general and women’s rights in particular.

There’s a lot of biblical reference and world-specific jargon — Handmaids! Angels! Eyes! — so if you want to hit the ground running when the series premieres, here’s a quick primer on the the world and vocabulary of The Handmaid’s Tale.

The story is set in Cambridge, Massachusetts, though it isn’t called that anymore, and our protagonist is Offred, who has been assigned as Handmaid to a high-ranking official known as the Commander. Per the new laws of Gilead, women are considered the property of men and are not permitted to vote, possess money of their own, or read. As the coup was fairly recent, all the women we encounter in The Handmaid’s Tale — including Offred — grew up in an America like our own, and thus have to be brutally indoctrinated into their new status as possessions, servants, and walking baby incubators.

One of the major factors behind the societal shift is a dramatic decline in the birth rate, said to be caused by pollution and radiation. Pregnancies are rare, and even when they do occur, there’s always a significant risk that it might be what they call an Unbaby — a child badly or fatally afflicted with birth defects. That makes women who have had healthy babies incredibly valuable commodities, and indeed that is how they are treated. Although all women are considered subordinate to men, they are afforded different levels of privilege or hardship depending on their social status, marital status, age, skills, and fertility. Every woman is assigned a function — because what are women in this world except what they can do for men — and must dress in the assigned colors of their station.

Wives are the highest category a woman can hope to achieve, a role that permits them a level of social standing and humanity. Wives of the ruling class dress in blue, a color associated with the Virgin Mary, while working-class wives — sometimes called Econowives — wear both blue and green to signify their lower status. Green is also the color worn by Marthas, women who work as domestic servants. (Their name is taken from a New Testament story about a woman named Martha who ran around doing all the work while her sister Mary got to sit and chill with Jesus.) Aunts are older, unmarried women who have fully drunk the Kool-Aid about Gilead and the joys of female subordination, and aren’t opposed to a little sadism in the name of God’s glory. They’re the female enforcers tasked with the reeducating and controlling the Handmaids, sometimes with the use of cattle prods and mutilation. They also assist with births, so their responsibilities really run the gamut. Their special color is brown.

Then there are the Handmaids, who are neither prostitutes nor wives, but in some ways experience the worst of both worlds. Typically, they are women who have violated a social law or committed a “gender crime” but are saved from their supposed sins by their fertility. They are given an opportunity to “redeem” themselves by becoming breeders for ruling-class men whose wives cannot bear children. While this might seem odd in the context of Gilead’s excruciating piety about sexuality and marriage, its leaders claim this role is scripturally inspired by the biblical story of Jacob and his wife Rachel. Even their names are signifiers of ownership: Offred is currently a possession “of Fred,” a sobriquet that changes at each assignment.

The Handmaids wear red — the color of blood and shame and being real sexy — along with white blinders that restrict their peripheral vision and shield their faces. They are impregnated in a ritual known as the Ceremony, where a Handmaid sits in the wife’s lap while the husband has sex with her. It’s as creepy and upsetting as it sounds.

Handmaids who have healthy children are assigned to new men, but they are also saved from the fate of being labeled as an Unwoman, something you very much want to avoid in a society where gender roles are policed with lethal force. Indeed, this is the very worst thing you can be, as it means that you have failed at your only purpose — making babies and being submissive — and thus you are shipped off the labor camps in an ominously-named region called the Colonies, where you clean up toxic waste until you die. (Unwomen are not to be confused with “gender traitors,” a.k.a. queer people, whose lives are also forfeited.)

So who’s behind this brave new world of ritualized rape and color-coded outfits? We’re told the Republic of Gilead began as a far-right fundamentalist movement called Sons of Jacob — a reference, again, to Jacob and Rachel — who staged an attack that killed the president and much of Congress. They blamed the massacre on terrorists, then used the resulting panic to consolidate their power with minimal resistance by suspending the Constitution and providing safety and security against an invented threat.

The frontline soldiers of Gilead are referred to as Angels or Guardians of the Faith, but most terrifying of all are the Eyes, who are essentially the KGB of Gilead. They’re known for appearing in black vans and snatching people off the street for interrogation, arrest, and execution. The Eyes also work as spies who insert themselves into everyday positions to surveil the populace. In theory, anyone you meet could be an Eye, which means you can’t trust anyone.

Although Atwood’s novel was first adapted into a film in 1990, Hulu’s new series offers a chance to delve deeper into the life of Offred, both before and after the horrors of Gilead started to descend. The first three episodes of The Handmaid’s Tale premiere on Wednesday, April 26.

The Handmaid’s Tale: A Beginner’s Guide to the Universe