The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

This work of speculative fiction tells the story of an alternative present-day reality or near future in which the US government has been supplanted by an oppressive religious regime. Fertility rates are down. In the new Republic of Gilead, women have lost their independence. Some are assigned to deserving soldiers as wives, domestic servants or econo-wives while others are forced into prostitution or are made into handmaids—women who will symbolically bear children on behalf of the wives.

The Handmaid’s Tale is a controversial work. It is studied in American high schools, but some parents feel that its sexual scenes are inappropriate for teenagers. Others complain about the negative depiction of Christianity. I would say that it’s a book that, like many others, will not be fully understood by teenagers but is nevertheless well worth reading and pondering.

For more on the plot and themes, continue reading.

The protagonist tells her story in the present tense with flashbacks that show she remembers a world like the one we live in, where she had a husband and child. She has been assigned to a high-ranking person referred to as the commander, lives in a supposedly suicide-proofed room in his home, and ritualistically carries out household and reproductive tasks as she has been taught to do in a special religious re-education school. She is called ‘Offred’ because the man to whom she has been assigned is named ‘Fred’.

Rules, of course, were made to be broken. Information travels secretly between handmaids as Offred attempts to learn the fates of her daughter and her rebellious lesbian friend Moira. Meanwhile, the commander induces Offred to meet with him secretly, and the commander’s wife sets Offred up with her driver, Nick, to increase the chances of a pregnancy.

We learn from Offred’s cool descriptions about the society and her former life in bits and pieces that are woven into a gripping and very human tale that, even while it shocks us with injustice, leads us to question what love is or should be, and how much choice we should have about it; to realize how thoroughly we take choice for granted; and to ask ourselves, finally, how much freedom we would trade for safety and order. It’s uncomfortable and it’s fascinating.

The ending of the book has a tacked-on feel. Perhaps because the narrative is told in first person as if to some audience, Atwood supplied a specific audience. The tale is framed as a narrative that was recorded after the end of the events related by Offred, a narrative discovered and discussed by researchers in the far future. These researchers give us a little more insight into Offred’s world but they do it in a preachy way that seems, annoyingly, to condemn real-world contemporary behavior. The ending, furthermore, clarifies almost nothing about the fate of the protagonist, since the researchers, in typical academic fashion, acknowledge that any conclusions must be tentative because complete data is lacking.

In 2012 the author shared some thoughts on creating the novel:

Interestingly, Atwood says The Handmaid’s Tale is technically not a feminist dystopia because it is not the case that all men are above all women.

The deep foundation of the US – so went my thinking – was not the comparatively recent 18th-century Enlightenment structures of the republic, with their talk of equality and their separation of church and state, but the heavy-handed theocracy of 17th-century Puritan New England, with its marked bias against women, which would need only the opportunity of a period of social chaos to reassert itself.

That’s a sad train of thought, but Atwood reminds readers that if something like the Gilead Republic ever came into being, a future like the other one she created, the post-Gilead society, still could, too.

There exists what sounds like a terrible movie adaptation.

Update: Now there’s a TV series, too.

What stood out

“They also serve who only stand and wait”, a line from John Milton’s poem “When I consider how my light is spent”, is quoted (p. 18).

Offred contrasts safety then and now: “No man shouts obscenities at us, speaks to us, touches us. No one whistles. There is more than one kind of freedom, said Aunt Lydia. Freedom to and freedom from. In the days of anarchy, it was freedom to. Now you are being given freedom from. Don’t underrate it” (p. 24).

Offred notes the difference between the verbs ‘lay’ and ‘lie’ and makes some deadpan puns (p. 37).

Offred quotes a government slogan: “From each according to her ability; to each according to his needs” (p. 117).

Offred notes the importance of literal and figurative perspective: “What I need is perspective. The illusion of depth, created by a frame, the arrangement of shapes on a flat surface. Perspective is necessary. Otherwise there are only two dimensions…. Otherwise you live in the moment. Which is not where I want to be” (p. 143).

Offred interprets a phrase: “Steel yourself, my mother used to say, before examinations I didn’t want to take or swims in cold water. I never thought much at the time about what the phrase meant, but it had something to do with metal, with armor, and that’s what I would do, I would steel myself” (p. 160).

When the government takes jobs, money and any official status away from women, Offred thinks, to herself, of her husband: “We are not each other’s anymore. Instead, I am his” (p. 182).

“You can’t help what you feel, Moira once said, but you can help how you behave” (p. 192).

“[P]eople will do anything rather than admit that their lives have no meaning. No use, that is. No plot” (p. 215).

The commander tries to justify the treatment of women by highlighting a number of problems with the overthrown society and insisting that falling in love is not worthwhile, that an arranged marriage is just as good if not better than marrying for love, and in fact historically arranged marriages were normal (pp. 219–220).

When and why I read it

Rachel of the Hungry Hundred Book Club Meetup in Singapore chose it.

Genre: Fiction (speculative fiction)
Date started / date finished: 13-Feb-2016 to 16-Feb-2016
Length: 311 pages
ISBN: 9780385490818 (paperback)
Originally published in: 1986
Amazon link: The Handmaid’s Tale

“Related” books

Another anti-fascist work from the same period is V for Vendetta.

Atwood specifically mentions Brave New World, Fahrenheit 451 and 1984 as books that inspired her to write about a dystopia.

Below is a list of some dystopian novels. It does not include novels that are post-apocalyptic but not dystopian. I have not read the ones in gray.

  • Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
  • Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury (sci-fi)
  • The Time Machine by H.G. Wells (sci-fi)
  • A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess
  • 1984 by George Orwell
  • Animal Farm by George Orwell
  • One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (historical)
  • We by Yevgeny Zamyatin
  • We The Living by Ayn Rand (historical)
  • Anthem by Ayn Rand
  • Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand
  • The Faith of the Fallen by Terry Goodkind (fantasy)
  • The Giver by Lois Lowry (young adult)
  • The Host by Stephanie Meyer (young adult)
  • The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins (young adult)
  • Uglies series by Scott Westerfeld (young adult)
  • The Bar Code Tattoo series by Suzanne Weyn (young adult)
  • Tripods series by John Christopher (young adult)
  • The Time Machine by H.G. Wells (sci-fi)
  • Paris in the Twentieth Century by Jules Verne
  • The Trial by Franz Kafka
  • Divergent series by Veronica Roth (young adult)
  • V for Vendetta by Alan Moore (graphic novel)
  • Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
  • The Stepford Wives by Ira Levin
  • Hungry City Chronicles aka Predator Cities aka Mortal Engines series by Philip Reeve (young adult)
  • Maze Runner series by James Dashner (young adult)
  • Children of Men by PD James