The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

The Handmaid's Tale This is the first book I’ve read by Margaret Atwood. I was starting to feel slightly embarrassed about never having read any of her work, so when Yvann, Iris, Ana and Alex announced that they were hosting an Advent with Atwood event this December it seemed a perfect opportunity to finally read one. I decided to start with The Handmaid’s Tale because it’s a modern classic and the most well known of her novels.

Our narrator Offred lives in the Republic of Gilead, which was once the USA until the president was assassinated, the government overthrown and a totalitarian religious group took control. In this new dystopian society, women no longer have any of the rights or freedoms they had before; they’re not allowed to work, not allowed to have their own bank accounts, not even allowed to read in case reading leads them into temptation. Reproduction is a problem in Gilead; for some unspecified reason, possibly a nuclear disaster, the birth rate is now very low. Offred belongs to a group of fertile women known as ‘Handmaids’ whose job it is to provide children for the Commanders – the leaders of the new community – whose wives have not been able to conceive. If a Handmaid repeatedly fails to do this, she will be declared an Unwoman and banished to the Colonies to clean up radioactive waste.

The Handmaids are part of a new hierarchy and supposedly less powerful than the Wives; however, we soon discover that life is not easy for the Wives either. They have no real freedom and resent sharing their husbands with the Handmaids. The Handmaids themselves have been deprived of many of the most basic human rights and are valued only for their bodies and for the role they play in bearing children. Their individuality has been stripped away; they all wear the same long red dresses and even their own names have been taken away from them as they are now considered to be the property of their Commander, hence Offred’s new name (Of Fred).

At first I assumed I was reading about a society far into the distant future but it quickly became obvious that was not the case, because Offred remembers living a normal 20th century life with a job, a family and friends, just a few years earlier. We only gradually learn how the Republic of Gilead came into existence and how in such a short period of time everything changed and people were forced to adapt to an entirely different way of life. What makes this book so disturbing is that the type of community Atwood is writing about is not completely far-fetched or implausible. Many of the things she describes are things that have actually happened in some part of the world at some time in the past, or that might even still be happening at this moment, and so the depiction of Gilead is terrifyingly believable.

I really liked Atwood’s writing, I loved the book and I know I haven’t been able to do it justice in this post. Some books are much easier to write about than others and this, for me, is not one of the easy ones. I’ve found it very difficult to say what I wanted to say about it without giving too much away to anyone who hasn’t read it yet. While I was reading the book I was making notes of all the things I wanted to mention but when I started to type them up I decided it would be fairer to leave future readers to discover all the little details of the plot for themselves. And so I hope I’ve said enough to convince you to give this book a try if you haven’t already! I will definitely be reading more of Atwood’s work, not during Advent but certainly in 2013.

37 thoughts on “The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

  1. Anbolyn Potter (@anbolynp) says:

    I’ve owned a copy of this for ages, yet have never read it! I like Atwood – I feel her plots and characters are challenging and rewarding – so I really should give this one a go next year. The most memorable Atwood I’ve read is Surfacing. I read it 15 years ago in college and it still sticks in my mind.

  2. Iris says:

    I really enjoyed this one too! I just finished it last weekend and it’s the most convincing Atwood I have read to date (which doesn’t say much as I’ve only started reading her during this advent). Are you planning on reading something else by Atwood at one point? Can I ask what you have in mind? People keep recommending Alias Grace to me as one that’s even better.

    • Iris says:

      Ah see, and there it shows that I wasn’t patient enough to actually read the last line of your review. :/ I kind of skipped over that part when I had read about how difficult it was to do the book justice (and I agree, I haven’t figured out how to post about it yet).

      • Helen says:

        I’ll look forward to reading your thoughts on this book when you figure out what you want to say about it. And yes, I’m sure I’ll be reading another one soon – Alias Grace sounds great and is one of the Atwood books that appeals to me most, so maybe I’ll read that one next.

    • Helen says:

      Yes, there were so many aspects of this novel that could relate to our lives today. I thought it made the story feel so much more powerful and effective than if Atwood had been describing a less plausible vision of the future.

  3. Leander says:

    Oh, I’m so glad you enjoyed it Helen! I felt sure you would. It’s such a wonderful story because it’s so simple and so it reads like some kind of nightmarish fairy tale; but, as you say, it is close enough to our world to raise a prickle of apprehension on the back of the neck. I’m looking forward to seeing what you go for next. 🙂

    • Helen says:

      A ‘nightmarish fairy tale’ describes it perfectly! And yes, I was surprised to find that the story was much more straightforward and simple than I’d expected, while being so thought-provoking at the same time.

    • Helen says:

      For me, it was the perfect book to start with! Maybe I’ll enjoy some of her others more when I get round to reading them, but this one was wonderful and one of my favourite books of the year.

  4. Charlie says:

    I’m thinking of putting this on my Christmas wish list. I wasn’t aware that the book takes place so soon after things changed, that must make it all the more harrowing. The problem with the reproduction is surely ironic given the way life has changed for the women.

    • Helen says:

      Yes, I definitely thought it made the story even more chilling to think that Offred remembered the way things had been before and was part of the first generation being forced to live under this new regime.

  5. Cat says:

    Glad you enjoyed it.This was my first Margaret Atwood too and she is an amazing writer. Last week I read my second, Bodily Harm, which I’m still trying to put together my thoughts on and write about.

  6. Leslie AJ says:

    I read Handmaid’s Tale when it was a new book (1985) and it scared the hell out of me and continues to resonate. I need to re-read it, but just finished “The Year of the Flood” and now want to re-read “Oryx & Crake” before the third in that trilogy comes out in 2013. This is a dystopian series that presents an all-too-possible future–Atwood is an astute observer of science and societal trends. My other favourite is “Cat’s Eye.”

    Reading one Atwood is never enough and one reading is not sufficient. She has an incredible inventory, so for those of you just discovering our Canadian treasure, enjoy!

    • Helen says:

      I hadn’t realised she had written so many books! It’s difficult to know which one to read next, as everyone seems to have different favourites to recommend. It sounds like I probably can’t go wrong with any of them.

  7. Veens says:

    Now I am feeling slightly embarresed with not have read any of Atwood’s book. Maybe 2013 is the year. This sounds scary but I am sure I will like it, because it is been recommended countless times.

  8. Elena says:

    I haven’t read it, but everyone who does loves it and, being such an Atwood fan as I am, I’m sure I’ll love it as well.

    The good thing about Atwood is that she presents supposedly future worlds where terrible things happens, but as you keep reading, you surprise yourself saying: “This actually happens nowadays”. She uses fiction to criticise nowadays’ society and point our flaws, but because she presents it in a fiction, or even science-fiction frame, we feel more secure reading about out blind spots. She is a genius!

  9. Deb Atwood says:

    I’ve been wanting to read this one, but I was worried that it would be too depressing. I’ve read several other of Atwood’s books (ha! no relation). I loved The Blind Assassin until it lost steam in the final fourth of the book, but fantastic writing. One of my favorite books (from any author) is Cat’s Eye, which I re-read every few years. Enjoy your future reads!

  10. Kerry M says:

    This was my first Atwood too, and I just re-read it this year. I completely agree about it being somewhat difficult to write about; one of the things I love about Atwood’s writing is how much readers can interpret/find there if they want, but without it being too obvious.

    If you liked the dystopian feel of this, and the believable alternate future based on our current society, her Maddaddam trilogy is also excellent. Well, the first two books are (the third comes out this fall!).

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