Margaret Atwood's fireproof The Handmaid's Tale to be auctioned

Jun 07, 2022 07:10 PM IST

Protesting against book banning and censorship in the US, Atwood and her publisher are auctioning off an unburnable copy of her bestselling dystopian novel.

Margaret Atwood holds a flamethrower in her hand and aims it at a book, which she has authored. The flame shoots out, but the book remains unharmed. Random House Publishing is using this video to promote the fireproof edition of one of its most famous books "The Handmaid's Tale." Atwood wrote her famous dystopian novel in 1985, creating a world in which religious fanatics take over the United States in a coup and establish a new God-fearing state called Gilead, in which women no longer have any rights.

A fireproof edition of "The Hansdmaid's Tale" is a symbol against book banning and destruction.(Sotheby's/dpa/picture alliance)
A fireproof edition of "The Hansdmaid's Tale" is a symbol against book banning and destruction.(Sotheby's/dpa/picture alliance)

Due to an environmental disaster, most women can no longer bear children. The few who are still able to do so are captured, robbed of their names, enslaved and kept in rich houses as maids. There, the master of the house rapes them so often until they become pregnant. If the pregnancy is viable, they must carry the children to term and eventually leave them to the mistress of the house. Abortions are punished by death, as are secret love affairs — both heterosexual and homosexual ones. In 2017, the story was broadcast as a series, starring Elisabeth Moss, and it garnered numerous awards.

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Exposing inconvenient truths

The book has an open ending, yet when the novel was published, it hit many people to the core and continues to have such an impact, even among those who would have preferred that such a book had never been written. It is a mirror image of religious fanatics and shows how backward and unrealistic the views of some people are who spread their crude and dangerous views among a large audience. A book like this is a thorn in the side for such people.

According to the American Library Association, "The Handmaid's Tale" is among the books most often banned in U.S. schools — among other things, for its "vulgar" and "sexually explicit" content and for "insulting Christianity." Accusations that Margaret Atwood has repeatedly rejected. In a 2006 open letter to a school district that wanted to ban the book, she wrote, "First of all, I'm struck by the remark, 'insulting Christians.' Nowhere in the book is the regime identified as Christian. As far as sexual explicitness goes, 'The Handmaid's Tale' is far less interested in sex than much of the Bible."

A centuries-old phenomenon

The banning and destruction of inconvenient books and writings is closely linked to human history. The written word outlives the spoken, and so for centuries — and to this day — many people see written material not only as providing knowledge, but also view it as a threat.

As early as the third century, the Roman emperor Diocletian gave orders to burn the writings of Christians. The Christians themselves were also active in their own right — for example, according to the New Testament, the Apostle Paul, on his missionary journey to Ephesus, converted the resident magi to Christianity, who then voluntarily carried their books to the pyre.

Book burnings in Germany

Book burnings are a very effective means for rulers to display to the public how dissenters are dealt with. The book burnings of the National Socialists after Adolf Hitler's seizure of power demonstrated this particularly clearly.

In May and June 1933, tens of thousands of books and writings were burned in an "action against the un-German spirit" initiated by the Nazi German Student Union. The goal was to destroy German-Jewish intellectual life.

Books continued to be burned in Germany after World War II. In the 1950s and 1960s, it was pulp journals and "trash literature," including even the youth magazine "Bravo" that provided cautious sexual education to the children of prudish post-war Germany.

Books still burned today

In the US, Beatles records were burned in 1966. In China, anti-communist and dissident books were burned on pyres after the Communist Party took power. In Chile, books by the author Gabriel Garcia Marquez were burned under the Pinochet regime, and in Muslim countries, "The Satanic Verses" by Salman Rushdie were destroyed for "blasphemy." The "Harry Potter" novels were the target of Christian fanatics in several US states in the early 2000s and were torched after being deemed to have content relating to "witchcraft, Satanic stuff and instructions for sorcery."

Book burnings take place all over the world. Even now, during the Russian war on Ukraine, books are being burned as part of the destruction of Ukrainian cultural identity.

Women's power over their own bodies

Whether Margaret Atwood's book The Handmaid's Tale has ever been publicly burned is unknown to the writer, she said in an interview with US public radio broadcaster NPR. Still, she said, she and her publisher wanted to set an example with the fireproof book edition in the fight against book bans and censorship.

The novel has sold millions of copies, and its impact has been amplified by the TV series. Women's rights activists around the world drape themselves in the red cloaks with the typical oversized white hoods, as worn by the novel's protagonists, at demonstrations for their right to abortion and self-determination. Recent protests have been directed against the US Supreme Court, which is on the verge of overturning a law on legal abortion.

The flame-retardant edition is being auctioned at Sotheby's in New York, with the proceeds — expected to exceed $100,000 (€96,000) — going to the writers' association PEN America for its work promoting free expression. At the annual PEN Gala in New York on May 23, writer and actress Faith Salie, who moderated the evening, said, that the unburnable book "was made to withstand not only the fire-breathing censors and blazing bigots, but actual flames — the ones they would like to use to burn down our democracy."

While Margaret Atwood has written a sequel of sorts to “The Handmaid's Tale“ with her 2019 "The Testaments," fans of the television series have had to settle for an open ending at the end of the four seasons so far. For those waiting for the next one, there's good news. Work is already underway on Season Five of the TV series. However, the start date of the new season is not yet known.

The Sotheby's auction of the unburnable edition of "The Handmaid's Tale" ends on June 7.

This article was originally written in German.

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