Speculative Fiction Case Study: The Handmaid’s Tale

Margaret Atwood

Lesson time 14:35 min

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

Margaret Atwood
Teaches Creative Writing
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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"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...

The art of powerful storytelling

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.


Students give MasterClass an average rating of 4.7 out of 5 stars.

She is masterful, insightful, and, like a true storyteller, created lesson after lesson in an engaging way. I look forward to coming back again.

There are just too many things I have learnt from this class. The only thing I'm sure about is, I will keep writing no matter what may happen.

Thank you Margaret! This has been a really helpful, honest, class with actionable advice and exercises. Margaret is smart and funny, a joy to learn from.

The class was well paced for me, the lessons in nicely sized chunks to assimilate. The work sheets had great resources and invited me to do things that generally I would not consider. Ms. Atwood is a charming, engaging teacher. I am just beginning to take my writing seriously and she was a great start to doing so. I cannot thank her and MasterClass enough for the opportunity.


Andrea P.

I used to think that I would not be able to write fiction because I don't feel capable of creating new worlds. But, thanks to Margaret, I see that there's plenty in our history, and in our past/present/future to research from and find inspiration. She's truly captivating. I also appreciate all the little details she gives about things she learned.

John V.

I love her practicality and storytelling. She’s beautifully entertaining.

Suzanne B.

Though I'm having trouble downloading some of the videos, I absolutely loved chapter 17 (in the workbook) The Novel and the Shifting Sands of Genre. Margaret has made so many great reading suggestions and links i.e. to a James Wood article where he discusses the history of the realist novel, what Margaret calls a “shape-changer” of a form. From tropes and cliches to formless, philosophical ramblings, and challenging literary forms the novel is alive and well. I am hugely grateful for this work.


Being able to see the research behind someone else's work makes it feel a lot less daunting for my own. This was incredibly helpful!

Gareth S.

Margaret has made writing easier by telling us all about her research. I found this lesson, on the research underpinning "The Handmaid's Tale", excellent.

Caetlin W.

I really appreciated this inside look at the research behind The Handmaid's Tale. I've heard Margaret Atwood say that everything in it was based on true historical events, but I've never seen the sources. It was very fascinating to see the specific articles and pivotal moments in history that she used to craft this compelling tale.


Margaret suddenly made writing seem easier by telling us all her research. This genre doesn't require huge imagination. I have been writing a speculative novel of sorts without realising it, but I have based it on what I have experienced rather than history. Also I have realised that my referencing is crap.

J'nee H.

Was anyone else just waiting for her to cover A Hand Maids Tale? I was! It did not disappoint! Her approach to research is so interesting and well webbed together in her novel. I have lived as an American Expat in Asia for nearly 10 years and couldn't help but think of how China is moving away from bills and coins and promoting the use of WePay and WeChat as a mechanism for control. (Just like her research.) Their resulting social credit system is dystopian. It makes me want to stash some cash. It also made me think of the future global populations. India is going to have the youngest and largest global population on Earth. While China, due to previous population control policies does not have enough women. In Hong Kong they are bringing women back into the households by granting Philippino helpers (mostly women) visas to come live in a home, do the housework, care for the elderly, mind the pets and handle the marketing (grocery shopping.) Reply | Like | Report post | Delete | 19 minutes ago

Sandra K.

LIstening to Margaret Atwood speak about the speculative fiction genre is such a privilege since she just about created the genre in my opinion. Dystopian based fiction has a way of manifesting itself in reality, at least in part. When a writer is as diligent as MA in researching historical social patterns, adding to that extraordinary intuition and insights it’s not hard to see to how a chilling story like “Handmaid’s Tale” comes to life. Creative people have been using their gifts to teach and guide and even warn societies since the first cave painting. Writers such as Margaret Atwood are emissaries.

Kathryn W.

For me, the benefit of chapters like this one is that they are a practical insight into the research and creative processes required in getting a book to market. Whether you agree with the ideas or the novel presented in the chapter or not is irrelevant, in my opinion. What is relevant is the demonstration of the amount of work, depth of understanding of your material and awareness of how your material relates to what else is happening and/or being written about in the world. For me, this is what is useful and pertinent to my own writing experience.