The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood: Book Cover Designs

‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ by Margaret Atwood haunts you like none other in the dystopian genre. I couldn’t sleep for the nights I was cliff-hanging onto Offred’s story.

I wasn’t distinctively drawn towards dystopia until, of course, Orwell’s 1984 happened to me. ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ had been on my list for long and then, one day I saw this beautiful black cover with a red cloak and white bonnet. The cover with author’s name, the white font against the black background and the title in black on the red cloak of a female figure has such an immense visual appeal. There is certainly something ominous about the small white circle right in front of the bonnet in the picture. Anyways, the colour black has the power to draw you towards it.

And, once I read the book, I realized how any cover design would have remained incomplete without the iconic red cloak and the white bonnet depicting the Handmaids of Gilead. Yet, the funny part is the first book cover of this magnificent book had to bear with an absurd portrait of a Handmaid and her Commander.

The first edition book cover of The Handmaid’s Tale written by Margaret Atwood, 1985 McClelland and Stewart first edition hardcover.

The Handmaid’s Tale written by Margaret Atwood was published in 1985. Unbelievably the subject of this book has never before been as relevant as in our contemporary times. This dark dystopian novel is narrated by Offred, the thirty-three-year-old Handmaid in a distant future set in America. The democratic government is out-staged and in its place ‘Republic of Gilead’ is established that resembles a military dictatorship. The worst affected are the women who are now forcibly divided into categories such as Handmaids, Marthas, Econowives, etc. These categories define the colour of clothes for women in Gilead – red for Handmaids, green for Marthas and so forth.

Fertility rates in this distant future have come down drastically due to radiation in the wake of constant wars. The handpicked women who are healthy and fertile are designated as Handmaids. Handmaids have the religious duty to produce children for the rich Commanders. Offred has been snatched off her life from the past and brought in as a Handmaid under this regime.

Offred’s name is not unique. In Gilead, you could not find a handmaid by her real name. The Handmaids went by the names of – Offred, Ofglen, Ofwarren. Handmaids are ‘walking wombs’ or ‘reproductive vessels’ who take up the name of their commander’s for the time they are assigned with him. For example, Offred actually comes from ‘Of Fredrick’, her commander’s name.

Dust jacket for the first American edition of The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, illustration by Fred Marcellino, published by Houghton Mifflin Company, 1986.

In this cover, one sees the Handmaids, probably Offred and Ofglen walking past the Wall. The Wall is symbolic of Gilead, a state where freedom and liberty is curtailed and every offence punished with brutality.

Why nothing but the red cloak and white bonnet suits the cover? At the beginning of the book, Offred tells us that when she can look at the remaining mirror in the hall on her way down, she is a ‘distorted shadow, a parody of something, a fairytale figure in a red cloak, descending towards a moment of carelessness that is the same as danger. A Sister, dipped in blood’. The white wings or the bonnet is also the part of the prescribed dress to keep the handmaids from seeing and from being seen.  

Which Book Cover gets your vote? Do write to me in the comments section.

27 thoughts on “The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood: Book Cover Designs

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