Critical Insights: The Handmaid's Tale

Critical Insights Series

The series focuses on an individual author's entire body of work, a single work of literature, or a literary theme.

At a Glance
  • 1 Volume; 300 Pages
  • 10-14 essays offering Current Critical Analysis by Top Literary Scholars
  • Introductory Essay by the Editor
  • Chronology of Author's Life
  • Complete List of Author's Works
  • Publication Dates of Works
  • Detailed Bio of the Editor
  • General Bibliography
  • General Subject Index
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Edited by J. Brooks Bouson

A great starting point for students seeking an introduction to Atwood and the critical discussions surrounding her work.

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Editor: J. Brooks Bouson,
Professor of English, Loyola University Chicago
September 2009 · 1 volume · 336 pages · 6"x9"

Includes Online Database with Print Purchase
ISBN: 978-1-58765-620-0
# of Pages: 366
# of Volumes: 1
Print List Price: $105
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e-ISBN: 978-1-58765-621-7
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In-depth discussions of Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale - Plus complimentary, unlimited online access to the full content of this great literary reference.

The Handmaid's Tale won international acclaim when it was first published in 1985; with it, Margaret Atwood won Canada's Governor General's Award as well as the Arthur C. Clarke Award and was nominated for the Booker Prize. Written in the midst of the anti-feminist backlash and the culture wars of the 1980s, readers recognized it as a timely and chilling dystopian novel depicting a future in which the American government has been overthrown by religious fundamentalists who have, in turn, erected a patriarchal theocracy. Though Atwood had doubts about the novel when she was writing it, and though both conservative and liberal critics have found fault with it, the years following The Handmaid's Tale's publication have been rich with critical discussion.

Edited and with an introduction by J. Brooks Bouson, a widely recognized Atwood scholar, this volume in the Critical Insights series collects some the novel's best critics to introduce high school students and undergraduates to one of Atwood's most widely read novels. Original essays by Lisa Jadwin and Dominick Grace lend context to the novel by surveying the political and cultural events out of which the novel grew as well as how Atwood's critics have responded to the novel. Two other original essays by Matthew Bolton and Jennifer E. Dunn explore the novel in light the dystopian literary tradition and feminist literary theory. A collection of republished essays continues the conversation as Coral Ann Howells considers the novel's narrative structure and Madonne Miner and Shirley Neuman examine the role of love in the novel. Chinmoy Banerjee addresses the topic of criticism as commodity in the novel, Elisabeth Hansot and Hilde Staels investigate hegemonic and subversive discourses, and Danita J. Dodson reads the story in light of America's Puritanistic past. Finally, Eleonora Rao offers a psychoanalytic reading that focuses on narrative gaps and ambiguities, and Karen F. Stein and Joseph Andriano consider the novel's metafictional elements.

Each essay is 5,000 words in length, and all essays conclude with a list of "Works Cited," along with endnotes. Finally, the volume's appendixes offer a section of useful reference resources:

A chronology of the author's life
A complete list of the author's works and their original dates of publication
A general bibliography
A detailed paragraph on the volume's editor
Notes on the individual chapter authors
A subject index

From "About This Volume"
An author who is part trickster, illusionist, and con artist, as she has often described herself, Margaret Atwood is also an author-ethicist with a finely honed sense of moral responsibility, as she sets out both to teach and to delight in The Handmaid’s Tale. Although Atwood has sometimes had an uneasy relationship with the Professor Pieixoto type of critic she satirizes in the conclusion to The Handmaid's Tale, she does have an intense interest in her readers. “One of my university professors,” Atwood recalls, “used to say that there was only one real question to be asked about any work, and that was—is it alive, or is it dead?” For Atwood a text is “alive” if it can “grow” and “change” through its interactions with its readers (140).

We can find evidence of just how “alive” The Handmaid's Tale is in the critical material brought together in this volume. Analyzing Atwood’s novel from various critical and theoretical perspectives, these essays offer fresh insights not only on the sources of the novel, its critical reception, and its dystopian and parodic elements but also on its complicated feminist politics, its narrative strategies, and its literary and linguistic complexities. Lisa Jadwin, who deftly places The Handmaid's Tale in its cultural and historical contexts, shows how Atwood, as a “public intellectual,” consciously engages with 1980s politics in telling Offred’s story: with the rise of the conservative Moral Majority in the United States, which viewed women’s rights as a threat to traditional cultural and family values, and with the cultural feminism of the 1980s, which celebrated women’s “essential” difference from men and called for the creation of a separatist women’s culture. In the “Historical Notes” section of the novel, which offers a “spoof” of an academic conference, Atwood engages with the culture wars that were beginning to erupt in the 1980s in the academy. For even though Atwood was aware that academics were intent on revealing “the extent to which political oppression can be perpetuated in language,” as Jadwin explains, she also “detected a good deal of hypocrisy” in academic discourses and in the progressive agenda of a “politically correct” inclusiveness. Dominick Grace, who describes The Handmaid's Tale as a novel that has the “twin benefits of being a best seller and a novel with literary credibility,” identifies three basic “strands” in the ongoing scholarly investigation of Atwood’s work: the novel’s connection to the dystopian tradition, its feminist politics, and its postmodern elements. Arguing that the “greatness” of Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale “resides at least in part in its irreducibility to a single meaning or critical perspective,” Grace comments that just as Atwood’s novel refuses to offer “a conventional dystopian vision” or “a simple feminist solution to complex problems,” so it insists “on questioning and subverting all orthodoxies, a trait closely linked to its affinities with postmodernism.”