Blast from the past (1985): Atwood talks about The Handmaid’s Tale

Wow, three decades and change: whoosh! Where did those 32 years go? Back in 1985, when Margaret Atwood published The Handmaid’s Tale, I interviewed her and wrote as follows. . . . then included the piece in Canada’s Undeclared War: Fighting Words from the Literary Trenches.

Call it “a feminist 1984″
and Margaret Atwood won’t
argue. But she
the novel as “a female
Clockwork Orange.” The
Tale is “not science fiction in the usual sense,” Atwood said.
“It doesn’t have spaceships or trips to Mars. But it is speculative

Like Brave
New World
by Aldous Huxley or Woman
On The Edge Of Time
by Marge Piercy, it belongs “to a long tradition of
in the
20th century, the vision is much bleaker and utopias have become

While writing The
Handmaid’s Tale,
Atwood was “very conscious” of this tradition, which began in the 16th
century with Sir Thomas More’s
Utopia and includes Samuel Butler’s classic Erewhon.

During the 1960s, when she
was a graduate student at Harvard, Atwood
studied the 19th century intensely “and a
lot of utopias were written then.”

Born in 1939, Atwood is widely regarded as the
pre-eminent Canadian
author of her generation. She has published fiction, criticism and
and her works include The
Edible Woman,
Surfacing, Survival, Lady Oracle, Life Before Man and Bodily Harm.

Has her work become increasingly political?

Atwood resists the idea. She long ago defined
politics as “who does
what to whom”—that definition appears again in The
Handmaid’s Tale—
insists that all her works are political.
was a very political book,” she said in a telephone interview
from Toronto. “But so was
Edible Woman.
It all depends on your

“It isn’t true that
the novel is not a political form,” she said. The genre
“has gone through occasional periods of
privatism, but it has also been used
throughout the ages for social comment.” 
To an Irishman, even the supremely detached
James Joyce was politi­cal, Atwood said. And British novelist D.H. Lawrence,
the high priest of
was “very class-oriented.”

In Canada, Rudy Wiebe has explored the politics of Indians and Mennonites, and Mordecai Richler writes
“very, very pointed social
satire.” The Quebec novel has always been politically engaged.

“The world is getting
more explicitly political,” Atwood said. “It’s no
longer possible for us to live only in our
private lives. We can’t exist in that
exclusively personal world anymore.”

Set in the near future, The
Handmaid’s Tale “is
an extrapolation of present trends,” she said. “It’s set in the U.S. partly because
I lived there
for four years, but also
because trends happen there first. Here in Canada,
we don’t see the structure. We’re too cautious,
too egalitarian.”

The effects of pollution,
for example, “are having an impact on the birth rate right now,”
Atwood said. “And it’s going to lead to a situation
such as the one I describe.”

Handmaid’s Tale,
however, is “as much about the past as about the present,” she said. “There’s
nothing in it that hasn’t actually happened somewhere. Polygamy? Check out the
Mormon Church. Public hangings?
They were standard in the 19th century.”

Atwood got the idea for the
novel in 1981. She spent one year “actively
writing it” in three different places—West
Berlin, Toronto and Alabama. 
The book’s title recalls The
Canterbury Tales
and so pays subtle homage to Geoffrey Chaucer. But it alludes mainly to the Bible, in
handmaids are described as
bearing children for their mistresses.

Of the 12 tribes of Israel
fathered by Jacob, Atwood said, eight came
from children born to his wives, and four from
those born to their hand­
maids. One of her novel’s three epigraphs is taken from Genesis, where Rachel says to Jacob: “Behold my maid
Bilhah, go in unto her; and she shall bear upon my knees, that I may also have
children by her.”

Atwood chose, as her first-person narrator, a
new-age handmaid. This
young woman has been re-educated, and her job, her sole function, is to bear a child for her “commander.” To
this end, she is stringently controlled
and kept ignorant of the world around her.

“I wanted to work with a single person who was part of the
and see how much I could
tell through that person,” Atwood said. “When
you’re unable to read, it’s very hard to know
what’s going on.”

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