The ‘timely’ dystopia of The Handmaid’s Tale

Tale as old as time: Elisabeth Moss plays a handmaid called Offred. © Hulu

Margaret Atwood’s terrifying work of “speculative fiction” is 32 years old. But as a new TV adaptation is launched in Trump’s America, its fans say the story is more relevant than ever…

Environmental disaster, antibiotic-resistant diseases, and fears of Islamic extremism have transformed liberal America. In a violent coup, a right-wing Christian regime has taken control of the country, now named the Republic of Gilead. The constitution has been “suspended”.

Welcome to the world of The Handmaid’s Tale, a dystopian novel written by Margaret Atwood.

When it was first published in 1985, the book became an instant modern classic. Now it is back. In February it overtook George Orwell’s 1984 on the Amazon bestseller list. And yesterday, the first three episodes of a new TV adaptation were released on the online streaming service Hulu.

Gilead is an extreme patriarchal society, where women have become second-class citizens. Thanks to a low birth rate, fertile women — including the main character, Offred — are forced to live with rich men and their barren wives, providing the couple with children.

These “handmaids” are forced to wear red uniforms, and are banned from reading or owning money. Abortion has been outlawed. Any infertile unmarried women are sent to clean up nuclear wastelands, or to indoctrinate the handmaids into their new lives.

The new TV show takes the time to explore and expand on Atwood’s nightmarish vision, in all its intricacies. It has also been updated for 2017; “The Plague of Infertility” is blamed on God’s hatred of dating apps, for example.

Many reviewers have noted the show’s “timely” release. This is not due to its references to Tinder, but because of the recent political events in the USA. Atwood herself has noted “the return to patriarchy” under President Trump.

The day after his inauguration in January, hundreds of thousands of women took to the streets to protest at his stance on women’s rights. They held up handmade signs with slogans like “Make Margaret Atwood fiction again”; “The Handmaid’s Tale is not an instruction manual”; and “No to the Republic of Gilead”.

Fact or fiction?

This is a clear overreaction, say some. Trump’s America is nothing like Gilead. For one thing, the president is not particularly religious; he has been through two divorces and likes to spend his Sundays on the golf course. And the fact that so many people are reading and watching Atwood’s story is proof that such a world would be met with strong resistance. There is no need to panic.

Don’t be so sure, warn others. Atwood did not include anything in her book that has not happened to women at some point throughout history. And although Trump may not be religious, many of his supporters are from the Christian right. The Handmaid’s Tale may not be a prophecy — but it is certainly a reminder of how easily years of progress can be reversed.

You Decide

  1. Is Margaret Atwood’s fiction really in danger of becoming fact?
  2. Why is dystopian fiction so popular?


  1. Using this article and The Day’s Connections feature under Become An Expert, list three things about Gilead you recognise from 2017, and three things you do not.
  2. Write your own short story set in a dystopian future. Include at least one element of life in 2017.

Some People Say...

“Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.”

Margaret Atwood

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
This month Donald Trump signed a law which allows states in the USA to cut funding for sexual health clinics like Planned Parenthood, if they also provide abortions. He has been accused of sexual assault by multiple women. His vice-president, Mike Pence, is a Conservative Christian who opposes abortion.
What do we not know?
Whether Trump is guilty of sexual assault, or whether he intends to roll back other forms of reproductive rights while he is in office.
What do people believe?
Feminists fear that Trump and his predominantly male cabinet are out to do just that. However, many of Trump’s supporters are in favour of banning abortion — and Trump himself says that he was “very, very good for women” while he was in business, often hiring them for top jobs.

Word Watch

TV adaptation
The show is an original production by Hulu. It was released yesterday in the USA. A UK date has not yet been announced.
The character “belongs” to a government official named Fred Waterford. Her name literally means “of Fred”, just as the surname “Williamson” once meant the “son of William”.
This arrangement is based on a story from Genesis in the Bible: Rachel, who is having trouble conceiving a child, tells her husband Jacob to impregnate her maid Bilhah, so “that I may also have children by her”.
Around 500,000 people attended the Women’s March on Washington on January 21st. Similar marches took place in cities around the world; it is thought that around 5m people took part.
For example, Atwood drew from 17th-century Puritans, contemporary Afghanistan, and 1960s Romania — when a declining birthrate was met with a ban on abortion and contraception. “The theory being that if human beings have done it once they can do it again,” Atwood says.
Christian right
Around 81% of white evangelical Christians voted for Trump in 2016.

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