Flavors of oppression and the covers of The Handmaid’s Tale

Anyone who has ever gone to the bookstore with me knows that I love covers. So when Tash and I decided to dive into The Handmaid’s Tale last month, one of the first things I did was pull the cover images. The covers a book goes through says a lot, both about the story the publisher thinks its telling, and the audience it thinks it’s selling to.

First published by the Canadian McClelland and Stewart in 1985, the original cover is cubist bold, colorful, and utterly grotesque. The main character, Offred’s relationship with the Commander takes center stage, and it’s damn uncomfortable to look at. One year later, the iconic U.S. first edition from Houghton Mifflin came out, and the world hasn’t been the same since.

Fast-forwarding to today: While the 1985 handmaids-by-the-wall cover is still, by far, the most common and recognizeable, the 2006 release from McClelland & Stewart went in an airy direction, the 2009 went full on body parts (a common enough tactic in YA, and part of a long-standing tradition of representing women through body parts: the arm, the hand, the legs, the neck and chin. The most recent re-release from 2010 Vintage Classics, though, the last in the images above, bucked the trend by going full conceptual.

Some books pivoted away from both the literal depiction of what happened in any given scene to a more symbolic representation.

Flowers are an easy choice: in a society that banned writing for women, decorative images of flowers still remain. And in the Commander’s Wife’s meticulously maintained garden, red tulips bloom.

Across international covers, we have a sampling of how each country and culture looks to best convey the story to its audience. And the nature of oppression changes with each cover as well.

The Soviet-style workers on the cover of the Russian edition harkens back to its brutal history of social engineering. The Spanish edition pins a glove to loops of barbed wire. A single man kneels in a circle of red angry conformity. Wings and red stockings, purity and prostitution. The character’s voice has been stolen with pins.

Each new edition reinterprets the story and imagery of oppression.

What’s your preferred flavor?

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5 thoughts on “Flavors of oppression and the covers of The Handmaid’s Tale

  1. This was very interesting to see the differences between the editions. All of them don’t sit right with me but I think that is because I know what the story is! It’s intriguing to see similarities too amongst the editions.

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