The background to The Handmaid’s Tale

Of The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood’s dystopian, futuristic novel, New York Times editor Christopher Lehmann-Haupt warns, “It’s a bleak world . . . how bleak and even terrifying we will not fully realise until the story’s final pages.”

To research the novel Atwood clipped articles out of newspapers. She had a large clippings file of stories supporting the contentions in the book. In other words, there isn’t anything in the book not based on something that has already happened in history or in another country, or for which actual supporting documentation is not already available.

Atwood sees The Handmaid’s Tale is a slight twist on the society we have now. She was once a graduate student in Victorian literature and she believes as the Victorian novelists did, that a novel isn’t simply a vehicle for private expression, but that it also exists for social examination.

Atwood asked herself the following question: If you were going to take over the United States, how would you do it? Would you say, “I’m a socialist and we’re all going to be equal”? No, you would not, because it wouldn’t work. Would you say, “I’m a liberal and we are going to have a society of multiple toleration”? You probably wouldn’t say that if you wanted mass support. You would be much more likely to say, “I have the word from God and this is the way we should run things.” That probably would have more of a chance of working, and in fact there are a number of movements in the States saying just that, and getting lots of dollars and influence. The society in The Handmaid’s Tale is a throwback to the early Puritans whom she studied extensively at Harvard under Perry Miller, to whom the book is dedicated. The early Puritans came to America not for religious freedom, as we were taught in school, but to set up a society that would be a theocracy (like Iran) ruled by religious leaders, and monolithic, that is, a society that would not tolerate dissent within itself. They were being persecuted in England for being Puritans, but then they went to the United States and promptly began persecuting anyone who wasn’t a Puritan. Her book reflects the form and style of the early Puritan society and addresses the dynamics that bring about such a situation.

Atwood had an intense focus on fertility because in a society in which the birth-rate plummets below replacement, that body of people will be forced to determine whether or not it will simply slide gently into oblivion and vanish from the face of the earth. (One theory at the time of writing the novel was that will be no Germans by the year 2020 because their birth-rate is so low; Germany is going to be Turkish.) Scandinavian countries were also below replacement, as was Romania. Atwood asked ‘what does a society do at this point?’ Either it accepts the situation or it puts into existence conditions that will increase the number of births.

In Atwood’s eye Gilead would exist because it is a society in which you have a sort of “farming” of women. Parallel to that, she realised that male sterility was on the increase and so were spontaneous miscarriages and birth defects. Atwood blamed pollution. She felt that because we were pouring about 300,000 different chemicals into our water and drinking it we were causing these problems. Plus, of course, there’s a great deal of radiation. In the 1980s they found PCBs in polar bears and they were worried about the future of the polar bear species because PCBs build up in their systems and produce male sterility. So fertility in Gilead is at a premium. Fertile women, women who can reproduce, are prize objects for those in power. And Atwood said if it is the case in which prize objects are Cadillacs and you want to have as many Cadillacs as you possibly can, so too when the prize objects are fertile women, then you want to have as many fertile women as possible. Thus in Gilead there was a return to biblical polygamy.

Atwood wants us to learn from the book about what happens when certain casually held attitudes about women are taken to their logical conclusions. For example, she explores a number of conservative opinions still held by many-such as a woman’s place is in the home. And also certain feminist pronouncements-women prefer the company of other women, for example. Atwood takes these beliefs to their logical ends and sees what happens.

Set in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the novel presents a totalitarian theocracy that has forced a certain class of fertile women to produce babies for elite barren couples. These “handmaids,” who are denied all rights and are severely beaten if they are uncooperative, are reduced to state property. Through the voice of Offred, a handmaid who mingles memories of her life before the revolution with her rebellious activities under the new regime, Atwood has created a terrifying future based on actual events.

The significance of The Handmaid’s Tale caused Publishers Weekly to write that it “deserves an honoured 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.

Atwood had long been interested in the histories of totalitarian regimes and the different forms they have taken in various societies; and the initial idea for The Handmaid’s Tale came to her in 1981, but she avoided writing it for several years because she was apprehensive about the results. Atwood did not know whether she would be able to carry it off as a literary form.

In form, the book is a dystopia (negative utopia). A cognate of A Clockwork Orange, Brave New World, and Nineteen Eighty-Four, it is the story of one woman’s altered circumstances, presented as a first-person narrative novel.

The roots of the book go back to Atwood’s study of the American Puritans. The society they founded in America was not a democracy as we know it, but a theocracy. In addition, she found herself increasingly alarmed by statements made frequently by religious leaders such as Jerry Falwell in the United States. He published Listen America! in 1981 which influenced a lot of Americans. Then a variety of events from around the world could not be ignored, particularly the rising fanaticism of the Iranian monotheocracy. In 1979 women protest against Islamic fundamentalist strictures:’Freedom not the chador’. The thing Atwood wants us to remember is that there is nothing new about the society depicted in The Handmaid’s Tale except the time and place. All of the things she has written about have-as noted in the “Historical Notes” at the end-been done before, more than once.

It is an imagined account of what happens when not uncommon pronouncements about women are taken to their logical conclusions. In 1980 the Republicans withdrew their support for the Equal Rights Act preventing its ratification. Death of a Princess was also published in 1980 revealing that women were executed in Saudi Arabia for adultery. History proves that what we have been in the past we could be again.

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5 thoughts on “The background to The Handmaid’s Tale

  1. hi! I was wondering you could help me with this question – on what i could write please!!

    How do the novelists use the dystopian form to reflect the respective concerns of their societies?

    thank you for any help you may be able to give me

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