The Cover Evolution of The Handmaid's Tale
By Beccy Fish, Amy Evans and Juliette Tulloch
The Handmaid’s Tale is a revolutionary novel written by Margaret Atwood and published in 1985. The novel follows a dystopian America rebranded as the religious Republic of Gilead where infertility is a serious issue. To solve this, wealthy men and their wives are bestowed a Handmaid to become surrogate mothers. Offred is the handmaid who narrates the story with her experience in this repressive role, including flashbacks from the past which reveal Gilead’s formation. In America, Roe vs Wade was recently overturned, removing the human right to abortion from those who can get pregnant. This change of law is one of many major steps backwards for bodily autonomy, which is the driving theme of The Handmaid’s Tale. In this issue we decided to explore the cover progression of this pertinent novel.
The 1985 hardback edition from McClelland and Stewarts in Canada is a striking contrast to its successors. Unlike the more recent covers that focus on the outlines of the handmaiden's red cloak and white wings, the first cover follows an abstract artistic style that mirrors the grotesque and perverse nature of Gilead. The towering figure of the man encompasses most of the picture, while an infant-like figure is captured in its hands – a symbol of the children that are born of rape and a reminder that many of the handmaids are just children themselves.
This cover was for the first American publication in 1986. The image covers almost the entire space with the title and author squeezed into the top. The image is striking in its composition, with the majority of the space filled with “The Wall” (which is a significant symbol in Gilead where ”‘traitors” such as abortion doctors are hung and displayed for the public). Furthermore, the height and dominance of the wall in the image compared to the size of the figures below shows its un-scalability to demonstrate that the handmaids are trapped both physically and mentally.
The 1996 Vintage edition of The Handmaid’s Tale shows a woman in the red clothing that the handmaids in the novel wear, but her face is blurred so that the reader can’t see any specific facial features. This reflects how the handmaids have lost part of their individual identities because of their position and lack of status (including how they are renamed after their masters). The bold red is striking and has a strong contrast against the dark background.
Penguin’s Vintage Classics paperback edition from 2016 follows this theme of anonymity in previous editions as we are only presented with the handmaid’s bodily outline. This edition plays on the commonly used greetings in the novel, “Blessed Be the Fruit” and “May the Lord Open,” drawing the focus of the cover to the sprouting flower forming from the handmaid’s womb. The well-known red cloak that adorns the handmaid can be seen as a symbol of the violence that is inflicted upon them, but also as a heroic cape that symbolises Offred’s strength to fight against the regime and her captors.
The TV series tie-in cover is interesting because unlike many of the other covers, the focus is on Offred’s face. Many of the other covers lean into the idea of obscuring or not showing the face, highlighting the way that the handmaids are seen as interchangeable and defined by their role rather than as individual. However, this one leans into the recognisability of Offred as she is portrayed in the TV show and is most likely aiming to appeal to fans of the show. Though TV tie-in covers can split opinions, this is a clever choice for drawing the attention of fans of the show who may not have read the book yet.
One of the more recent covers was published in 2019 when minimalism was a powerful trend for book artwork. With only three colours the image is still distinctive with its use of tones in the red to reveal the silhouette of the handmaid who we can assume is Offred, as this is her story. However, because we cannot see her face it could also be any other of the handmaids we encounter such as Ofglen or Ofwarren. The anonymity of the figure is a crucial theme of the book. With the dark background to highlight the twisted and cruel world of Gilead, the red and white contrast is so much more powerful, making a statement to the importance of the handmaids and what they represent. In the recently created fireproof edition of the novel, to fight against banned books, this is the cover they used. “Because powerful words can never be extinguished” – Penguin Random House.