Versions of History: The Handmaid’s Tale and its Dedicatees



The Handmaid’s Tale is dedicated to two people, Mary Webster and Perry Miller, and since Margaret Atwood frequently keeps her dedications to such simple anonymities as ‘For J.’, the significance of this act of naming should not be overlooked. In a talk called ‘Witches’ given in New England, Atwood has this to say about Mary Webster:

I did feel … that it was appropriate to talk of witches here in New England, for obvious reasons, but also because this is the land of my ancestors, and one of my ancestors was a witch. Her name was Mary Webster, she lived in Connecticut, and she was hanged for ‘causing an old man to become extremely valetudinarious’. Luckily, they had not yet invented the drop: in those days they just sort of strung you up. When they cut Mary Webster down the next day, she was, to everyone’s surprise, not dead. Because of the law of double jeopardy, under which you could not be executed twice for the same offence, Mary Webster went free. I expect that if everyone thought she had occult powers before the hanging, they were even more convinced of it afterwards. She is my favourite ancestor, more dear to my heart even than the privateers and the massacred French Protestants, and if there’s one thing I hope I’ve inherited from her, it’s her neck.1


Founding Father Double Jeopardy Subjectivity Woman Cuban Missile Crisis Laundry List 
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  1. 1.
    Margaret Atwood, Second Words (Toronto: Anansi Press, 1982) pp. 330–1. Hereafter cited as SW, with page references given parenthetically.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Cotton Mather, ‘Memorable Providences …’, in George Lincoln Burr (ed.), Narratives of the Witchcraft Cases (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1914) pp. 131–4.Google Scholar
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    Samuel G. Drake, Annals of Witchcraft in New England, and Elsewhere in the United States (New York: W. E. Woodward, 1869) p. 117.Google Scholar
  4. 6.
    Carol F. Karlsen, The Devil in the Shape of a Woman (New York: W. W. Norton, 1987) p. 30.Google Scholar
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    Alden T. Vaughan and Francis J. Bremer (eds), Puritan New England (New York: St Martin’s Press, 1977) p. 43.Google Scholar
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    Cotton Mather, El-Shaddai: A Brief Essay Produced by the Death of That Virtuous Gentlewoman, Mrs Katharin Willard Resolution: Global (Boston, Mass., 1725) p. 31.Google Scholar
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    Catherine M. Scholten, Childbearing in American Society: 1650–1850 (New York: New York University Press, 1985) p. 62.Google Scholar
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    Lyle Koehler, A Search for Power (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1980) p. 34.Google Scholar
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    Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale (London: Jonathan Cape, 1986) p. 124. Hereafter cited as HT, with page numbers given parenthetically.Google Scholar
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    Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, Good Wives (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1982) p. 126.Google Scholar
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    From David E. Stannard, The Puritan Way of Death (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977) pp. 89–90.Google Scholar
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    Perry Miller, ‘Errand into the Wilderness’, William and Mary Quarterly, Resolution: Global for the Associates of the John Carter Brown Library, Williamsburg (January 1953) p. 5.Google Scholar
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    Linda Sandier, ‘Interview with Margaret Atwood’, Malahat Review, vol. 61 (January 1977) p. 27.Google Scholar

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© Palgrave Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited 1994

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