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Lexi Beckstead

Diverse Women Writers

B. Stephenson


Semester Project

Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale

Margaret Atwood is a Canadian writer born in 1939 in Ottawa. She currently lives

in Toronto with another Canadian Writer, Graeme Gibson, according to Margaret

Atwood’s website and biography. She’s published over 40 works of fiction, poetry, and

essays. Some of her more popular being, The Handmaid’s Tale, The Blind Assassin,

Oryx and Crake, overlapping the last six decades. Margaret graduated from Victoria

College of Toronto University, attended Harvard University in Cambridge, MA and

received her Masters from Radcliffe College in Cambridge, MA.

Margaret grew up in the outback of the Ontario wilderness, her father working as

entomologist, studying insects in the northern Canadian forest. She began writing plays

and poetry as young as six, her father’s profession greatly influencing her appreciation

for nature and tendency towards environmentalism. She spent her free time outdoors

and writing, deciding on her writing career as young as 16, and pursuing a higher

education within the writing fields.

In a quote from Margaret in an interview conducted in 1979 by Karla Hammond

from The American Poetry Review, she talks about a “dark period”, once she began full

time school, between the ages eight and sixteen, she didn’t write and pursued other

careers, “It didn't occur to me that I might be a writer, In fact, at the time, I didn't really
write anything except for school essays. At sixteen I started writing poetry. I don't know

why I wrote, there certainly weren’t any role models around” (Hammond pg. 27). She

attributes this to the lack of history taught on Canadian writers in school as something

that was pressured under a lack of “nationalistic consciousness”.

Margaret has won more than fifty-five awards for her impassioned writing, some

of the most notable being the Arthur C. Clarke Award in 1987 for The Handmaid’s Tale,

the Booker Prize in 2000 for The Blind Assassin, the Governor General’s Award twice,

and the Trillium Book Award, which she won three times; and has won honorary

degrees from the likes of Oxford University, Cambridge University, and Sarbonne

(margaretatwood.ca) Despite Margaret’s eloquent writing she claims to be a terrible

speller, “A lot of writers spell by ear, but that isn’t how the English language works,”

from Variety’s “ Margaret Atwood On How Donald Trump Helped The Handmaid’s Tale”.
Later in her Career, Margaret continues to pursue environmental and feminist

ideals, books like Oryx and Crake, Year of the Flood, and MaddAddam, “inform her

activism towards protecting wildlife and combating climate change” according to

Academy’s, Special Award Spotlight, Margaret Atwood. The article goes on to share the

ways in which her book company acts sustainable, “the O. W. Toad office (“O. W. Toad”

being an anagram for “Atwood”), where her Toronto team uses sustainable paper,

power, and overall limits their carbon footprint,” (Academy). Margaret’s environmental

activism also extends to bird-watching, a migratory practice her and her husband

Graeme Gibson partake, as Gibson is chair of the Pelee Island Bird Observatory near

Lake Erie. They believe birds are a vital part of the ecosystem, worth protecting at all

costs along with their habitats. Margaret went so far as to have an environmentally

sustainable coffee named after her, “Attwood Blend”, which holds Smithsonian

Migratory Bird Center’s bird friendly seal of approval on its label, qualifying it as organic,

and shade-grown certified, meaning deforestation didn’t take place to produce the

coffee (Academy). “Birds, especially migratory birds, are like an early warning radar

system,” Atwood told the Toronto Star in the Academy, “When things are going badly

wrong with their habitats and environments and their numbers are declining, that’s a

wake-up call.” In a interview with Karla Hammond, Margaret discusses the relationship

between women and nature, an iconic ecofeminist parallel, she says,

“the oppression isn't in nature; it's in what people have done to nature. To ask

that question is to also ask, "Is being a woman necessarily to be oppressed?" The

oppression doesn't come from within the fact of being a woman. It comes from outside

that fact. Of course that separation is only theoretical. The oppression is in people's
attitudes towards nature. You aren't and can't be apart from nature. We're all part of the

biological universe. Men as well as women” Margaret Atwood (Hammond 29).

The Handmaid’s Tale

Not much has changed since the 1980’s regarding the casual attitudes towards

women, especially in the era of Donald Trump. According to an interview from the

Nashville Public Library, Margaret fictionalized little in The Handmaid’s Tale, all

situations in the book are based on preceding conservative and puritan ideals and

events, “I decided to take these positions and dramatize them, carry them to their

furthest logical conclusions.” She studied 17th century New England puritan ideals and

beliefs in college, the basis for the story, “a throwback to the early Puritans,” which she

studied extensively under a dedicatee of the book, Perry Miller, she goes on, “The early

Puritans came to America not for religious freedom, as we were taught in grade school,

but to set up a society that would be a theocracy (like Iran) ruled by religious leaders,

and monolithic, that is, a society that would not tolerate dissent within itself.” These

ideals are the basis in the United states, and we see remnants of them today with

Donald Trump in the office and the rollback of reproductive health care for women. In

Gilead, the totalitarian society that used to be the United States, fertility and male

sterility create dire circumstances which leads to the justification of “female farming”, as

Margaret puts it. Women’s existence has often been defined by men, in The

Handmaid’s Tale, this becomes quite literal, “They think we're being narrow or

belligerent; where as, all we're saying is "We exist." Not that we're better, just that we're
different. Similarly women have been saying "We exist. We don't wish particularly to be

defined by you,” Margaret Atwood (Hammond pg. 27).

Another dedicatee in the novel is Mary Webster, the primary girl accused of

witchcraft during the Salem Witch Trials, which Atwood’s grandmother, maiden name

being Webster, would refer to as an ancestor. Mary Webster was a girl in 1700’s puritan

New England who was hung for witchcraft, but instead of dying from the hanging, she

dangled from the tree until morning when she was cut loose or escaped.

"The Handmaid’s Tale is dedicated to Mary Webster because she is an example

of a female person wrongly accused, but she is slightly a symbol of hope because they

didn't actually manage to kill her. She made it through." says Margaret in Studio 360

interview, “A 17th-century Alleged Witch Inspired Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's


Female perseverance is notable in many of Atwood’s novels, and continuous

underlying theme, though she shant identify as feminist, shy of the word and it’s many

convoluted meanings, but this is what The Handmaid’s Tale is and has become.

In a phone interview with The New York Times, Margaret goes into great detail

on the schematics of the novel and the TV series adaptation. In the story, the color

coding is as such: the wives wear blue, the aunts wear brown, the marthas wear green,

and the handmaids wear a red gown with a white bonnet. Econowives wear stripes.

“Organizing people according to what they’re wearing — who should wear what and

when, who has to cover up what — is a very, very, very, very old human vocation,”

Atwood said. It dates back to the first known legal code, the Code of Hammurabi, one

part of which stated that “only aristocratic ladies were allowed to wear veils,” she added

(New York Times). In particular, the red was chosen through many influences,

Margaret's trip to Afghanistan in 1978 where she wore a chador, “They weren’t imposing
it on everybody, at that point,” she said, “They did later” (New York Times). Additionally,

the head veil was concocted through adoption of “mid-Victorian bonnets and veils, nun

wimples” which were used to cover women’s hair, as it was unseemly for a married

woman to show. Markers such as a star for Jews or a pink triangle for gays can be

traced back to the holocaust, which undoubtedly influenced Margaret as she was born

into the era, and at the conception of The Handmaid’s Tale was in fact in Germany at

the time of the Berlin Wall. This class system was a way of “identifying people,

controlling people, it’s easy to see at once who this person is,” say Margaret in the New

York Times. Red was also used to identify prisoners of war in Canada, she adds, “who

had the privilege to wear because it shows up so very well in the snow.” Red also had

symbolism in Christianity and European Renaissance, “the Virgin Mary would inevitably

wear blue or blue-green, and Mary Magdalene would inevitably wear red.”

The Handmaid’s Tale is a story about a woman named Offred in the Republic of

Gilead, formerly the United States. The US government was overthrown by a military

coup and replaced by a totalitarian and theocratic government. Due to the decreasing

fertility and reproductive rates, the new government installed handmaids (fertile

women), to elite families to birth their children. Offred stays with the Commander, a

high-up official in the new government, and his wife Serena Joy. They engage in a

thruple of formal wordless sex, hoping to get Offred pregnant. The story is about

Offred’s time with the family, and the commander who likes to break the rules by taking

Offred out at night and allowing her to read magazines and play scrabble. Flashbacks

go back in time to Offred’s life before the Coup with her Husband Luke, her daughter,

and her best friend Moira who she interacts with minimally after the coup. Her family
she loses contact with. Offred’s shopping partner, Ofglen, is part of a secret

underground resistance called “May Day”. After revealing information with each other,

Ofglen conspicuously disappears and is replaced with a new Ofglen. Offred becomes

suspicious and eventually ends up escaping with the help of Nick, the Commander’s

butler who doubles as Offred’s lover and resistance leader. Offred flees to what was

once Maine, where she records the series of tapes that becomes this book. We do not

know what happens to her after.

Margaret announced on her website that she will be coming out with a sequel

novel called The Testaments, in September of 2019! Inspired by the recent fandom and

current events, she writes the sequel more than 30 years after the original.
Works cited

“An Interview with Margaret Atwood on Her Novel, The Handmaid's Tale.” Nashville

Public Library, Random House,



Atwood, Margaret. “Biography.” Margaret Atwood, 2018, margaretatwood.ca/biography/.

Atwood, Margaret. “Margaret Atwood on How She Came to Write The Handmaid's

Tale.” Literary Hub, 3 May 2018, lithub.com/margaret-atwood-on-how-she-came-to-


HAMMOND, KARLA, and Margaret Atwood. “An Interview With Margaret Atwood.” The

American Poetry Review, vol. 8, no. 5, 1979, pp. 27–29. JSTOR, JSTOR,


Howell, Jake. “Special Award Spotlight: Margaret Atwood.” Academy.ca, 5 Mar. 2018,


Setoodeh, Ramin. “Margaret Atwood on How Donald Trump Helped 'The Handmaid's

Tale'.” Variety, 11 Apr. 2018, variety.com/2018/tv/news/margaret-atwood-handmaids-


Vineyard, Jennifer. “Margaret Atwood Annotates Season 1 of 'The Handmaid's Tale'.”

The New York Times, The New York Times, 14 June 2017,



Wernick, Adam. “A 17th-Century Alleged Witch Inspired Margaret Atwood's 'The

Handmaid's Tale'.” Public Radio International, Studio 360, 13 May 2017,