From Margaret Atwood's MasterClass

Speculative Fiction Case Study: The Handmaid’s Tale

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

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

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

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

Margaret Atwood

Teaches Creative Writing

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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.

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Comments

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.

Rosie

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.

Meg

I found this lesson, on the research underpinning The Handmaid's Tale, extraordinarily good. It is a testament to Margaret Atwood's wide and deep scope of knowledge, derived from so many sources (for eg., mythologies and ideologies of origin, history books, news media, academic papers, observations in situ, and of course the corpus of world literature. Likely I've missed some.) Only very recently in the history of human habitation on the planet have these literary sources included, to any significant degree, the viewpoints of women, or their imagined experiences in life so far. Margaret Atwood is one of few who have very substantially changed this literary past into a promising and creative path forward. I find The Handmaid's Tale completely plausible, sadly. But it is illuminating and should be required reading for anyone who desires or contemplates a future world with different possibilities.

Matthias and Shirah O.

I find it interesting that she referred to Mormons as a "totalitarian regime." If she found her material in old newspaper clippings though, that would make sense, because in the late 1800s, Latter-Day Saints were hated by Missourians for being pro abolishing slavery. Naturally the propaganda of the time would paint them in a negative light. "False news" as it were. There are actually historical museums in the state now that explain all of this. Just something to consider when doing your research on an earlier period. :)

Marina F.

Brilliant. I loved this lesson particularly because I'm fascinating by the proccess of researching historical periods and facts to use in tales and novels. The whole world has secret stories to tell, and fiction is allowed to light up these details and to give them a new life.

Cameron C.

Anyone else love doing research and end up falling into 'research holes' only to 'awaken' hours later wondering where your writing time went?