The Handmaid’s Tale is a novel of such power that the reader will be unable to forget its images and its forecast. Set in the near future, it describes life in what was once the United States and is now called the Republic of Gilead, a monotheocracy that has reacted to social unrest and a sharply declining birthrate by reverting to, and going beyond, the repressive intolerance of the original Puritans. The regime takes the Book of Genesis absolutely at its word, with bizarre consequences for the women and men in its population.
The story is told through the eyes of Offred, one of the unfortunate Handmaids under the new social order. In condensed but eloquent prose, by turns cool-eyed, tender, despairing, passionate, and wry, she reveals to us the dark corners behind the establishment’s calm facade, as certain tendencies now in existence are carried to their logical conclusions. The Handmaid’s Tale is funny, unexpected, horrifying, and altogether convincing. It is at once scathing satire, dire warning, and a tour de force. It is Margaret Atwood at her best.
About the Author
Date of Birth:November 18, 1939
Place of Birth:Ottawa, Ontario
Education:B.A., University of Toronto, 1961; M.A. Radcliffe, 1962; Ph.D., Harvard University, 1967
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Copyright © 2017 Margaret Atwood.
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What People are Saying About This
“A taut thriller, a psychological study, a play on words.…A rich and complex book.”
–New York Times
“Atwood has peered behind the curtain into some of the darkest, most secret, yet oddly erotic corners of the mind, and the result is a fascinating, wonderfully written, and disturbing cautionary tale.”
“A novel that will both chill and caution readers and which may challenge everyday assumptions.…It is an imaginative accomplishment of a high order. . . . ”
–London Free Press
“Moving, vivid and terrifying. I only hope it is not prophetic.”
–Conor Cruise O’Brien
“A novel that brilliantly illuminates some of the darker interconnections of politics and sex.…Satisfying, disturbing and compelling.”
“The most poetically satisfying and intense of all Atwood’s novels.”
“It deserves an honored place on the small shelf of cautionary tales that have entered modern folklore – a place next to, and by no means inferior to, Brave New World and 1984.”
“Deserves the highest praise.”
–San Francisco Chronicle
“In The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood has written the most chilling cautionary novel of the century.”
“Imaginative, even audacious, and conveys a chilling sense of fear and menace.”
–Globe and Mail
“Margaret Atwood’s novels tickle our deepest sexual and psychological fears. The Handmaid’s Tale is a sly and beautifully crafted story about the fate of an ordinary woman caught off guard by extraordinary events. . . . A compelling fable of our time.”
“This visionary novel, in which God and Government are joined, and America is run as a Puritanical Theocracy, can be read as a companion volume to Orwell’s 1984 –its verso, in fact. It gives you the same degree of chill, even as it suggests the varieties of tyrannical experience; it evokes the same kind of horror even as its mordant wit makes you smile.”
–E. L. Doctorow
Reading Group Guide
1. Atwood says that her novel’s title was meant to evoke both Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and folktales or fairy tales. Why might she have wanted readers to make those connections?
2. The novel’s first epigraph, from Genesis, reveals the Biblical precedent that Gilead’s founders use to justify exploiting Handmaids. Given their apparent allegiance to the Bible, why do Gilead’s rulers keep it under lock and key?
3. The novel’s second epigraph is from Jonathan Swift’s famously satirical “Modest Proposal,” in which he suggests solving the Irish famine by having the starving peasants sell their children as food for the rich. Beyond signaling her satiric intent, do you think Atwood meant to suggest any deeper connections between Swift’s vision and hers? Does humor have any role in her satire?
4. The third epigraph is a Sufi proverb: “In the desert there is no sign that says, Thou shalt not eat stones.” What do you think this means in the context of this story?
5. Offred’s name vividly represents the erasure of her former identity and of her independent selfhood. Readers have found other evocative echoes in it: “offered,” “afraid,” “off-read.” Do these associations deepen your sense of her character?
6. Why do you think the Aunts participate so enthusiastically in the oppression of their fellow women? Are their motives different from those of the Commanders’ Wives?
7. Serena Joy was instrumental in bringing about the new social order, which now severely limits her role. Does she seem to feel that the trade-offs she has made were worth it?
8. In her introduction, Atwood argues that her novel is not “anti-religion,” but only “against the use of religion as a front for tyranny.” Is her argument persuasive to you? Is it as relevant now as when she wrote the novel?
9. Atwood was concerned that readers might find Gilead’s horrors implausible, so she only included events that had actually occurred at some point in history. She lists examples in her introduction; can you think of more? Does knowing this make it seem more likely that something like Gilead could happen here?
10. Do you think the growing popularity of dystopian novels in recent years reflects increased pessimism about the future? Atwood has denied that The Handmaid’s Tale was meant as a prediction, explaining her intention as “anti-prediction,” meaning that “if this future can be described in detail, perhaps it won’t happen.” Do you think that might be (as she also suggests) wishful thinking?