Read Candid Margaret Atwood Essay on Dystopia


In an essay for The New York Times, author Margaret Atwood addresses the inescapable political overtones and lasting legacy of The Handmaid’s Tale.

You don’t need to go out of your way to find relevant pop culture these days. Even the most patently escapist fare, from the latest Star Wars movie to the ABC show Designated Survivor, is riddled with reminders of real-life anxieties like shards of shrapnel. Of course, some stories are more overt in their political commentary – dystopian fiction, for example. George Orwell’s Cold War classic 1984 shot up the bestseller list after the 2016 election, and Alfonso Cuarón’s 2006 film Children of Men received renewed attention.

But perhaps no work of fiction has seen a more drastic boost in relevance than The Handmaid’s Tale.  The 1985 Margaret Atwood novel chronicles one woman’s struggle to survive in a nation ruled by chauvinistic religious extremists. Formed after a staged terrorist attack that wiped out most of the government, the Republic of Gilead denies women many basic rights, granting their husbands near-absolute authority. Offred, the heroine, belongs to a class of women whose sole purpose is to produce offspring for powerful men.

The issues of religious fanaticism and reproductive freedom that the book touches on have been relevant since its publication during the Reagan era. Still, there’s no question that its portrait of a repressive dictatorship feels more believable now than it has in a while.

Atwood herself acknowledged this in a recent essay for The New York Times. The Canadian author first explains her thought process for designing Gilead. Having grown up during World War II and the Cold War, she knew totalitarianism wasn’t impossible. Every element of The Handmaid’s Tale, she emphasizes, is derived from history. That extends to its setting in New England, a place steeped in the “Puritan roots that have always lain beneath the modern-day America we thought we knew.”

Even the most rigorously researched dystopia can still feel abstract, though. Here, the upcoming Hulu miniseries has a prime opportunity. It can help us not only imagine Gilead and Offred’s existence, but visualize it, bringing the Handmaids’ old-fashioned, color-coded garments to vivid life. Images, like words, have power. In her essay, Atwood recounts the distressing experience of filming a scene for the show that depicts women bullying one of their own. Seen, the women become human – and all the more terrifying.

Ultimately, The Handmaid’s Tale is about storytelling – what Atwood calls “the literature of witness”. For all its regrettable prescience, it wasn’t meant to predict the future but to, hopefully, prevent it. “If this future can be described in detail,” Atwood muses, “maybe it won’t happen.” Even if that fails, however, it doesn’t render stories useless. Stories are artifacts, the remnants of bygone worlds and people; they let the dead communicate with the living. As Atwood writes:

"Offred records her story as best she can; then she hides it, trusting that it may be discovered later, by someone who is free to understand it and share it. This is an act of hope: Every recorded story implies a future reader."

It’s worth reading the whole essay, as much for its eloquence as its insight. And while you’re at it, go ahead and re-read The Handmaid’s Tale. You might learn something.

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Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale is set for an April 26 premiere.