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The Handmaid's Tale: 10 intriguing facts about Margaret Atwood's dystopian novel

From its original title to the cleanser package that inspired the handmaids' outfits.

From its original title to the cleanser package that inspired the handmaids' outfits.

Margaret Atwood (Aaron Vincent Elkaim/Canadian Press)

When Margaret Atwood sat down to write The Handmaid's Tale, little did she know that, 30 years later, it would be just as politically relevant — perhaps even more so.

Often cited as a landmark feminist work, the dystopian tale takes place in a near-future religious dictatorship, where a class of women known as "handmaids" are confined and used for reproductive purposes.

The Governor General's Award-winning novel has long been considered one of Canada's most important, and many say it prophesied our current political climate — and with a new high-profile TV series, it's squarely back in the limelight.

So to mark the occasion, we've gathered 10 little-known facts about the harrowing work of near-truth fiction.


1. The Handmaid's Tale isn't science fiction

Atwood insists the novel is speculative fiction, not science fiction, and that the frightening scenarios she offered were merely extensions of things that had actually happened somewhere at some time. "The group-activated hangings, the tearing apart of human beings, the clothing specific to castes and classes, the forced childbearing and the appropriation of the results, the children stolen by regimes and placed for upbringing with high-ranking officials, the forbidding of literacy, the denial of property rights: all had precedents," she says, "and many were to be found not in other cultures and religions, but within Western society, and within the 'Christian' tradition, itself."

2. Atwood wrote the book in longhand on yellow legal notepads

Atwood wrote the book in longhand, mostly on yellow legal notepads, while living in West Berlin before the fall of the Berlin Wall. She then transcribed what she calls her "almost illegible scrawlings" using a German-language manual typewriter she rented.

The first edition cover of Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale. (McClelland and Stewart)

3. Germany's influence wasn't limited to Atwood's rented typewriter

Atwood cites many influences for the novel, among them her interest in dystopian literature (Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, Huxley's Brave New World and Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451) as an adolescent; her study of 17th- and 18th-century America at Harvard; and her fascination with dictatorships and how they function, which she attributes, in part, to the fact that she was born three months after the start of World War II.

Her experience of living in Germany when she was writing also played a part. "Every Sunday the East German Air Force made sonic booms to remind us of how close they were," she writes. "During my visits to several countries behind the Iron Curtain — Czechoslovakia, East Germany — I experienced the wariness, the feeling of being spied on, the silences, the changes of subject, the oblique ways in which people might convey information, and these had an influence on what I was writing."

4. The book's original title was Offred, the name of the central character

Before it became The Handmaid's Tale, Atwood called the book Offred, which is the name of the central character. The name consists of a man's first name (Fred) and a prefix that denotes ownership (Of) — as in "of Fred." Atwood says there's another layer to the name, too: "Within this name is concealed another possibility: 'offered,' denoting a religious offering or a victim offered for sacrifice," she wrote in a recent New York Times essay.

5. She wrote the book because it was getting in the way of another one

"I was writing another novel and this one kept getting into it and messing it up, and it became obvious that I would never be able to write the novel I was writing unless I wrote this one," she told the New York Times in 1986. "So I stopped writing the other one and started writing this one.''

Alexander Gamayunov and Amanda Green in the Royal Winnipeg Ballet's production of The Handmaid's Tale (Réjean Brandt Photography)

6. The Handmaid's Tale is not strictly a feminist work

Atwood says that while many observations that informed the book are feminist, it's not primarily a feminist work — but rather one about power and dominance. In a 1986 interview, she explained that the book is "a study of power, and how it operates and how it deforms or shapes the people who are living within that kind of regime."

7. The modesty costumes worn by the women of Gilead were partly inspired by a cleanser package

The modesty costumes the women of Gilead wear are drawn from Western religious iconography — the blue of purity from the Virgin Mary; red from the blood of parturition as well as from Mary Magdalene. The face-hiding bonnets came from Victorian costumes and from nuns, but also from the Old Dutch cleanser package of the 1940s "which showed a woman with her face hidden, and which frightened me as a child," says Atwood.

8. Since it was 1st published, The Handmaid's Tale has never been out of print

The novel has sold millions of copies worldwide and has appeared in myriad translations and editions; it's also been turned into an opera, a ballet, multiple stage plays, a radio drama and more. Some fans have even sent Atwood photos of their Handmaid's Tale tattoos. When people speak or write about policy shifts aimed at controlling women, in particular their reproductive rights, they often refer to it as "like something out of The Handmaid's Tale."

9. The book has been challenged or even removed from many high schools

The Handmaid's Tale is often taught in high schools — and historically, it's one of the most-challenged books of all time. In schools from California to Massachusetts, and from Florida to Iowa, the novel has either been challenged or removed over claims of profanity, statements that are defamatory to God, illicit sex, violence, hopelessness and more.

10. The Handmaid's Tale is not a prediction

The novel isn't a prediction, says Atwood, because predicting the future isn't possible; there are too many variables. "Let's say it's an anti-prediction: If this future can be described in detail, maybe it won't happen," she says. "But such wishful thinking cannot be depended on either."

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