The Handmaid’s Tale (Magill Book Reviews)
The parting “Historical Notes” clarify this tale’s supposed genesis as a series of cassette tapes found in a footlocker along the Femaleroad in Maine. Similar to the Underground Railroad that spirited slaves from the South to safety in Canada over 150 years earlier, this Underground Femaleroad led women out of their theological and social bondage in America to a free life in Europe. Now, these tapes have been transcribed and authenticated, with the results of this effort being presented to the “Twelfth Symposium on Gileadean Studies” in 2195.
As a thirty-three-year-old Handmaid, Offred had but one role in her society, one function to perform: produce babies. Her life was the ultimate denial of choice or, seen otherwise, the ultimate glory. This latter interpretation was that which enlivened her household world within the Christian theocracy that was America in the early twenty-first century. Hers was the Gileadean society.
Seizing power in the late twentieth century, the Guardians killed off the Congress, President, and Constitution, replacing them with a society built on strict biblical teaching and radical social adjustment. Working then across this tableau of upheaval, THE HANDMAID’S TALE is strongest when centered on Offred’s assignment and the household where she is expected to give birth. Here Atwood develops the personalities that enliven the novel: the Commander, with his urge for surreptitious Scrabble; Nick, the...
(The entire section is 731 words.)
Want to Read More?
Subscribe now to read the rest of this article. Plus get complete access to 30,000+ study guides!
The Plot (Magill's Guide to Science Fiction and Fantasy Literature)
In the late 1980’s, an ultraconservative religious group toppled the U.S. government and established a totalitarian regime called Gilead. The leadership is strictly Christian in nature and ruthlessly fascist in practice. Using the former society’s plummeting birth rates as an excuse, the Gilead leaders force women into restricted roles in society, with little freedom or power. Couples in the upper classes who are without children are assigned Handmaids, who essentially are legal concubines intended to bear their hosts’ children. These Handmaids are fertile women who were politically unsafe, divorced, or in second marriages.
The narrator is a Handmaid assigned to the family of a high-ranking commander. She loses her identity and original family, and she is renamed “of Fred” (the commander’s first name), or Offred. Offred is cared for by the family in exchange for having sex with the commander. In an elaborate ceremony required by the society, Offred lies between the legs of Fred’s wife during the act, making her resemble a substitute womb for the wife. This ritual enacts a literal translation of the Old Testament, in which Rachel says to Jacob, “Behold my maid Bilhah, go in unto her; and she shall bear upon my knees, that I may also have children by her” (Genesis 30:1-3).
Even this tightly controlled society has hidden rebellions. The commander arranges clandestine meetings with Offred. They talk and play Scrabble. Such...
(The entire section is 515 words.)
The Handmaid’s Tale (Censorship (Ready Reference series))
Among the most frequently banned books of the 1990’s, The Handmaid’s Tale won Canada’s most prestigious award for fiction, the Governor General’s Literary Award. The novel is narrated by a woman known as Offred (Of Fred), a “Handmaid” to a Commander and the Commander’s Wife in the fictional Republic of Gilead. As Offred describes events in her highly controlled life, she recalls times before religious fundamentalists assumed political control, a period when she was a wife, mother, and librarian.
Complaints about The Handmaid’s Tale, which has been used in literature study at the high school level, have included objections to its allegedly despairing themes, depictions of women as sex objects, profanity, sexually explicit scenes, and anti-Christian themes.
Grace, Sherrill E., and Lorraine Weir, eds. Margaret Atwood: Language, Text, and System. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1983. Includes nine essays examining Atwood’s literary “system” and her development of style and subject matter up to the publication of The Handmaid’s Tale.
Greene, Gayle. Changing the Story: Feminist Fiction and the Tradition. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991. The author discusses Atwood and other contemporary women writers who employ narrative strategies that incorporate women’s perspectives and...
(The entire section is 514 words.)
Places Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Places)
Gilead. Future name for the northeastern section of the United States. In Margaret Atwood’s vision of the future, the government of the United States has been overthrown by a group of right-wing, conservative Christians bent on transforming what they see as a decadent society into a theocracy. Atwood draws on the culture of the United States in 1985 and extrapolates what might happen if trends present in that year were to continue into the future. For example, in Gilead, birth rates have plummeted as a result of widespread contamination of the air, water, and earth. Further, Christians, sickened by divorce, pornography, and abortion, outlaw all three. They also take away a woman’s right to own property or have money of her own; everything is in her husband’s name. Women who have been divorced but who are proven to be fertile, such as the main character in the novel, are found guilty of the crime of adultery, and are given to the rulers of Gilead in order to provide children for childless couples.
Atwood deliberately places Gilead in New England; landmarks such as the library and the wall are clearly taken from Cambridge, where Harvard University is located. The irony in this location is twofold: In the first place, Massachusetts was first established as a theocracy by the pilgrim fathers, who applied a strict interpretation of the Bible to all aspects of life. Indeed, it was the Puritans of the seventeenth century who were...
(The entire section is 606 words.)
Form and Content (Masterplots II: Juvenile & Young Adult Literature Series, Supplement)
Offred, the narrator of The Handmaid’s Tale, is one of a class of women who are trained to serve the master class—in this case, the Commander and his wife, Serena Joy. Offred remembers and indeed yearns for the husband and child that belonged to her in the time that the Republic of Gilead was the United States. All the democratic rights that were taken for granted in America have vanished in this future world—including a woman’s right to marry, to hold a job, or to do anything without the approval of her master and mistress.
Offred speaks as a character who has partially become accustomed to this new world. She is aware that it came about because of the social chaos of American democracy. There was too much violence; people were too free to do as they liked. At least this is how the United States is viewed from the perspective of Offred’s authoritarian society. Yet, Offred has not been brainwashed. Like Winston Smith in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four (1948), she has a mind of her own, but she has to conceal it. She is afraid of being punished for her independent thoughts. She has a friend, Moira, who represents everything that Offred would like to be. Moira is outspoken and rebellious. She does not accept the subjection of women for a moment or believe that any class of people has the right to rule others.
Offred is wistful about the past. It is hard to recall, however, when her present is so filled with her...
(The entire section is 574 words.)
The Handmaid's Tale (Magill's Literary Annual 1987)
Political climates have played major roles in several of Margaret Atwood’s novels, particularly in Life Before Man (1979) and Bodily Harm (1982). In these novels, the sense of social upheaval provides not merely a social context for her protagonists, but it also mirrors their emotional conflict. What does society, so restless and discontent, need to become harmonious? Are revolutions or separatist movements genuine solutions to social problems? Individuals seem to have a greater range of possibilities for happiness: money, clothes, jobs, travel, sex. As any reader of Atwood’s novels knows, these “remedies” are as shallow as those who promote them. Indeed, the twentieth century way of life, awash in banal hucksterism reducing people to products and solving complicated problems during thirty-minute television talk shows, seems perilously close to extinction. Just keeping afloat in a swill of pollution, exploitation, waste, racism, and sexism is problematical. Proposed “solutions” to these problems abound, a return to fundamentalist religion being one. The Handmaid’s Tale gives its readers just such a political climate, and the results are both fascinating and chilling.
Late twentieth century America, saturated with pollution, pornography, sexual license, and a virulent strain of venereal disease, has erupted....
(The entire section is 1894 words.)
Form and Content (Masterplots II: Women's Literature Series)
Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale takes place in the United States at the turn of the twenty-first century. A revolution sponsored by fundamentalist leaders has produced a monolithic theocracy called the Republic of Gilead. Although inspired by divine power, the administrators of Gilead rely on human control to implement their religion-based policies. Overt military control is conducted through a series of agents—such as Commanders, Eyes, and Guardians—who use electronic devices, blockades, and spies to maintain surveillance over the population. Those who are not members of the Gilead forces become servants, a role reserved almost exclusively for women.
Women, who the revolution was supposedly fought in part to protect, are relegated to serving in eight narrowly defined categories easily identified by the color of their prescribed wardrobe. The blue-clad wives of the Commanders are the most visible of all the women in Gilead. They are to preside over the Commanders’ homes, create beautiful gardens, and attend social functions, which include public hangings and ritual beatings of men who break the Gilead rules. The green-clad Marthas are responsible for cooking and keeping the house clean. Econowives, women married to midlevel members of the Gilead administration, wear multicolored uniforms to designate their mixed functions as housewife, cook, maid, and mother. A small number of women wear black, widows whose life is ill-defined in...
(The entire section is 776 words.)
Context (Masterplots II: Women's Literature Series)
When it was first published, The Handmaid’s Tale was immediately compared to the appearance almost forty years before of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949). Both novels suggest that to create a world of perfect order and stability would require that the imperfections of human beings be brought under control. The future societies of both novels ban writing, the written word being a weapon feared by those in charge. Both worlds restrict relationships, reducing them to sterile, superficial role-playing. Violence as a method of control and citizen participation in that violence appear in both novels. Yet Winston Smith, the main character in Nineteen Eighty-Four, is a man and has at least a marginal sense of independence and identity. Offred in The Handmaid’s Tale is a woman who has no independence and has been stripped of all identity.
Because of this difference, Atwood’s novel is closer in relationship to the words spoken by the cofounder of the modern women’s movement, Elizabeth Cady Stanton. At the end of the nineteenth century, Stanton was asked to speak on behalf of women’s rights in the nation’s capital. Her speech, quickly reprinted and published in newspapers throughout the United States, was about the “solitude of self.” An appraisal of the forty years that had just passed and a speculation on the future, Stanton’s address was a sober reminder that regardless of the success of the...
(The entire section is 320 words.)
In the 1980s, the political climate around the globe turned toward fiscal restraint and social conservatism. In general, this shift was a response to the permissiveness and unchecked social spending that occurred in the 1970s, which were in turn the extended results of the freedoms won by the worldwide social revolutions of the 1960s.
This conservative trend appeared in different forms in different countries. In Margaret Atwood's home country of Canada, Pierre Trudeau, the Liberal Party leader who had been Prime Minister since 1968 (with an eight-month gap in 1979-80), resigned in 1984, and the voters replaced him with Progressive Conservative Brian Mulroney. Margaret Thatcher, who was elected Prime Minister of England in 1979, reversed decades of socialism by selling government-run industries to private owners. In the United States, the 1980 election of Ronald Reagan created such a turbulent reversal of previous social policy that the changes sweeping through the government during the first half of the decade came to be referred to as "the Reagan Revolution."
The Reagan administration's popularity was based on the slogan of "getting government off of people's backs," implying government regulations had become too cumbersome and expensive for the American economy to sustain. Reagan's personal popularity allowed his administration to shift the priorities of government. Military spending was increased year...
(The entire section is 836 words.)
Chapters 1-6: Questions and Answers
1. Why does Offred want to recall the games and dances that
were held in the former gymnasium that is now the Rachel and Leah Re-education (Red) Center?
2. Why are the Handmaid-trainees housed in the gym rather than the classrooms, and why are the cots in the Center set up with space between them?
3. Offred explores the room she has been assigned and discovers that the chandelier has been removed, the window glass is shatterproof, and the window only opens halfway.
Why have these measures been taken?
4. What clothing is worn by the Handmaids and by the Marthas, and why are these outfits so important to the regime?
5. What does Offred remember of the Commander's Wife from the past, and why does Atwood choose to make this Wife a person who was famous in the time before the revolution?
6. Why does Serena Joy spend all of her time gardening and knitting scarves for the soldiers, and why is Offred envious of these pastimes?
7. Why does Offred fear that Nick is a spy? What would he be spying on?
8. Since Gilead is a fundamentalist Christian regime, why would the Baptists rebel against it?
9. Why are all the words banished from store signs? Why are Handmaids forbidden to read and write?
10. Why might Gilead have shipped most of its older women to the Colonies?
1. Offred recalls the games and...
(The entire section is 1119 words.)
Chapters 7-12: Questions and Answers
1. Why was Offred’s daughter taken from her?
2. Why does Offred wish her story were untrue?
3. Why do Econowives hate Handmaids?
4. What might be the consequences of Gilead’s persecution of Catholic priests?
5. Why is Offred upset at seeing the Commander outside her door?
6. Why does Offred feel the need to invent a face and a personality for her predecessor?
7. What is the significance of Offred remembering the song “Amazing Grace”?
8. When she watches the Commander from her bedroom window, why does Offred remember dropping water bombs at college?
9. Why does the doctor offer to get Offred pregnant?
10. Why are Handmaids tattooed on the ankle?
1. Most women in Gilead are childless, including Wives, so children are prized. Therefore, a Wife’s acquisition of a child is a boon for her and a sign of prestige. Besides, since Wives are not allowed to work, having a child gives them something to fill their days with. Since Handmaids are stripped of their names and all their individuality, and must be abject servants of the state, losing their children is an absolutely necessary part of this process.
2. Toying with the idea of the truth or untruth of her story, Offred is desperate for any kind of escape. She knows that her future in Gilead is bleak at best, and at worst she may soon...
(The entire section is 916 words.)
Chapters 13-18: Questions and Answers
1. Why doesn’t Gilead give Handmaids “pig balls” to pass the time?
2. Why does Offred increasingly dream of Luke and her child?
3. What does Moira mean to Offred?
4. The TV news is meant to show Gilead’s successes. Why does Offred manage to take comfort from it?
5. Why is Gilead transporting African Americans to “homelands” in remote areas?
6. Why are parts of the house the Commander’s and other parts Serena Joy’s?
7. Why is the Ceremony likely to be unsuccessful?
8. What does the hidden pat of butter mean to Offred?
9. Why does Nick kiss Offred?
10. Why does Offred begin thinking of Luke and wondering about his whereabouts after the events of this evening?
1. Gilead probably denies Handmaids the equivalent of “pig balls” to remind them of their place. But all creatures need stimulation, as the pigs and rats show, to maintain their well- being. Depressed and unfit women are less likely to conceive and go on to bear healthy children than physically fit, happy ones. Mind and body interact, so Gilead’s divorce of the two is not likely to help increase the birth rate.
2. Offred’s dreams of Luke and their child are haunting ones
of them dying or disappearing. They suggest that Offred is sinking into despair and her chances of survival are waning.
(The entire section is 662 words.)
Chapters 19-24: Questions and Answers
1. The chances that Ofwarren will deliver a healthy baby are only one in four. What does this indicate about the state of the environment?
2. Since they play no real role in the birth process, why do the Wives and Handmaids all attend the birth of Ofwarren’s/Janine’s child?
3. Since the birth is a special women’s event, why are the Handmaids given inferior food to that of the Wives?
4. Offred notes that all machines that could tell the viability of a fetus have been outlawed in Gilead. What does this reveal about the society?
5. Why are the Handmaid trainees at the Center shown films of pro-choice feminist rallies after having viewed violent
6. How could Offred have vindicated her mother?
7. If birthing babies is Gilead’s chief goal, why are the babies spoken of so callously?
8. Of all the games he could choose, why does the Commander want to play Scrabble?
9. Why does the Commander ask Offred to kiss him?
10. Why is it significant that Offred recalls a documentary featuring the mistress of a commander from the Nazi concentration camps after her “date” with the Commander of her household?
1. The low birth rate and the high infant mortality rate suggest that the environment has become increasingly toxic. Concern about pollution seems to have been another factor that lead...
(The entire section is 890 words.)
Chapters 25-30: Questions and Answers
1. Why does Cora panic when she sees Offred asleep on the floor?
2. What is important about the models in the copy of Vogue?
3. How does the Commander justify having copies of fashion magazines such as Vogue if they were supposed to have been burned during the revolution?
4. How does Offred feel power over Serena Joy?
5. Why is Offred so hesitant to reply to Ofglen’s question about the Soul Scrolls?
6. What do the Soul Scrolls reveal about the spirituality of Gilead?
7. How was Gilead able to kill the President and Congress?
8. During the revolution, why did the government freeze women’s bank accounts at the same time that it dismissed women from their jobs?
9. What does Offred realize when the Commander shows her that Nolite te bastardes carborundorum came from the margins of his textbook?
10. What is the significance of the Handmaids’ prayer at the Red Center?
1. Offred has wondered about her predecessor a great deal, even imagining her manner and looks. This woman hanged herself, apparently in this same room. Cora may have been the first one to find the body. So, finding Offred, still dressed in her gown and lying halfway in the closet, she must have thought this was another suicide.
2. Handmaids are conditioned to modesty, walking with bowed heads, avoiding other people’s...
(The entire section is 746 words.)
Chapters 31-40: Questions and Answers
1. What bothers Offred about Moira’s recollection that women once were banned from Memorial Hall?
2. Is there any truth to the Commander’s idea that men were turned off by sex in pre-Gilead America because of women’s availability?
3. What does the Commander’s statement “You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs” mean?
4. What is Ofwarren’s/Janine’s role in the novel?
5. Is Offred a wimp, as Moira suggests?
6. How does Offred know that the Commander has taken such an adventure before?
7. What is the significance of the fact that a number of the prostitutes at Jezebel’s were professional women in the days before the revolution?
8. Moira worried that the Quaker family would not open the door to her because she was dressed in an Aunt’s outfit. Why is it significant that this did not happen?
9. Why does Moira lose her will to resist?
10. Why does Luke resist Offred’s suggestion to call the police after her mother’s disappearance?
1. Moira’s raking up past affronts to women bothers Offred because she does not share Moira’s grievance against men and because it only helps preserve those old divisions. There comes a time, she suggests, when you have to leave the past behind and live in the present. The implications of this disagreement are vast. For example, should African...
(The entire section is 836 words.)
Chapters 41-46 and Historical Notes: Questions and Answers
1. Why does Offred offer two different versions of her encounter with Nick?
2. Why does Offred say that she did not behave well when speaking of her relationship with Nick?
3. Why are the Salvagings and Particicutions public ceremonies?
4. Why do the Handmaids act so murderously?
5. Why doesn’t Offred take part in the Particicution?
6. What are possible reasons for Ofglen’s near-arrest?
7. How does Serena Joy find out that Offred and her husband have been meeting secretly at night?
8. Who has summoned the Eyes to arrest Offred?
9. One of the events Crescent Moon announces is a nature walk. Given that the symposium takes place close to the Arctic Circle, what does this suggest?
10. What is the significance of Pieixoto’s article on Iran and Gilead?
1. In one version, she and Nick immediately make passionate love; in the other, there is awkwardness and tension between them before they begin. The reader is not certain which version is accurate. Offred herself says, “All I can hope for is a reconstruction.” It is possible that Offred’s guilt over her betrayal of Luke keeps her from squarely facing the truth of that encounter.
2. Offred seems to be ashamed that she became so engrossed in her relationship with Nick that she became careless and complacent. She divulged secrets to Nick...
(The entire section is 968 words.)
In The Handmaid's Tale Atwood again uses her trademark Gothicism to convey the grotesque dislocations produced by Gilead's social agenda. The hallucinatory imagery filling Offred's narration, usually Atwood's way of revealing the intense psychic alienation of her protagonists, here derives from horrific governmental policies made all the more haunting by Offred's matter-of-fact delivery. Harvard Yard has been turned into a public torture and execution area, with the bodies of "gender traitors" such as homosexuals, rapists, adulterers, and abortionists regularly displayed as evidence of the fate awaiting the unorthodox. Women participate in violent group assaults called "particicutions," in which supposed criminals are literally ripped to shreds by frenzied female mobs. Gilead's extensive behavioral rules eerily contribute to the ominous climate surrounding women. The red robes and white blinders the handmaids wear, as well as the demure and silent pairings in which they travel in public, offer only two examples of how Atwood builds the disorienting atmosphere of the novel. Offred's first-person interior monologue intensifies the reader's experience of the claustrophobic entrapment women suffer in Gilead. A familiar narrative device in Atwood's fiction, here it receives two compelling twists, both revealed at the novel's conclusion. One is the sudden opening out of the text from its Gileadean milieu to a futuristic frame of reference set in 2195, some two...
(The entire section is 544 words.)
Ideas for Group Discussions
No other Atwood fiction has aroused the public debate that has accompanied The Handmaid's Tale, and thus it should provoke lively discussion in any group undertaking to read it. The most obvious focus for attention should be its provocative thesis that religious conservativism around the world threatens to reverse the gains of the contemporary Women's Movement and create a nightmarish subordination of women to a reinvigorated patriarchy. Similarly, readers should examine Atwood's underlying assumption that the oppression of women has some of its most tenacious roots in theology; while her most obvious target is the West's Judeo-Christian tradition, she also incorporates elements from Islam and Hinduism, among other religions. Readers might consider Atwood's claim that there is no political circumstance in the text that she cannot document as having occurred at some point in the historical past or present — it is worth contemplating the impact of so many such practices brought together in one social system. For those familiar with other famous dystopias, a brief comparison with Huxley's Brave New World or Orwell's 1984 might help to clarify the assumptions informing Atwood's imaginary realm and determine where she agrees with her predecessors' premises and where she sets forth premises unique to her own vision of ideologically driven totalitarianism.
Another equally controversial facet of Atwood's analysis involves her criticism of the...
(The entire section is 1092 words.)
The Handmaid's Tale gives heightened, prophetic urgency to a number of Atwood's long-standing social preoccupations. The novel is set in a futuristic society called the Republic of Gilead, a new nation resulting from a fundamentalist coup in what was once the northern United States. The action occurs in Boston and explicitly recalls Puritan New England, earlier site of a community insistently pursuing a single-minded messianic agenda. (The Canadian Atwood herself has New England ancestors, one of whom was tried as a witch and survived hanging; the novel is dedicated to her, as well as to Harvard scholar Perry Miller, with whom she once studied). Like its historical antecedent, Gilead is a theocracy whose legal, political, and ethical strictures rest upon conservative interpretations of the Bible cannily used to legitimize a patriarchy of elite white males who repress the majority of the population through overtly racist and sexist policies.
The inequities of this society are shown to be intimately related to a number of other catastrophes that have ravaged Gilead. In earlier works Atwood had identified the United States as the locus of a dehumanizing capitalistic and technocratic ethos which wages war on nature. Gilead dramatizes the inevitable ecological disasters attendant upon such practices. Nuclear accidents, toxic pollution, virulent new diseases, and the chemical mistreatment of their own bodies have so reduced the fertility rate among...
(The entire section is 492 words.)
Topics for Further Study
Research the techniques used by the government of Nazi Germany to oppress people, such as blacks, Jews, homosexuals and Gypsies in the 1930s and 40s, and compare them to the methods the Gileadean government uses to oppress women.
What sort of images would this totalitarian government use to reinforce its control? Design several posters that might be hung in Gilead to remind women of what sort of behavior is expected of them; or write a song that handmaids and Marthas might be required to sing every morning.
The abortion issue has been a continuing controversy in the United States, but it was a particularly important political issue in the mid-1980s, when this novel was published. Read about a prominent figure from that time who was either strongly pro-choice or strongly pro-life. Report on that person's background, what they are doing today, and what you think they would say about the Republic of Gilead.
Find an academic history—similar to the "Historical Notes" at the end of his novel—of the Underground Railroad that was used to free American slaves in the early and mid-1800s. Write a fictional first-person account, based on details from that work, that explains what the experience might have been like for a slave trying to escape.
(The entire section is 212 words.)
Much has been made of Atwood's obvious indebtedness to the tradition of dystopian fiction preceding. The Handmaid's Tale, most notably George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-four (1949) and Aldous Huxley's Brave New World (1932). Atwood's work is anti-utopian in its concern with the power constructions whereby ideologically driven regimes establish and maintain their dominance over select populations. She uses differentiations based on gender, race and class to imagine a rigidly hierarchical society whose absolutist cultural values, permitting no compromise, foster brutal persecution of "deviance." Dystopian fictions are cautionary tales that warn against what their authors view as society's most dangerous existing tendencies. The nightmarish ambiance born of the genre's characteristic extremism saturates The Handmaid's Tale, whose alien philosophical and political foundation rests paradoxically upon enough familiar detail to make it jarringly immediate.
Atwood claims that every abuse and horror of Gilead social policy has either been practiced at one time in history or has a direct parallel in the contemporary world. She has been faulted by some critics for not having imagined as self-enclosed and original a new society as exists in Nineteen Eighty-four but Atwood argues that Gilead is intended as a relatively recent historical development without the temporal leap into the future that characterizes other such fictions. She...
(The entire section is 306 words.)
Earlier in the decade that produced The Handmaid's Tale, Atwood published Bodily Harm (1981), a novel whose protagonist, a Toronto journalist named Rennie Wilford, decides to flee the site of a recent mastectomy and her resultant sense of deformation for the sunnier climes of the Caribbean, which she plans to make the subject of a glib travel piece. Instead, she is exposed to raw political tyranny as she finds herself unwittingly caught up in the stuff of an international thriller even though her point of view on the action remains decidedly marginal and uninformed. Bodily Harm, then, offers a political primer on the fusion of gender and nationalism within the structures of patriarchy that Atwood expands so dramatically in The Handmaid's Tale. In Rennie she creates a woman who, like Offred, has been lulled by her relative privilege to believe herself immune from the abuses visited on the powerless, only to find "She is not exempt. Nobody is exempt from anything." She too is imprisoned and must move beyond her conditioned feminine acceptance of the victim's role to discover avenues of active resistance and moral empowerment. And as a writer, she recognizes that her most subversive talent lies in telling honestly what has happened. Whether she actually escapes to achieve her goal remains as mysterious as Offred's ultimate fate.
(The entire section is 218 words.)
The immense popularity of The Handmaid's Tale and its provocative themes led to its translation to the screen in 1990. Considerable international filmmaking talent was involved in completion of the project: German filmmaker Volker Schlondorff directed (best known in the U.S. for The Tin Drum, 1980, and the 1985 TV version of Death of a Saleman); playwright Harold Pinter wrote the screenplay; high profile Hollywood stars Robert Duvall (as the Commander) and Faye Dunaway (Serena Joy) joined Victoria Tennant (Aunt Lydia), Aidan Quinn (Nick), Elizabeth McGovern (Moira), and Natasha Richardson (Kate/Offred) in the cast; Daniel Wilson produced the $13 million project for Cinecom. The film was marketed and reviewed extensively, and premiered at the Berlin Film Festival in the city where Atwood says she began writing the novel in 1984, but it received mixed critical response. The structural complexity of the novel was sacrificed to create a chronological staging of events leading to a far more conventionally heroic and less ambiguous ending; Offred was given the pre-Gilead name Kate and was made more active in her own behalf; the love story was showcased at the expense of the novel's ideological critique (no doubt a result of the difficulty Wilson had in raising money for the project given its themes, particularly its feminism). The screenplay, albeit satisfactory to Atwood herself, necessarily abandoned the interiority of the novel, created by Offred's...
(The entire section is 370 words.)
The Handmaid's Tale was adapted as a film by Volker Schlondorff, starring Natasha Richardson, Faye Dunaway, Aidan Quinn and Robert Duvall, screenplay by Harold Pinter, Cinecom Entertainment group, 1990.
The author is interviewed on "Margaret Atwood," which is a videotape from the Roland Collection of Films on Art/ICA Video of Northbrook, Illinois. 1989.
Another video about the author is "Margaret Atwood Once In August," distributed by Brighton Video, New York, NY, 1989.
"Margaret Atwood" is the name of a short, 1978 video recording from the Poetry Archive of San Francisco State University.
Atwood is featured in the educational film "Poem as Image: Progressive Insanities of a Pioneer," from the "A Sense of Poetry" series produced by Cinematics Canada and Learning Corporation of America.
This book is available on audio cassette as "Margaret Atwood Reads from The Handmaid's Tale," by American Audio Prose Library of Columbia, Missouri, 1988. It is #17 in the "A Moveable Feast" series.
Actress Julie Christie reads The Handmaid's Tale on a two-cassette audio tape recording available from Durkin Hayes Publishers in 1987. Order #DHP7214.
Another audio tape recording of The Handmaid's Tale is the eight-cassette collection produced by Recorded Books of Charlotte Hall, Maryland, in 1988. Order #88060.
"Margaret Atwood: An Interview with Jean Castro" is an...
(The entire section is 216 words.)
What Do I Read Next?
Margaret Atwood followed this book with Cat's Eye in 1988. Some of the same concerns show up in the later book; a controversial painter returns to the city that she grew up in and runs into old friends and the memories of old friends.
Marge Piercy has always been associated with Atwood, mostly because both write poetry and fiction from a feminist perspective. Piercy's book most like this one is Woman on the Edge of Time, her 1976 novel with some science fiction elements to it. The main character, confined to the psychiatric ward at Bellevue Hospital, must learn to behave the way that her oppressors expect of her, but she also travels in time to the future, to the year 2137, with a fellow inmate.
Critics examining The Handmaid's Tale's sinister view of the future often compare it to George Orwell's 1984, which is considered the standard bearer for dystopian novels. Published in 1949, it tells the tale of a society where government surveillance techniques have been perfected, so that every move that citizens make can be monitored and regulated, and of the struggle of one man, Winston Smith, to be free. The other dystopian that is usually mentioned at the same time as 1984 is Brave New World by Aldous Huxley. Published in 1932, the futuristic society imagined by Huxley has many similarities to our own: citizens use pills to control their moods, babies are born in laboratories, the masses are distracted...
(The entire section is 381 words.)
Bibliography and Further Reading
Atwood, Margaret. The Handmaid’s Tale. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1986.
Barbara Ehrenreich, "Feminism's Phantoms," in The New Republic, Vol. 194, No. 11, March 17, 1986, pp. 33-5.
Joyce Johnson, "Margaret Atwood's Brave New World," in Book World.
Robert Linkous, "Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale." in San Francisco Review of Books, Fall, 1986, p. 6
Amin Malak, "Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale and the Dystopian Tradition," in Canadian Literature, Vol. 112, Spring, 1987, pp. 9-16.
Joyce Maynard, "Briefing for a Descent Into Hell," in Mademoiselle, March, 1986, p. 114.
Mary McCarthy, "Breeders, Wives and Unwomen," in The New York Times Book Review, February 9, 1986, p. 1.
Peter Prescott, "No Balm in Gilead," in Newsweek, Vol. CVH, No. 7, February 17, 1986, p. 70.
For Further Studv
Arnold E Davidson, "Future Tense: Making History in The Handmaid's Tale," in Margaret Atwood: Visions and Forms, edited by Kathryn van Spanckeren and Jan Garden Castro, Southern Illinois University Press, 1988, pp 113-21.
Examines how the imaginary country of Gilead is more of a reflection of a state of mind than a political reality. Also included in this book is an autobiographical forward by Margaret Atwood.
Barbara Ehrenreich, "Feminism's Phantoms" in...
(The entire section is 545 words.)
Bibliography (Masterplots II: British and Commonwealth Fiction Series)
Grace, Sherrill E., and Lorraine Weir, eds. Margaret Atwood: Language, Text, and System. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1983. Includes nine essays examining Atwood’s literary “system” and her development of style and subject matter up to the publication of The Handmaid’s Tale.
Greene, Gayle. Changing the Story: Feminist Fiction and the Tradition. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991. The author discusses Atwood and other contemporary women writers who employ narrative strategies that incorporate women’s perspectives and challenge traditional modes of storytelling. She sees The Handmaid’s Tale as less feminist in vision than Atwood’s previous novels.
Hammar, Stephanie Barbe. “The World As It Will Be? Female Satire and the Technology of Power in The Handmaid’s Tale.” Modern Language Studies 22, no. 2 (Spring, 1990): 39-49. The article discusses The Handmaid’s Tale as a work with satiric intent. Atwood warns of the abuses of technology, the domination of women by men, and the propensity to allow oneself to be trapped in a rigid role.
Kostash, Myrna, et al. Her Own Woman: Profiles of Ten Canadian Women. Toronto: Macmillan of Canada, 1975. Contains a biographical essay by Valerie Miner, “Atwood in Metamorphosis: An...
(The entire section is 389 words.)