Margaret Atwood has a new warning about The Handmaid’s Tale

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Kayleigh Dray
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Margaret Atwood’s feminist dystopia – which details a bleak American future where women are forced into a life of sexual servitude and surrogacy –  was first published in 1985, but The Handmaid’s Tale is back at the top of the bestseller’s list in 2017.

This renewed interest in the book is, in part, due to the upcoming TV adaptation, but it’s more than that. In fact, Atwood herself believes that people are turning to her novel now because they are afraid of what the future holds.

Speaking to The Guardian, the 77-year-old author explained: “When it first came out it was viewed as being far-fetched. However, when I wrote it I was making sure I wasn’t putting anything into it that humans had not already done somewhere at some time.”

Or, more succinctly, Atwood’s tale is based on real-life events – and she’s warned that history often repeats itself.

“You are seeing a bubbling up of it now,” she said, referring to President Trump’s abortion gagging order. “It’s back to 17th-century puritan values of New England at that time in which women were pretty low on the hierarchy.”

The Handmaid’s Tale, as fans of the book will already know, is narrated by Offred, one of Gilead’s few remaining fertile women. As a result of her reproductive status, she finds herself forced into the role of a ‘Handmaid’, where her goal is simple; to produce a baby for The Commander, or be sent to work – and die – in the radioactive colonies.

Her sole hope is to be reunited with the daughter who was taken from her – but, at the end of the novel, Offred’s fate remains unclear. Was she executed by Gilead’s rulers? Or did she manage to escape to Canada, a place considered far safer than the misogynist Republic of Gilead?

It all sounds painfully reminiscent of modern-day America. And, for those who think a dictator that controls women so that they can only serve as slaves, wives, and servants seems far-fetched, Atwood has another warning.

“We think as progress being a straight line forever upwards,” she explained to The Guardian. “But it never has been so, you can think you are being a liberal democracy but then — bang — you’re Hitler’s Germany.

“That can happen very suddenly.”

It is not the first time that Atwood has warned us that Trump’s America is in danger of becoming a real-life Gilead. 

During last year’s controversial presidential election, a pair of maps went viral on social media; one showed how the US would look if only men voted, coloured almost entirely in red to represent their affinity for Republican candidate Donald Trump.

The other showed how the US would look if only women voted: almost entirely blue, aka the colour of Hillary Clinton, the Democratic's candidate. 

Addressing the backlash these maps created, Atwood said: “It spawned a hashtag called #Repealthe19th. The 19th Amendment is what gave women the vote. So there are Trump supporters who want to take the vote away from women.

The Handmaid’s Tale [is] unfolding in front of your very eyes.”

And, in a separate essay, in which she wrote about the success of her 1985 novel, Atwood again explained that the prevailing sense of horror felt throughout her work stems from the fact that it is rooted primarily in reality.

“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,” she said.

“The group-activated hangings, the tearing apart of human beings, the clothing specific to castes and classes, the forced childbearing and the appropriation of the results, the children stolen by regimes and placed for upbringing with high-ranking officials, the forbidding of literacy, the denial of property rights: all had precedents.”

The Handmaid’s Tale premieres on Hulu on 26 April.



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Kayleigh Dray

Kayleigh Dray is Stylist’s digital editor-at-large. Her specialist topics include comic books, films, TV and feminism. On a weekend, you can usually find her drinking copious amounts of tea and playing boardgames with her friends.