Writing, Arts & Entertainment

Speculative Fiction Case Study: The Handmaid’s Tale

Margaret Atwood

Lesson time 14:34 min

Margaret reveals the ideas and research that inspired The Handmaid’s Tale, offering a first-hand look at some of these materials.

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Topics include: The Premise • The Inspiration • The Research • The Iconography


"The Handmaid's Tale" is about a future society that has replaced the United States, as we know it today. And it's called Gilead. And we follow the fortunes of one of the inhabitants of it. It's a society that has regulated people into castes. They are identified by the kind of clothing that they wear. And certain women, who have the now rare ability to have children, are called handmaids. So the handmaids are allocated to the top people in the society and their wives, in order to act as surrogate mothers for them. The wives then get the children. And the handmaid has to move on. So that is their function. And we follow the story of one of these women. And that is straight out of the Bible, because in name it is a biblical kind of totalitarianism. And in the Bible, we have Rachel and Leah. And then we have a baby contest between them. And in order to have more babies, they enlist their handmaids and have babies by the handmaids, which they themselves get to name and to keep. So that's the model for it, much as under Hitler there were these biological wives. So if you were an SS man, you could have more than one woman, to produce more little SS children. At that time I was living in West Berlin. The wall around West Berlin was still in place. And therefore, I was seeing all of this in action. What kicked it off was a conversation I was having with a friend of mine. And what we were talking about was the idea that some people were already having then, that women should go back into the home. So if women should go back into the home, how are you going to get them there? So that was a problem to be solved. [MUSIC PLAYING] "The Handmaid's Tale" came from three different, let us say, bodies of knowledge. The 17th century Puritans, who had their stronghold in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where this novel is set. Harvard started as a theological seminary. And the 17th century Puritans were not Democrats. This was not a democratic society. It was a theocracy. And they had some pretty interesting rules. For instance, pointing and laughing were quite frowned upon. And so were Quakers. They were not fond of Quakers. They hanged some of them. So I had studied this because I had to. I had to fill my gap. And I was lucky enough to have a man called Perry Miller, who originated the study of American Puritans in American universities and was still teaching at that time. So these were also some of my ancestors. They were in those Quaker-hanging Puritans. So I was pretty interested in them. That was one. Number two was my study of utopias and dystopias as literary forms. So I was one of those teenagers who was reading "Brave New World." I was reading "1984," about the time it was first published. First edition, paperback, I still have it. Those sorts of books, Ray Bradbury, John Wyndham, I was mainlining those as a teenager. And I had always pretty much wanted to write one. But most of them were from the point of view of men. So...

About the Instructor

Called the “Prophet of Dystopia,” Margaret Atwood is one of the most influential literary voices of our generation. In her first-ever online writing class, the author of The Handmaid’s Tale teaches how she crafts compelling stories, from historical to speculative fiction, that remain timeless and relevant. Explore Margaret’s creative process for developing ideas into novels with strong structures and nuanced characters.

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Margaret Atwood

Learn how the author of The Handmaid’s Tale crafts vivid prose and hooks readers with her timeless approach to storytelling.

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