Thirty Years of Cover Designs for The Handmaid’s Tale

In the 30+ years since Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale was published, this dystopian classic has been through more cover re-designs than you might think. What comes to mind for most of us is the image of a woman in red, wearing that unsettlingly sharp white cap, dwarfed by an enormous wall.

Handmaid's Tale first American edition
The first American edition (1986)

As a rare book dealer who has handled first edition copies of this book, I can tell you that design comes not from the first edition (1985) – which was published in Canada with an appropriately creepy semi-cubist portrait of the handmaid and her Commander – but in the first American and first British editions that came out a year later.

Handmaid's Tale first edition 1985
The true first edition, 1985 (Canada).

The color red, both an evocative design choice and a key aspect of the narrative, has dominated most cover designs since. Whether the designer goes for something abstract and almost digital in appearance (as in the 2016 Vintage Classics edition) or strews the space with flowers (as in the 2009 Bloomsbury edition), the flash of red is eye catching and ominous. But the woman hidden behind a white veil in the McClelland and Stewart edition of 2006, however, demonstrates that red is not a requirement to hit the right tone.

Vintage Classics edition ("Vintage Futures"), 2016
Vintage Classics edition (“Vintage Futures”), 2016
Handmaid's Tale Bloomsbury edition, 2009
Bloomsbury edition, 2009
Handmaid's Tale McClelland & Stewart edition, 2006
McClelland & Stewart edition, 2006

The Handmaid’s Tale is a novel that begs for return, reassessment, play. Yes: play. The text is full of puns and black humor that are fertile (sorry) ground for a designer’s creativity. In this parade of cover designs, Vintage Classics most consistently turns out striking designs, such as the red-veiled woman whose face is blurred as if by Impressionist paint strokes (2005), or the line of red-stamped women who look not unlike Doctor Who’s Cybermen (2010).

Handmaid's Tale Vintage Classics, 1996
Vintage Classics, 1996
Handmaid's Tale Vintage Classics, 2005
Vintage Classics, 2005
Handmaid's Tale Vintage Classics, 2010
Vintage Classics, 2010
Handmaid's Tale Vintage Classics, 2016
Vintage Classics, 2016
Seal Books, 1986
Seal Books, 1986
Heinemann, 1993
Heinemann, 1993
McClelland and Stewart, 1998
McClelland and Stewart, 1998
Emblem Books, 2011
Emblem Books, 2011
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt edition, designed by Patrik Svensson,
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt edition, designed by Patrik Svensson,

Blackwell‘s sent me this proof cover of a variant jacket design for a Jonathan Cape edition in 1986 which was never used. Designed by Ian Hands:

Blackwells proof 1986 Jonathan Cape
Proof cover, Jonathan Cape, 1986

 

Around the world, too, there are some great covers: a red woman following will o’ wisps in a soaked blue labyrinth, for a cover published in Japan (looking not unlike a video game); four eerily angled matches, mostly burned through, for a cover published in Russia; a closeup of the face of an old-school Hollywood noir woman, for a cover published in France.

Handmaid's Tale Japanese edition, ca. 2007.
Japanese edition, ca. 2007.
Handmaid's Tale Japanese edition on Kindle, ca. 2001
Japanese edition on Kindle, ca. 2001
Handmaid's Tale Russian edition, 2006
Russian edition, Эксмо [Eksmo], 2006
German edition, Claassen, München, 1985
German edition, Claassen, München, ca. 1985
German edition, Verlag Ullstein, 2006
German edition, Verlag Ullstein, 2006
Spanish edition, Ediciones B, 2008
Spanish edition, Ediciones B, 2008
Spanish edition, Bruguera, 2009
Spanish edition, Bruguera, 2009
French edition, Editions 84, 1998
French edition, Editions 84, 1998
French edition, Robert Laffont, 2005
French edition, Robert Laffont, 2005
French edition, Robert Laffont, 2015
French edition, Robert Laffont, 2015
French edition, Editions 84, 2006
French edition, Editions 84, 2006

That disconcerting 2006 French edition is an obvious opportunity to talk about how these book covers can teach us something. There are clearly Muslim overtones in the clothing worn by the woman in that edition, which suggests a transfer of the themes of the work (religiously inflected tyranny, especially over women) onto Islam instead of the book’s own Christianity. Given that, in the book, an authoritarian regime takes over through the ruse of staging a terrorist attack, the cover design seems to suggest a xenophobic warning that misses a number of important points made by the author.

I’ll leave you with some images taken from the 2012 Folio Society edition, illustrated by Anna and Elena Balbusso.

Folio Society, 2012
Folio Society, 2012
Folio Society, 2012, illustrated by Anna and Elena Balbusso
Folio Society, 2012, illustrated by Anna and Elena Balbusso
Folio Society, 2012, illustrated by Anna and Elena Balbusso
Folio Society, 2012, illustrated by Anna and Elena Balbusso
Folio Society, 2012, illustrated by Anna and Elena Balbusso
Folio Society, 2012, illustrated by Anna and Elena Balbusso
Folio Society, 2012, illustrated by Anna and Elena Balbusso
Folio Society, 2012, illustrated by Anna and Elena Balbusso

Listen to JP Romney and I discuss The Handmaid’s Tale over at the Biblioclast Podcast.

Buy our book, Printer’s Error: Irreverent Stories from Book History, from HarperCollins.

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9 Comments Add yours

  1. Tom McKenna says:

    Wow, So many covers, so little time. I never realized that books could switch covers so often over 30 years. In any event, I found the cover with the girls mouth clamped shut with the metal piercings the most unsettling. How does she eat popcorn ?

    1. That one struck me as a very *80s* cover.

  2. patricbenny says:

    This is awesome post. Love it. Good to see a lot of importance and detailing has be focused in the post. Thank you Rebecca.
    Have a good one!!!

  3. Stephen Parker says:

    The version you have credited as AnchorBooks 1998, is incorrect. It was designed hear at Vintage in the UK as part of our Classic Futures series we created last year.

    1. Thank you – ISBN numbers failed me in this case. I’ve made the corrections so that the design is accurately attributed. Also, if it’s not obvious from this post, I *love* everything the Vintage Classics series is doing with cover designs.

      1. Stephen Parker says:

        Thanks… and nice blog piece.

  4. drpoppy says:

    I love the one with the Scrabble letters and the Russian one with the matches — not so much because they are amazing designs in themselves, but because they go beyond the obvious to the more subtle and memorable details from the book.

  5. glasnant says:

    Dear Rebecca, thanks for a really great blog-just to let you know that the one you labelled as vintage classics 1996 was re released with that book jacket (moon, pears, black silhouette) in 2007, as I illustrated it then!
    Hope this is ok-I wanted to let you know just in case it was relevant as the post is about the covers.

    1. Yes – thank you for the comment. I am happy to receive any further contributions to add to the record of HT covers here.

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