Set in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the novel is in part a response to the New England Puritan conception of America as an Elect nation — a country that is believed to have a singularly close relationship to God and a duty to spread its values around the world (see also Manifest Destiny). This narrative strand of The Handmaid’s Tale shows the influence of Atwood’s extensive knowledge of 17th century Puritanism, her interest in which she has attributed to “a personal connection, because some of my ancestors were creepy 17th century Puritan New Englanders.” Atwood has also stated that the book was based on her opinion that “the deep foundation of the US… was not the comparatively recent 18th-century Enlightenment structures of the republic, with their talk of equality and their separation of church and state, but the heavy-handed theocracy of 17th-century Puritan New England.”
In a near-future world, polluted by toxic chemicals and nuclear radiation, few women can bear children and the birthrate has dropped alarmingly. A fundamentalist coup that resulted in the assassination of the president of the United Sates has reshaped the US into a puritanical totalitarian theocracy known as the Republic of Gilead. In this highly misogynist and repressive nation, women who remain fertile are forced to become “handmaids” — the official breeders for society.
The main narrative consists of a transcription of tapes made by Offred, a handmaid who has recorded her experiences growing up in the old society, her process of indoctrination into the new one, and her experience as the handmaid of one of its Commanders. (The name she is given indicates that she only exists to serve The Commander; his name is Fred, and she is “of Fred.”) Offred tells her story in the first person, describing the harrowing and repressive daily life of a handmaid, interspersed with flashbacks from her pre-Gilead existence. During the most fertile point of Offred’s menstural cycle, she is forced to lie between The Commander’s wife’s legs while The Commander has sex with her. This practice is based on chapter 30 of the Book of Genesis, in which Rachel offers her handmaid, Bilhah, to her husband, Jacob, because she is unable to conceive children.
When Offred is unable to become pregnant, The Commander’s wife, Serena Joy, suggests that Offred secretly sleep with their gardener and chauffeur, Nick, hoping to cloak Nick’s child as The Commander’s. Offred and Nick begin a highly illegal affair, swamped in shadowy motives. The danger of this situation eventually pushes Offred to escape The Commander’s household; whether she is fleeing towards her liberation or execution is left for the reader to surmise.
Offred speaks in a disembodied voice and frequently engages in punning and wordplay — hallmarks of Atwood’s narrators. Offred’s narrative, however, also movingly records her internal resistance to a state that treats human beings as objects. She acknowledges that her story, like any history, involves reconstructing and reordering chaotic events, and that our access to the past is necessarily distorted by words. The novel’s satiric epilogue, “Historical Notes,” acts as a warning about the dangers of dismissing or overwriting history.
The Handmaid’s Tale was a commercial and critical success, and received a great deal of national and international attention. The novel was widely compared to such dystopian classics as George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932) and Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange (1962).Atwood was also praised for the unique style and intelligence imbedded in her prose. Patrick Parrinder in the London Review of Books labelled the novel “an unrepeatable and starkly individual performance.” In the Washington Post, Joyce Johnson proclaimed that Atwood “has succeeded in finding a voice for her heroine that is direct, artless, utterly convincing. It is the voice of a woman we might know, of someone very close to us.”
However, response to the novel was not strictly positive. The late American critic and novelist Mary McCarthy dismissed The Handmaid’s Tale in the New York Times as an unimaginative polemic, arguing that the writing is “indistinguishable from what one supposes would be Margaret Atwood’s normal way of expressing herself in the circumstances. This is a serious defect, unpardonable maybe for the genre: a future that has no language invented for it lacks a personality.”
Since its publication, The Handmaid’s Tale has been translated into more than 40 languages, sold millions of copies internationally, and is frequently featured on high school and university curricula. It won the 1985 Governor General's Literary Award for English Language fiction and the 1987 Arthur C. Clarke Award for Science Fiction Literature, and was nominated for a number of other prominent awards, including the 1986 Booker Prize, the 1986 Nebula Award and the 1987 Prometheus Award.
In 1990, five years after the book’s publication, a film adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale was released. The screenplay was written by renowned British playwright Harold Pinter and the film was directed by Academy Award-winning West German director Volker Schlondorff. Sigourney Weaver was originally cast as the lead, but had to drop out when she became pregnant. The British actor Natasha Richardson replaced her as “Kate” (the screenplay’s version of Offred). The film also featured Robert Duvall as The Commander and Faye Dunaway as Serena Joy.
The narrative and aesthetic of the film departs markedly from that of the novel. It tells the story in a completely linear fashion without any flashbacks, allowing no space for “Kate” to reflect on her captivity and former existence. Stylistically, the film was conceived as an erotic thriller — “A haunting tale of sexuality in a country gone wrong,” as one of the poster’s tag lines put it. Many Atwood fans complained that much of the subtlety, detail and potency of the original novel was lost in the film. It received mixed reviews and struggled at the box office.
An opera adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale, composed by Poul Ruders with a Libretto by Paul Bentley, was premiered by the Royal Danish Opera in Copenhagen, Denmark, on 6 March 2000. It was conducted by Michael Schonwandt, directed by Phyllida Lloyd and designed by Peter McKintosh. The opera begins in the year 2195 with a professor lecturing about the fallen Republic of Gilead; he is in possession of an audio diary from a handmaid named Offred. The audio diary, recounted in a flashback, tells the Handmaid’s tale, assuming the central narrative of the opera. The character of Offred is portrayed by two women: one as Offred the handmaid and the other as The Double, who represents Offred’s pre-handmaid life.
In 2003, the production was mounted by the English National Opera at the Coliseum Theatre in London, England. That same year, the opera made its North American debut in Minnesota, conducted by Anthony Walker. In 2004, the opera opened in Toronto, where Atwood lives, as part of the Canadian Opera Company’s 2004–05 season. The production, which starred Stephanie Marshall as Offred, Krisztina Szabó as The Double, Kurt Link as The Commander and Jean Stilwell as Serena Joy, was met with widespread critical acclaim.
The Handmaid’s Tale was also produced as a ballet, with choreography by Lila York and music by James MacMillan. The original run by the Royal Winnipeg Ballet (RWB), which had its world premiere in October 2013, was criticized for lacking seriousness. A revised version, intended to be darker and grittier and featuring a different score, was met with more favourable reviews when it was performed by the RWB at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa in January 2015.
In April 2017, the first three episodes of a 10-part television series adapted from The Handmaid’s Tale aired in the US on the streaming service Hulu and in Canada on Bravo and Crave TV. Starring Elisabeth Moss as Offred, Alexis Bledel as Ofglen, Yvonne Strahovsky as Serena Joy and Joseph Fiennes as The Commander, the series was hailed as one of the most engrossing and timely television series of the year. Following the 2016 election of Donald Trump as President of the United States, many observers considered the 1985 novel more prescient than ever, and the series garnered a great deal attention and acclaim. The New York Times called it “unflinching, vital and scary as hell.”
Although largely faithful to Atwood’s original dystopia, the series, which was filmed in Toronto, also integrates present-day global issues into the narrative, such as a refugee crisis and Islamophobia. Unlike the 1990 film adaption,in which Atwood had little creative involvement, she served as a consulting producer of the Hulu television series, and appears in a cameo role in the first episode. The series went on to win a leading eight Emmy Awards. It also became the first program produced by a streaming service to win the Emmy Award for Outstanding Drama Series.