This is a somewhat peculiar question, and I recognize that it may end up being closed. However, it concerns something that has been puzzling me for some years about Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale. (Atwood's well-known feelings about SF notwithstanding, this novel is clearly science fiction.)

Early in the book, there is the first description of The Wall:

The Wall is hundreds of years old too; or over a hundred, at least. Like the sidewalks, it's red brick, and must once have been plain but handsome. Now the gates have sentries and there are ugly new floodlights mounted on metal posts above it, and barbed wire along the bottom and broken glass set in concrete along the top.

Aside from the sidewalks being made of the same brick as the wall, there seems to be very little that marks this wall as specifically identifiable. And yet, from the first time I read this passage, I knew this wall. Having lived in Cambridge, Massachusetts, I could tell that this was the wall of Harvard Yard, which I walked beside some many times over the years. Reading on in the novel, it quite clear that I was quite correct in my identification of the wall.

What I a wondering is whether this was a particularly lucky flash of insight on my part, or whether there was something in the text that pointed to Harvard Square as the location of the book. Is there something, early in The Handmaid's Tale, that points specifically to its geographic setting?

  • 2
    There are multiple out-of-universe interviews that explicitly confirm that the story is set in Cambridge, Mass
    – Valorum
    Commented Jul 9, 2017 at 22:32
  • 1
    Oh, there's no doubt about where the book is set. By the end of the book, it's very obvious if you know the area. But I was wondering about earlier in the story
    – Buzz
    Commented Jul 9, 2017 at 22:34
  • 1
    Interesting question. It looks to be on-topic here, but you might want to ask on Literature.SE too. There's overlap, but I imagine that some of the folks there might read a novel like The Handmaid's Tale somewhat differently than most SFF buffs. Commented Jul 9, 2017 at 22:34
  • 2
    Aside from the location of the particular narrative we read, the implied setting covers a considerable fraction of the US, and we can conclusively assume that every large community has it public place of punishment. So while our narrator's "The Wall" is in erstwhile Cambridge, there will be others. Commented Jul 9, 2017 at 22:51
  • 6
    @Jolenealaska But please leave this question here as well. The idea of Atwood's precious speculative fiction becoming an HNQ on SciFi and Fantasy makes me smile. Commented Jul 10, 2017 at 2:51

1 Answer 1


Lots of the things mentioned point to it being Harvard Square. E.g., "we used to be able to walk freely there, when it was a university."

However the word Harvard is absent the entire book, and Cambridge (England) only appears in the notes at the end (assuming this is a full transcript: www.novelas.rodriguezalvarez.com).

Memorial Hall is mentioned.

"large old building on it; ornate late Victorian, with stained glass. It used to be called Memorial Hall"

(page 238 of 375)

Maine is mentioned twice.

“I almost made it out. They got me up as far as Salem, then in a truck full of chickens to Maine."

(page 303 of 375)

This item—I hesitate to use the word document — was uncurl hod on the site of what was once the city of Bangor, in what, at the time prior to the inception of the Gileadean regime, would have been the state of Maine.

(page 357 of 375)

Is there early PROOF? No. Not unless describing the white staircase of the library counts. I'm assuming it looks exactly like this:

The Library is like a temple. There’s a long flight of white steps, leading to the rank of doors. Then, inside, another white staircase going up. To either side of it, on the wall, there are angels. Also there are men fighting, or about to fight, looking clean and noble, not dirty and bloodstained and smelly the way they must have looked. Victory is on one side of the inner doorway, leading them on, and Death is on the other. It’s a mural in honor of some war or other. The men on the side of Death are still alive. They’re going to heaven. Death is a beauti- ful woman, with wings and one breast almost bare; or is that Victory? I can’t re- member.

(page 195 of 375)

If so, you're not lucky; just like the author you've been there, and that's cheating.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.