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'The Handmaid's Tale' auctioned as fireproof edition

Silke Wünsch
June 7, 2022

Atwood and her publisher are auctioning off an unburnable copy of her bestselling dystopian novel this week. The move is a gesture of protest against book banning and censorship in the US.

Margaret Atwood aiming a torch toward her unburnable book "The Handmaid's Tale".
Margaret Atwood promoting the unburnable edition of her trailblazing novel 'The Handmaid's Tale'Image: Sotheby's/dpa/picture alliance

In the promotional video, author Margaret Atwood holds a flamethrower in her hand, then aims it at a book. It is her own book.

The flame shoots out but the book remains unharmed. Atwood's publisher, Random House, is using this video to promote the fireproof copy of one of Atwood's most famous books, "The Handmaid's Tale." The unburnable edition will be auctioned by Sotheby's on the evening of June 7. 

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.

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 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. In 2017, the story was broadcast as a television series starring actress Elisabeth Moss and garnered numerous awards.

Elisabeth Moss as June Osbourne aka Offred in the TV series, dressed in white bonnet and red dress.
Elisabeth Moss in the TV seriesImage: Hulu/Courtesy Everett Collection/picture alliance

The book has an open ending but when it was published, it offended many readers anyway and continues to do so today. 

According to the American Library Association, "The Handmaid's Tale" is among the books most often banned in US schools for, among other things, its "vulgar" and "sexually explicit" content and for "insulting Christianity."

These are all criticisms Atwood herself 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

Illustration showing book and parchment burning in Alexandria.
Book and parchment burning in Alexandria in the 6th centuryImage: Sunny Celeste/Bildagentur-online/picture alliance

The banning and destruction of inconvenient books and writing is part of human history.

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 Bible, the Apostle Paul, on his missionary journey to Ephesus, converted the resident magicians to Christianity and they then voluntarily burned their books on a pyre.

Book burnings in Germany

Book burnings are a very effective means for rulers to show how they deal with dissenting opinions. The book burnings of the National Socialists in Germany demonstrated this.

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 German Student Union. 

Black-and-white imag of Nazis' book burning in Berlin on May 10, 1933.
Nazis' book burning in Berlin on May 10, 1933Image: akg-images/picture-alliance

Books continued to be burned in Germany after World War II. In the 1950s and 1960s, it was pulp journals and so-called trash literature that were set alight. This included the youth magazine Bravo, which cautiously provided sex education to the children of prudish post-war Germany.

Books still burned today

In China, anti-communist books were burned after the Communist Party took power. In Chile, books by the author Gabriel Garcia Marquez were burned under the Pinochet regime. In Muslim countries, "The Satanic Verses" by Salman Rushdie were destroyed for "blasphemy." The Harry Potter series of novels were the target of Christian fanatics in several US states in the early 2000s and were torched because they allegedly held 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.

Culture and politics

Atwood told US public broadcaster, NPR, that she did not know if "The Handmaid's Tale" has ever been burned in public. Still, she said, she and her publisher wanted to set an example with the fireproof edition.

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 oversized white hoods, the same costume worn by the novel's "handmaids", at demonstrations for the 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.

Demonstrators at the Capitol in Washington, dressed as Handmaids in red capes and white bonnets.
Demonstrators in Washington knelt to protest the potential Supreme Court decisionImage: Allison Bailey/NurPhoto/picture alliance

The flame-retardant edition is being auctioned at Sotheby's in New York, with the proceeds — expected to come to as much as $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 novel, "The Testaments", fans of the television series have had to settle for an open-ended finale to the four seasons so far.

For those waiting for the next episodes, there's good news: Work is underway on the fifth season of the TV series, even if the release date is yet to be announced. 

This article was originally written in German.

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