“We Learned to Whisper Almost Without Sound”:

Blurring the Boundary between Fiction and Fact in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale

  • Lorenzo Santi Università di Pisa
Keywords: The Handmaid's Tale, Fact, Fiction, History, Dystopian-speculative fiction


The aim of this paper is to examine Margaret Atwood’s blurring of the boundary between fiction and fact as a key mechanism underpinning the literary construction of The Handmaid’s Tale (1985). By drawing on  Atwood’s statements concerning the documentary imprint of her dystopian-speculative novel, this discussion sheds light on the disguised references to historical figures, momentous events and phenomena which can be discerned throughout The Handmaid’s Tale. From Nazi Germany to Nicolae Ceauşescu’s Romania, passing through Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s Iran or 1980s’ America, Atwood has hugely drawn inspiration from historical events and transfigured them in order to offer a memorable depiction of the futuristic state of Gilead. Reading The Handmaid’s Tale from this perspective will provide evidence of the novel’s capability to negotiate with the extratextual domain and deliver a powerful cautionary message.


Atwood, Margaret, The Handmaid’s Tale, London, Vintage, (1985) 1996.
—,“The Handmaid’s Tale and Oryx and Crake ‘In Context’”, PMLA, 119 (3), May 2004, pp. 513-17.
—, “When Afghanistan Was at Peace”, in Ead., Writing with Intent: Essays, Reviews, Personal Prose 1983-2005, New York, Carrol & Graf, 2005, pp. 205-207.
—, In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination, New York, Nan A. Tálese/Doubleday, 2011.
—, “The Road to Ustopia”, The Guardian, 14 October 2011, https://www.theguardian.com/books/2011/oct/14/margaret-atwood-road-to-ustopia (last accessed on 9 December 2022).
—, “Haunted by The Handmaid’s Tale”, The Guardian, 20 January 2012, https://www.theguardian.com/books/2012/jan/20/handmaids-tale-margaret-atwood (last accessed on 7 December 2022).
—, “Margaret Atwood on what The Handmaid’s Tale Means in the Age of Trump”, The New York Times, 10 March 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/10/books/review/margaret-atwood-handmaids-tale-age-of-trump.html?_r=1 (last accessed on 30 November 2022).
—, “Margaret Atwood on the Real-Life Events that Inspired The Handmaid’s Tale and The Testaments”, Penguin Articles, 9 September 2019, https://www.penguin.co.uk/articles/2019/sep/margaret-atwood-handmaids-tale-testaments-real-life-inspiration.html (last accessed on 30 November 2022).
Barringer Gordon, Sarah, The Mormon Question: Polygamy and Constitutional Conflict in Nineteenth-Century America, Chapel Hill and London, The University of North Carolina Press, 2002.
Billi, Mirella, “Margaret Atwood”, Belfagor, 44 (4), 1989, pp. 417-35.
Campbell Reesman, Jeanne, “Dark Knowledge in The Handmaid’s Tale”, CEA Critic, 53 (3), Spring/Summer 1991, pp. 6-22.
Carson, Rachel, Silent Spring, Cambridge, Houghton Mifflin, (1962) 1994.
Carter, Thomas, “Living the Principle: Mormon Polygamous Housing in Nineteenth-Century Utah”, Winterthur Portfolio, 35 (4), Winter 2000, pp. 223-51.
Claeys, Gregory, Dystopia: A Natural History. A Study of Modern Despotism, Its Antecedents, and Its Literary Diffractions, Oxford, OUP, 2017.
Dodson, Danita J., “‘We Lived in the Blank White Spaces’: Rewriting the Paradigm of Denial in Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale”, Utopian Studies, 8 (2), 1997, pp. 66-86.
Falk Jones, Libby, “Breaking Silences in Feminist Dystopias”, Utopian Studies, 3, 1991, pp. 7-11.
Field, Shivaune, “Author Margaret Atwood on why The Handmaid’s Tale Resonates in 2018”, Forbes, 31 July 2018, https://www.forbes.com/sites/shivaunefield/2018/07/31/author-margaret-atwood-on-why-the-handmaids-tale-resonates-in-2018/?sh=2da3302c64b0 (last accessed on 2 December 2022).
Filipczak, Dorota, “‘Is There No Balm in Gilead?’ Biblical Intertext in The Handmaid’s Tale”, Literature and Theology, 7 (2), June 1993, pp. 171-85.
Grace, Dominick M., “The Handmaid’s Tale: ‘Historical Notes’ and Documentary Subversion”, Science Fiction Studies, 25 (3), 1998, pp. 481-94.
Griffith, Margaret, “Verbal Terrain in the Novels of Margaret Atwood”, Critique, 21 (3), 1980, pp. 85-93.
Howells, Coral Ann, Margaret Atwood, New York, St. Martin’s Press, 1996.
Huxley, Aldous, Brave New World, London, Vintage, (1932) 2010.
Ingersoll, Earl, “Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale: Echoes of Orwell”, Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts, 5 (4), 1993, p. 64-72.
Jadwin, Lisa, “Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985): Cultural and Historical Context”, in J. Brooks Bouson (ed.), Critical Insights: The Handmaid’s Tale, Pasadena and Hackensack, Salem Press, 2010, pp. 21-41.
Kauffman, Linda, “Special Delivery: Twenty-first Century Epistolary in The Handmaid’s Tale”, in Elizabeth C. Goldsmith (ed.), Writing the Female Voice: Essays in Epistolary Literature, Boston, Northeastern U.P., 1989, pp. 221-44.
Ketterer, David, “Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale: A Contextual Dystopia”, Science Fiction Studies, 16 (2), July 1989, pp. 209-17.
Kligman, Gail, “Abortion and International Adoption in Post-Ceauşescu’s Romania”, Feminist Studies, 18 (2), 1992, pp. 405-19.
—, “Political Demography: The Banning of Abortion in Ceauşescu’s Romania”, in Faye D. Ginzburg and Rayna Rapp (eds), Conceiving the New World Order: The Global Politics of Reproduction, Berkeley and Los Angeles, University of California Press, 1995, pp. 234-55.
Liptak, Andrew, “How The Handmaid’s Tale Inspired a Protest Movement”, The Verge, 31 October 2017, https://www.theverge.com/2017/10/31/15799882/handmaids-tale-costumes-cosplay-protest (last accessed on 24 November 2022).
Macpherson, Heidi Slettedahl, The Cambridge Introduction to Margaret Atwood, Cambridge, CUP, 2010.

Miceli, Barbara, “Religion, Gender Inequality, and Surrogate Motherhood: A New Family Arrangement in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale”, Comparative Studies in Modernism, 12, Spring 2018, pp. 95-108.
Nashat, Guity, “Women in the Islamic Republic of Iran”, Iranian Studies, 13 (1-4), 1980, pp. 165-94.
Orwell, George, Nineteen Eighty-Four, London, Penguin Classics, (1949) 2021.
Sethna, Christabelle, ‘“Not an Instruction Manual’: Environmental Degradation, Racial Erasure, and the Politics of Abortion in The Handmaid’s Tale (1985)”, Women’s Studies International Forum, 80, 2020, pp. 1-9.
Stein, Karen F., “Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale: Scheherazade in Dystopia”, University of Toronto Quarterly, 61 (2), Winter 1991/2, pp. 269-79.
Stillman, Peter G. and Johnson, S. Anne, “Identity, Complicity and Resistance in The Handmaid’s Tale”, Utopian Studies, 5 (2), 1994, pp. 70-86.
Tennant, Colette, Religion in The Handmaid’s Tale: A Brief Guide, Minneapolis, Fortress Press, 2019.
Wright, David et al., “The Handmaid’s Tale Author Margaret Atwood on President Donald Trump’s America: ‘We’re Not Living in Gilead yet, but There Are Gilead-like Symptoms Going on’”, ABC News, 4 May 2018, https://abcnews.go.com/Entertainment/handmaids-tale-author-margaret-atwood-president-donald-trumps/story?id=54934101 (last accessed on 26 November 2022).
Zamjatin, Evgenij Ivanovič, We, Engl. trans. Clarence Brown, London, Penguin Classics, (1924) 1993.
How to Cite
Santi, L. (2023). “We Learned to Whisper Almost Without Sound”:. Synergies: A Journal of English Literatures and Cultures, 3. https://doi.org/10.4454/syn.v3.541
Articles and Essays