The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood was a winner of the Governor General’s Award for Fiction and the Arthur C. Clarke Award. It was also nominated for the Nebula Award, Booker Prize and Prometheus Award.
The American Library Association has listed it as one of its 100 most frequently challenged books. Some parents have objected to their older high school children being assigned this book as required reading. Concern has been expressed over profane language, sexual scenes and images of violence towards women. Some also feel that the book is both anti-Christian and anti-Islamic.
The publisher describes The Handmaid’s Tale “It is the world of the near future, and Offred is a Handmaid in the home of the Commander and his wife. She is allowed out once a day to the food market, she is not permitted to read, and she is hoping the Commander makes her pregnant, because she is only valued if her ovaries are viable. Offred can remember the years before, when she was an independent woman, had a job of her own, a husband and child. But all of that is gone now…everything has changed.”
The Globe and Mail said, “The Handmaid’s Tale is in the honorable tradition of Brave New World and other warnings of dystopia. It’s imaginative even audacious, and conveys a chilling sense of fear and menace.”
Dystopian fiction explores the social and political aspects of a nightmarish world. Dystopian fiction will often take aspects of the real world to their extremes to illustrate or warn against what could possibly happen. In the case of the Handmaid’s Tale a terrorist coup strips women and other undesirables of all their rights. Women are valued only in a limited number of roles. Offred’s role is breeder. Atwood explores the idea of what might happen if a totalitarian regime imposes it extremist beliefs on society. Or perhaps its society’s extremist beliefs that results in a totalitarian regime. It’s an excellent book to spark discussion about individual freedom, feminism, religious movements and power structures within society.
In a recent Toronto Star article a parent complains about the book stating that “The book is rife with brutality towards and mistreatment of women (and men at times), sexual scenes, and bleak depression,” Edwards said in a letter to the school’s principal. “I can’t really understand what it is my son is supposed to be learning from this fictional drivel.”
Defending the book a University of Toronto professor states that “The Handmaid’s Tale wasn’t likely written for 17-year-olds, but neither are a lot of things we teach in high school, like Shakespeare. And they are all the better for reading it. They are on the edge of adulthood already, and there’s no point in coddling them, he said, adding, they aren’t coddled in terms of mass media today anyway.”
When the book was published in 1985 a reviewer in Quill and Quire described it as being “with its focus on the personal rather than the general consequences, is an important contribution to the world of anti-Utopian satires pioneered by writers such as Huxley and Orwell. Atwood has shown that she is still capable of surprising her her readers.”
And this remains true twenty-five years later.