Explained: The message behind Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale

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In a short YouTube video posted May 24, Canadian literary giant Margaret Atwood, 82, plays out what is increasingly a dystopian vision – she picks up a flamethrower and hurls it at her best-known work, The Handmaid’s Tale (1985).

The book does not burn, but that is precisely the purpose. In a world where books are increasingly falling victim to right-wing intolerance, the video was both publicity and protest. A special one-of-a-kind ‘imprintable’ version of Atwood’s masterpiece is up for auction at Sotheby’s until June 7. It also registers a protest against a culture of censorship that takes root in the world, and in particular in the United States.

Author Margaret Atwood. (AP Photo/File)

A joint project between Atwood, Penguin Random House publishing house, PEN International, independent creative agency Rethink and The Gas Company Inc., a graphic arts and bookbinding studio in Toronto, the auction has been announced ahead of PEN America’s annual fundraising gala dinner in New York on Monday. PEN America will be the recipient of the auction proceeds.

In a press note, Penguin Random House CEO Markus Dohle said, “We are at an urgent moment in our history, with ideas and truth – the foundations of our democracy – under attack. Few writers have played such a pivotal role in the fight for free speech as Margaret Atwood. To see his classic novel about the dangers of oppression reborn in this innovative and immortal edition is a timely reminder of what is at stake in the battle against censorship…”

Dystopia, she wrote: Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale

As the United States stands on the cusp of a landmark judgment that could overturn the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade verdict that made abortion a constitutional right in the country, The Handmaid’s Tale theme resonates particular.

Set in the Republic of Gilead, a futuristic totalitarian patriarchy that replaces the US government, The Handmaid’s Tale is a bold reimagining of a world where a fertility crisis is thwarted by a misogynistic biological determinism – a group of women known as servants are forced to become surrogates for the infertile wives of the ruling dispensation of commanders. Their histories and family relations erased, these servants become a simple reductive summation of their biological parts.

Disturbing and prescient, the novel was widely praised as a masterpiece that tackled gender, sexuality and inequality, and won a host of awards, including the Governor General’s Literary Award in 1985 and First Prize Arthur C Clarke in 1987. He was also shortlisted for the 1986 Booker Prize.

Throughout her career, the Booker Prize-winning feminist writer has insisted that the novel is less science fiction, more a reflection on the circumstances faced by women and men in different parts of the world. In 2019, The Testaments, his sequel to the novel, was released.

Teaching rewards, adaptations and bans

Since its publication, The Handmaid’s Tale has been reinterpreted and adapted through the media. In 1990, a film adaptation directed by Volker Schlöndorff was released, for which British playwright Harold Pinter wrote the screenplay. The Danish composer Poul Ruders adapted it into an opera created in 2000 in Copenhagen. In 2017, a critically acclaimed series was released on the OTT platform Hulu, for which Atwood was a consulting producer.

But as it worked its way into the pantheon of classics, the novel also encountered opposition and calls to ban it from being taught in literature programs in the United States. In 2006, a suburban school in San Antonio, Texas banned the book from its curriculum on the grounds of obscenity and sexual content. The ban was later overturned.

Also in 2020, her inclusion in a reading list for the twelfth grade at a Georgia high school in north Atlanta was challenged for “vulgarity and sexual overtones.” The book eventually made it onto the list. Over the years, challenges to including the book in the curriculum have come from schools primarily in Republican states.

In the press release, Atwood commented: “The Handmaid’s Tale has been banned many times – sometimes by entire countries, such as Portugal and Spain in the days of Salazar and the Francoists, sometimes by school boards, sometimes by libraries. Hopefully we won’t reach the stage of mass book burning, like in Fahrenheit 451. But if we do, hopefully some books will turn out to be non-flammable – that they will travel underground, like banned books made it to the Soviet Union.

Recent book prohibiting incidents in the United States

Atwood’s unique protest with the unburnable version of The Handmaid’s Tale comes in the wake of an ongoing right-wing cultural conservatism in the United States as well as several other parts of the world.

In January of this year, a school in Tennessee removed Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Holocaust graphic novel Maus from its eighth-grade curriculum, a decision that was later reversed. In March, The Bluest Eye (1970) by Nobel laureate Toni Morrison was reinstated in the Wentzville School District curriculum in St Louis, Missouri, after a class action lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri on behalf of students.

According to the American Library Association, which documents attempts to challenge and ban books in schools and libraries in the United States, there has been an unprecedented increase in calls for the banning of books in the country in the over the past decade, particularly on LGBTQ+ themes, representations of sexuality, race and religion. Besides Morrison and Atwood, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (1960); John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men (1937) and Alex Gino’s George (2015) have repeatedly appeared on banned book lists.

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