Review | The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

A dystopian classic in the vein of Orwell and Huxley, The Handmaid’s Tale is a terrifying study in how quickly oppression can become the norm. 4/5 stars.

the handmaid's tale by Margaret Atwoodthe handmaid's tale by Margaret Atwood

What it’s about: In the near future, a totalitarian Christian regime has overthrown the US government. Reacting to a fertility crisis, the regime seizes any unmarried women or those whose marriages are deemed “invalid”, confiscates their children and forces them to become surrogate mothers for high-ranking officials and their wives. Their only other option is exile and death.

My take:

Every element of the totalitarian regime in The Handmaid’s Tale has been used or is currently in use. The reader may gasp in disbelief at how the women of Gilead are treated, but none of the beliefs, systems or punishments seen in the novel were invented by the author. This is part of what makes the novel so chilling: these things have happened and could happen again. Rights for the disadvantaged are usually hard won, but can easily be revoked, particularly in times of national emergency. This is not a work of science fiction.

The other triumph of the novel is the point of view. The story is narrated first person by Offred, a handmaiden on her final posting, her third and last chance to get pregnant and so save her life. However, despite her precarious position, her tone remains steady and detached, the credible voice of a woman who has been through the worst and negotiates her way through every day, struggling to survive. She tries to numb herself, the only way to preserve her sanity while being constantly reminded that she has been robbed of everything she loves. Unlike other dystopias where our main character is female, Offred is not a revolutionary or some kind of ninja/saviour figure. Her victories are small ones, tiny acts of defiance which come to thrill us as much as her. Her normality brings us closer to her and her struggles forces us to wonder how brave we would be if in the same situation.

The writing is superb. In among all the horror, there are many moments of fragile beauty which are poetic in their poignancy.

This is not a dramatic, fast-paced tale. The action unravels cautiously, meandering between the narrator’s memories, her current thoughts and the present action, as fitting the tale of a unwilling rebel, a surprise survivor.

If you’re wondering why I have given it 4 instead of 5 stars, it’s because this – like the best dystopian fiction – isn’t an enjoyable story you feel you could read again and again. Instead, this is a book which encourages you to reflect on your freedom by giving an insight into what it is like to be deprived of what many women have – rightfully and thankfully – come to regard as their most basic rights.

Also, and this may sound like a minor quibble, I’m not convinced by the coda to Offred’s story, the notes from a history symposium many years after Gilead has fallen. I can understand why Atwood included this section and how it helps us to reflect on what has gone before, but I also feel it diminishes the power of Offred’s tale in some way, which is a shame.

 Claire Huston / Art and Soul

27 thoughts on “Review | The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

  1. Wonderful review, Claire! I’m so glad that you enjoyed re-reading it too. I read it back in grade 10, and just recently during the summer. I couldn’t believe how relevant the book still is. Offred is such a survivor! Her sense of detachment is admirable in her circumstances. I also admire how she continually tries to subvert her situation, sometimes is as small a way as hiding a pat of butter. I agree with you, it’s a challenging read. I’ve read a lot of Atwood dystopian fic lately (Maddaddam Trilogy, The Heart Goes Last) and I find that when I do, it makes its way into my psyche, and I end up dreaming a lot. I also have to pace my reading, taking it a bit slower, to process things. Typical sensitive writer, ha ha. Thanks for sharing! 🙂

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    • Thank you!
      I think that’s what I find so impressive about what I would call “classic dystopia” (Orwell, Huxley, Bradbury and Atwood): you find yourself thinking about bits of it years after reading the books. Certain phrases or images stay with you. I’ve read a lot of what I would call “adventure dystopia” (often YA) and it’s usually entertaining but also can be forgettable. But no-one forgets Room 101, the people grown in bottles, or the human books. In the case of The Handmaid’s Tale, I seem to remember little details (like the butter or the scrabble). I had completely forgotten about Jezebels! It’s so strange what makes an impression (and what gets into our dreams too) 🙂

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      • I love your comparison of classic versus adventure dystopia! I have read more of the classic side of the genre, and totally agree with you, it’s often material that lingers. I think that’s why I’m a bit choosy about what I read, because I know that chances are it will be with me for years. The Jezebels got to me this time too, especially how abruptly her association with Moira ends after years of losing track of each other, aah!

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    • Thank you!
      The book is a masterpiece. I wasn’t much of a fan of how the TV series felt the need to show so much graphic violence. I thought the book was more effective in that it just suggested those things and let you imagination fill in the gaps!
      I’ll be very interested to see what they do with series 2 and whether Margaret Atwood will have any hand in shaping the story 🙂 I always thought the way the book ended was perfect, but it’ll be interested to see whether they give us more of June/Offred’s story or whether they give us an entirely new woman’s perspective 🙂


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