CHAUTAUQUA - Revered author Margaret Atwood lectured at the Chautauqua Institution on Thursday about her 1985 novel, "The Handmaid's Tale," and why a new generation is still reading it in 2013.
"The Handmaid's Tale" is a dystopic novel which takes place in the near future in the Republic of Gilead, a country formed within the borders of what was formerly the United States of America. The novel tells a story about a future where most women are infertile, and the government of the Republic of Gilead charges itself with controlling the lives of women who can still bear children, now called handmaids. The book utilizes totalitarianism as a motif.
"I published the book in Canada and the United Kingdom in the fall of 1985, and the spring of 1986 in the United States," said Atwood. "The reactions to the book were very different in the different countries. In England, where they already had their religious civil war in the 17th century, not intending to do it again, they said, 'Jolly good yarn.' They weren't worried about it happening there again. In Canada, they said, in their nervous Canadian way, 'Could it happen here?' In the United States, they said, 'How long have we got?'"
Atwood discussed her interests in what causes people to go on witch hunts, and how it applies to her novel. She said that how quickly totalitarianisms can come to be and the conditions that lead to them have always been very interesting to her.
"I was lucky enough to study American Literature at Harvard," said Atwood. "The Salem Witchcraft Trial has always been an interest of mine. The whole phenomenon - what causes people to go on a witch hunt - what fed into McCarthyism - what gets people going in these directions and what got Hitler voted in anyway ... it's all very interesting to me. I asked, 'If you were going to have a totalitarianism in America, what would be the conditions to lead to it and how could you get people to support it?' That was one of my focuses."
After discussing how growing up in the age of dystopian literature helped to inspire her to write one of her own, she discussed why she believes people are still reading "The Handmaid's Tale" almost 30 years later.
"Usually when you publish a book, it's there and it gradually diminishes," said Atwood. "The Handmaid's Tale has gotten bigger, and it's gotten bigger in reaction to the kinds of campaigns and events we've seen. It became a very popular Twitter and social media subject during the most recent presidential election, when the fearsome four Republican men opened their mouths and said what was on their minds. (People were saying a lot of things), such as, 'The Handmaid's Tale is not a recipe.'"
Following her lecture, Atwood was asked by a guest if she believed totalitarianism is always bad, or whether it has ever contributed positively toward improving the quality of human life.
"We could have that argument, and I'm sure we will," said Atwood. "It's very funny when people indulge in past lives - no one was ever a ditch digger - they were always a very important person in the past. It's always interesting for the people at the talk, it's never any fun when you're a galley slave. Totalitarianism is great when you're at the top, but I'm a big fan of the middle class, much maligned as it is.
"A lot of people get the wrong idea that this book is anti-religion," continued Atwood. "It is not an anti-religion book, it is an example of how religion has been and still is used by regimes to control people. In the book, regimes do what regimes do, which is destroy opponents, so they destroy all other religions. Religion, when you're in a bad spot, is often a great sustainer. Religion, when you're trying to control people, is often a great bludgeon."
Atwood signed copies of her novel at the Alumni House following her lecture. She is an Arthur C. Clarke, Prince of Asturias and Booker Prize award winner, and has written 50 novels.