It is always necessary to celebrate women and their accomplishments especially during the month of March. Women’s history month celebrates the integral contributions by women to better the world. One such woman who has proven words and words alone can make an impact on the world is Margaret Atwood. She has shown time and again how influential her writing is. The Handmaid’s Tale, published in 1985, continues to be one of her most popular novels, and for good reason; it still has people talking about it today.
Margaret Atwood was born in 1939 and has since written more than 40 books of poetry, fiction, and essays. She has said that she never intended to be a feminist writer, but soon began to change her writing based on the evolving world around her. Many of her novels and poems involve female characters who are suffering in some way. Atwood has said, “My women suffer because most of the women I talk to seem to have suffered” (“Margaret Atwood”). This encapsulates The Handmaid’s Tale. The female characters are all struggling, both internally and externally.
For anyone who hasn’t read The Handmaid’s Tale, it follows a young woman named Offred. Her name is formed from a man’s first name, Fred, and the prefix “of” meaning “belonging to.” In Offred’s case, she belongs to the Commander and his wife. Together they make up one of the many households in Gilead, a theocratic republic in what used to be the United States.
Offred is a Handmaid and must provide a baby for the Commander and his wife, who is infertile. This is the sole purpose of the Handmaids. If Offred does not provide a baby she will be given to a different household or sent to the colonies. The colonies are areas of North America that have been contaminated by radioactive waste and pollution. Anyone in the Republic of Gilead who has broken a law or proven themselves useless to the reproductive cause is sent to the colonies to clean the area up as retribution for their crimes.
The world in which The Handmaid’s Tale takes place is one in which almost all women are infertile. The “lucky” ones who are fertile are essentially kidnapped, enrolled in a school to learn obedience, and forcibly placed into households to provide children. The Handmaids are given no other objective and have almost no rights as human beings. They are only allowed to leave the house for scheduled appointments or to fetch supplies, and they must never go alone. They cannot wear anything other than red dresses and white bonnets. They cannot speak out of turn, or disrespect their household in any way. The Handmaids are considered property more so than human beings.
So why is this book about a society built on seventeenth-century Puritan roots still relevant today? So much of The Handmaid’s Tale is controversial, and controversy gets people talking. Much of what happens to the Handmaids in the book is cruel and unspeakable. For instance, while in the Handmaids’ school, Moira, Offred’s best friend from before Gilead, pretends to be ill. She is brought to the hospital and when it is found out she is faking, her feet are maimed using steel cables. Only the feet and hands were injured because they were not essential to reproduction. However, the women prove time and again how strong willed, intelligent, and determined they are to fight past each obstacle thrown their way. As a result, The Handmaid’s Tale is considered a feminist novel by many.
When asked whether the book was written to be a feminist novel Atwood replied, “If you mean a novel in which women are human beings—with all the variety of character and behavior that implies—and are also interesting and important, and what happens to them is crucial to the theme, structure, and plot of the book, then yes.” It is no wonder that in today’s society where the feminist movement is growing exponentially every day that books this continue to be used as resources and loved by many.
In addition to the book remaining popular to readers, it was adapted as a series on Hulu in April 2017. Of course with almost any book turned into movie/television there will be changes. The changes made for the series are substantial enough to be noticed, but nothing changes the meaning or plot of the book.
Since the book was written over thirty years ago, Bruce Miller, the producer of the series, made certain alterations in order to update aspects of the book. In the time before Gilead, the characters use smartphones and laptops, which did not exist when the book was written. The cast is also much more diverse than what appears in the book. This was an important change for Miller. In an interview with Time Magazine he recalled, “That was a very big discussion with Margaret about what the difference between reading the words, ‘There are no people of color in this world’ and seeing an all-white world on your television, which has a very different impact…” (Dockterman). The third big change is Offred’s character. She is more rebellious than in the book. This change was made in order to make her character more relatable and interesting to watch. Even with these changes, the series stays true to the novel and is worth watching.
Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale has quickly become a favorite book of many. The characters are relatable and the plot is harrowing, but what keeps people coming back is the fear it instills. It even appears some believe a world like Gilead is plausible in the near future. In fact, Atwood is often asked if the novel is a prediction to which she responded, “Let’s say it’s an anti-prediction: if this future can be described in detail, maybe it won’t happen.” Women from all over the United States have taken this to heart and are using the book as a way to protest women’s issues. One occurrence took place in Texas on March 20th, 2017. Women dressed in red robes and white bonnets entered a courtroom to protest an anti-abortion law being considered by the state senate. The law would make it illegal to obtain an abortion in the second trimester and would allow doctors to lie to women considering an abortion. The clothing the women wore gave them a way to protest peacefully while proving a point.
Hopefully Gilead never becomes a reality and Margaret Atwood’s beloved novel remains on the fiction shelves at the local library. Only time will tell, but in the meantime read, revisit, or watch The Handmaid’s Tale. For anyone who has already read or watched The Handmaid’s Tale do you consider it a feminist novel? What do you like or not like about it? Do you think a world like Gilead is possible? Are there any other books by Margaret Atwood you enjoy? Let’s keep the conversation going because after all controversy gets people talking.
Atwood, Margaret. The Handmaid’s Tale. Anchor Books, 1998.
Canfield, David. “Activists Dressed as Characters From The Handmaid’s Tale to Protest Texas’ Anti-Abortion Measures.” Slate. The Slate Group, 2017. <view online here>
Dockterman, Eliana. “The Differences Between The Handmaid’s Tale Show and Book, Explained.” Time. Time Inc., 2017. <view online here>
“Margaret Atwood.” Poetry Foundation. Poetry Foundation, 2018.