The Handmaid's Tale

Margaret Atwood’s sixth novel, The Handmaid's Tale (1985) is a chilling dystopian vision of the future. It is set in the Republic of Gilead, a totalitarian America in which fundamentalist Christians have killed the president and Congress and imposed a puritanical theocracy. The Handmaid's Tale portrays a loveless police state that oppresses women and regulates all aspects of human life with constant surveillance. The novel won the Governor General's Literary Award and the Arthur C. Clarke Award for Science Fiction Literature. It has sold more than eight million copies in English. The Washington Post’s Ron Charles called it “the most popular and influential feminist novel ever written.” It has been adapted into a feature film, an acclaimed opera, a ballet, an Emmy Award-winning television series and a graphic novel. The Testaments, a highly anticipated sequel written by Atwood, was published in September 2019 and shortlisted for the Booker Prize.

The Handmaid's Tale Public Art Piece
A public art piece inspired by Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, designed by Paula Scher and Abbott Miller, at New York's High Line park in April 2017.

Background

The Handmaid's Tale is set in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It is in part a response to the New England Puritan view 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. She has attributed her interest in this 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.”

Plot Synopsis

The novel tales place in a near-future world, polluted by toxic chemicals and nuclear radiation. Few women can bear children and the birthrate has dropped alarmingly. The president of the United Sates has been assassinated in a fundamentalist coup. The new regime 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.” They are the official breeders for society.

The main narrative consists of a transcription of tapes made by a handmaid named Offred. She 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. Her account is 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. 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. She hopes 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 pushes Offred to escape The Commander’s household. Whether she is fleeing towards her freedom or her death is unclear.


Analysis

Offred speaks in a disembodied voice. She frequently engages in punning and wordplay — hallmarks of Atwood’s narrators. Offred’s narrative, however, also 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. She is aware 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.

Critical Reception

The Handmaid’s Tale was a commercial and critical success. It 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 of her prose. Patrick Parrinder in the London Review of Books called the novel “an unrepeatable and starkly individual performance.” In the Washington Post, Joyce Johnson wrote 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.” In November 2018, Ron Charles of the Washington Post called The Handmaid’s Tale “the most popular and influential feminist novel ever written.”

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. She argued 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.”

Margaret Atwood
Atwood has explored the issues of our time, capturing them in the satirical, self-reflexive mode of the contemporary novel (photo by Graeme Gibson).

Honours

Since its publication, The Handmaid’s Tale has been translated into more than 40 languages. It has sold more than 8 million copies internationally, including more than 3 million since the 2016 US presidential election. It 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. It was also nominated for other prominent awards, including the 1986 Booker Prize, the 1986 Nebula Award and the 1987 Prometheus Award.

Film Adaptation

In 1990, five years after the book’s publication, a film adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale was released. It was written by renowned British playwright Harold Pinter and 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 subtly, detail and potency of the original novel was lost in the film. It received mixed reviews and struggled at the box office.


Opera Adaptation

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 starred Stephanie Marshall as Offred, Krisztina Szabó as The Double, Kurt Link as The Commander and Jean Stilwell as Serena Joy. It was met with widespread critical acclaim.  

Ballet

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) had its world premiere in October 2013. It 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. It was performed by the RWB at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa in January 2015.


Television Series

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. It starred Elizabeth 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. 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 television series. She also 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.


Graphic Novel

In 2015, Atwood’s publisher, McClelland & Stewart requested pitches from graphic artists for a graphic novel based on The Handmaid’s Tale. Atwood selected Vancouver-based artist Renee Nault as the successful candidate. She worked with her closely to pare down the narrative into a “move-style” script.  

The graphic novel comprised more than 300 hand-painted pages. It was released on 26 March 2019 to positive reviews. Alex Yarde of The Good Men Project called it “brilliantly realized.” He wrote, “There is magic in every detail of Ms. Nault’s adaptation, thoughtfulness in each panel, an intentionality about every aspect of it.”

Sequel

In November 2018, Atwood announced that she was completing a sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale called The Testaments. She revealed that the novel would be published in September 2019. In a press release, Atwood stated, “Dear Readers, Everything you’ve ever asked me about Gilead and its inner workings is the inspiration for this book. Well, almost everything! The other inspiration is the world we’ve been living in.”

The novel was so highly anticipated, Ron Charles of the Washington Post wrote, “This isn’t just the most anticipated novel of the year; it’s one of the most anticipated sequels of the modern age.” A week before it was even published, The Testaments was shortlisted for the Booker Prize.    

The book was launched in rock star fashion on 10 September. A sold-out appearance by Atwood at the National Theatre in London began at 12:00 a.m. It was broadcast live to more than 1,000 theatres around the world. Atwood then embarked on a worldwide promotional tour that included stops in nine Canadian cities.


The story of The Testaments takes place 15 years after the ending of the original novel. Like The Handmaid’s Tale, The Testaments is framed from the perspective of academics in the future looking back on the collapsed Gilead. The story follows several plot lines that were introduced in the Hulu television series. They are narrated by three women, including Aunt Lydia, a key antagonist in both the original novel and the TV series. In her review of The Testaments, Slate’s Laura Miller writes, “the Aunt Lydia of The Testaments is another beast entirely, a cunning political survivor with an extensive collection of other people’s secrets and no love for Gilead itself. This Lydia plays the long game, and one of the many pleasures of this enthralling novel comes from witnessing how her plans finally pay out.” 

On 4 September 2019, Hulu and MGM announced that they were adapting The Testaments into a television series. They were in discussions with Bruce Miller, the showrunner on the Handmaid’s Tale series, to oversee the project.  


Selected Works of Margaret Atwood