The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) is a work of speculative fiction by Canadian author Margaret Atwood. Set in the near future, in a totalitarian Christian theocracy which has overthrown the United States government, The Handmaid’s Tale explores themes of women in subjugation and the various means by which they attempt to free themselves. The Handmaid’s Tale won the 1985 Governor General’s Award and the first Arthur C. Clarke Award in 1987. It was also nominated for the 1986 Nebula Award, the 1986 Booker Prize, and the 1987 Prometheus Award. It has been adapted for the cinema, radio, opera, and stage.
Gail Bowen introduces The Handmaid’s Tale
Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale is a dystopia set in the near future in the Republic of Gilead, a theocratic military dictatorship formed within the borders of what was once the United States. The situation is bleak. Sterility from pollution and sexually transmitted diseases has driven the birth rate to a dangerous low. To combat this threat, women who have previously proven to be fertile are rounded up and ‘re-educated’ to become handmaids.
The ‘re-education’ process is both simple and diabolical. Because all financial records are stored electronically and labeled by gender, a woman’s financial independence can be eradicated with a few keystrokes. Gilead’s dictatorship reasons that, without family or financial resources, a woman must accept the option she is offered.
For fertile women that means becoming a handmaiden, a ‘walking womb’ who wears a red nun-like habit to distinguish her status and whose sole duty is to have sex with her Commander during her fertile period and ultimately deliver a healthy child. A handmaiden is stripped of her birth and given names and is identified only by the name of her commander prefixed by the word ‘of’. The protagonist of Atwood’s novel is known as Offred because the given name of her commander, a member of Gilead’s powerful political elite, is Fred. In the eyes of the state, Offred is his possession.
The ease with which the rights of previously independent women are taken away, rendering the women powerless and without legal recourse is a timely reminder that, despite the 1995 Beijing Declaration promising to protect the rights of women and girls everywhere, women’s freedom is still threatened.
The Handmaid’s Tale is an unsparing indictment of a community that regards females as chattels, but it is also a powerful testament to the resilience of the human spirit. The novel opens in a gymnasium filled with women who have lost their connection to loved ones and whose skills and talents are devalued by the new society. The government’s aim in re-educating these previously independent women is to break their spirit so that they will meekly accept their changed status. Ideally, the women will forget that there ever was a world different from the Republic of Gilead.
But memories of the past refuse to be obliterated. In fact, the knowledge of what society once was gives the women the determination to fight back. The opening chapter ends with the newly interned women, lying side by side on their army cots in the gymnasium taking their first small steps towards rebellion:
We learned to whisper almost without sound. In the semi-darkness we could stretch out our arms, when the Aunts weren’t looking, and touch each other’s hands across space. We learned to lip-read, our heads flat on the beds, turned sideways, watching each other’s mouths. In this way we exchanged names, from bed to bed: Alma. Janine. Dolores. Moira. June. – p. 14.
Gail Bowen’s first Joanne Kilbourn mystery, Deadly Appearances (1990), was nominated for the W.H. Smith/Books in Canada Best First Novel Award. A Colder Kind of Death (1995) won the Arthur Ellis Award for best crime novel. All 13 books in the series have been enthusiastically reviewed. In 2008, Reader’s Digest named Bowen Canada’s Best Mystery Novelist; in 2009 she received the Derrick Murdoch Award from the Crime Writers of Canada. Bowen has also written plays that have been produced across Canada and on CBC Radio. Her latest Joanne Kilburn mystery novel is 12 Rose Street. Now retired from teaching at the First Nations University, Bowen lives in Regina. Visit her web site at www.gailbowen.com.
Margaret Atwood is the author of more than forty volumes of poetry, children’s literature, fiction and non-fiction. She is probably best known for her novels, which include The Edible Woman (1969), The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), The Robber Bride (1994), Alias Grace (1996), and The Blind Assassin, which won the prestigious Man- Booker Prize in 2000. Her latest work is a book of short stories called Stone Mattress: Nine Tales (2014). Her newest novel, MaddAddam (2013), is the final volume in a three-book series that began with the Man-Booker prize-nominated Oryx and Crake (2003) and continued with The Year of the Flood (2009).
Margaret Atwood has been recognized internationally for her work, having won the Governor General’s Award (for The Handmaid’s Tale, as well as for poetry), the Giller Prize, the Booker Prize, Italy’s Premio Mondello, the Arthur C. Clarke Award and the Commonwealth Writers Prize, to name just a few. She is a Companion of the Order of Canada and her work has been published in more than forty languages, including Farsi, Japanese, Turkish, Finnish, Korean, Icelandic and Estonian.