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|Cover of the first edition|
|Cover artist||Tad Aronowicz, design; Gail Geltner, collage (first edition, hardback)|
|Publisher||McClelland and Stewart|
|Publication date||1985 (hardcover)|
|Media type||Print (Hardcover and Paperback)|
|Followed by||The Testaments|
The Handmaid’s Tale is a dystopian novel by Canadian author Margaret Atwood, published in 1985. It is set in a near-future New England, in a totalitarian state, known as Gilead, that has overthrown the United States government.
The Handmaid’s Tale explores themes of subjugated women in a patriarchal society and the various means by which these women resist and attempt to gain individuality and independence. The novel’s title echoes the component parts of 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 is structured into two parts, by night and by other various events. The novel can be interpreted as a double narrative: central protagonist Offred’s personal struggle and the handmaids’ shared plight. The night sections are solely about Offred, and the other sections (shopping, waiting room, household, etc.) are the stories that describe the possible life of every handmaid, though from the perspective of Offred. In many of these sections, Offred jumps between past and present as she retells the events leading up to the fall of women’s rights and the current details of the life that she now lives.
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. The book has been adapted into a 1990 film, a 2000 opera, a 2017 television series, and other media.
In 2019, a sequel novel, The Testaments, was published.
After a staged attack that killed the President of the United States and most of Congress, a radical political group called the “Sons of Jacob” used quasi-Christian ideology to launch a revolution. The United States Constitution was suspended, newspapers were censored, and what was formerly the United States of America was changed into a military dictatorship known as the Republic of Gilead. The new regime moved quickly to consolidate its power, overtaking all other religious groups, including traditional Christian denominations. In addition, the regime reorganized society using a peculiar interpretation of some Old Testament ideas, and a new militarized, hierarchical model of social and religious fanaticism among its newly created social classes. Above all, the biggest change is the severe limitation of people’s rights, especially those of women, who are not allowed to read, write, own property or handle money. Most significantly, women are deprived of control over their own reproductive functions.
The story is told in first-person narration by a woman named Offred. In this era of environmental pollution and radiation, she is one of few fertile women remaining. Therefore, she is forcibly assigned to produce children for the “Commanders”, the ruling class of men, and is known as a “Handmaid” based on the biblical story of Rachel and her handmaid Bilhah. Apart from Handmaids, other women are also classed socially and follow a strict dress code, ranked highest to lowest: the Commanders’ Wives in blue; the Handmaids in red with white veils around their faces; the Aunts (who train and indoctrinate the Handmaids) in brown; the Marthas (cooks and maids) in green; Econowives (the wives of lower-ranking men who handle everything in the domestic sphere) in blue, red and green stripes; young, unmarried girls in white; and widows in black.
Offred details her life starting with her third assignment as a Handmaid to a Commander. Interspersed with her narratives of her present-day experiences are flashbacks of her life before and during the beginning of the revolution, including her failed attempt to escape to Canada with her husband and child, her indoctrination into life as a Handmaid by the Aunts, and the escape of her friend Moira from the indoctrination facility. At her new home, she is treated poorly by the Commander’s wife, a former Christian media personality named Serena Joy who supported women’s domesticity and subordinate role well before Gilead was established. To Offred’s surprise, the Commander requests to see her outside of the “Ceremony”, a reproductive ritual obligatory for handmaids and intended to result in conception in the presence of his wife. The two begin an illegal relationship where they play Scrabble and Offred is allowed to ask favours of him, whether in terms of information or material items. Finally, he gives her lingerie and takes her to a covert, government-run brothel called Jezebel’s. Offred unexpectedly encounters Moira there, with her will broken, and she learns that those who are found breaking the law are sent to the Colonies to clean up toxic waste or are allowed to work at Jezebel’s as punishment.
In the days between her visits to the Commander, Offred also learns from her shopping partner, a woman called Ofglen, of the Mayday resistance, an underground network working to overthrow the Republic of Gilead. Not knowing of Offred’s criminal acts with her husband, Serena begins to suspect that the Commander is infertile, and arranges for Offred to begin a covert sexual relationship with Nick, the Commander’s personal servant. After their initial sexual encounter, Offred and Nick begin to meet on their own initiative as well, with Offred discovering that she enjoys these intimate moments despite memories of her husband, and shares potentially dangerous information about her past with him. However, shortly after, Ofglen disappears (reported as a suicide), and Serena finds evidence of the relationship between Offred and the Commander, which causes Offred to contemplate suicide.
Offred tells Nick that she thinks she is pregnant. Shortly afterward, men arrive at the house wearing the uniform of the secret police, the Eyes of God, known informally as “the Eyes”, to take her away. As she is led to a waiting van, Nick tells her to trust him and go with the men. It is unclear whether the men are actually Eyes, or members of the Mayday resistance. Offred is still unsure if Nick is a member of Mayday or an Eye posing as one, and does not know if leaving will result in her escape or her capture. Ultimately, she enters the van with her future uncertain.
The novel concludes with a metafictional epilogue, described as a partial transcript of an international historical association conference taking place in the year 2195. The keynote speaker explains that Offred’s account of the events of the novel was recorded onto cassette tapes later found and transcribed by historians studying what is then called “the Gilead Period.” Professor Pieixoto makes a sexist joke about Professor Maryann Crescent Moon, causing laughter from the audience — highlighting lingering issues regarding attitudes towards women, and his ignorance toward the situation.
Fitting with her statements that The Handmaid’s Tale is a work of speculative fiction, not science fiction, Atwood’s novel offers a satirical view of various social, political, and religious trends of the United States in the 1980s. Her motivation for writing the novel was her belief that in the 1980s, the religious right was discussing what they would do with/to women if they took power, including the Moral Majority, Focus on the Family, the Christian Coalition and the Ronald Reagan administration. Further, Atwood questions what would happen if these trends, and especially “casually held attitudes about women” were taken to their logical end. Atwood continues to argue that all of the scenarios offered in The Handmaid’s Tale have actually occurred in real life—in an interview she gave regarding Oryx and Crake, Atwood maintains that “As with The Handmaid’s Tale, I didn’t put in anything that we haven’t already done, we’re not already doing, we’re seriously trying to do, coupled with trends that are already in progress… So all of those things are real, and therefore the amount of pure invention is close to nil.” Atwood was also known to carry around newspaper clippings to her various interviews to support her fiction’s basis in reality. Atwood has explained that The Handmaid’s Tale is a response to those who say the oppressive, totalitarian, and religious governments that have taken hold in other countries throughout the years “can’t happen here”—but in this work, she has tried to show how such a takeover might play out.
Atwood’s inspiration for the Republic of Gilead came from her study of early American Puritans while at Harvard, which she attended on a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship. Atwood argues that the modern view of the Puritans—that they came to America to flee religious persecution in England and set up a religiously tolerant society—is misleading, and that instead, these Puritan leaders wanted to establish a monolithic theocracy where religious dissent would not be tolerated. Atwood also had a personal connection to the Puritans, and she dedicates the novel to her own ancestor Mary Webster, who was accused of witchcraft in Puritan New England but survived her hanging. Due to the totalitarian nature of Gileadan society, Atwood, in creating the setting, drew from the “utopian idealism” present in 20th century régimes, such as Cambodia and Romania, as well as earlier New England Puritanism. Atwood has argued that a coup, such as the one depicted in The Handmaid’s Tale, would misuse religion in order to achieve its own ends.
Atwood, with respect to those leading Gilead, further stated:
I don’t consider these people to be Christians because they do not have at the core of their behavior and ideologies what I, in my feeble Canadian way, would consider to be the core of Christianity … and that would be not only love your neighbors but love your enemies. That would also be ‘I was sick and you visited me not’ and such and such …And that would include also concern for the environment, because you can’t love your neighbor or even your enemy, unless you love your neighbor’s oxygen, food, and water. You can’t love your neighbor or your enemy if you’re presuming policies that are going to cause those people to die. … Of course faith can be a force for good and often has been. So faith is a force for good particularly when people are feeling beleaguered and in need of hope. So you can have bad iterations and you can also have the iteration in which people have got too much power and then start abusing it. But that is human behavior, so you can’t lay it down to religion. You can find the same in any power situation, such as politics or ideologies that purport to be atheist. Need I mention the former Soviet Union? So it is not a question of religion making people behave badly. It is a question of human beings getting power and then wanting more of it.
In the same vein, Atwood also declared that “In the real world today, some religious groups are leading movements for the protection of vulnerable groups, including women.” Atwood also draws connections between the ways in which Gilead’s leaders maintain their power and other examples of actual totalitarian governments. In her interviews, Atwood offers up Afghanistan as an example of a religious theocracy forcing women out of the public sphere and into their homes, as in Gilead. The “state-sanctioned murder of dissidents” was inspired by the Philippines, and the last General Secretary of the Romanian Communist Party Nicolae Ceaușescu‘s obsession with increasing the birth rate (Decree 770) led to the strict policing of pregnant women and the outlawing of birth control and abortion. However, Atwood clearly explains that many of these deplorable acts were not just present in other cultures and countries, “but within Western society, and within the ‘Christian’ tradition itself”.
The Republic of Gilead struggles with infertility, making Offred’s services as a Handmaid vital to producing children and thus reproducing the society. Handmaids themselves are “untouchable”, but their ability to signify status is equated to that of slaves or servants throughout history. Atwood connects their concerns with infertility to real-life problems our world faces, such as radiation, chemical pollution, and venereal disease (HIV/AIDS is specifically mentioned in the “Historical Notes” section at the end of the novel, which was a relatively new disease at the time of Atwood’s writing whose long-term impact was still unknown). Atwood’s strong stance on environmental issues and their negative consequences for our society has presented itself in other works such as her MaddAddam trilogy, and refers back to her growing up with biologists and her own scientific curiosity.
More at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Handmaid%27s_Tale