Review: Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

The Handmaid's TaleImage via Wikipedia

Paperback: 311 pages
Publisher: Anchor; 1st Anchor Books edition (March 16, 1998)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 038549081X
ISBN-13: 978-0385490818
Target group: adults
Genre: dystopia


Welcome to the near future. Protestant fundamentalists have taken over the US government and created the Republic of Gilead. The new Republic faces many problems but the most keenly felt issue concerns reproduction. Pollution and nuclear accidents have left many people sterile so men and women who can still conceive are the utter luxury. Eventually, the government declare all second marriages invalid and all fertile wives of these marriages are subject to deportation or to service as Handmaids. Handmaids are forced to couple (you can’t call that sex) once a month with aristocratic men with the aim of continuing the race and to give birth to as many children as possible. If they don’t conceive with their first “Commander” they change houses getting two other chances and then they are deported to Colonies where life is hard, environment polluted and nobody survives long. By the way women are no longer allowed to work, study, read or write. They must wear horrible uniform-like dresses, and cover their heads with veils.

Offred (not her real name – “of Fred”?), the narrator of this story, chooses to become a Handmaid. After a period of training at the “Red Center”, she is assigned to a series of households. She ends in the house of a high-ranking Commander, Fred. It is her last chance as it is her third man, she is already 31 and hasn’t conceived again since becoming a Handmaid. She can’t forget her former life, wondering whether her mother, husband and daughter are still alive. She misses many luxuries like nail polish, cigarettes, jeans, high heels, coffee. Now her world revolves around a number of different women, separated into distinct societal roles: Marthas (household workers), Wives (the mistresses), and Aunts (kind of morality guards cum teachers).

Once every month the Commander couples with Offred as his infertile wife sits behind her, holding her hands. Offred doesn’t have the slightest idea that the Commander cares about her situation. However, within a few months he invites her secretly in the middle of the night to his study, an offense punishable by death. They play Scrabble and the Commander brings Offred old books and magazines to read, another capital offense. Then he gives her even more valuable presents – a hand lotion and an old lipstick. Eventually he even takes her to an underground nightclub/brothel where officials can indulge their sinful whims and treat women as sexual beings. Meanwhile Offred, risking her life, learns a little about the resistance from another Handmaid of her acquaintance, Ofglen. The matters complicate when Commander’s wife, Serena Joy, comes to the conclusion that her husband is probably sterile. Serena Joy wants a child so badly that she bribes Offred to have sex with her husband’s chauffeur Nick. It is a real affair for poor Offred and she becomes so caught up that she stops gleaning information from Fred for the resistance as she visits Nick definitely more often than she should.

Will Offred prove her worth to her superiors by becoming pregnant? Is there any other way out of her predicament? Will her tale, recorded on cassette tapes, change anything?

What I liked:

It was a feminist and very adult take on dystopia – an interesting and even momentarily entertaining read, although a bit scary. Despite the fact that we deal with a book from the early 1980’s (Ronald Reagan was US President then!) it remains momentarily a very persuading vision. I must admit it is written very well – when you start it you must finish, no matter what. Fortunately it is not very long either.

The characters are well-rendered and original, especially Offred and other women she cooperates with. I started to feel for them very early on and then I just choked with anger reading about their lives and daily humiliation. I suppose only a woman author could know how to move you this way.

What I didn’t like:

To tell you the truth there were too many disturbing moments in this book – it is certainly not a light read. Apart from that the whole dystopian world was so horrible that it seemed overall just improbable after a while. I couldn’t believe there were not enough confident and capable women left – women who would oppose the fundamentalists earlier on and in a more decisive manner. Women usually are in the majority so how come they became so subdued? After all for several millennia there have been more female births than male births and men tend to have shorter life spans than women (wars, diseases, accidents, speeding, alcohol – you name it). Even the religion factor didn’t explain it sufficiently well (how come all these ladies were so religious all of a sudden?).

To sum up this novel seems today a bit dated (but believe me, you will be grateful for that) and misguided. It didn’t age well.

Final verdict:

I changed this section three times – I am more conflicted than ever. It was an interesting read but I am not madly in love with it. However, I’ve always been a bit afraid of reading Atwood novels because of her disturbing, dark visions of the future. Perhaps after some time I will be tempted to try her other books but right now I am not sure.
 I other words I am STILL scared. Call me chicken.

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13 Responses to Review: Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

  1. Blodeuedd says:

    I tried to red this book but then I came to that first sex and it was just so disturbing so I stopped…do not know if I ever dare to go back

  2. anachronist says:

    I definitely know what you mean – and I agree. It is a scary book and you must be prepared for it.

  3. I read Surfacing in school and never read another of her novels after that but I know a few women who read this book and liked it. One thing against this type of dystopia is there have always been men who loved their daughters and wanted better for them than this. It seems to hinge on the idea that all men hate women and want nothing better than to turn the clock back.

  4. I actually saw the movie so I think some of the more disturbing parts were a bit washed. It was still VERY disturbing. I didn't think I'd be able to handle the book. This was a great review and the movie still makes me *shudder*.

  5. anachronist says:

    The Red Witch – a great point; not all men are horrible monsters like no all women are stupid, lazy hags. Melissa I've heard about the movie and somehow I am not tempted, especially after reading a book. Thanks for your comment!

  6. Tracy says:

    I agree with you that it's a disturbing read, anachronist, but sometimes you need to read a book like this to see what 'could' happen, and to make you question certain assumptions. You don't think it's possible, Red Witch? try reading A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini – life for women under a fundamentalist Taliban regime in Afghanistan. I agree, not all men think like that, thankfully, but fundamentalists of any religion all treat women very similarly, partly because they base their ideas on books written solely by men thousands of years ago, and partly because they have a real problem with sex – women are always 100% certain they are the mother, pre DNA testing, men could never be certain they are the father – from this basic biological fact flows all of that pressure on women to be 'pure', whereas men can do what they like.If you think this one is scary, Oryx and Crake is terrifying! (But not in the same way)

  7. anachronist says:

    I see your point Tracy but I am of the opinion that it will never happen – anyway not on a large scale, like discribed in this book. Afganistan is one failed state.

  8. Many men pushed for laws for women to own property so they could protect their daughter's rights. Yeah it could hapoen but then people would start chipping away at it again because only a few people can really live and love living with all that hatred. Even way back when, there were men who educated their daughters or sisters or nieces. When women had no power, how could the law evolve if men who had power did not consent to it?

  9. anachronist says:

    "Yeah it could hapoen but then people would start chipping away at it again because only a few people can really live and love living with all that hatred."I totally agree. People would run away from such a country and eventually (rather sooner than later) the whole system would collapse. Like communism.

  10. Demitria says:

    I loved this book. It's one that made me want to write. I have to agree with Tracy…the scary thing is that Atwood's dystopia isn't completely out there, women have been marginalized for thousands of years, and still are today in many cultures. Until very recently in our own society women were considered little more than property, and educated or outspoken women were viewed as witches or insane. How long did it take for women to be able to vote? We still don't recieve equal pay. Even today, people live in all kinds of horrible conditions, conditions they can not just walk away from. Some people are too poor or too scared to simply leave.Whew…that's my feminist rant. 🙂

  11. anachronist says:

    You are very welcome to rant here. ;)While I agree that women are still not treated as equals the situation is definitely better than in any other historical period, especially in the Western Europe and in the USA. Of course there's still a lot to be done/achieved but I really can't imagine a reverse trend being implemented in any democratic country, even if a far-right party was allowed to rule. Perhaps my imagination is deficient or maybe I am overly optimistic. Still the book was disturbing exactly because some of the issues, presented there rang so true.

  12. Tracy says:

    I can't see it happening in a country like the USA – but then you think about the anti-abortionists killing doctors in the USA (so much for the sanctity of life), and the ubiquitousness of religion in Presidential elections in a country where constitutionally the church is supposed to be separate from the state (cf Britain, where the constitutional Monarchy links church and state, but where Prime Ministers are told by spin doctors not to emphasise their religion, because the majority will think they're weird!)

  13. anachronist says:

    The USA are indeed a country full of contradictions but I understand their attachment to religion – after all plenty of people who settled in America had left Europe mainly because they had been prosecuted for their religious beliefs…

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