Intertextual references and myths in The Handmaid’s Tale

Carla Scarano D’Antonio
(University of Reading)
Intertextual references and myths in The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

Myth Reading Group
Wednesday 29 January 2020
1.15 – 2.45 pm
Room NTC.2.07

“Handmaid under the Eye”, 03/11/2008
Artist: Segeton, Public Domain

The session will analyse the myths and fairy tales present in Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. These include ‘Little Red Cap’, ‘Cinderella’, Leah, Rachel and Jacob’s story from the Bible, the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, and ‘The Clerk’s Tale’ from Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer.

In Atwood’s novel, the protagonist, Offred, challenges the narratives of Gilead using intertextual references in a parodic way to expose the incongruities of the dominant society and offer possible alternative visions. The intertextual references deconstruct stereotypical conceptions and binary oppositions emphasising transformation. This implies a tenacious process of survival in a constant metamorphosis and saving human culture in a wider perspective. In this sense, Atwood uses postmodern techniques that simultaneously challenge and confirm the narratives of the dominant society.

Atwood’s technique of both referring to a physical world and revisiting myths, fairy tales and classics of literature gives space to a re-thinking of the rules and roles in the dominant society and questions the readers’ position in this world as well as power relations in society.


  • Selected extracts from Atwood and others:
    • Margaret Atwood, Second Words: Selected Critical Prose (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1984), p. 348.
    • Margaret Atwood, True Stories (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1981), p. 69.
    • Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale (London: Vintage Books, 1996).
    • The Holy Bible: Authorized King James Version (New York, London, Ontario: New American Library, 1974), Matt 13.
    • George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four (London: Penguin Books, 1954), 198-199.



  • Grace, Sherrill E.  and Weir, Lorraine, ed. by, Language, Text, and System (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1983).
  • Howells, Coral Ann, The Handmaid’s Tale: York Notes Advanced (London: York Press, 2003).
  • Sheckels, Theodore, F., The Political in Margaret Atwood’s Fiction: The Writing on the Wall of the Tent (Farham: Ashgate, 2012).
  • Wilson, Sharon, Rose, Margaret Atwood’s Textual Assassinations (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2003).


Carla Scarano D’Antonio obtained her MA in Creative Writing at Lancaster University and is working on a PhD on Margaret Atwood at the University of Reading. She and Keith Lander won the first prize of the Dryden Translation Competition 2016 with translations of Eugenio Montale’s poems. Her research is funded by Canada-UK Foundation. |

You are welcome to bring your lunch to the session.

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