This site is a good one to go through the novel chapter by chapter. The notes are from Paul Brians and they provide a very good background to the novel – here’s a taste:
Many readers are surprised to hear Atwood’s novel labeled science fiction, but it belongs squarely in the long tradition of near-future dystopias which has made up a large part of SF since the early 50s. SF need not involve technological innovation: it has been a long-standing principle that social change can provide the basis for SF just as well as technical change. The Handmaid’s Tale is partly an extrapolation of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, attempting to imagine what kind of values might evolve if environmental pollution rendered most of the human race sterile. It is also the product of debates within the feminist movement in the 70s and early 80s. Atwood has been very much a part of that movement, but she has never been a mere mouthpiece for any group, always insisting on her individual perspectives. The defeat of the Equal Rights Amendment, the rise of the religious right, the election of Ronald Reagan, and many sorts of backlash (mostly hugely misinformed) against the women’s movement led writers like Atwood to fear that the antifeminist tide could not only prevent further gains for women, but turn back the clock. Dystopias are a kind of thought experiment which isolates certain social trends and exaggerates them to make clear their most negative qualities. They are rarely intended as realistic predictions of a probable future, and it is pointless to criticize them on the grounds of implausibility. Atwood here examines some of the traditional attitudes that are embedded in the thinking of the religious right and which she finds particularly threatening.
But another social controversy also underlies this novel. During the early 80s a debate raged (and continues to rage, on a lower level) about feminist attitudes toward sexuality and pornography in particular. Outspoken feminists have taken all kinds of positions: that all erotica depicting women as sexual objects is demeaning, that pornography was bad though erotica can be good, that although most pornography is demeaning the protection of civil liberties is a greater good which requires the toleration of freedom for pornographers, however distasteful, even that such a thing as feminist pornography can and should be created.