The city of Cambridge is located in Middlesex County and is part of the greater Boston area. Founded by the Puritan colonists in 1632 as ‘Newe Towne’, the original centre of the village is now marked by Harvard Square, which is where, going by Offred’s description, dissenters are hanged at the Wall.
In 1636 Harvard College was founded for the training of ministers, and the name of the town was changed to Cambridge, after the English university town. The then governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony, John Winthrop, was a Cambridge graduate, as was John Harvard, benefactor of the university.
The town flourished throughout the 18th century, its wealth deriving from agriculture. The majority of the population were descendents of the Puritan settlers, save for a small number of Anglicans who operated outside village life, making their living in investment and trade.
Cambridge is also known as the birthplace of the US Army: in 1775, George Washington travelled from Virginia to organise the battalion of fledgling soldiers camped out on Cambridge Common in preparation for the American Revolution.
The coming of the railroads brought major industry to Cambridge, and for decades the New England Glass Company was the city’s largest employer and the biggest glass manufacturer in the world. Carter’s Ink Company was the largest ink manufacturer on the planet. However, the twin blights of the Great Depression and World War Two put paid to the city’s industrial base, and since the mid-20th century Harvard has cemented Cambridge’s reputation as the intellectual heart of America. In the novel, it becomes the antithesis of this. Describing the area colloquially known as ‘Professor’s Row’, Offred says, ‘Doctors lived here once, lawyers, university professors. There are no lawyers any more, and the university is closed.’
Architecturally, the houses in this area are a mixture of clapboard Georgian or Colonial style. In the Republic of Gilead, little of the city’s architecture has changed (‘The street is almost like a museum or a street in a model town constructed to show the way people used to live.’) Likewise, when attending a prayvaganza at the site of the former university she says, ‘From the outside you can’t tell that anything’s changed, except that the blinds on most of the windows are drawn down.’
Radcliffe College, the women’s liberal arts establishment where Atwood studied, is also in the town. Radcliffe signed a formal merger with Harvard in 1977 and was fully integrated with the university in 1999. While studying early American history there, Atwood learned about the religious intolerance of the Puritans. 'You often hear in North America "It can't happen here", but it happened quite early on. The Puritans banished people who didn't agree with them, so we would be rather smug to assume the seeds are not there. That's why I set the book in Cambridge.'
Offred says that in ‘the time before’, her mother was living ‘across the [Charles] river, in Boston’. Boston is the capital of the state of Massachusetts and was founded by Puritans in 1630. It was the site of many significant events of the American Revolution, including the Battle of Bunker Hill and The Boston Tea Party. Higher education and medicine are the city’s main concerns. Of late, gentrification has run riot in the city and the cost of living is high.