The Enduring Legacy of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale
By: Jill Grunenwald, OverDrive Collection Development Analyst & co-host of the Professional Book Nerds Podcast
I was fifteen when I first discovered iconic Canadian author Margaret Atwood. It was 1997, which I only remember because the Stow Public Library in Stow, Ohio was going through a big renovation that required a temporary move which meant I found Cat’s Eye while perusing the shelves of a local shopping center.
(Some people mark passages of time based on events. I apparently do it with books.)
Five years later, in college, I discovered her poetry and slowly began working my way through her entire catalog (fun fact: one of the characters in The Robber Bride has the last name Grunwald). If pressed, I will tell you my favorite books of hers is Oryx & Crake but like any well-read feminist, there will forever be a special place in my heart for The Handmaid’s Tale.
Set in a near-future New England (based on careful study of landmarks mentioned, most believe it’s Cambridge, MA, outside of Boston), but not the New England that we know now: a totalitarian theocracy has overthrown the United States government and women have been stripped of all rights. Sterility is on the rise, so those women that are still able to reproduce are assigned to households of the ruling class to act as enslaved handmaidens for the men. Our narrator, Offred, is one such handmaiden who is forced into a relationship with The Commander with the goal of producing a child that The Commander and his wife can raise because they are unable to have children of their own.
(There really is no delicate and polite way to describe that, is there?)
In light of recent events, dystopian novels have seen a huge bump. Thanks also in part to the Super Bowl commercial for the upcoming Hulu adaptation, this includes The Handmaid’s Tale, which shot to the top of the Amazon bestseller list virtually overnight and we here at OverDrive have also noticed an increase in demand for this particular title (as I’m sure our library partners have as well).
Personally, I’m fascinated that people are turning to dystopia during a period of unrest and unease. The popularity of such books is something we discussed in our Professional Book Nerds podcast episode about the genre and it seems to be even more timely these days.
When The Handmaid’s Tale was published in 1985, the events described seemed so inconceivable and absurd, it was impossible to take them seriously (or, well, I imagine. I was 4 years old at the time). But now, over thirty years later, Offred’s tale feels a little too familiar for comfort and that near-future may be nearer than we think.