8 Fascinating Facts About Margaret Atwood’s ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’
1985 novel by Margaret Atwood The Handmaid’s Tale is set in an uncomfortably familiar future, where a newly installed theocracy has instituted a series of misogynistic laws and practices. Because so few women in the Republic of Gilead are fertile, “handmaidens” are enlisted to bear the children of the ruling class. The novel follows one such servant, Offred, as she struggles to acclimate to (and, perhaps, resist) her new reality. Even if you watched the Emmy-winning television adaptation of The Handmaid’s Talethere is still much to learn from and about the book.
Officially, The Handmaid’s Tale is set at some point in the not-too-distant future (from the time you read it). The book’s oppressive themes were partly inspired by the fact that Atwood began writing it while living in Germany in 1984, at the height of the Cold War. “I lived in West Berlin, which was still surrounded by the Berlin Wall”, Atwood written in The New York Times. It was during this time, and through his visits to several other Iron Curtain countries, that the Republic of Gilead began to take shape. “I felt the distrust, the feeling of being spied on, the silences, the changes of subject, the oblique ways in which people could convey information, and that had an influence on what I wrote,” recalls Atwood.
In 1984, the same year Atwood started writing The Handmaid’s Tale, Apple released its first Macintosh computer. But the author took an old-school approach to writing her novel: She wrote the entire book by hand on yellow notepads. It was not until she had finished the book that she transcribed it on a (rented) typewriter.
Atwood’s aunt once told him the story of Mary Webster, a resident of the Puritan town of Hadley, Massachusetts, and supposed ancestor of the author. In 1683 Webster was tried on suspicion of witchcraft but ultimately found not guilty. The following year, a prominent local named Philip Smith lay dying and said he believed himself “in the wrong hand”, and decided Webster was to blame.
“The townspeople didn’t like her, so they suspended her.” Atwood said. “But that was before the age of hanging, and she didn’t die. She stayed there all night, and in the morning, when they came to cut the body, she was still alive. (According to 18th-century politician and historian Thomas Hutchinson, things turned out a little differently: the mob shot Mary, who was on the verge of death, then buried her in snow, but she survived.) The incident earned Webster the nickname Half-Hanged Mary, and The Handmaid’s Tale is dedicated to his memory.
While many of Atwood’s books, including The Handmaid’s Talehave been called “science fiction”, the author rejects this genre label: she has repeated several times that The Handmaid’s Tale is not science fiction because it made sure that the elements already exist in one form or another. Atwood has always maintained that something like Gilead could happen under the right conditions. “I am not a prophet” she said The Guardian. But when it comes to this particular novel, she’s “sorry I was so right.”
While Hulu is The Handmaid’s Tale is the best-known adaptation of Atwood’s book, it’s not the only or even the first retelling. A stage version of the book debuted at Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts, in 1989, just a few years after the book’s publication. He returned to the stage in Boston in 2018. There was also an opera, a ballet, a radio play and a 1990 film starring Natasha Richardson and Faye Dunaway, with a screenplay by Harold Pinter.
In 2019, Atwood released The Willsa sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale which takes place about 15 years after the events of the original novel and helps to fill in the ambiguity of the end of The Handmaid’s Tale and what became Offred. The book also gave Atwood the chance to personally address the first book’s foreknowledge with his readers, writing, “Everything you’ve ever asked me about Gilead and its inner workings is the inspiration for this book. Well, almost everything! The other source of inspiration is the world in which we live.
In 2022, to protest the increased banning (and even burning) of books, Atwood teamed up with Penguin Random House to create a fireproof version of The Handmaid’s Tale (itself an oft-banned book). The one-of-a-kind tome, whose pages are made from Cinefoil, sold for $130,000. According to a press releasee, all proceeds went to PEN America “to support [its] work for freedom of expression.
Atwood brought a flamethrower to the book to demonstrate that it was not flammable. “I never thought I would try to burn one of my own books…and fail,” the author said. “The Handmaid’s Tale has been banned many times, sometimes by whole countries, like Portugal and Spain in the days of Salazar and the Francoists, sometimes by school boards, sometimes by libraries. Let’s hope we don’t get to the stage of book burning, as in Fahrenheit 451. But if we do, let’s hope some books turn out to be non-flammable – that they travel underground, like banned books did in the Soviet Union.
And while Atwood herself might be best known as the author of The Handmaid’s Tale, she wrote more than just dark satire. Since leaving Dual Persephonehis first book of poetry (and first published work) in 1961, Atwood published more than 50 works in a variety of genres: In addition to 17 novels (including Alias Grace), the two-time Booker Prize winner has been equally acclaimed for her books of poetry, non-fiction titles, short story collections, children’s books and graphic novels, and has won numerous awards in the process.