Historical Document From the Future... Ugh, that Makes Our Heads Hurt
If you skip ahead and turn to the back of the book, the way you might to find out whodunit in a murder mystery—not that we at Shmoop would know anything about that!—you find a brief, scholarly interpretation of the title, "The Handmaid's Tale."
According to the "Historical Notes" section, this wasn't the original title. Not only that, the book wasn't even originally a literary text; it was a story recorded on audiotapes. The scholar, Professor Pieixoto, gives us this explanation:
[…] what we have before us [the majority of The Handmaid's Tale] is not the item in its original form. Strictly speaking, it was not a manuscript at all when first discovered and bore no title. The superscription "The Handmaid's Tale" was appended to it by Professor Wade, partly in homage to the great Geoffrey Chaucer […]. (Historical Notes.12)
So what the Professor would like us to believe is that what we just read are transcriptions he and another scholar made of these tapes, which they then put in a specific order. Then they gave the tapes this title partly as an allusion to Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales.
In Chaucer's famous medieval work, some people are taking a pilgrimage on horseback, which is taking forever. To pass the time they each tell a story, which are named things like "The Miller's Tale" or "The Reeve's Tale" after the main character's role in society. So the title "The Handmaid's Tale" makes sense according to this formula; the narrator is a Handmaid. That's her role in society.
Tale As Old As Time
Obviously, though, the Professor is just a made-up character. But that doesn't mean that the reference to Chaucer doesn't apply. The Professor goes on to make some archaic scholarly (but still dirty!) jokes about puns in the title. He's focusing on the "Tale" bit here, suggesting both a "vulgar signification" (you know, like "getting some tail") and also the "bone [...] of contention [...] in Gileadean society" (Historical Notes.12). This last phrase could mean that sex was the biggest problem for the Gileadeans.
But we can also think about the use of the word "Tale" in the title as meaning a "story": something, perhaps, that's not totally real—a fiction or an allegory. Like when the narrator says,
I would like to believe this is a story I'm telling. I need to believe it. I must believe it. Those who believe that such stories are only stories have a better chance. (7.32)
Actually, there are plenty of hints sprinkled throughout the book that suggest we may not be hearing about things the way they actually happened, that the "Tale" is not what it seems to be. (For more about this, see the "Reading, Writing, and Storytelling" theme and "What's Up With the Ending?")