Margaret Atwood was born in Ottawa, Ontario, on November 18, 1939. She published
her first book of poetry in 1961 while attending the University of Toronto. She later
received degrees from both Radcliffe College and Harvard University, and pursued a
career in teaching at the university level. Her first novel, The Edible Woman, was
published in 1969 to wide acclaim. Atwood continued teaching as her literary career
blossomed. She has lectured widely and has served as a writer-in--residence at colleges
ranging from the University of Toronto to Macquarie University in Australia.
Atwood wrote The Handmaid’s Tale in West Berlin and Alabama in the mid-1980s. The
novel, published in 1986, quickly became a best-seller. The Handmaid’s Tale falls
squarely within the twentieth-century tradition of anti-utopian, or “dystopian” novels,
exemplified by classics like Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and George Orwell’s
1984. Novels in this genre present imagined worlds and societies that are not ideals, but
instead are terrifying or restrictive. Atwood’s novel offers a strongly feminist vision of
dystopia. She wrote it shortly after the elections of Ronald Reagan in the United States
and Margaret Thatcher in Great Britain, during a period of conservative revival in the
West partly fueled by a strong, well-organized movement of religious conservatives who
criticized what they perceived as the excesses of the “sexual revolution” of the 1960s and
1970s. The growing power of this “religious right” heightened feminist fears that the
gains women had made in previous decades would be reversed.
In The Handmaid’s Tale, Atwood explores the consequences of a reversal of women’s
rights. In the novel’s nightmare world of Gilead, a group of conservative religious
extremists has taken power and turned the sexual revolution on its head. Feminists argued
for liberation from traditional gender roles, but Gilead is a society founded on a “return to
traditional values” and gender roles, and on the subjugation of women by men. What
feminists considered the great triumphs of the 1970s—namely, widespread access to
contraception, the legalization of abortion, and the increasing political influence of
female voters—have all been undone. Women in Gilead are not only forbidden to vote,
they are forbidden to read or write. Atwood’s novel also paints a picture of a world
undone by pollution and infertility, reflecting 1980s fears about declining birthrates, the
dangers of nuclear power, and -environmental degradation.
Some of the novel’s concerns seem dated today, and its implicit condemnation of the
political goals of America’s religious conservatives has been criticized as unfair and
overly paranoid. Nonetheless, The Handmaid’s Tale remains one of the most powerful
recent portrayals of a totalitarian society, and one of the few dystopian novels to examine
in detail the intersection of politics and sexuality. The novel’s exploration of the
controversial politics of reproduction seems likely to guarantee Atwood’s novel a
readership well into the twenty-first century.
Atwood lives in Toronto with novelist Graeme Gibson and their daughter, Jess. Her most
recent novel, The Blind Assassin, won Great Britain’s Booker Prize for literature in 2000.