Atwood's use of actual historical events

The real dystopia

Although The Handmaid's Tale may be seen as science fiction - or, to use the term which Atwood prefers, speculative fiction - it is clear that she draws on many real historical events to give a strong sense that this dystopian state could become reality: as Atwood herself has said:

‘There's nothing in the book that hasn't already happened.'

Many of Atwood's references to such events can be explored in Social / political context > Political satire.

In addition, in the Historical Notes section of the novel, Atwood has Professor Pieixoto refer to events ‘in the immediate pre-Gilead period' which readers will recognise as referring specifically to real historical events following the 1970s.


World AIDS day ribbonOne of these real catastrophes is the epidemic - now a pandemic - of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS). This is a disease which is caused by the human immunodeficiency virus (or HIV). Millions of people have contracted AIDS, especially in Africa, and millions have died from it. It is most frequently spread by sexual activity. In America it was first recognised and HIV identified in the early 1980s, shortly before Atwood wrote The Handmaid's Tale.

Nuclear-plant accidents

Pieixoto also refers to nuclear-plant accidents. Probably the most serious of these in America prior to Atwood's writing of The Handmaid's Tale was the Three Mile Island plant incident in 1979. Although no-one in the vicinity was killed or injured, many doubts have been raised about adverse effects on the environment and on human and animal health.

Chernobyl reactor, photo by ?????????, available through Creative CommonsIronically, in 1986, a short time after the publication of The Handmaid's Tale, occurred probably the most notorious nuclear plant accident, at Chernobyl in the Ukraine, then part of the Soviet Union. Explosions at the plant led to serious radiation emissions. Although the death toll at the time was estimated to be fewer than 50, many thousands of people have since suffered from cancers which are thought to have been caused by the effects of radiation. There have also been serious environmental consequences.

Romanian children

Pieixoto mentions the banning of birth control in Romania. Under the dictatorship of President Ceausescu, who wanted to increase his country's population, birth control and abortion were banned after 1966. Romanian women of child-bearing age were each expected to have five children. As a consequence, thousands of unwanted children were born and many thousands abandoned. Atwood uses this real disaster to make her readers consider Gilead's laws on childbirth and its anti-abortion stance.


Pieixoto later refers to the use of Handmaids as a form of ‘simultaneous polygamy' like that practised ‘in the .. state of Utah'. Here Atwood is referring to the real, and still flourishing group, known as the Mormons - or, to give the proper name, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

More on the Mormons: This movement began in America in the nineteenth century, when Joseph Smith claimed to have had revealed to him, by an angel, the Book of Mormon. The Mormon Church has worldwide membership but has its headquarters in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Some Mormons encouraged polygamy, especially after their second president, Brigham Young, endorsed it in 1852, but it is now practised much more rarely.

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