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Handmaid's Tale (Atwood)

The Handmaid's Tale
Margaret Atwood, 2000
Knopf Doubleday
545 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780385490818


Summary
In the world of the near future, who will control women's bodies?

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 only valued 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 tour de force. (From the publisher.)



Author Bio
Birth—November 18, 1939
Where—Ottawa, Ontario, Canada
Education—B.A., University of Toronto; M.A. Radcliffe; 
   Ph.D., Harvard University
Awards—Governor General's Award; Harvard University
  Centennial Medal; Booker Prize; Griller Award
Currently—lives in Toronto, Canada

Margaret Eleanor Atwood, is a Canadian poet, novelist, literary critic, essayist, and environmental activist. She is among the most-honoured authors of fiction in recent history. She is a winner of the Arthur C. Clarke Award and Prince of Asturias Award for Literature, has been shortlisted for the Booker Prize five times, winning once, and has been a finalist for the Governor General's Award several times, winning twice. She is also a founder of the Writers' Trust of Canada, a non-profit literary organization that seeks to encourage Canada's writing community.

Early life
Born in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, Atwood is the second of three children of Margaret Dorothy (nee Killam), a former dietitian and nutritionist, and Carl Edmund Atwood, an entomologist. Due to her father’s ongoing research in forest entomology, Atwood spent much of her childhood in the backwoods of Northern Quebec and traveling back and forth between Ottawa, Sault Ste. Marie, and Toronto. She did not attend school full-time until she was in grade 8. She became a voracious reader of literature, Dell pocketbook mysteries, Grimm's Fairy Tales, Canadian animal stories, and comic books. She attended Leaside High School in Leaside, Toronto, and graduated in 1957.

Atwood began writing at the age of six and realized she wanted to write professionally when she was 16. In 1957, she began studying at Victoria College in the University of Toronto, where she published poems and articles in Acta Victoriana, the college literary journal. Her professors included Jay Macpherson and Northrop Frye. She graduated in 1961 with a Bachelor of Arts in English (honours) and a minor in philosophy and French.

In late 1961, after winning the E.J. Pratt Medal for her privately printed book of poems, Double Persephone, she began graduate studies at Harvard's Radcliffe College with a Woodrow Wilson fellowship. She obtained a master's degree (MA) from Radcliffe in 1962 and pursued further graduate studies at Harvard University for two years but did not finish her dissertation, “The English Metaphysical Romance." She has taught at the University of British Columbia (1965), Sir George Williams University in Montreal (1967–68), the University of Alberta (1969–70), York University in Toronto (1971–72), the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa (1985), where she was visiting M.F.A. Chair, and New York University, where she was Berg Professor of English.

Personal life
In 1968, Atwood married Jim Polk; they were divorced in 1973. She formed a relationship with fellow novelist Graeme Gibson soon after and moved to a farm near Alliston, Ontario, north of Toronto, where their daughter was born in 1976. The family returned to Toronto in 1980.

Other genres
While she is best known for her work as a novelist, she has also published fifteen books of poetry. Many of her poems have been inspired by myths and fairy tales, which have been interests of hers from an early age. Atwood has published short stories in Tamarack Review, Alphabet, Harper's, CBC Anthology, Ms., Saturday Night, and many other magazines. She has also published four collections of stories and three collections of unclassifiable short prose works.

Atwood has also produced several children's books, including Princess Prunella and the Purple Peanut (1995) and Rude Ramsay and the Roaring Radishes (2003)—delicious alliterative delights that introduce a wealth of new vocabulary to young readers

Speculative fiction vs. sci-fic
The Handmaid's Tale received the first Arthur C. Clarke Award in 1987. The award is given for the best science fiction novel that was first published in the United Kingdom during the previous year. It was also nominated for the 1986 Nebula Award, and the 1987 Prometheus Award, both science fiction awards.

Atwood was at one time offended at the suggestion that The Handmaid's Tale or Oryx and Crake were science fiction, insisting to the UK's Guardian that they were speculative fiction instead: "Science fiction has monsters and spaceships; speculative fiction could really happen." She told the Book of the Month Club: "Oryx and Crake is a speculative fiction, not a science fiction proper. It contains no intergalactic space travel, no teleportation, no Martians."

She clarified her meaning on the difference between speculative and science fiction, admitting that others use the terms interchangeably: "For me, the science fiction label belongs on books with things in them that we can't yet do.... [S]peculative fiction means a work that employs the means already to hand and that takes place on Planet Earth." She said that science fiction narratives give a writer the ability to explore themes in ways that realistic fiction cannot.

Environmentalism
Although Atwood's politics are commonly described as being left-wing, she has indicated in interviews that she considers herself a Red Tory in the historical sense of the term. Atwood, along with her partner Graeme Gibson, is a member of the Green Party of Canada (GPC) and has strong views on environmental issues. She and Gibson are the joint honorary presidents of the Rare Bird Club within BirdLife International. She has been chair of the Writers' Union of Canada and president of PEN Canada, and is currently a vice president of PEN International. In a Globe and Mail editorial, she urged Canadians to vote for any other party to stop a Conservative majority.

During the debate in 1987 over a free trade agreement between Canada and the United States, Atwood spoke out against the deal, and wrote an essay opposing the agreement.

Atwood celebrated her 70th birthday at a gala dinner at Laurentian University in Sudbury, Ontario, marking the final stop of her international tour to promote The Year of the Flood. She stated that she had chosen to attend the event because the city has been home to one of Canada's most ambitious environmental reclamation programs: "When people ask if there's hope (for the environment), I say, if Sudbury can do it, so can you. Having been a symbol of desolation, it's become a symbol of hope." (Adapted from Wikipedia. Retrieved 9/17/2013.)

Book Reviews 
It's a bleak world that Margaret Atwood opens up for us in her new novel, The Handmaid's Tale—how bleak and even terrifying we will not fully realize until the story's final pages. But the sensibility through which we view this world is infinitely rich and abundant. And that's why Miss Atwood has succeeded with her anti-Utopian novel where most practitioners of this Orwellian genre have tended to fail. What usually works against this genre of fiction... is that what makes the imagined society narrow and oppressive also serves to limit the work in which it is described. This can also be said of The Handmaid's Tale; among other things, it is a political tract deploring nuclear energy, environmental waste, and antifeminist attitudes. But it so much more than that—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, who aren't revealed as such until the very end. Best of all, it holds out the possibility of redemption.
Christopher Lehmann-Haupt - 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!
Washington Post Book World


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


In 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. —Ann H. Fisher, Radford P.L., VA
Library Journal


(Film version.) 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
Library Journal



Discussion Questions 
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 instincts?

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?
(Questions issued by publisher.)

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