Margaret Atwood’s famed novel The Handmaid’s Tale (and the critically acclaimed Hulu Series of the same name) depicts a dystopian future set in a near-future Boston, Massachusetts. Let’s dive into some of the settings of Gilead’s Cambridge and Boston, as they parallel our own.
Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale has held fast in its merit as a narrative exploring gender roles, bodily autonomy, resistance, and theocracy. These themes have become particularly poignant in today’s contemporary society, particularly with the recent overturning of Roe. V. Wade, and Atwood’s novel resonates on a deep and grotesque level. The Handmaid’s Tale explores a darkly dystopian future, in which a violently instituted totalitarian regime strips women of their bodily autonomy in order to combat a declining birth rate for the wealthy and powerful. Where the former United States becomes the gruesome theocracy of “Gilead,” the protagonist of The Handmaid’s Tale, Offred, is located in the cities once Cambridge and Boston, Massachusetts.
Superimposed as the capital of Gilead throughout The Handmaid’s Tale, the Cambridge we know today makes several specific and notable appearances as a chief setting of Atwood’s novel. Harvard Square is one of the prominent locations on Offred’s errand route, and Atwood uses the vibrancy of the former Cambridge hotspot to depict how limited the rights and autonomy of women are under Gilead’s totalitarian theocratic rule. Offred is unable to use former public transport, unable to read (images alone mark stores for their wares, under Gilead,) and unable to behave or speak in any way beyond the strict parameters of canned politeness with her fellow handmaids.
If you’re a fan of The Handmaid’s Tale, you can visit Harvard Square as it is today: a center of commerce, art, and history. From an array of coffee shops and bookstores, to fine dining and performance; Harvard Square is a must-visit on your next trip to Massachusetts. Additionally, for those who travel with academia on the brain, Cambridge is home to the esteemed Ivy League institution, Harvard University. Shut down in the fictional world of Atwood’s novel in lieu of totalitarian takeover, the Harvard University campus is still open and thriving today. Take a tour of the historical grounds, or visit one the Harvard Art Museums along the Harvard Yard.
Offred finds strength in memories of her past life, specifically memories of her family. Boston, only a short drive from Cambridge, was the city in which Offred’s mother lived. It is also the fictional location of Jezebel’s, described in the novel as “across the river,” referring here to the Charles River, and depicted as having checkpoints to pass through in order to enter. Offred is taken here as a special privilege by Commander Fred Waterford, to whom she is indentured. Jezebel’s is, in actuality, the Hyatt Regency Hotel turned imaginative dystopian brothel.
Readers visiting the Boston-Cambridge area of Massachusetts may elect to stay here today, as its appealing location offers access to both cities and all that they offer. A historical stronghold of United States history, Boston is a city ripe with museums, historical tours, and intriguing architecture that reflects both its current cosmopolitan nature, and its former historical significance. Whether cruising along the Charles River or walking the Freedom Trail, Boston has plenty to offer when it comes to sights to see. Food and drink wise, Boston is known for lobster rolls (because there’s nothing like East Coast seafood) and the colorful, vibrant downtown scene, meaning that like Cambridge, Boston has something for everyone – families and solo travelers alike.