Library exhibit illuminates dark themes of Margaret Atwood’s ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’

Author Margaret Atwood
Author Margaret Atwood speaks with guests at a reception before a lecture on her book The Handmaid’s Tale at Zellerbach Hall on earlier this month. (Photo by Peg Skorpinski/UC Berkeley)

Margaret Atwood’s dystopian classic, The Handmaid’s Tale, is not a book about heroes or villains or gods or apocalypse.

It’s not exactly about the future, either — at least it wasn’t supposed to be.

As Atwood told a packed Zellerbach Hall last week, “You don’t write this kind of book hoping it will happen.”

The Handmaid’s Tale is a story of ordinary people caught in extraordinary times,” Atwood said. “As for us — we who are not being written by an author, or living inside a book — we are now living in extraordinary times.”

This year, UC Berkeley’s College of Letters & Science has chosen The Handmaid’s Tale as the focus for its On the Same Page program, designed to gather the campus community around one critical work. To complement the book’s selection, Corliss Lee, a librarian in the Instruction Services Division, has curated a new exhibit on Moffitt Library’s third floor to shed light on the book’s dark themes and the historical horrors on which the book is based.

Atwood’s 1985 work tells the story of a theocratic, totalitarian government that seizes control of women’s bodies after environmental toxins have rendered women in the ruling class infertile. Viable females are stripped from their families and forced into ritualistic sex with military commanders. To maintain submission, the women — called handmaids, identified by their long red gowns — are not allowed to read or write, and their movements are watched by secret police.

In 2017, The Handmaid’s Tale was adapted into a hit television series by Hulu. That same year, following President Donald Trump’s inauguration, protesters cloaked in red gowns swept through marches and courtrooms around the world as governments wrangled over women’s sexual and reproductive rights.

“Why is the series so successful?” asked Atwood during the keynote lecture for On the Same Page. “Because it’s very good, yes, but also because things are coming a little too close to the line that is supposed to divide fiction from reality.

“And I’m sorry about that — I didn’t do it. Next time, vote. Just sayin’.”

The show, for which Atwood serves as a consulting producer, diverges from the book but adheres to the author’s one stipulation: As with the original novel, the show may include only plotlines that have a “precedent in history or elsewhere on the planet.” The practice of using women as captive surrogates is based on the biblical story of Rachel, who gives her handmaid, Bilhah, to Jacob so he can have children by her.

“If I was to create an imaginary garden, I wanted the toads in it to be real,” Atwood writes in the book’s introduction. “One of my rules was that I would not put any events into the book that had not already happened in what James Joyce called the ‘nightmare’ of history.”

The universe of Handmaid’s Tale also borrows from the Nazi regime, American slavery, Soviet spies, and other global tyrannies. The forced illiteracy is based on the treatment of slaves in the 1800s; the colored robes echo the classification system in Nazi Germany; and the separation of women and children was inspired by Argentinian generals who, in the 1970s and 1980s, killed suspected dissidents and gave their babies to members of the upper class.


Exhibit case in Moffitt Library
An exhibit in Moffitt Library explores some of the sources of the dark themes in The Handmaid's Tale (Photo by J. Pierre Carrillo for the UC Berkeley Library)

Because of the historical nature of the book, Lee, the curator of the Library’s exhibit, decided to focus on what she calls the story’s “antecedents” — on which there is a trove of information in the Library’s collections. In the exhibit, quotes from the book are paired with relevant Library materials — from maps of the underground railroad used by Harriet Tubman (in Handmaid’s Tale, there is an underground escape route to Canada) to UC Berkeley research on cases of infertility of frogs caused by pesticides.

“My goal is always to remind students of the kinds of materials there are in the Library — we have videos, we have books, we have journals,” she said. “I want them to remember that all of these things happened in history and that we’ve got materials about it.

“That’s part of what the Library is about — to preserve the written record.”

The exhibit also explores women’s fight for equality in the United States — “a small political act” on Lee’s part to remind young women of how fragile recent victories may be. Before the 1970s, as the exhibit details, women could not have legal abortions in most states; have a credit card in their own name; report cases of sexual assault at the workplace; or refuse to have sex with their husbands.

“A lot of people think that we don’t need feminism anymore,” Lee said. “They don’t understand, first of all, how hard-fought those battles were, how recent all of that is, and, now, how we’re backsliding — a lot of these things are being challenged again. We may go back to all this stuff.”

Katherine Snyder, a UC Berkeley English professor who is teaching the freshman seminar on the novel this fall, said the book was an apt selection for the freshman program because of its “newly urgent relevance” and the novel’s twisting, metaphorical language that demands interpretation and reflection.

One key function of dystopian literature, she said, is to challenge readers to evaluate the world we live in and “think about what we can do to avoid this seemingly eventuality.”

“I think that’s what dystopian literature is for, in many ways,” she said. “There’s a real desire to read these things, and I think it has something to do with looking at these worlds and thinking: Is this our world, and could this be our world?”

Author speaks with guests
Atwood, right, speaks to guests at a reception before her lecture on Aug. 23. Atwood said during her lecture, “You don’t write this kind of book hoping it will happen.” (Photo by Peg Skorpinski/UC Berkeley)

For Evan Fradin, a senior who attended Atwood’s talk, the book is particularly traumatizing because of the theory that history may repeat itself. He called the book “hyper-relevant” in light of the #MeToo movement and the leadership of a president who has bragged on tape of grabbing women inappropriately yet has been forgiven or excused by many voters.

In Handmaid’s Tale, right before the narrator, Offred (handmaids are named after the men they serve; Offred means “of Fred”) recounts her first illicit meeting with the Commander, she offers this food for thought:

“If you happen to be a man, sometime in the future,” she says, “and you’ve made it this far, please remember: you will never be subjected to the temptation or feeling you must forgive, a man, as a woman. …

“Maybe none of this is about control,” Offred continues. “Maybe it isn’t really about who can own whom … who can sit and who has to kneel or stand or lie down, legs spread open.

“Maybe it’s about who can do what to whom and be forgiven for it.”


Listen to an interview with Atwood below on Berkeley's Fiat Vox podcast.