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The Handmaid's Tale

by Margaret Atwood

1305 Reviews

The Handmaid's Tale

From the author of Alias Grace and the Maddaddam trilogy: here is the #1 New York Times bestseller and seminal work of speculative fiction, now an Emmy Award-winning Hulu series starring Elizabeth Moss, Samira Wiley, and Joseph Fiennes. Includes a new introduction by the author.

Offred is a Handmaid in the Republic of Gilead. She may leave the home of the Commander and his wife once a day to walk to food markets whose signs are now pictures instead of words because women are no longer allowed to read. She must lie on her back once a month and pray that the Commander makes her pregnant, because in an age of declining births, Offred and the other Handmaids are valued only if their ovaries are viable. Offred can remember the days before, when she lived and made love with her husband Luke; when she played with and protected her daughter; when she had a job, money of her own, and access to knowledge. But all of that is gone now.... Funny, unexpected, horrifying, and altogether convincing, The Handmaid's Tale is at once scathing satire, dire warning, and literary tour de force.

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Overview

From the author of Alias Grace and the Maddaddam trilogy: here is the #1 New York Times bestseller and seminal work of speculative fiction, now an Emmy Award-winning Hulu series starring Elizabeth Moss, Samira Wiley, and Joseph Fiennes. Includes a new introduction by the author.

Offred is a Handmaid in the Republic of Gilead. She may leave the home of the Commander and his wife once a day to walk to food markets whose signs are now pictures instead of words because women are no longer allowed to read. She must lie on her back once a month and pray that the Commander makes her pregnant, because in an age of declining births, Offred and the other Handmaids are valued only if their ovaries are viable. Offred can remember the days before, when she lived and made love with her husband Luke; when she played with and protected her daughter; when she had a job, money of her own, and access to knowledge. But all of that is gone now.... Funny, unexpected, horrifying, and altogether convincing, The Handmaid's Tale is at once scathing satire, dire warning, and literary tour de force.

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Product Details
Edition Description:
Movie Tie-In
Sales Rank:
129
Pages:
336
Publication Date:
04/18/2017
ISBN13:
9780525435006
Product Dimensions:
5.16(w) x 7.92(h) x0.72(d)
Publisher:
Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
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About the Author

Margaret Atwood, whose work has been published in thirty-five countries, is the author of more than forty books of fiction, poetry, and critical essays. In addition to The Handmaid’s Tale, her novels include Cat’s Eye, short-listed for the 1989 Booker Prize; Alias Grace, which won the Giller Prize in Canada and the Premio Mondello in Italy; The Blind Assassin, winner of the 2000 Booker Prize; Oryx and Crake, short-listed for the 2003 Man Booker Prize; The Year of the Flood; MaddAddam; and her most recent, The Heart Goes Last. She is the recipient of the Los Angeles Times Innovator’s Award, and lives in Toronto with the writer Graeme Gibson. 

www.margaretatwood.ca

Hometown:

Toronto, Ontario

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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Read an Excerpt

from the Introduction

In the spring of 1984 I began to write a novel that was not initially called The Handmaid’s Tale. I wrote in long hand, mostly on yellow legal notepads, then transcribed my almost illegible scrawlings using a huge German-keyboard manual typewriter that I’d rented.
 
The keyboard was German because I was living in West Berlin, which was still encircled by the Berlin Wall: the Soviet empire was still strongly in place and was not to crumble for another five years. Every Sunday the East German air force made sonic booms to remind us of how close they were. During my visits to several countries behind the Iron Curtain—Czechoslovakia, East Germany—I experienced the wariness, the feeling of being spied on, the silences, the changes of subject, the oblique ways in which people might convey information, and these had an influence on what I was writing. So did the repurposed buildings. This used to belong to . . . But then they disappeared. I heard such stories many times.
 
Having been born in 1939 and come to consciousness during World War II, I knew that established orders could vanish overnight. Change could also be as fast as lightning. It can’t happen here could not be depended on: anything could happen anywhere, given the circumstances.
 
By 1984, I’d been avoiding my novel for a year or two. It seemed to me a risky venture. I’d read extensively in science fiction, speculative fiction, utopias and dystopias ever since my high school years in the 1950s, but I’d never written such a book. Was I up to it? The form was strewn with pitfalls, among them a tendency to sermonize, a veering into allegory, and a lack of plausibility. If I was to create an imaginary garden, I wanted the toads in it to be real. One of my rules was that I would not put any events into the book that had not already happened in what James Joyce called the “nightmare” of history, nor any technology not already available. No imaginary gizmos, no imaginary laws, no imaginary atrocities. God is in the details, they say. So is the devil.
 
Back in 1984, the main premise seemed—even to me—fairly outrageous. Would I be able to persuade readers that the United States of America had suffered a coup that had transformed an erstwhile liberal democracy into a literal-minded theocratic dictatorship? In the book, the Constitution and Congress are no longer: the Republic of Gilead is built on a foundation of the seventeenth-century Puritan roots that have always lain beneath the modern-day America we thought we knew.
 
The immediate location of the book is Cambridge, Massachusetts, home of Harvard University, now a leading liberal educational institution but once a Puritan theological seminary. The Secret Service of Gilead is located in the Widener Library, where I had spent many hours in the stacks, researching my New England ancestors as well as the Salem witchcraft trials. Would some people be affronted by the use of the Harvard wall as a display area for the bodies of the executed? (They were.)
 
In the novel, the population is shrinking due to a toxic environment, and the ability to have viable babies is at a premium. (In today’s real world, studies in China are now showing a sharp fertility decline in Chinese men.) Under totalitarianisms—or indeed in any sharply hierarchical society—the ruling class monopolizes valuable things, so the elite of the regime arrange to have fertile females assigned to them as Handmaids. The biblical precedent is the story of Jacob and his two wives, Rachel and Leah, and their two handmaids. One man, four women, twelve sons—but the handmaids could not claim the sons. They belonged to the respective wives.
 
And so the tale unfolds.

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What People Are Saying
“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.”
–Toronto Sun

“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.”
–Washington Post

“The most poetically satisfying and intense of all Atwood’s novels.”
–Maclean’s

“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.”
–Publishers Weekly

“Deserves the highest praise.”
–San Francisco Chronicle

“In The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood has written the most chilling cautionary novel of the century.”
–Phoenix Gazette

“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.”
–Glamour

“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

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Reading Group Guide
The introduction, author biography, discussion questions, and suggested reading that follow are designed to enhance your group’s discussion of The Handmaid's Tale, Margaret Atwood's seminal work of speculative fiction. 

1. The novel begins with three epigraphs. What are their functions?

2. In Gilead, women are categorized as wives, handmaids, Marthas, or Aunts, but Moira refuses to fit into a niche. Offred says she was like an elevator with open sides who made them dizzy, she was their fantasy. Trace Moira's role throughout the tale to determine what she symbolizes.

3. Aunt Lydia, Janine, and Offred's mother also represent more than themselves. What do each of their characters connote? What do the style and color of their clothes symbolize?

4. At one level, The Handmaid's Tale is about the writing process. Atwood cleverly weaves this sub-plot into a major focus with remarks by Offred such as "Context is all," and "I've filled it out for her...," "I made that up," and "I wish this story were different." Does Offred's habit of talking about the process of storytelling make it easier or more difficult for you to suspend disbelief?

5. A palimpsest is a medieval parchment that scribes attempted to scrape clean and use again, though they were unable to obliterate all traces of the original. How does the new republic of Gilead's social order often resemble a palimpsest?

6. The commander in the novel says you can't cheat nature. How do characters find ways to follow their natural instinct?

7. Why is the Bible under lock and key in Gilead?

8. Babies are referred to as "a keeper," "unbabies," "shredders." What other real or fictional worlds do these terms suggest?

9. Atwood's title brings to mind titles from Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales. Why might Atwood have wanted you to make that connection?

10. What do you feel the historical notes at the book's end add to the reading of this novel? What does the book's last line mean to you?

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Editorial Reviews
"Brilliantly illuminates some of the darker interconnections between politics and sex." —The Washington Post 

"The Handmaid's Tale deserves the highest praise." —San Francisco Chronicle

"Atwood takes many trends which exist today and stretches them to their logical and chilling conclusions. . . . An excellent novel about the directions our lives are taking." —Houston Chronicle

"Splendid." —NewsweekIn a startling departure from her previous novels (Lady Oracle, Surfacing), respected Canadian poet and novelist Atwood presents here a fable of the near future. In the Republic of Gilead, formerly the United States, far-right Schlafly/Falwell-type ideals have been carried to extremes in the monotheocratic government. The resulting society is a feminist's nightmare: women are strictly controlled, unable to have jobs or money and assigned to various classes: the chaste, childless Wives; the housekeeping Marthas; and the reproductive Handmaids, who turn their offspring over to the ``morally fit'' Wives. The tale is told by Offred (read: ``of Fred''), a Handmaid who recalls the past and tells how the chilling society came to be. This powerful, memorable novel is highly recommended for most libraries. In this Orwellian dramatization, religion becomes a tool of repression and social control to force women into the roles of stay-at-home wives, domestic staff, prostitutes, or surrogate mothers. They have no rights to their bodies or property and are completely dependent upon men. Those women who have had at least one child find themselves forced into the role of breeding machine, producing children for childless couples. References to 20th-century issues abound, including Agent Orange, abortion, women's rights, and escape attempts to Canada. At least 14 different readers make it easy for the listener to distinguish among the various characters. Despite sound effects and some indistinguishable white noise, there are a few spots with dead air. This program will be of interest to Atwood fans and those interested in futuristic tales. Recommended for public and academic libraries.-Laurie Selwyn, Grayson Cty. Law Lib., Sherman, TX Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information. . . .a taut thriller, a psychological study, a play on words. It has a sense of humor about itself, as well as an ambivalence toward even its worst villains.
—The New York Times"A novel that brilliantly illuminates some of the darker interconnections between politics and sex . . . Just as the world of Orwell's 1984 gripped our imaginations, so will the world of Atwood's handmaid!" —The Washington Post Book World

"The Handmaid's Tale deserves the highest praise." —San Francisco Chronicle

"Atwood takes many trends which exist today and stretches them to their logical and chilling conclusions . . . An excellent novel about the directions our lives are taking . . . Read it while it's still allowed." —Houston Chronicle

"Splendid." —Newsweek

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Customer Reviews (1305)
- Anonymous
December 20, 2011
- Anonymous
April 9, 2010
It could happen
I found this book totally engrossing. It makes you a bit nervous about the fanatical religious-right here in the United States! I can almost imagine how it would be for everyone if THEY were in power. Nerve-racking and nail-biting, but I loved every word!
- Guest
October 13, 2002
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