Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Book review: The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

Ah, this one was so good, you guys!

Thank you Amazon: A gripping vision of our society radically overturned by a theocratic revolution, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale has become one of the most powerful and most widely read novels of our time.

Offred is a Handmaid in the Republic of Gilead, serving in the household of the enigmatic Commander and his bitter wife. She may go out once a day to markets whose signs are now pictures because women are not allowed to read. She must pray that the Commander makes her pregnant, for in a time of declining birthrates her value lies in her fertility, and failure means exile to the dangerously polluted Colonies. Offred can remember a time when she lived with her husband and daughter and had a job, before she lost even her own name. Now she navigates the intimate secrets of those who control her every move, risking her life in breaking the rules. 

Margaret Atwood has said of this book, initially published in 1985, that she did not include anything that wasn’t happening somewhere in the world. And it’s the truth; we only need recent memories and present knowledge of current events to connect Atwood’s details to their inspiration. It’s therefore fascinating how criticism of this novel often claims that the ideas here are too radical, and that this would never happen, and that putting forth these ideas is dangerous and intellectually dishonest. I don’t have much of a desire to get into political specifics here in a book review, but in light of such criticism, it becomes even more remarkable how some of the liberties lost in The Handmaid’s Tale (again: published in 1985) seem plucked right out of Supreme Court discussions from 2012. Have we really progressed so little? Are we regressing?

Putting aside feminist themes for a moment, I also want to talk a little bit about Atwood’s writing and voice, which are both at their very strongest in this novel. The struggle of her protagonist, Offred, felt immediately urgent and engrossing, and her inner dialogue did honestly evoke the turmoil, anger, numbness, and myriad other emotions that a woman would feel when she experiences what Offred has endured. The strength of the writing and story were perfectly matched here; The Handmaid’s Tale is compelling, well paced, and full of characters who, even if we only meet them for a short time, are treated with respect and given humanity.

(And now I’m giggling a little to myself, because if my review is to be believed, if we treated each other like Atwood treats her characters, The Handmaid’s Tale probably wouldn’t ring so true as a cautionary tale!)


  1. My 9th grade English teacher recommended that I read this book for a book report. I remember liking it, but I think it was probably a little advanced for me at 14. Maybe I'll give it another go now that I'm older!

  2. You should! It never comes across as preachy, and even if you don't care too much about the "plight of women" thing, the characters are still strong enough to make the story interesting :)

  3. I just read this a few months ago and thought it was really interesting!