Boy, do we love a re-read. We can wax poetic about them ad nauseum. Even C. S. Lewis agrees, saying “To me, re-reading my favorite books is like spending time with my best friends. I’d never be satisfied to limit myself to just one experience each with my favorite people.” Those novels that you take […]
Set in the religious patriarchy of Gilead, The Handmaid's Tale is a haunting narrative of what America could be. As the threat of Gilead looms ever closer, this seems less like a dystopian novel and more like a prescient warning. Read it before you live it.
About the Author
Date of Birth:November 18, 1939
Place of Birth:Ottawa, Ontario
Education:B.A., University of Toronto, 1961; M.A. Radcliffe, 1962; Ph.D., Harvard University, 1967
Read an Excerpt
from the Introduction
In the spring of 1984 I began to write a novel that was not initially called The Handmaid’s Tale. I wrote in long hand, mostly on yellow legal notepads, then transcribed my almost illegible scrawlings using a huge German-keyboard manual typewriter that I’d rented.
The keyboard was German because I was living in West Berlin, which was still encircled by the Berlin Wall: the Soviet empire was still strongly in place and was not to crumble for another five years. Every Sunday the East German air force made sonic booms to remind us of how close they were. During my visits to several countries behind the Iron Curtain—Czechoslovakia, East Germany—I experienced the wariness, the feeling of being spied on, the silences, the changes of subject, the oblique ways in which people might convey information, and these had an influence on what I was writing. So did the repurposed buildings. This used to belong to . . . But then they disappeared. I heard such stories many times.
Having been born in 1939 and come to consciousness during World War II, I knew that established orders could vanish overnight. Change could also be as fast as lightning. It can’t happen here could not be depended on: anything could happen anywhere, given the circumstances.
By 1984, I’d been avoiding my novel for a year or two. It seemed to me a risky venture. I’d read extensively in science fiction, speculative fiction, utopias and dystopias ever since my high school years in the 1950s, but I’d never written such a book. Was I up to it? The form was strewn with pitfalls, among them a tendency to sermonize, a veering into allegory, and a lack of plausibility. If I was to create an imaginary garden, I wanted the toads in it to be real. One of my rules was that I would not put any events into the book that had not already happened in what James Joyce called the “nightmare” of history, nor any technology not already available. No imaginary gizmos, no imaginary laws, no imaginary atrocities. God is in the details, they say. So is the devil.
Back in 1984, the main premise seemed—even to me—fairly outrageous. Would I be able to persuade readers that the United States of America had suffered a coup that had transformed an erstwhile liberal democracy into a literal-minded theocratic dictatorship? In the book, the Constitution and Congress are no longer: the Republic of Gilead is built on a foundation of the seventeenth-century Puritan roots that have always lain beneath the modern-day America we thought we knew.
The immediate location of the book is Cambridge, Massachusetts, home of Harvard University, now a leading liberal educational institution but once a Puritan theological seminary. The Secret Service of Gilead is located in the Widener Library, where I had spent many hours in the stacks, researching my New England ancestors as well as the Salem witchcraft trials. Would some people be affronted by the use of the Harvard wall as a display area for the bodies of the executed? (They were.)
In the novel, the population is shrinking due to a toxic environment, and the ability to have viable babies is at a premium. (In today’s real world, studies in China are now showing a sharp fertility decline in Chinese men.) Under totalitarianisms—or indeed in any sharply hierarchical society—the ruling class monopolizes valuable things, so the elite of the regime arrange to have fertile females assigned to them as Handmaids. The biblical precedent is the story of Jacob and his two wives, Rachel and Leah, and their two handmaids. One man, four women, twelve sons—but the handmaids could not claim the sons. They belonged to the respective wives.
And so the tale unfolds.
What People are Saying About This
“A taut thriller, a psychological study, a play on words.…A rich and complex book.”
–New York Times
“Atwood has peered behind the curtain into some of the darkest, most secret, yet oddly erotic corners of the mind, and the result is a fascinating, wonderfully written, and disturbing cautionary tale.”
“A novel that will both chill and caution readers and which may challenge everyday assumptions.…It is an imaginative accomplishment of a high order. . . . ”
–London Free Press
“Moving, vivid and terrifying. I only hope it is not prophetic.”
–Conor Cruise O’Brien
“A novel that brilliantly illuminates some of the darker interconnections of politics and sex.…Satisfying, disturbing and compelling.”
“The most poetically satisfying and intense of all Atwood’s novels.”
“It deserves an honored place on the small shelf of cautionary tales that have entered modern folklore – a place next to, and by no means inferior to, Brave New World and 1984.”
“Deserves the highest praise.”
–San Francisco Chronicle
“In The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood has written the most chilling cautionary novel of the century.”
“Imaginative, even audacious, and conveys a chilling sense of fear and menace.”
–Globe and Mail
“Margaret Atwood’s novels tickle our deepest sexual and psychological fears. The Handmaid’s Tale is a sly and beautifully crafted story about the fate of an ordinary woman caught off guard by extraordinary events. . . . A compelling fable of our time.”
“This visionary novel, in which God and Government are joined, and America is run as a Puritanical Theocracy, can be read as a companion volume to Orwell’s 1984 –its verso, in fact. It gives you the same degree of chill, even as it suggests the varieties of tyrannical experience; it evokes the same kind of horror even as its mordant wit makes you smile.”
–E. L. Doctorow
Reading Group Guide
1. Atwood says that her novel’s title was meant to evoke both Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and folktales or fairy tales. Why might she have wanted readers to make those connections?
2. The novel’s first epigraph, from Genesis, reveals the Biblical precedent that Gilead’s founders use to justify exploiting Handmaids. Given their apparent allegiance to the Bible, why do Gilead’s rulers keep it under lock and key?
3. The novel’s second epigraph is from Jonathan Swift’s famously satirical “Modest Proposal,” in which he suggests solving the Irish famine by having the starving peasants sell their children as food for the rich. Beyond signaling her satiric intent, do you think Atwood meant to suggest any deeper connections between Swift’s vision and hers? Does humor have any role in her satire?
4. The third epigraph is a Sufi proverb: “In the desert there is no sign that says, Thou shalt not eat stones.” What do you think this means in the context of this story?
5. Offred’s name vividly represents the erasure of her former identity and of her independent selfhood. Readers have found other evocative echoes in it: “offered,” “afraid,” “off-read.” Do these associations deepen your sense of her character?
6. Why do you think the Aunts participate so enthusiastically in the oppression of their fellow women? Are their motives different from those of the Commanders’ Wives?
7. Serena Joy was instrumental in bringing about the new social order, which now severely limits her role. Does she seem to feel that the trade-offs she has made were worth it?
8. In her introduction, Atwood argues that her novel is not “anti-religion,” but only “against the use of religion as a front for tyranny.” Is her argument persuasive to you? Is it as relevant now as when she wrote the novel?
9. Atwood was concerned that readers might find Gilead’s horrors implausible, so she only included events that had actually occurred at some point in history. She lists examples in her introduction; can you think of more? Does knowing this make it seem more likely that something like Gilead could happen here?
10. Do you think the growing popularity of dystopian novels in recent years reflects increased pessimism about the future? Atwood has denied that The Handmaid’s Tale was meant as a prediction, explaining her intention as “anti-prediction,” meaning that “if this future can be described in detail, perhaps it won’t happen.” Do you think that might be (as she also suggests) wishful thinking?
1. The novel begins with three epigraphs. What are their functions?
2. In Gilead, women are categorized as wives, handmaids, Marthas, or Aunts, but Moira refuses to fit into a niche. Offred says she was like an elevator with open sides who made them dizzy; she was their fantasy. Trace Moira's role throughout the tale to determine what she symbolizes.
3. Aunt Lydia, Janine, and Offred's mother also represent more than themselves. What do each of their characters connote? What do the style and color of their clothes symbolize?
4. At one level, The Handmaid's Tale is about the writing process. Atwood cleverly weaves this sub-plot into a major focus with remarks by Offred such as "Context is all," and "I've filled it out for her," "I made that up," and "I wish this story were different." Does Offred's habit of talking about the process of storytelling make it easier or more difficult for you to suspend disbelief?
5. A palimpsest is a medieval parchment that scribes attempted to scrape clean and use again, though they were unable to obliterate all traces of the original. How does the new republic of Gilead's social order often resemble a palimpsest?
6. The Commander in the novel says you can't cheat nature. How do characters find ways to follow their natural instincts?
7. Why is the Bible under lock and key in Gilead?
8. Babies are referred to as "a keeper," "unbabies," "shredders." What other real or fictional worlds do these terms suggest?
9. Atwood's title brings to mind titles from Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales. Why might Atwood have wanted you to makethat connection?
10. What do you feel the "Historical Notes" at the book's end add to the reading of this novel? What does the book's last line mean to you?