Every woman’s nightmare: The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood

I finally read my first Margaret Atwood. I have heard so much about this acclaimed and prolific writer that I was almost salivating to start. Most sources seemed to recommend beginning with The Handmaid’s Tale, and so I did that.Onlyou_Handmaid's Tale

The Handmaid’s Tale, as many of you know, is a dystopian novel written as a fictional memoir by a woman captured in the theocratic regime of the Republic of Gilead. We learn about her story in bits and pieces as she moves along. We know that she didn’t always live under this regime, that once, some years ago, she had been married to a man named Luke, that she had had a young daughter and a regular job, and that she used to wear things like jeans and jogging pants. We never learn her real name, only that she is now Offred, a name designating her as the property of a high level official named Fred.

As we read on we understand that Offred, like other women, is being watched constantly. Along with other handmaids, she wears a red cloak with white wings that shield her face. She is governed by an Aunt. Her activities are limited to eating, sleeping, shopping for groceries, and copulating with Fred – also known as the Commander – once a month in efforts to get impregnated.

The Republic of Gilead was created when the President of the United States and members of Congress were assassinated. The new leadership is a dictatorship of extreme right wing religious radicals, with a goal of repopulating the country after infertility reached crisis low levels due to the ravages of war, radioactive material, etc. They have driven away and persecuted “undesirable” populations such as Jews, blacks, and homosexuals. Women are denied every right and used only for procreational purposes. (Infertile women are sent to work in labor camps.)

Through Offred’s memoir, we learn how she tries to bear her unbearable and uncertain conditions. She flashes back frequently to memories of her husband and daughter, whose whereabouts she doesn’t know. Offred seems beaten down and her best friend Moira, who doesn’t hesitate to challenge authority, calls her a “wimp.”  As the story goes on, Offred does begin to pick up more information and to take on riskier behavior, and the story gets more interesting.

There are a number of themes in the book and numerous religious references (of which I’m not knowledgeable enough to talk about though). One that struck me is the argument that women have it better now that their lives are controlled. As Offred quotes her Aunt Lydia saying, “We were a society dying . . . of too much choice.” (page 25) Women are safer now, this rulership claims, protected. Women used to live in uncertain times, with men who may or may not be faithful and committed, and many did not enjoy respect as mothers. At least in Gilead, women can simply focus on bearing children.

Maybe the most significant fallout of this heavily controlled environment is the loss of human connection. Women are placed in a caste system that encourages alienation and resentment. Romantic or even simply emotional relationships are illegal among most groups and punishable by death. At one point the Commander, starving for such a connection, invites Offred to secretly play Scrabble with him. He asks Offred, “What did we overlook [in our new world]?” and, with some of that power now melted through intimacy, she is able to respond honestly, “Love.” (page 220)

I can’t decide how I feel about the book. I enjoyed it as a story about women and I enjoyed Atwood’s writing. On the other hand, I found the themes interesting but not compelling. For example, the argument that women have it better in Gilead is something that I found too hard to believe…I was hoping for something a little more grey, that would make me think – uncomfortably – hmm, I can see that. Some readers have criticized the story for being far-fetched and it is definitely easy to believe so, until you think about other regimes like the Taliban and North Korea. Maybe the obstacle for me was that there were many holes in the story, due to the fact that this was told from Offred’s point of view, and Offred was essentially a prisoner who was pretty much kept in the dark as to what was happening. Or, it could very likely be that I am not familiar with dystopian literature and so I’m not sure what I should be reading or how I should be feeling.

Overall, as far as storytelling goes, I enjoyed this book and there were times when I couldn’t put it down. It’s chilling and horrific but ultimately there is a sliver of hope. I’m definitely looking forward to reading more books by Margaret Atwood, especially Cat’s Eye and Alias Grace which may be more accessible to me in terms of subject matter (I’m not a huge fan of dystopian fiction, to be honest).

Have you read The Handmaid’s Tale? If so, what did you think of it? What other books of Atwood’s would you recommend? (And a friend/reader tells me that Offred does offer her name! I missed it!)

19 thoughts on “Every woman’s nightmare: The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood

    • Thanks for your comment and link, Erica! I just visited and left a couple of comments on your blog 🙂

      I’m always happy to hear from you. Thanks so much for still reading, and no worries at all about commenting. I see also that your hands are full with a new baby! Congratulations!

  1. Hi, Cecilia, I read this book years ago, and then I read it again last year. I thought it was particularly chilling given the inroads that are being made on women’s health issues here in the states the past few years.

  2. Cecilia,

    I read Atwood years ago. My first intersection with her work was The Cat’s Eye. Compelling story and writing. I need to pick up another one of her works. Thanks for the review.

  3. Hi Cecilia. Thank you for reviewing this book. I picked up this book when I saw you were reading it on Goodreads partly because I have been wanting to read it for a long time and partly because I wanted to be able to chat with you about it! BUT…after reading half of the book, I find the whole idea of Gilead and women’s place within it repulsive and am struggling to finish it.

    I quite enjoy dystopian literature. Brave New World, Nineteen Eighty-Four, the Giver quartet–these are some of my favorite books that speaks volumes about society and politics. They warn readers about what extremes can do to a society and the world, but they also give readers glimpses of how a society can come back from the brink through individual actions and thought. I don’t see any of this in The Handmaid’s Tale yet and instead find the author is illustrating the worst situations possible to prove her point (for example, the sexual relationship between the Commander, his Wife, and Offred).

    Perhaps this vein of post-feminist dystopian writing is simply not my cup of tea. I’ll let you know if I finish and change my mind.

    • Thanks so much for picking this book up in part so we could chat! I was also happy to see on Goodreads that you had started to read it and was very curious about what you thought.

      Yes, thank you for saying what you did. This — “They warn readers about what extremes can do to a society and the world, but they also give readers glimpses of how a society can come back from the brink through individual actions and thought. I don’t see any of this in The Handmaid’s Tale yet and instead find the author is illustrating the worst situations possible to prove her point” – is exactly what I meant when I wrote that I couldn’t decide if my mixed feelings were due to my lack of familiarity with dystopian literature. I had read 1984 in high school but honestly cannot remember it…and felt tempted to re-read it to know what standards I should or can expect from a good dystopian novel. I still can’t put my finger on it but I felt that The Handmaid’s Tale didn’t make me think as much as I had expected to. Things are horrible in Gilead and that’s a given, but beyond that I struggled to learn or think or feel more.

      I’ll be curious to know if you end up finishing it!

  4. Hi Cecilia! I’m happy to hear you enjoyed reading Margaret Atwood enough to try another one. I’ve read several of her books, The Handmaid’s Tale and Alias Grace being 2 of my favourites. I also really liked The Maddaddam Trilogy, but those are dystopian as well, so maybe you wouldn’t like them as much. I love how brave she is in her writing- she’s great with words!

    • Hi Naomi, Thanks so much for reading and commenting! I’m glad to know that you also enjoy Margaret Atwood. I have Alias Grace on my shelf, and am really looking forward to that. I want to keep trying with the dystopian fiction, so I may check out The Maddaddam Trilogy! Thanks again for stopping by.

    • Thank you so much for thinking of me! It’s a lovely article. I like how she really chose something that literally has had a lifetime impact on her. It’s good food for thought, the question of what story has changed us.

    • Thank you so much for leaving this comment, Amy, and I’m very sorry that I only saw it now (WordPress had it sitting in a folder of comments waiting for approval)! I’m glad you are strongly recommending Cat’s Eye, as that is the book that really intrigued me. I have it on my shelf and I should probably push it up my to-read list. Thanks for stopping by!

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