Rhys Tranter

‘Freedom To and Freedom From’: 25th Anniversary of Margaret Atwood’s <em>The Handmaid’s Tale</em>

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This year marks the 25th anniversary of Margaret Atwood's landmark science fiction novel, The Handmaid's Tale. Set in the Republic of Gilead, it imagines an alternative America of the near future where pollution has sterilized most of the female population. A class struggle arises for the ownership and dominion over women who remain fertile. The protagonist, Kate, is captured while attempting to cross the border into Canada with her family. As she is unaffected by pollutants, she is separated from her husband and daughter, and becomes an enforced surrogate mother for another family. Her name is changed to Offred and she becomes a Handmaid, a mutated functionary of Old Testament values, expected to provide children for a Commander and his wife.

Atwood's dark reflections on gender roles and sexual politics were read as a satirical snapshot of the 1980s American landscape and it has cast a long shadow. In 1990, her dystopian vision found its way onto the silver screen, starring Faye Dunaway and Robert Duvall. There are also traces of the book's influence on contemporary Hollywood, in dystopic science fiction enterprises like Children of Men (2006). The themes of the novel, which run from ecological catastrophe, to human rights, to religious fundamentalism, have assumed greater political urgency.

Whether by chance or design, The Handmaid's Tale has become a cautionary tale. In a tradition that includes Huxley's Brave New World and Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, Atwood's warning of the future doubles as a warning for the present.

Find out more:

Margaret Atwood discusses the anniversary of The Handmaid's Tale on BBC Radio 4's Woman's Hour (10 December 2010).

In Focus: television interview with Margaret Atwood, discussing recent novel Year of the Flood, and writing about the future.

Margaret Atwood on Twitter: a powerful presence in the online literary community, Atwood promotes a wide range of news and events.

Official website of Margaret Atwood.