The Psychology of the Handmaid: Margaret Atwood’s Novel Parables of the Possessed Canadian Character

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Holly Virginia Blackford


The protagonists of Atwood’s novels are most often both Canadian and female, and their stories feature a common struggle for possession of themselves and their bodies, given various colonizing forces. In relation to her other novels, which I will explore in this essay, the handmaid is a symbol for Canada in relation to the U.S, which stands for “yet another” imperial power infringing upon the lives of Canadians. Atwood herself has stated that the States are extreme in philosophy, while Canadians are more middle-of-the-road. This middle-of-the-road-ness of her main characters gets them into trouble and makes them vulnerable to outside forces. Her protagonists are typically female because the female body itself is particularly open to possession—by pregnancy, rape, cancer, and the physicality of sex. Women in Atwood’s novels are also possessed by spiritual forces, including gods of the wilderness; by men who represent different nations and woo the female “territory”; and by women who represent distinct national traditions or, increasingly, the new Multicultural Canada that is displacing the British-French one. Atwood repeatedly depicts her characters as territories of others, refugees, trespassers, foreigners even on their home ground, and internally divided entities that are inhabitable by others and inaccessible even to the self. They harbor repressed memories that are foreign to their own psyches. Thus Atwood’s novels undercut the Canadian nationalist project that she embarked upon with her 1972 book on a unified Canadian literature. Her novels essentially suggest that, ironically, the uniqueness of the Canadian character lies in its propensity to be possessed.

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BLACKFORD, Holly Virginia. The Psychology of the Handmaid: Margaret Atwood’s Novel Parables of the Possessed Canadian Character. AmeriQuests, [S.l.], v. 3, n. 1, may 2006. ISSN 1553-4316. Available at: <>. Date accessed: 13 july 2020. doi: