The Handmaid's Tale
The first edition
|Cover artist||Tad Aronowcz, design; Gail Geltner, collage (first edition, hardback)|
|Genre||Dystopian novel, science fiction, speculative fiction|
|Publisher||McClelland and Stewart|
|Preceded by||Bodily Harm|
|Followed by||Cat's Eye|
The Handmaid's Tale (1985) is a dystopian novel, a work of speculative fiction, by Canadian author Margaret Atwood. Set in the near future, in a totalitarian Christian theocracy which has overthrown the United States government, The Handmaid's Tale explores themes of women in subjugation and the various means by which they gain agency. The novel's title was inspired by Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales, which is a series of connected stories ("The Merchant's Tale", "The Parson's Tale", etc.)
The Handmaid's Tale won the 1985 Governor General's Award and the first Arthur C. Clarke Award in 1987; it was also nominated for the 1986 Nebula Award, the 1986 Booker Prize, and the 1987 Prometheus Award. It has been adapted for the cinema, radio, opera, and stage.
- 1 Plot summary
- 2 Characters
- 3 Setting
- 4 Historical Context
- 5 Classification as science fiction or speculative fiction
- 6 Awards
- 7 Frequent challenges, ALA conference, and controversy
- 8 Adaptations
- 9 See also
- 10 Notes
- 11 References
- 12 Works cited
- 13 Further reading
- 14 External links
The Handmaid's Tale is set in the Republic of Gilead, a theocratic military dictatorship formed within the borders of what was formerly the United States of America.
Beginning with a staged terrorist attack (blamed on Islamic extremists) that kills the President and most of Congress, a movement calling itself the "Sons of Jacob" launches a revolution and suspends the United States Constitution under the pretext of restoring order. They are quickly able to take away all of women's rights, largely attributed to financial records being stored electronically and labelled by gender. The new regime moves quickly to consolidate its power and reorganize society along a new militarized, hierarchical, compulsorily Christian regime of Old Testament-inspired social and religious ultra-conservatism among its newly created social classes. In this society, almost all women are forbidden to read.
The story is presented from the point of view of a woman called Offred (literally Of-Fred). The character is one of a class of women kept as concubines ("handmaids") for reproductive purposes by the ruling class in an era of declining births due to sterility from pollution and sexually transmitted diseases. The book is told in the first person by Offred, who describes her life during her third assignment as a handmaid, in this case to Fred (referred to as "The Commander"). Interspersed in flashbacks are portions of her life from before and during the beginning of the revolution, when she finds she has lost all autonomy to her husband, through her failed attempt to escape with her husband and daughter to Canada, to her indoctrination into life as a handmaid. Offred describes the structure of Gilead's society, including the several different classes of women and their circumscribed lives in the new theocracy.
The Commander is a high-ranking official in Gilead. Although he is only supposed to have sex with Offred during "the Ceremony", a ritual at which his wife is present, he begins an illegal and ambiguous relationship with her. He reveals to her hidden or contraband aspects of the new society, such as fashion magazines and cosmetics. He takes her to a secret brothel run by the government, and he furtively meets with her in his study, where he allows her to read, an activity otherwise proscribed for women. The Commander's wife, Serena Joy, also has secret interactions with Offred, arranging for her secretly to have sex with Nick, Serena's driver, in an effort to get Offred pregnant. In exchange for Offred's cooperation, Serena Joy gives her news of her daughter, whom Offred has not seen since she and her family were captured trying to escape Gilead.
After Offred's initial meeting with Nick, they begin to rendezvous more frequently. Offred discovers she enjoys sex with Nick, despite her indoctrination and her memories of her husband. She shares potentially dangerous information about her past with him. Through another handmaid, Ofglen, Offred learns of the Mayday resistance, an underground network working to overthrow Gilead. Shortly after Ofglen's disappearance (later discovered to be a suicide), the Commander's wife finds evidence of the relationship between Offred and the Commander. Offred contemplates suicide. As the novel concludes, she is being taken away by men from the secret police, the Eyes of God, known informally as "the Eyes", under orders from Nick. Before she is put in the large black van, Nick tells her that the men are part of the Mayday resistance and that Offred must trust him. Offred does not know if Nick is a member of the Mayday resistance or a government agent posing as one, and she does not know if going with the men will result in her escape or her capture. She enters the van with her future uncertain.
The novel concludes with a metafictional epilogue that explains that the events of the novel occurred shortly after the beginning of what is called "the Gilead Period". The epilogue is "a partial transcript of the proceedings of the Twelfth Symposium on Gileadean Studies" written in 2195. According to the symposium's "keynote speaker" Professor Pieixoto, he and colleague Professor Knotly Wade discovered Offred's story recorded onto cassette tapes. They transcribed the tapes, calling them collectively "the handmaid's tale". Through the tone and actions of the professionals in this final section of the book, the world of academia is highlighted and critiqued. The epilogue implies that, following the collapse of the theocratic Republic of Gilead, a more equal society re-emerged with a restoration of full rights of women and freedom of religion.
- Offred: the protagonist and narrator. She was separated from her husband and daughter after the formation of the Republic of Gilead and is part of the first generation of Gilead's women: those who remember pre-Gilead times. Having proven fertile, she is considered an important commodity and has been placed as a handmaid in the home of the Commander Fred and his wife Serena Joy to bear a child for them (Serena Joy is said to be infertile).
- Offred is a slave name which describes her function: she is "of Fred", i.e. she belongs to her Commander, Fred, as a concubine. In the novel, Offred says that she is not a concubine, or a geisha girl, but just a tool; a "two legged womb". It is implied that her birth name is June. The women in training to be handmaids whisper names across their beds at night. The names are "Alma. Janine. Dolores. Moira. June", and all are later accounted for except June. In addition, one of the Aunts tells the handmaids-in-training to stop "mooning and June-ing". Miner suggests that "June" is a pseudonym. As "Mayday" is the name of the Gilead resistance, June could be an invention by the protagonist. The Nunavit conference covered in the epilogue takes place in June.
- The Commander: He says that he is a sort of scientist and was previously involved in something like market research. Later, it is hypothesized, but not confirmed, that he might have been one of the architects of the Republic and its laws. His first name is presumably "Fred".
- He engages in forbidden intellectual pursuits with Offred, such as playing Scrabble, and introduces her to a secret club that serves as a brothel for high-ranking officers. Offred learns that the Commander carried on a similar relationship with his previous handmaid and that she killed herself when his wife found out. In the epilogue, the academics speculate that one of two figures, both instrumental in the establishment of Gilead, may have been Fred, based on his first name. It is strongly suggested that the Commander was a man named Frederick R. Waterford who was killed in a purge shortly after Offred was taken away, on charges that he was harboring an enemy agent.
- Serena Joy: A former televangelist, she is the Commander's Wife in the fundamentalist theocracy. The state took away her power and public recognition, and tries to hide her past as a television figure. Offred identifies her master's wife by recalling seeing her on TV when she was a little girl early on Saturday mornings while waiting for the cartoons to air. Believed to be sterile (although the suggestion is made that the Commander is sterile, Gileadean laws attribute sterility only to women), she is forced to accept that he has use of a handmaid. She resents having to take part on the monthly fertility ritual. She strikes a deal with Offred to arrange for her to have sex with Nick in order to become pregnant. According to Professor Pieixota in the epilogue, Serena Joy or Pam are pseudonyms for the character's name, implied as Thelma.
- Ofglen: A neighbour of Offred's and a fellow Handmaid, she is partnered with Offred to do the daily shopping. Handmaids are never alone and are expected to police each other's behaviour. Ofglen is a member of the Mayday resistance. In contrast to Offred, she is daring. She knocks out a Mayday spy who is to be tortured and killed in order to save him the pain of a violent death. Ofglen later commits suicide before the government takes her into custody as part of the resistance, possibly to avoid giving away any information.
- Another handmaid named Ofglen is assigned as Offred's shopping partner. She threatens Offred against any thought of resistance. She breaks protocol by telling her what happened to the first Ofglen.
- Nick: The Commander's chauffeur who lives above the garage. By Serena Joy's arrangement, he and Offred start a sexual relationship to increase her chance of getting pregnant. If she were to prove sterile, she would be shipped to the ecological wastelands of the Colonies. Offred begins to develop feelings for him. Nick is an ambiguous character, and Offred does not know if he is a party loyalist or part of the resistance. The epilogues suggests that he was part of the resistance, and aided Offred in escaping the Commander's house.
- Moira: is a close friend of Offred's since college. A lesbian, she has resisted the homophobia of the Gilead society. Moira is taken to be a Handmaid soon after Offred. She escapes by stealing an Aunt's pass and clothes. Offred later encounters her working as a prostitute in a party-run brothel. She had been caught and chose the brothel over being sent to the Colonies.
- Luke: Luke was Offred's husband prior to the formation of Gilead. He had divorced his first wife to marry her. Under Gilead, all divorces were retroactively nullified, resulting in Offred being considered an adulteress and their daughter a bastard. Offred was forced to become a Handmaid and her daughter was given to a loyalist family. Since their attempt to escape to Canada, Offred has heard nothing of Luke.
- Professor Pieixoto: The "co-discoverer [with Professor Knotly Wade] of Offred's tapes," he talked in his presentation about "the 'Problems of Authentication in Reference to The Handmaid's Tale'."
The novel is set in an indeterminate future, with a fundamentalist theocracy ruling the territory of what had been the United States. Individuals are segregated by categories and dressed according to their social functions. The complex sumptuary laws (dress codes) play a key role in imposing social control within the new society and serve to distinguish people by sex, occupation, and caste.
The Handmaid’s Tale is set in a time when a religious right-wing minority overthrew the United States of America’s government and set up its own patriarchal theocratic totalitarian government which oppressing women almost to the extent in which minorities were oppressed before the civil rights movements in the past century and before the American Civil War in the 1800’s, and are still oppressed today.
A large debate today exists over the possibility of something like the Republic of Gilead actually forming in North America. A similar debate arose when “the media frenzy in and around 1984 over Nineteen Eighty-Four as prediction almost invariably missed the point the Orwell did not want to describe accurately a totalitarian future,” just as Atwood “has no desire to prove an Oracle” (Beauchamp). The republic of Gilead, however, does exist in a time not long from today, and is a completely feasible thing to happen. Take Germany’s evolution (or devolution) from the time which Adolf Hitler began to be prominent in the German government in 1929 to the time he arose to power. He oppressed the Jewish community (among multiple other groups), just as the Gileadean government chooses to oppress women, although not for the same reasons or to the same extent as the mid twentieth century Germans did. These kinds of rises to power happen every so often and are very possible to happen in the United States.
Atwood discusses, in an interview with Danita Dodson, the reason Gilead is set in the United States rather than Canada. “Why was it [Gilead] in the States rather than in Canada? Because Canada is fifty percent Catholic. What you really need to control any society is twenty-five percent of the populace, and if you’re trying to set up a theocracy… you wouldn’t be able to get that in Canada.”
In Gilead, the bodies of women are controlled for political purposes. The population is falling as more and more women and men before infertile and sterile, so the government takes total control over their lives and bodies. Women are not allowed to do anything that would make them independent of their households. They cannot vote, they cannot have a job, they cannot read, and they cannot own anything, among many other things. A particular quote from The Handmaid’s Tale sums this up particularly well: “The Republic of Gilead, said Aunt Lydia, knows no bounds. Gilead is within you” (HT 5.2). This describes that there is no way around the societal bounds of women in this new state of government. To oppress women further, they are assigned to a certain commander in Gilead and are given new names, such as Offred. The name essentially is “of” in front of the Commander’s name. When a handmaid is reassigned, her name changes with her. Their original identities before this revolution are useless, although the women try to learn each other’s original names to hold some sense of self, giving them hope that change can come.
In this book, the government appears to be strong though “no one in Gilead seems to be a true believer in its revolution” (Beauchamp). The Commanders, portrayed through Commander Fred, do not agree with their own doctrines. The commander takes Offred at one point to a club in order to make love to her in an informal setting apart from the Ceremony. The wives, portrayed through Serena Joy, former television evangelist, disobey the rules set forth by their commander husbands. Serena smokes black market cigarettes and even tries to help get Offred impregnated by the chauffer.
Gilead demonstrates decline in every aspect of its society; some of its people want only to escape to Canada. Critics have taken Gilead (the U.S.) to symbolize a repressive regime and the mistreated Handmaid to represent Canada. Atwood was "in the vanguard of Canadian anti-Americanism of the 1960s and 1970s."
Caste and class
African Americans, the main non-white ethnic group in this society, are called the Children of Ham. A state TV broadcast mentions their having been relocated en masse to "National Homelands" in the Midwest, which suggest the Apartheid-era homelands in South Africa. Roman Catholics were given seldom mention, but did say that nuns were considered "Unwomen" and most banished to the Colonies on account of their reluctance to marry and bear children. Jews are called Sons of Jacob, also the name of the fundamentalist group who rule the Republic of Gilead. The novel recounts that Jews were offered a choice of converting to Christianity or emigrating to Israel, and most chose to leave. Professor Pieixoto in the epilogue says that some of the emigrating Jews were dumped into the sea on the way to Israel by ship, due to privatization of the "repatriation program" and capitalists' effort to maximize profits. Offred reveals that many Jews who chose to stay were caught secretly practicing Judaism and executed.
Gender and occupation
The sexes are strictly divided. Gilead's society values reproduction by white women most highly. Women are categorised "hierarchically according to class status and reproductive capacity" as well as "metonymically colour-coded according to their function and their labour" (Kauffman 232). The Commander expresses the prevailing opinion that women are considered intellectually and emotionally inferior to men.
Women are segregated by clothing, as are men. With rare exception, men wear military or paramilitary uniforms, which takes away their individualism as does the women, but also gives them a sense of bravado and empowerment. All classes of men and women are defined by the colors they wear (as in Aldous Huxley's dystopia Brave New World), drawing on color symbolism and psychology. All lower-status individuals are regulated by this dress code. All non-persons are banished to the 'Colonies' (usually forced-labor camps in which they clean up radioactive waste, becoming exposed and dying painful deaths as a result). Sterile, unmarried women are considered to be non-persons. Both men and women sent there wear grey dresses.
Men are classified into four main categories:
- Commanders of the Faithful – the ruling class. Because of their status, they are entitled to establish a patriarchal household with a Wife, a Handmaid if necessary, Marthas (female servants) and Guardians. They have a duty to procreate, but many may be infertile, as a possible result of exposure to a biological agent in pre-Gilead times. They wear black to signify superiority. They are allowed cars.
- Eyes – the secret police attempt to discover those violating the rules of Gilead.
- Angels – soldiers who fight in the wars in order to expand and protect the country's borders. Angels may be permitted to marry.
- Guardians (of the Faith) – soldiers "used for routine policing and other menial functions". They are unsuitable for other work in the republic being "stupid or older or disabled or very young, apart from the ones that are Eyes incognito" (chapter 4). Young Guardians may be promoted to Angels when they come of age. They wear green uniforms.
Men who engage in homosexuality or related acts are declared "Gender Traitors;" they are either hanged or sent to the "colonies" to die a slow death.
Six main categories of "legitimate" women make up mainstream society. Two chief categories of "illegitimate" women live outside of mainstream society:
- Wives are at the top social level permitted to women. They are married to the higher-ranking functionaries. Wives always wear blue dresses, suggesting traditional depictions of the Virgin Mary in historic Christian art. (When a Wife becomes a Widow, she must dress in black.)
- Daughters are the natural or adopted children of the ruling class. They wear white until marriage. The narrator's daughter has been adopted by an infertile Wife and Commander.
- Handmaids are fertile women whose social function is to bear children for the Wives. They dress in a red habit that completely conceals their shape, plus red shoes and red gloves. They wear white wings around their heads to prevent their seeing or being seen except when standing directly in front of a person. Handmaids are produced by re-educating fertile women who have broken the gender and social laws. Needing fertile Handmaids, Gilead gradually increased the number of gender-crimes. The Republic of Gilead justifies use of the handmaids for procreation based on biblical stories: Jacob took his two wives' handmaids, Bilhah and Zilpah, to bed to bear him children, when the wives could not (Gen. 30:1–3), and Abraham took his wife's handmaid, Hagar (Gen. 16:1–6). Handmaids are generally assigned to Commanders, allowed to live in their houses, but remanded back to Aunts' facilities in the event a Commander is deployed in order to be guarded (and returned to the Commander's house upon his return from deployment). Handmaids who successfully bear children to term are never sent to the Colonies, even if they never have another baby.
- Aunts train and monitor the Handmaids. They try to promote the role as an honorable one and seek to legitimize it. They directly control and police women; serving as an Aunt is the only role for such unmarried, infertile, and often older women to have any autonomy. It allows them to avoid going to the colonies. Aunts dress in brown. They are the only class of women permitted to read. ("The Aunts are allowed to read and write." Vintage Books, p. 139. However, in the Anchor Books edition, it says: "They played it (the Beatitudes) from a tape, so not even an Aunt would be guilty of the sin of reading. The voice was a man's. (p.89.)" In the Vintage Books edition: "They played it (the Beatitudes) from a disc, the voice was a man's." p. 100.)
- Marthas are older infertile women who have domestic skills and are compliant, making them suitable as servants. They dress in green smocks. The title of "Martha" is based on a story in Luke 10:38–42, where Jesus visits Mary, sister of Lazarus and Martha; Mary listens to Jesus while Martha works at "all the preparations that had to be made".
- Econowives are women who married relatively low-ranking men, not part of the elite. They are expected to perform all the female functions: domestic duties, companionship, and child-bearing. Their dress is multicoloured red, blue, and green to reflect these multiple roles.
The division of labor among the women generates some resentment. Marthas, Wives and Econowives perceive Handmaids as promiscuous. Offred mourns that the women of the various groups have lost their ability to empathize with each other. They are divided in their oppression.
- Unwomen are sterile women, widows, feminists, lesbians, nuns, and politically dissident women: all women who are incapable of social integration within the Republic's strict gender divisions. They are exiled to "the colonies", areas of both agricultural production and deadly pollution. Joining them are those handmaids who fail to bear a child after three two-year assignments.
- Jezebels are women forced to become prostitutes and entertainers. They are available only to the Commanders and their guests. They are described as attractive and educated, unable to adjust as handmaids. They have been sterilized, which is forbidden to other women. They operate in unofficial but state-sanctioned brothels, unknown by most women. Jezebels, whose title also comes from the Bible, dress in the remnants of sexualized costumes from "the time before", such as cheerleaders' costumes, school uniforms, and Playboy Bunny costumes. Jezebels can wear makeup, drink alcohol, and socialize with men, but are tightly controlled by the Aunts. When they are past their sexual prime and/or their looks fade, they are sent to the Colonies.
In this society, birth defects have become increasingly common.
There are two main categories of human children:
- Unbabies, also known as "shredders", are babies born physically deformed or with some other birth defect. They do not last, but Offred does not know or want to know what happens to them. Pregnant Handmaids fear giving birth to a damaged child, or unbaby. Gilead forbids abortion and has done away with other testing to determine prenatal health of a fetus.
- Keepers are babies that are born alive with no defects.
"The Ceremony" is a non-marital sexual act sanctioned for reproduction. The ritual requires the Handmaid to lie supine upon the Wife during the sex act. The handmaid lies between the Wife's legs as if they were one person. The Wife has to invite the Handmaid to share her power this way, which is considered both humiliating and offensive by many wives. Offred describes the ceremony:
My red skirt is hitched up to my waist, though no higher. Below it the Commander is fucking. What he is fucking is the lower part of my body. I do not say making love, because this is not what he's doing. Copulating too would be inaccurate, because it would imply two people and only one is involved. Nor does rape cover it: nothing is going on here that I haven't signed up for.
In the novel's fictional fundamentalist society, sterile is an "outlawed" word. In this society, there is no such thing as a sterile man anymore. In this culture, women are either fruitful or infertile, the latter of which is declared to be an “unwoman” and is sent to the colonies with the rest of the “unwomen” to do life-threatening work until their death, which is, on average, three years.
Atwood emphasises how changes in context affect behaviours and attitudes by repeating the phrase "Context is all" throughout the novel, establishing this precept as a motif. Playing the game of Scrabble with her Commander illustrates the key significance of changes in "context"; once "the game of old men and women", the game became forbidden for women to play and therefore "desirable". Through living in a morally rigid society, Offred has come to perceive the world differently from earlier. Offred expresses amazement at how "It has taken so little time to change our minds about things". Wearing revealing clothes and makeup had been part of her former life, but when she sees Japanese tourists dressed that way, she now feels the women are inappropriately dressed.
Offred can read but not translate the phrase "nolite te bastardes carborundorum" carved into the closet wall of her small bedroom; this mock-Latin aphorism signifies "Don't let the bastards grind you down". The significance of this phrase is intensified by the challenges the book has faced, creating a "Mise en abyme" as both the protagonist and the reader decipher subversive texts.
In this novel’s fictional fundamentalist, patriarchal society, women are restricted entirely from any kind of literacy. Women are not allowed to read or write and are also restricted from un-scripted speech, such as that which Offred and Ofglen have in their first few encounters during the novel. As mentioned in an interview with Margaret Atwood, a critic was quoted as saying, “The closest corollary to the Gileadean system is slavery in the American South,” which Atwood responded saying, “[slaves] were forbidden to be literate. Similarly with women, if you look at the world illiteracy rates, by the way, they are way higher amongst women”(Dodson). This restriction puts the women of Gilead into a similar position of the slaves in the antebellum period, allowing the commanders, wives, and aunts to use language as a form of power and control. Also, as previously mentioned above in the section labeled “politics,” it is discussed that Gilead is a totalitarian theocracy based on the views of a far right-wing religious minority which has overthrown the United States (set in the near future) and reformed it into an extremely patriarchal Government. Because of this, the word, or the bible, is essentially law. Given the fact that women are not allowed to read but men are, “men have (power over) ‘the word’, women do not. When Offred’s commander confronts her, which is not customary in the Gileadean society, the commander is inherently giving her power. Furthermore, the commander gives her a chance to read books and even plays scrabble with her, giving her more power and a chance to relive part of her past, which counteracts the goals of the new government. This type of oppression is not common. In fact, Ildney Cavalcanti mentions in her work “Utopias Of/F Language in Contemporary Feminist Literary Dystopias”, “[Using] language as means of social control and manipulation appears as a pervasive trait in the literary dystopias”
Verbal Hygiene, a term coined by the feminist linguist Deborah Cameron, is theorized as a ‘fundamental cultural trace and defined in relation to ‘practices … born of an urge to improve or ‘clean up’ language’ a ‘general impulse to regulate language, control it, make it ‘better’’” (Cavalcanti). The act of government which restricts women to speak only in scripted conversations exemplifies Verbal Hygiene. Further, the historical notes following The Handmaid’s Tale also shows the acts of Verbal Hygiene through the revision of Offred’s Story at the conference. This is not only present in The Handmaid’s Tale, but across the entire genre of literary dystopias. This concept explains why the human race is so concerned with language and why, without it, humans are merely animals.
The structure of this novel plays heavily into the way readers perceive Offred. The perspective in which the story is told allows Offred to speak directly to the readers, catching their emotions. The novel can also be portrayed through the film which was created in 1990.
For much of the 20th century, women and feminists alike gained much progress with regards to gender equality, including reproductive rights, workplace equality, and domestic violence among others. This mid- to late-20th century push towards different aspects of gender equality, also known as second-wave feminism, began in the United States in the early 1960s and ended in the early 1980s with the feminist sex wars over matters like sexuality and pornography and also because of the worldwide neoconservative backlash.
The second-wave feminism movement manifested as a reaction to the domesticity of women after the Second World War, a time in the United States’ history marked by unprecedented economic growth, the baby boom, the move to suburban life, and the popularity of ideal marriage. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qfgxHKli9CU
The movement is widely accepted to have begun with feminist activist Betty Friedan, also known as “The Mother of the Movement” when her bestselling book The Feminine Mystique was published in 1963. In this work, Friedan explained that “The suburban housewife - she was the dream image of the young American women and the envy, it was said, of women all over the world.” The problem she gave voice to was that she, along with many women, were not happy with the restricted nature of this role in society. The ideologies that her book popularized awakened new discussion and provoked new thought on the matter. Because of this, her book has been credited as one of the major catalysts of second-wave feminism.
By the early 1980s, feminist activists had made much progress, and it was widely thought that women had met their goals with regard to gender equality. The movement met with many successes until the late 1970s, when conservative opposition became more successful at countering them. By the 1970s, conservatives nationwide began emphasizing Judeo-Christian values as part of a right-wing religious movement, and conservative women began congregating under conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly. In the late 1970s, conservative women joined in an effort to stop ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which had been passed by the U.S. Congress in 1972. Thus, the ERA never became law and Schlafly became a major driving force for anti-feminism in the conservative movement.
With the election of President Ronald Reagan, conservative ideologies only became more widespread throughout the United States. For example, "By 1984, the American New Right had metamorphosed into Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority. Televangelists, some of them at home in the White House, told their congregations that 'feminists encourage women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism and become lesbians' (letter of Pat Robertson to his congregation, quoted in Lapham, 37) and that AIDS was divine retribution for the 'sin' of homosexuality" (Neuman 860). The rest of the world also caught hold of this new wave of conservatism. In 1979, the Islamic Revolution of Iran, led by Ayatollah Khomeini, shocked the world. As a direct result of his installation, women’s rights that had been commonplace under the reign of the former shah were severely cut short. “By 1984, Ayatollah Khomeini had forced women out of Iranian universities, out of their jobs, and back into their burqas and their homes. Iranian prison refugees reported torture including the use of electric prods and frayed steel cables in beatings” (Neuman 859).
It is this worldwide conservative backlash to feminist progress that played a large part in the formulation of the motives and writing of The Handmaid’s Tale. Atwood, a renowned leader in the feminist movement created her novel as a response to these events that took place directly prior to the release of her novel in 1985. As a leader in her field, she created The Handmaid’s Tale to show her readers what a world in which women are powerless would turn to—inhumane, dire, and abysmal.
Her dystopia is a direct allusion to what the world was slowly becoming at the time of her novel’s release. More or less, the novel was a warning to the world of what could become of the conservative backlash of the late 1970s and 1980s. Throughout the novel, Atwood alludes to our world, emphasizing its own weaknesses that could lead to its downfall. Critical of religious authority, Atwood bashes the religious importance in the theocracy that is the Republic of Gilead. As readers, “we discover that in the ongoing ‘sect wars’ Catholicism has been declared illegal in the Republic of Gilead and its priests, when caught, are hanged” (Beauchamp 17). She creates this hostility towards Catholics to show how catastrophic a theocracy dominated by a certain religious sect has the potential to be. It is elements like these that help illuminate her central motives for creating the novel, wherein one is to respond to the anti-feminist conservative backlash of her time.
The world she creates in The Handmaid’s Tale is unique in that it creates a dystopian feminist world to criticize the sayings of anti-feminist female activists. Atwood uses this to stress the differences women like her and anti-feminist activists have in how they would want to live their lives with different instances in her novel. As a direct attack on her opponents, Atwood uses Offred’s mental call to her mother, where she exclaims, “Mother, I think. Wherever you may be. Can you hear me? You wanted a women's culture. Well, now there is one. It isn't what you meant, but it exists. Be thankful for small mercies,” (Atwood 127). Her quote encompasses a woman’s life in the Republic of Gilead. In The Handmaid’s Tale, women develop their own culture, while it is a suppressed and cruel one. This is largely because “Margaret Atwood looks at the patriarchal biblical history from the perspective of its female ‘victims’. All the women in Gilead are made to play subsidiary parts, the wives of Commanders included, as well as the elderly infertile women, the Aunts, who save their skins by collaborating and who train the Handmaids in self-suppression,” (Staels 455). Thus, when Offred tells her late mother this, who is also known to be a feminist advocate, it is to signify the harsh reality that women in the United States could face if the anti-feminists help the United States continue on its conservative path throughout the 1990s and beyond.
Atwood created The Handmaid’s Tale as a way to illuminate the harsh reality of conservatism that ended second-wave feminism. The multitude of events that led to its end motivated Atwood and other leaders in feminist activism to speak out against the new wave of conservatism that took hold of the world for much of the second half of the 20th century. Whether it was the emergence of the religious right emphasized by Judeo-Christians, the rise of neoconservatives in the 1970s, the election of Ronald Reagan, or even the Islamic Revolution of 1979, Atwood created the novel as response to the cutting off of feminist progress from the prior 50 years. This extreme dystopia is her vision of the future if the immense progress made by feminist advocates in reaching gender equality was to crumble under the hands of her opponents. Through different ways in her novel, Atwood helps readers realize this harsh reality, and through this raises awareness for her cause of creating equality and bettering the state of humanity.
Classification as science fiction or speculative fiction
- I like to make a distinction between science fiction proper and speculative fiction. For me, the science fiction label belongs on books with things in them that we can't yet do, such as going through a wormhole in space to another universe; and speculative fiction means a work that employs the means already to hand, such as DNA identification and credit cards, and that takes place on Planet Earth. But the terms are fluid.
Hugo-winning science fiction critic David Langford observed in a column: "(...The Handmaid's Tale, won the very first Arthur C. Clarke award in 1987. She's been trying to live this down ever since.)" He says:
- Atwood prefers to say that she writes speculative fiction—a term coined by SF author Robert A. Heinlein. As she told the Guardian, "Science fiction has monsters and spaceships; speculative fiction could really happen." She used a subtly different phrasing for New Scientist, "Oryx and Crake is not science fiction. It is fact within fiction. Science fiction is when you have rockets and chemicals." So it was very cruel of New Scientist to describe this interview in the contents list as: "Margaret Atwood explains why science is crucial to her science fiction." ... Play it again, Ms Atwood—this time for the Book-of-the-Month Club: "Oryx and Crake is a speculative fiction, not a science fiction proper. It contains no intergalactic space travel, no teleportation, no Martians." On BBC1 Breakfast News the distinguished author explained that science fiction, as opposed to what she writes, is characterized by "talking squids in outer space."
In distinguishing between these genre labels science fiction and speculative fiction, Atwood acknowledges that others may use the terms interchangeably. But she notes her interest in this type of work to explore themes in ways that "realistic fiction" cannot do.
- 1985 – Governor General's Award for English language fiction (winner)
- 1986 – Booker Prize (nominated)
- 1986 – Nebula Award (nominated)
- 1987 – Arthur C. Clarke Award (winner)[a]
- 1987 – Prometheus Award (nominated)[b]
Frequent challenges, ALA conference, and controversy
The American Library Association (ALA) lists The Handmaid's Tale as number 37 on the "100 Most Frequently Challenged Books of 1990–2000". Atwood participated in discussing The Handmaid's Tale as the subject of an ALA discussion series titled "One Book, One Conference".
The book's inclusion in school curricula and assignments has been challenged by some groups in particular cities in the United States:
- 1990: Challenged at Rancho Cotate High School, Rohnert Park, California as too explicit for students.
- 1992: Challenged in Waterloo, Iowa schools, reportedly because of profanity, lurid passages about sex, and statements defamatory to minorities, God, women, and the disabled.
- 1993: Removed because of profanity and sex from the Chicopee, Massachusetts high school English class reading list.
- 1998: Challenged for use in Richland, Washington high school English classes, along with six other titles determined to be "poor quality literature and [that] stress suicide, illicit sex, violence, and hopelessness".
- 1999: Challenged because of graphic sex, but retained on the advanced placement English list, at George D. Chamberlain High School in Tampa, Florida.
- 2000: Downgraded from “required” to “optional” on the summer reading list for eleventh graders in the Upper Moreland School District near Philadelphia due to “age-inappropriate” subject matter.
- 2001: Challenged, but retained, in the Dripping Springs, Texas senior Advanced Placement English course as an optional reading assignment. Some parents were offended by the book’s descriptions of sexual encounters.
- 2006: Initially banned by Superintendent Ed Lyman from an advanced placement English curriculum in the Judson, Texas school district, after a parent complained. Lyman had overruled the recommendation of a committee of teachers, students, and parents; the committee appealed the decision to the school board, which overturned his ban.
According to Education Reporter Kristin Rushowy of the Toronto Star (16 Jan. 2009), in 2008 a parent in Toronto, Canada, wrote a letter to his son's high school principal, asking that the book no longer be assigned as required reading, stating that the novel is "rife with brutality towards and mistreatment of women (and men at times), sexual scenes, and bleak depression." Rushowy quotes the response of Russell Morton Brown, a retired University of Toronto English professor, who acknowledged that
The Handmaid's Tale wasn't likely written for 17-year-olds, 'but neither are a lot of things we teach in high school, like Shakespeare. ...'And they are all the better for reading it. They are on the edge of adulthood already, and there's no point in coddling them,' he said, adding, 'they aren't coddled in terms of mass media today anyway.' ...He said the book has been accused of being anti-Christian and, more recently, anti-Islamic because the women are veiled and polygamy is allowed. ...But that 'misses the point,' said Brown. 'It's really anti-fundamentalism.'
In her earlier account (14 Jan. 2009), Rushowy reported that a Toronto District School Board committee was "reviewing the novel." While noting that "The Handmaid's Tale is listed as one of the 100 'most frequently challenged books' from 1990 to 1999 on the American Library Association's website", Rushowy reports that "The Canadian Library Association says there is 'no known instance of a challenge to this novel in Canada' but says the book was called anti-Christian and pornographic by parents after being placed on a reading list for secondary students in Texas in the 1990s."
In November 2012 two parents in Guilford County, North Carolina protested inclusion of the book on a required reading list at a local high school. The parents presented the school board with a petition signed by 2,300 people, prompting a review of the book by the school's media advisory committee. According to local news reports, one of the parents said "she felt Christian students are bullied in society, in that they're made to feel uncomfortable about their beliefs by non-believers. She said including books like The Handmaid's Tale contributes to that discomfort, because of its negative view on religion and its anti-biblical attitudes toward sex."
The 1990 film The Handmaid's Tale was based on a screenplay by Harold Pinter and directed by Volker Schlöndorff. It starred Natasha Richardson as Offred, Faye Dunaway as Serena Joy, and Robert Duvall as The Commander (Fred).
A dramatic adaptation of the novel for radio was produced for BBC Radio 4 by John Dryden in 2000.
An operatic adaptation, The Handmaid's Tale, by Poul Ruders, premiered in Copenhagen on 6 March 2000, and was performed by the English National Opera, in London, in 2003. It was the opening production of the 2004–2005 season of the Canadian Opera Company.
Related works by Atwood
- Freeforall (short story), 1986.
- Burdekin, Katharine, Swastika Night.
- Elgin, Suzette Haden, Native Tongue.
- Heinlein, Robert A, If This Goes On—.
- Huxley, Aldous, Brave New World.
- Ishiguro, Kazuo, Never Let Me Go.
- James, PD, The Children of Men.
- Jordan, Hillary, When She Woke.
- Orwell, George, Nineteen Eighty-Four.
- Wyndham, John, The Chrysalids.
- Wyndham, John, Consider Her Ways.
- The Handmaid's Tale is the inaugural winner of this award for the best science fiction novel published in the United Kingdom during the previous year.
- The Prometheus Award is an award for libertarian science fiction novels given out annually by the Libertarian Futurist Society, which also publishes a quarterly journal, Prometheus.
- "About Speculative Fiction", The Handmaid's Tale Study Guide, Gradesaver, 22 May 2009 Check date values in:
|year= / |date= mismatch(help).
- Atwood, Margaret (17 June 2005), "Film: Science fiction, fatasy & horror", The Guardian (UK),
If you're writing about the future and you aren't doing forecast journalism, you'll probably be writing something people will call either science fiction or speculative fiction. I like to make a distinction between science fiction proper and speculative fiction. For me, the science fiction label belongs on books with things in them that we can't yet do, such as going through a wormhole in space to another universe; and speculative fiction means a work that employs the means already to hand, such as DNA identification and credit cards, and that takes place on Planet Earth. But the terms are fluid. Some use speculative fiction as an umbrella covering science fiction and all its hyphenated forms–science fiction fantasy, and so forth–and others choose the reverse. ...I have written two works of science fiction or, if you prefer, speculative fiction: The Handmaid's Tale and Oryx and Crake. Here are some of the things these kinds of narratives can do that socially realistic novels cannot do.
- Langford 2003.
- Kantor, Elizabeth (2006), "2. Medieval Literature: Here Is God's Plenty", The Politically Incorrect Guide to English and American Literature, Washington, DC: Regenery, pp. 27–44, ISBN 1-59698-011-7.
- Grace, DM (1998). "Handmaid's Tale Historical Notes and Documentary Subversion". Science Fiction Studies (Science Fiction Studies) 25 (3): 481–94. JSTOR 4240726.
- "Character List", The Handmaid's Tale Study Guide, Gradesaver, 22 May 2009 Check date values in:
|year= / |date= mismatch(help).
- Atwood 1986, p. 220.
- Madonne 1991[page needed].
- Atwood 1998, An Interview: 'Q: We can figure out that the main character lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts'
- Tandon, Neeru; Chandra, Anshul (2009). Margaret Atwood: A Jewel in Canadian Writing. Atlantic Publishers & Dist. pp. 154–55.
- Reingard M. Nischik (2000). Margaret Atwood: Works and Impact. Camden House. pp. 6, 143.
- Atwood 1998, p. 94.
- Atwood 1998, p. 161.
- Atwood 1998, pp. 144, 192.
- Atwood 1998, pp. 178–79.
- Atwood 1998, pp. 36.
- Atwood 1998, pp. 235.
- "The 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books of 1990–2000", Issues & advocacy (ALA) (some of the ALA's links are no longer active. The ALA website does not update and redirect its moved links automatically; if they are updated, one must perform a new search for them.)
- "One Book, One Conference", Annual Report 2002–2003 (conference), American Library Association, June 2003, retrieved 21 May 2009. Concerns inaugural program featuring Margaret Atwood held in Toronto, 19–25 June 2003.
- Banned Books: 2007 Resource Guide, ALA.
- Rushowy 2009
- Rushowy 2009b
- Winston-Salem Journal, 11/2/2012 Check date values in:
|date=(help); Missing or empty
- Clements, Andrew (Apr 5, 2003), "Classical music & opera", The Guardian (first night review) (UK)
- Littler, William (December 15, 2004), Opera Canada.
- The Handmaid's tale, UK: UKTW.
- "The Handmaid's Tale debuts as ballet in Winnipeg". CA: CBC News. 15 October 2013. Retrieved 2013-10-16.
- Alexander, Lynn (22 May 2009), The Handmaid's Tale Working Bibliography, Department of English, University of Tennessee at Martin. Hyperlinked to online resources for Alexander, Dr Lynn (Spring 1999), Women Writers: Magic, Mysticism, and Mayhem (course). Includes entry for book chap. by Kauffman.
- The 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books of 1990–2000, American Library Association, 2009, retrieved 22 May 2009.
- Atwood, Margaret (1985), The Handmaid's Tale, Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, ISBN 0-7710-0813-9
- ——— (1986), The Handmaid's Tale, New York: Anchor Books.
- ——— (1998), The Handmaid's Tale, New York: Anchor Books (div. of Random House), ISBN 978-0-385-49081-8. Parenthetical page references are to the 1998 ed. Digitized Jun 2, 2008 by Google Books (311 pp.)
- ——— (2005), La Servante écarlate [The Handmaid's Tale] (in French), Rué, Sylviane transl, Paris: J'ai Lu, ISBN 978-2-290-34710-2.
- ——— (17 June 2005), "Aliens Have Taken the Place of Angels", The Guardian (London: Guardian Media Group), retrieved 21 May 2009.
- Kauffman, Linda (1989), "6. Special Delivery: Twenty-First Century Epistolarity in The Handmaid's Tale", in Goldsmith, Elizabeth, Writing the Female Voice: Essays on Epistolary Literature, Boston: Northeastern UP, pp. 221–44. Cited in Alexander.
- Langford, David (Aug 2003), "Bits and Pieces", SFX (UK: Ansible) (107), retrieved 9 May 2009.
- Miner, Madonne (1991), "'Trust Me': Reading the Romance Plot in Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale.", Twentieth Century Literature 37: 148–68, doi:10.2307/441844.
- Rushowy, Kristin (16 Jan 2009), "Atwood Novel Too Brutal, Sexist for School: Parent", The Toronto Star (Parent Central), retrieved 9 May 2009.
- ——— (14 Jan 2009b), "Complaint Spurs School Board to Review Novel by Atwood", The Toronto Star (Parent Central), retrieved 21 May 2009.
- Adami, Valentina (2011), Bioethics Through Literature: Margaret Atwood's Cautionary Tales, Trier: WVT.
- Atwood, Margaret (2001), Bloom, Harold, ed., The Handmaid’s Tale, Philadelphia: Chelsea House.
- Cooper, Pamela (1997), "'A Body Story with a Vengeance': Anatomy and Struggle in The Bell Jar and The Handmaid’s Tale", Women’s Studies 26 (1): 89–123, doi:10.1080/00497878.1997.9979152.
- Dopp, Jamie (1994), "Subject-Position as Victim-Position in The Handmaid’s Tale", Studies in Canadian Literature 19 (1): 43–57.
- Gardner, Laurel J (1994), "Pornography as a Matter of Power in The Handmaid’s Tale", Notes on Contemporary Literature 24 (5): 5–7.
- Garretts-Petts, WF (1988), "Reading, Writing and the Postmodern Condition: Interpreting Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale", Open Letter, Seventh I.
- Geddes, Dan (January 2001), "Negative Utopia as Polemic: The Handmaid's Tale", The Satirist
- Hammer, Stephanie Barbé (1990), "The World as It Will Be? Female Satire and the Technology of Power in The Handmaid’s Tale", Modern Language Studies XX (2): 39–49, doi:10.2307/3194826.
- Malak, Amin (1987), "Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and the Dystopian Tradition", Canadian Literature 112: 9–16.
- McCarthy, Mary (9 February 1986), "No Headline: The Handmaid's Tale (Boston: Houghton Mifflin)", The New York Times (review), retrieved 9 May 2009
- Myrsiades, Linda (1999), "Law, Medicine, and the Sex Slave in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale", in Myrsiades, Kostas; Myrsiades, Linda, Un-Disciplining Literature: Literature, Law, and Culture, New York: Peter Lang, pp. 219–45.
- Stanners, Barbara; Stanners, Michael; Atwood, Margaret (2004), Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Top Notes Literature Guides, Seven Hills, NSW, AU: Five Senses Education.
- Atwood, Margaret (April 2003), "The Handmaid's Tale", World Book Club (AUDIO FILE FORMAT), BBC World Service.
- The Handmaid's Tale ballet at the Royal Winnipeg Ballet
The Engineer of Human Souls
|Governor General's Award for English language fiction recipient
The Progress of Love
|Arthur C. Clarke Award
The Sea and Summer