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13 – The Handmaid’s Tale

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Top21SFThe Handmaid’s Tale, 1985
Margaret Atwood
(b. 1939)

 

TheHandmaidsTale(1stEd)Margaret Atwood is a prolific Canadian author – she writes in nearly every format but is best known for her novels. Like Ursula K. LeGuin, Atwood is also associated with feminism because she often writes about female characters oppressed by male hierarchy, although Atwood does not necessarily consider herself a feminist writer. The Handmaid’s Tale is probably the best known of her many celebrated books, and today it is generally regarded as a masterpiece of dystopian literature in the same class as 1984 and Brave New World.

The Handmaid’s Tale is set in a near-future in which a fundamentalist Christian totalitarian government rules the former United States. The protagonist Offred is a “handmaid” – a concubine – in the Republic of Gilead, where women’s rights and freedom of religion have been pretty much eradicated. A great deal of the novel describes the laws imposed on the new society by the military Christian government, the ensuing social hierarchy – and suffering.

Atwood’s writings – most frequently The Handmaid’s Tale and her novel Oryx and Crake (2003) – are frequently included in U.S. high school curricula, especially for the Advanced Placement English Literature and Composition course. Due to this wide exposure and to controversy arising from its depiction of sexuality, its satire and criticism of fundamentalist religion, and other strong themes, The Handmaid’s Tale is one of the most frequently challenged and banned books in the country.

I have not read as many of Atwood’s other books as I would like – The Handmaid’s Tale is a relatively early work, and she has had a long and fruitful career since it was first published more than thirty years ago.

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