“Some books haunt the reader. Others haunt the writer. The Handmaid’s Tale has done both,” Margaret Atwood wrote in an essay published in the online journal Literary Hub in 2012.
The Booker Prize-winning author of the 1985 dystopian novel whose popular television adaptation has garnered multiple Emmy Awards, Atwood will speak at 4:30 p.m. on Thursday, April 18, in Spaulding Auditorium in the Hopkins Center for the Arts. The talk is part of the Ethics Institute’s Dorsett Fellowship Lecture Series, and is free and open to the public.
In Gilead, The Handmaid Tale’s fictional authoritarian theocratic state, a strict patriarchy brutally regulates women’s bodies, and an outcast class of women—the handmaids—are forced into reproductive slavery.
Of creating such a dark world, Atwood wrote, “I made a rule for myself: I would not include anything that human beings had not already done in some other place or time, or for which the technology did not already exist. I did not want to be accused of dark, twisted inventions, or of misrepresenting the human potential for deplorable behavior.”
Since the television adaption launched on Hulu in 2017, feminist activists around the world have used the costume of the handmaids—red cloak and white bonnet—as a symbol of protest.
The Dorsett Fellowship annually brings practitioners of ethics—from artists and writers to business leaders, physicians, engineers, and scholars—to campus for public lectures, classroom visits, engagement with students and faculty, and to pursue their own research, says Sonu Bedi, the Hans ’80 and Kate Morris Director of the Ethics Institute.
“This year, we are bringing in writers to discuss ethics through the lens of science fiction,” Bedi says “Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale imagines how our society in the United States could turn into a deeply unethical one. She draws on fiction as a way for us to think about ethics.”
This fall, the program hosted Ted Chiang, whose short story “Story of Your Life” was the basis of the 2106 movie Arrival.
Atwood is one of Canada’s most celebrated and prolific writers. Her work often draws on feminist themes, addressing issues of justice, equity, and environmental exploitation. In addition to A Handmaid’s Tale, she has published 15 novels, including Alias Grace, about a woman convicted of murder in 19th-century Canada (also recently adapted for TV); Oryx and Crake, which envisions a future where society is destroyed by a biotech plague; The Penelopiad, which presents the story of Homer’s Odyssey from the perspective of Penelope; and, most recently, Hag-Seed; a retelling of Shakespeare’s The Tempest as the story of a washed-up theater director attempting to stage the play at a prison.
She is also the author of eight collections of short fiction, eight books for children, 17 collections of poetry, and several works of literary criticism. Her work, which has been translated into 40 languages, has won the Arthur C. Clarke Award, Governor General’s Award, the PEN Pinter Prize, the Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Book Critics Circle, and a Guggenheim Fellowship, among other honors.
A sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, titled The Testaments, will be published in September 2019.
The Dorsett Fellowship was established through a gift made in honor of Burt Dorsett ’53 by the Frederick Gardner Cottrell Foundation, in conjunction with Research Corporation Technologies. Last year, the theme was free speech on college campuses, and speakers included Geoffrey Stone, Jelani Cobb, and Robert Post.
“I view the Ethics Institute as an intellectual resource for the Dartmouth community to think about ethics from various perspectives and disciplines. The purpose of the fellowship is to bring in speakers who can provide this kind of resource,” Bedi says.
Hannah Silverstein can be reached at email@example.com.