Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale is set in a discomfortingly familiar future, where a newly installed theocracy has instituted a sweeping series of misogynistic laws and practices. Because so few women in the Republic of Gilead are fertile, “handmaids” are enlisted to bear the children of the ruling class. The novel follows one such handmaid, Offred, as she struggles to acclimate to (and, perhaps, to resist) her new reality. Even if you’ve binge-watched the Emmy Award-winning TV adaptation of The Handmaid’s Talethere’s still much to be learned from, and about, the book.
Officially, The Handmaid’s Tale is set at some point in the not-too-distant future (from whenever you’re reading it). The book’s oppressive themes were partly inspired by the fact that Atwood began writing it while she was living in Germany in 1984, at the height of the Cold War. “I was living in West Berlin, which was still surrounded by the Berlin Wall,” Atwood wrote in The New York Times. It was during this time, and through her visits to several other Iron Curtain countries, that the Republic of Gilead began to take shape. “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,” Atwood recalled.
In 1984, the same year Atwood began writing The Handmaid’s Tale, Apple released its first Macintosh computer. But the author took an old-school approach to penning her novel: She wrote the entire book out in longhand on yellow legal pads. It was only once she had completed the book that she transcribed it onto a (rented) typewriter.
Atwood’s aunt once told her the story of Mary Webster, a resident of the Puritan town of Hadley, Massachusetts—and the author’s supposed ancestor. In 1683, Webster was put on trial for suspicion of witchcraft but ultimately found not guilty. The following year, a prominent local named Philip Smith lay dying and said that he thought “himself under an evil hand,” and decided Webster was to blame.
“The townspeople didn’t like her, so they strung her up,” Atwood said. “But it was before the age of drop hanging, and she didn’t die. She dangled there all night, and in the morning, when they came to cut the body down, she was still alive.” (According to 18th century politician and historian Thomas Hutchinson, things went down a little differently: The mob cut Mary, who was near death, down, then buried her in snow—but she survived.) The incident earned Webster the nickname of Half- Hanged Mary, and The Handmaid’s Tale is dedicated to her memory.
While many of Atwood’s books, including The Handmaid’s Talehave been described as “science fiction,” the author rejects that genre label: She has repeatedly said that The Handmaid’s Tale isn’t sci-fi because she ensured that the elements already exist in some form. Atwood has always contended that something like Gilead could happen under the right conditions. “I’m not a prophet,” she told The Guardian. But when it comes to this particular novel, she is “sorry to have been so right.”
While Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale is the best-known adaptation of Atwood’s book, it’s hardly the only—or even the first—retelling. A stage version of the book debuted at Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts, in 1989, just a few years after the book was published. It returned to the stage in Boston again in 2018. There has also been an opera, a ballet, a radio play, and a 1990 movie starring Natasha Richardson and Faye Dunaway, with a screenplay by Harold Pinter.
In 2019, Atwood published The Testamentsin a sequel The Handmaid’s Tale that takes place approximately 15 years after the events of the original novel and helps to fill in the ambiguity of the ending of The Handmaid’s Tale and what became of Offred. The book also gave Atwood the chance to personally address the prescience of the first book with her readers, writing: “Everything you’ve ever asked me about Gilead and its inner workings is the inspiration for this book. Well, almost everything! The other inspiration is the world we’ve been living in.”
In 2022, to protest increased banning (and even burning) of books, Atwood teamed up with Penguin Random House to create a fireproof version of The Handmaid’s Tale (itself an oft-banned book). The one-of-a-kind tome—which has pages made of Cinefoil—sold for $130,000. According to a press release, all proceeds went to PEN America “to support [its] work in support of free expression.”
Atwood took a flamethrower to the book to demonstrate that it wasn’t flammable. “I never thought I’d be trying to burn one of my own books… and failing,” the author said. “The Handmaid’s Tale has been banned many times—sometimes by whole countries, such as Portugal and Spain in the days of Salazar and the Francoists, sometimes by school boards, sometimes by libraries. Let’s hope we don’t reach the stage of wholesale book burnings, as in Fahrenheit 451. But if we do, let’s hope some books will prove unburnable—that they will travel underground, as prohibited books did in the Soviet Union.”
And while Atwood herself might be best known as the author of The Handmaid’s Tale, she has written far more than just bleak satire. Since releasing Double Persephoneher first book of poetry (and first published work) in 1961, Atwood has published more than 50 works in a variety of genres: In addition to 17 novels (including Alias Grace), the two-time Booker Prize winner has earned just as much acclaim for her books of poetry, nonfiction titles, short story collections, children’s books, and graphic novels—and racked up a number of awards in the process.