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.
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.
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.
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).
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:
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.
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.
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.