Review: The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood

Title: The Handmaid’s Tale
Author: Margaret Atwood
Published by Vintage, 1996

How I discovered this book: A recommendation from a friend. Check out her blog.

ReviewI have a passion for dystopian novels and I think I have mentioned that before in another review. I love the fact that these books actually make you think about issues that you probably wouldn’t consider during your daily life unless you read them. It’s amazing when a book urges you to stop, look around and reflect on the kind of life you have been living and what kind of mark you are imprinting in the world. This being said, dystopias usually allow you to do this introspective analysis about yourself and also about the world you live in, because they present you the possible worst scenario you could ever find in society. Usually it deals with subjects related to totalitarian governments, terror, complete lack of freedom and how it would be like to live in a world like that. Usually, people who can read these novels live in a “free” society and we sometimes think that these world is something that belongs to the past, forgetting that in this very moment there are people living nightmares under dictatorships, and so on. But I begin to digress… Let’s focus on the book.

The Handmaid’s Tale is a dystopian novel that introduces us to a country that, I think, had once been the United States, and is now the Republic of Gilead. A country with a patriarch society, highly fanatic and oppressive towards women, living in constant terror of an alleged disease epidemic and obsessed with the role of women as reproductive vessels. This society functions in a strict hierarchical order, where men are positioned above women. As a consequence of the epidemic spree most of the population is infertile. Following the fanatic values based on Christianity, the regime determined that every woman who has before married to a divorced man, lesbians, women who had abortions or are single mothers, should be submitted to a fertility test and, if fertile, they should be assigned to a Commander and his infertile Wife who, through this selected woman, would bare children. This is a recreation of the story of Jacob, Rachel and Leah. Since Rachel couldn’t have children, she asked her maid to lay with her husband and this way give her children. If some of these “shameful” women would be found infertile, they could be assigned to be a Martha (house help) or, depending on their behaviour, they could be an Aunt (to brainwash the fertile girls who will be Handmaids) or sent to the epidemic zone (to clean the area). Give birth to children, manipulate and clean.

Now that you have some information of the world layout I’ll talk about the story. The entire book is a fragmented recollection of Offred’s life, a woman who was caught by the new regime to be a Handmaid. This isn’t her real name and we never know what is. Offred means that she is “of Fred”, apparently her Commander’s name, to whom she belongs during a period of time, until she is assigned to do “service” for another Commander, changing her name to Of(whatever his name is). This woman was completely stripped out of her identity, her family, her body… She was left with nothing but her sanity and reason, which she kept by telling the story of her life to an imaginary listener, which is the reader. Offred is an intense and critical narrator. We feel sorrow for the life she lost, a normal life like ours, and we suffer because through her words we can feel the life she is living now. Despite feeling her desperation, we also feel her critical thinking, her sharp observations of what life is now, how people were before, her ironical inside jokes and a small light of hope that never completely fades. We see everything through her eyes and we feel everything while we read her “mind”.

It’s as terrifying as unbelievable to a woman of the 21th century who is asked to believe that in the future we could all be reduced to this. To be raped in a daily basis, to be separated from our children, from our sense of self so easily. And this is where the book loses a little bit of power to me, despite being absolutely great, intense and indeed also powerful for the wake up call I consider it to be to all women. A wake up call that I believe is telling us that nothing should be taken for granted. That things could change, or that there are places in our world were women live in such conditions, completely objectified by society and men.

Still, as an independent woman who have not lived in a time where the majority of women were subjected to live under such circumstances, I find it hard to believe that we wouldn’t fight back and win. Nevertheless, when I think better about this, I remember all the domestic violence cases we see on the news, as well as rape and physical assaults to women. They are real! It is something that is happening now in the developed and democratic societies we are all so proud of, where women can work, vote, marry who they want, have children if they want, etc, etc. Not to mention the objectification of women through advertisements, the extraordinary and completely impossible concepts of beauty we are forced to believe in, that drive teenagers to cut themselves and load their own bodies. Which make me think that perhaps this “hypothetical world” that Margaret Atwood created in the 80’s isn’t so unreal as it may look at first. It makes me realise that perhaps women as a whole have become more passive when it comes to fight for their rights as human beings. And truly, just for making me think about all that, this book deserves all my appreciation.

OverallIt is a book I definitely recommend to everyone. I know that it’s the kind of book that you will either hate or love and can lead to a huge amount of discussion and differences of opinion. It so happens that I loved it, for all it made me consider and think. The ending is completely frustrating and it just makes you want to scream “How can it end like this!!!??”, but it is so worth your time. You won’t see things the same way after reading this. So, read it.


Quotes worth mentioning: (there are many, but here are a few…)

“Better never means better for everyone… It always means worse, for some.”

“Maybe the life I think I’m living is a paranoid delusion…Sanity is a valuable possession; I hoard it the way people once hoarded money. I save it, so I will have enough, when the time comes.”

“Nolite te bastardes carborundorum. Don’t let the bastards grind you down.”


One thought on “Review: The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood

  1. Pingback: Margaret Atwood’s “Bodily Harm” | BoudicaBooks

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