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The title The Handmaid's Tale sounds kind of... perky. Like it might be a saucy recounting of the life 'n' times of a French maid. Or a zany romp where various servants compare the goings-on of their employers. It brings to mind cute intrigue, friendly gossip, and flirtatious banter, right?
Hahaha—no. Dead wrong. Words like perky, saucy, and zany would never be used to describe the contents of Margaret Atwood's most famous work. Instead, this novel could be classified as terrifying, bleak, and cruel and unusual.
It could also be classified as science-fiction—and was.
The Handmaid's Tale, a best-selling book first published in 1985, was marketed as a sci-fi horror story. After all, it takes place in a scary vision of a dystopian future, kind of like Brave New World, 1984, or even The Hunger Games. In this future, nearly all the women have become infertile, so the few who can still have babies have been rounded up, brainwashed, and assigned to powerful men in a twisted attempt to restore the human race. The Handmaid's Tale won author Margaret Atwood some seriously major awards, including the 1986 Los Angeles Times Best Fiction Award, the 1987 Arthur C. Clarke Award for Best Science Fiction, and a nomination for the Booker Prize.
But while The Handmaid's Tale has gotten tons of praise as a work of science fiction, Atwood has claimed that this book is actually something else completely. She calls it "speculative" fiction instead, which has caused some problems with sci-fi fans. (For more on this, see "Genre.")
But whether you think the distinction is necessary or arbitrary, The Handmaid's Tale is now considered standard—even required—reading, appreciated both by the public and critics. It received glowing sound bites from most major newspapers and sat on the New York Times best-seller list for a good stretch.
It seems that whether you like science fiction or not, or whether you call this speculative fiction or not, The Handmaid's Tale has something to offer readers of all stripes.
Everyone seems to like getting scared from time to time. We go on roller coasters. We've taken Halloween to the next level with pee-your-pants level terrifying haunted houses. We like natural disasters, psychopaths, monsters, zombies, and vampires on the big and small screens.
But we like our scary stuff to be fictional and temporary. Two and a half hours with Immortan Joe at the multiplex? Awesome. Reading about a real murderous dictator on CNN? Not awesome... but just as scary.
The Handmaid's Tale is guaranteed to terrify you—both in a fun, entertaining way and in a viscerally upsetting, too-close-to-home way.
In The Handmaid's Tale, characters have no voice in their dystopian government and no control over their lives. In an interview with the New York Times, Margaret Atwood summed up her book like this: "[...] it's a study of power, and how it operates and how it deforms or shapes the people who are living within that kind of regime" (source).
And when you put it like that, it seems like the book's implications are pretty universal. Although our world isn't as totalitarian and frightening as Atwood's futuristic vision of the United States, it's still not as good a place as it could be. We still live in scary times.
There's censorship aplenty. There are public executions. There are people who are taken away in vans, never to be seen again. The same stuff that makes Gilead so freaky is very much part of the world in which we live now.
Even the main issue that The Handmaid's Tale tackles—the total subjugation of women—is hardly a stretch of the imagination. Today there are places in the world where women don't have the right to choose what clothes they wear or whom they marry, and where they can be stoned to death for committing adultery. And there are plenty more places where women are grouped into categories that are almost as vice-like as those seen in this novel—when you think about it, dichotomies like "Madonna/Whore" are a whole lot like "Wife/Handmaid."
Yup: this is a scary book on a whole bunch of levels. But hey, at least we're not in Gilead. We're allowed to read. And that might be the single biggest reason you should read this book—because you can.
Learn more about the author at her official website.
Quiz yourself on your knowledge of The Handmaid's Tale here.
Get insight into Atwood's work on her personal blog.
The Handmaid's Tale
This 1990 feature film stars the late Natasha Richardson as the narrator.
Janet Maslin reviews the film for the New York Times.
1986 Review in Time Magazine
Check out this thoughtful review by Paul Gray.
New York Times Review
Check out this 1986 review by Mary McCarthy. She wasn't the biggest fan.
An interview with Atwood by Mervyn Rothstein following the book's publication.
Atwood on Science Fiction
Read about how Atwood distinguishes between speculative fiction and science fiction.
Watch the trailer for the 1990 movie.
Interview with Natasha Richardson
A short interview with Richardson about playing the narrator in the 1990 movie.
Forbidden Fruit Reading
Listen to Sarah Clarke read aloud from the beginning of the book.
Atwood talks about religion in her work.
Check out this Virago Press cover of the book.
First Edition Cover
Another version of the cover by Tad Aronowcz and Gail Geltner.