lllustration of six women wearing long, loose red dresses

The Handmaid's Tale

by Margaret Atwood

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History of the Text

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The Handmaid’s Tale’s Reception History: The Handmaid’s Tale is Margaret Atwood’s most popular work. The novel received immediate acclaim when it was initially published in 1985, winning the Governor General’s Award that same year. Atwood was also awarded the first Arthur C. Clarke Award in 1987 and was nominated for the Nebula Award in 1986, the Booker Prize in 1986, and the Prometheus Award in 1987. 

  • Pedagogy: Despite the adult themes pervasive throughout The Handmaid’s Tale, the novel is often assigned in English high school classrooms for Advanced Placement preparation. Atwood herself was surprised about her work being included in high school curricula. Its inclusion has been challenged for decades on account of its depictions of graphic sex, violence, racism, sexism, and amorality. 
  • Film and Television Adaptations: The Handmaid’s Tale was first adapted into a film in 1990, an opera in 2000, and a popular television series on Hulu beginning in 2017. Fans of the novel find its premise equally compelling and terrifying because of its timeless message that one’s rights and freedoms can be stripped away at any time. 
  • Controversial Content: One of the primary criticisms leveled against Atwood is her erasure of minorities, especially black Americans. The Handmaid’s Tale is often associated with white feminism, which excludes the experiences of black women. Furthermore, Atwood has been accused of borrowing from the black American experience and bestowing it upon white women. Writer Mikki Kendall finds it implausible that black people are not only “gone, but . . . that they vanished quietly without any real resistance,” pointing out that “[b]lack people did not survive slavery, Jim Crow & the War on Drugs to be taken out by a handful of white boys with guns.” 

Feminism in the 1980s: When Margaret Atwood was writing The Handmaid’s Tale, women’s rights had been a hot-button issue for decades. Second-wave feminism was creating controversy throughout the Western world as women challenged oppressive gender roles and restricted rights. 

  • Women’s Liberation Movement: The Women’s Liberation Movement, which arose in the late 1960s following the Civil Rights Movement, fought for the political and social liberation of women in the Western world. Feminists fostered worldwide awareness of the patriarchy and systemic sexism that reduced women to second-class citizens. Though the Women’s Liberation Movement successfully transformed the way women are perceived today, critics—including new wave feminists, conservatives, and Christians—took issue with their sometimes radical and dogmatic views. 
  • Censorship and Radical Feminism: Certain branches of the Women’s Liberation Movement were so radical that they were criticized even by other feminists for causing more harm than good. For example, many feminists strongly objected to pornography because of its demeaning portrayal of women. Radical feminists called for censorship—which is precisely what conservative Fundamentalist Christians called for, explaining that they were just as interested in protecting women. Liberal critics argued that censorship of this kind likens the feminist cause with religious extremism and dogmatism. 

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Key Plot Points

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Significant Influences and References