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 describes the novel as "a female Clockwork Orange." The Handmaid's Tale is "not science fiction in the usual sense," Atwood said. "It doesn't have spaceships or trips to Mars. But it is speculative fiction."
Like Brave New World by Aldous Huxley or Woman On The Edge Of Time by Marge Piercy, it belongs "to a long tradition of utopias—although in the 20th century, the vision is much bleaker and utopias have become dystopias."
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 poetry, and her works include The Edible Woman, Power Politics, 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—and insists that all her works are political. "Survival was a very political book," she said in a telephone interview from Toronto. "But so was Edible Woman. It all depends on your focus."
"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 love, 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."
The 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 which 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 handmaids. 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 society, 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."