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The Handmaid's Tale

by Margaret Atwood

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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 Authentic Canadian Fairy Tale,” that examines the evolution and maturation of Atwood’s writing.

McCombs, Judith, ed. Critical Essays on Margaret Atwood. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1988. This valuable volume contains thirty-two reviews, articles, and essays on Atwood’s prose and poetry. The essays are arranged in chronological order. The volume contains a primary bibliography to 1986.

Mendez-Engle, Beatrice, ed. Margaret Atwood: Reflections and Reality. Edinburg, Tex.: Pan American University Press, 1987. This selection of critical essays on Atwood’s work includes an interview with Atwood. The essays trace Atwood’s development as a writer and include a discussion of her use of fables.

Rigney, Barbara Hill. Margaret Atwood. Totowa, N.J.: Barnes & Noble Books, 1987. An analysis of Atwood as poet, novelist, and political commentator, all from a feminist perspective. Includes a useful bibliography.

Rosenberg, Jerome H. Margaret Atwood. Boston: Twayne, 1984. A concise literary biography of the Canadian novelist and poet that provides a useful introduction to her works.

Van Spanckeren, Kathryn, and Jan Garden Castro, eds. Margaret Atwood: Vision and Forms. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1988. This useful collection contains essays on Atwood’s works that are of uniformly high quality. Several essays deal with The Handmaid’s Tale.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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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 New Republic, Vol 194, No 11, March 17, 1986, pp. 33-5.

Interprets the novel as a warning about feminism's repressive tendencies.

Mark Evans, "Versions of History: The Handmaid's Tale and Its Dedicatees," in Margaret Atwood. Writing and Subjectivity, edited by Colin Nicholson, St. Martin's, 1994, pp 177-88.

Gayle Greene, "Choice of Evils," in The Women's Review of Books, Vol. 3, No 10, July, 1986, p 14.

Green compares the novel with other writers of feminism by Marge Piercy and Dons Lessing. She concludes that the novel presents a critique of radical feminism.

Amin Malak, "Margaret Atwood's "The Handmaid's Tale' and the Dystopian Tradition," in Canadian Literature, Vol. 112, Spring, 1987, pp. 9-16.

Examines how Atwood's feminist focus distinguishes her novel from dystopian classics like Huxley's Brave New World and Orwell's 1984.

Margaret Atwood: Language, Text and System, edited by Sherrill E. Grace and Lorainne Weir, The University of British Columbia Press, 1983.

Published before The Handmaid's Tale, this book analyzes Atwood's use of language. Some of the essays here are written for a professional level, but most are informative and meticulously detailed.

Madonne Miner, '"Trust Me': Reading the Romance Plot in Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale," in Twentieth Century Literature, Vol 37, No 2, Summer 1991, pp. 148-68.

Explores the theme of love in the novel and its link to survival.

Barbara Hill Rigney, Madness and Sexual Politics in the Feminist, The University of Wisconsin Press, 1978.

Views four feminist authors—Bronte, Woolf, Lessing, and Atwood—in terms of their treatment of madness in their work.

Jerome H. Rosenberg, Margaret Atwood, Twayne Publishers, 1984.

Traces Atwood's career up to The Handmaid's Tale.

Roberta Rubenstein, "Nature and Nurture in Dystopia: The Handmaid's Tale," in Margaret Atwood: Vision and Forms, edited by Kathryn Van Spanckeren, Jan Garden Castro, and Sandra M. Gilbert, So. Illinois Press, 1988, pp 101-12.

Discusses the issue of nature and nurture in the novel.

Hilde Staels, "Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale: Resistance through Narrating," in English Studies, Vol. 78, No. 5, September, 1995, pp. 455-67.

Focuses on the narrative structure of the novel and shows how the task of narrative becomes a crucial part of the main character's resistance to oppression.

Charlotte Templin, in a review in The Explicator, Vol 49, No. 4, Summer, 1991, pp. 255-56.

Examines the relationship of setting and theme in the novel.


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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 ongoing monologue, and instead opened out the action to give visual immediacy to the peculiar mores of daily Gilead society. Schlondorff, at first reluctant to undertake the project, finally accepted when he began envisioning the work "from a Kafka angle rather than as a political prophecy."

The acting is strong and the cold precise beauty of the screen imagery successfully conveys the paradoxical familiarity and strangeness that account for the terror aroused by this brave new world. Richardson is too young and nubile to convey Offred's precarious circumstance as a handmaid near the end of her fertility, but she does capture Offred's tentativeness. Duvall effectively blends the banal and the sinister in portraying the Commander; Dunaway aptly depicts the brittle surfaces and barely suppressed rage of Serena Joy. But while the film is unsettling, it lacks the emotional or intellectual impact of the novel.

Media Adaptations

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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 audio cassette produced by American Audio Prose Library of Columbia, Missouri, in 1983. Order #3012.

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Historical and Social Context