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The Handmaid's Tale | Study Guide

Margaret Atwood

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The Handmaid's Tale | 10 Things You Didn't Know


Margaret Atwood's dystopian novel, The Handmaid's Tale, has sold millions of copies and been translated into more than 40 languages since its release in 1985. The novel also won several awards and was nominated for the prestigious Booker Prize.

The Handmaid's Tale is set in a society in which personal choice has been eliminated and the government controls human activity—especially the activities of women. Banned in many schools and libraries for its depictions of religion and sex, The Handmaid's Tale has won its place among darkly dystopian novels of the future, along with some of its inspirations: George Orwell's 1984 and Aldous Huxley's Brave New World.

1. Everything that happens in The Handmaid's Tale is based in fact.

About her writing of the book, Atwood says,

I made a rule for myself: I would not include anything that human beings had not already done in some other place or time, or for which the technology did not already exist. I did not wish to be accused of dark, twisted inventions, or of misrepresenting the human potential for deplorable behaviour.

2. Despite the work's factual base, Atwood worried the plot was "too crazy."

The author put off writing The Handmaid's Tale for three years. Then, she noticed that a lot of the "crazy" ideas and events she considered putting in the book were actually happening—such as a Catholic sect that began using the term handmaids based on the same Biblical verse Atwood cites in the text. This situation freed Atwood to begin writing.

3. The Handmaid's Tale has inspired many fans to ink tattoos.

Many people have sent Margaret Atwood photographs of the tattoos they have gotten that were inspired by her book. The most commonly tattooed lines from the book are "Nolite te bastardes carborundorum" and "Are there any questions?" In fact, Atwood herself got a temporary tattoo of the first line of the book for an event called Book Riot Live: "We slept in what had once been the gymnasium."

4. It was one of the most frequently challenged books in the decade after its release.

The American Library Association's List of the 100 Most Frequently Challenged books of the 1990s ranked The Handmaid's Tale 37th. It fell between Walter Dean Myers's Fallen Angels and S.E. Hinton's The Outsiders. It was 11 spots above the Harry Potter series.

5. Atwood does not like The Handmaid's Tale to be called "science fiction."

Atwood prefers the term "speculative fiction" to describe her works that are set in the future because they take place on Earth and make use of versions of technology that already exist in some way. She believes "science fiction" focuses primarily on extraterrestrials and space travel.

6. Margaret Atwood is also an inventor.

In keeping with the futuristic setting of The Handmaid's Tale, Atwood's invention, the LongPen, can be used to sign books remotely. It enables authors to sign books for readers even when they cannot be at a bookstore in person. She says, about the LongPen, "You cannot be in five countries at the same time. But you can be in five countries at the same time with the LongPen."

7. The title was inspired by both the Bible and a 15th-century work.

The title refers to Geoffrey Chaucer's classic work The Canterbury Tales, in which a group of pilgrims tell stories to entertain their companions. The word handmaid is taken from the book of Genesis in the Bible and is a word that used to puzzle Atwood as a child: "a very odd word," as she describes it.

8. The dystopian society in The Handmaid's Tale is based on Puritan America.

Atwood studied the Puritans at Harvard and believes they came to America, not to practice religious freedom, but to set up a society ruled by religion, a theocracy. As in Atwood's Republic of Gilead, Puritan leaders did not permit dissent.

9. The Handmaid's Tale became a successful opera.

A Danish composer, Poul Ruders, contacted Margaret Atwood, saying that if he couldn't write an opera based on her novel, he'd never write another opera. His opera premiered in 2000, and reviews described it as "spare yet effective" and "vibrant." Atwood herself called it "a powerful piece."

10. Unlike the book, the film version failed to capture an audience.

Many movie executives refused to have anything to do with a movie version of the novel, stating, "a film for and about women ... would be lucky if it made it to video." However, the film was released in 1990, starring Natasha Richardson, Faye Dunaway, and Robert Duval. Despite the star power, the film's profit was only $5 million, while it cost $13 million to make.

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