Margaret Atwood was born in Ottawa, Ontario, on November 18, 1939. She published her first book of poetry in 1961 while attending the University of Toronto. She later received degrees from both Radcliffe College and Harvard University, and pursued a career in teaching at the university level. Her first novel, The Edible Woman, was published in 1969 to wide acclaim. Atwood continued teaching as her literary career blossomed. She has lectured widely and has served as a writer-in--residence at colleges ranging from the University of Toronto to Macquarie University in Australia.
Atwood wrote The Handmaid’s Tale in West Berlin and Alabama in the mid-1980s. The novel, published in 1986, quickly became a best-seller. The Handmaid’s Tale falls squarely within the twentieth-century tradition of anti-utopian, or “dystopian” novels, exemplified by classics like Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and George Orwell’s 1984. Novels in this genre present imagined worlds and societies that are not ideals, but instead are terrifying or restrictive. Atwood’s novel offers a strongly feminist vision of dystopia. She wrote it shortly after the elections of Ronald Reagan in the United States and Margaret Thatcher in Great Britain, during a period of conservative revival in the West partly fueled by a strong, well-organized movement of religious conservatives who criticized what they perceived as the excesses of the “sexual revolution” of the 1960s and 1970s. The growing power of this “religious right” heightened feminist fears that the gains women had made in previous decades would be reversed.
In The Handmaid’s Tale, Atwood explores the consequences of a reversal of women’s rights. In the novel’s nightmare world of Gilead, a group of conservative religious extremists has taken power and turned the sexual revolution on its head. Feminists argued for liberation from traditional gender roles, but Gilead is a society founded on a “return to traditional values” and gender roles, and on the subjugation of women by men. What feminists considered the great triumphs of the 1970s—namely, widespread access to contraception, the legalization of abortion, and the increasing political influence of female voters—have all been undone. Women in Gilead are not only forbidden to vote, they are forbidden to read or write. Atwood’s novel also paints a picture of a world undone by pollution and infertility, reflecting 1980s fears about declining birthrates, the dangers of nuclear power, and -environmental degradation.
Some of the novel’s concerns seem dated today, and its implicit condemnation of the political goals of America’s religious conservatives has been criticized as unfair and overly paranoid. Nonetheless, The Handmaid’s Tale remains one of the most powerful recent portrayals of a totalitarian society, and one of the few dystopian novels to examine in detail the intersection of politics and sexuality. The novel’s exploration of the controversial politics of reproduction seems likely to guarantee Atwood’s novel a readership well into the twenty-first century.
Atwood lives in Toronto with novelist Graeme Gibson and their daughter, Jess. Her most recent novel, The Blind Assassin, won Great Britain’s Booker Prize for literature in 2000.