March 21, 2013

Review of Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale by Florinda

Welcome to the blog Florinda of the blog, The 3 R's Blog: Reading, 'Riting, and Randomness.  Thanks, Florinda, for guest posting today for the Women's Lit Event!

The Handmaid's Tale

Anchor (1998), Trade Paperback reprint (ISBN 9780385490818) (original publication date 1986)
Fiction (speculative), 320 pages

Opening lines: “We slept in what had once been the gymnasium. The floor was of varnished wood, with stripes and circles painted on it, for the games that were formerly played there; the hoops for the basketball nets were still in place, though the nets were gone. A balcony ran around the room, for the spectators, and I thought I could smell, faintly like an afterimage, the pungent scent of sweat, shot through with the sweet taint of chewing gum and perfume from the watching girls, felt-skirted as I knew from pictures, later in miniskirts, then pants, then in one earring, spiky green-streaked hair.”

In the world of the near future, who will control women's bodies?

Offred is a Handmaid in the Republic of Gilead. She may leave the home of the Commander and his wife once a day to walk to food markets whose signs are now pictures instead of words because women are no longer allowed to read. She must lie on her back once a month and pray that the Commander makes her pregnant, because in an age of declining births, Offred and the other Handmaids are only valued if their ovaries are viable.

Offred can remember the days before, when she lived and made love with her husband Luke; when she played with and protected her daughter; when she had a job, money of her own, and access to knowledge. But all of that is gone now....

Funny, unexpected, horrifying, and altogether convincing, The Handmaid's Tale is at once scathing satire, dire warning, and tour de force.

Comments: I’ve been wanting to re-read The Handmaid’s Tale for awhile, and now that I have, I believe it’s even more timely, relevant--and terrifying--than it was when it was originally published 25 years ago. Other than a few off-note details mostly related to technology--when reading older books that tried to imagine a not-too-distant future, it can be interesting to note how far off the mark they were in how they thought some things would develop--the novel is strikingly current. The issues that frame it--women’s rights and roles, the relationship between government and religion and the role of both in individuals’ lives--are as unsettled now as they were two decades ago, and early-21st-century America feels closer to the Republic of Gilead than Reagan’s America did (and that was quite close enough for me).

I remembered the storyline, and especially the mood, of the novel pretty well, but I’d forgotten a fair amount of the story itself. For a novel that proposes some rather audacious scenarios and tackles pretty big themes, The Handmaid’s Tale is surprisingly plot-driven, and Atwood’s sharp observations and dark humor propel the story along. This was the first Atwood novel I ever read, and while I’m not sure it’s my favorite (that may be The Robber Bride), it’s certainly the one I’ve found most affecting, and most compulsively readable.

The book I read just prior to starting my re-read was nonfiction about life in the former East Germany, and as I read The Handmaid’s Tale, I was struck by similarities in the seemingly arbitrary rules of daily life and the need for guarded action, because one can't ever be sure one isn't being watched. Granted, The Handmaid’s Tale was written before the fall of the Berlin Wall and takes place in a not-too-distant future in which America is the fallen country, but I found myself noting the similarities between some elements of dystopian speculative fiction--I think this novel crosses several genres, and that’s one of them--and a real-life police state.

I found some discussion questions about the novel on the publisher’s website, and while I’m not terribly inspired by them, there are a couple I’d like to address:

“At one level, The Handmaid’s Tale is about the writing process. Atwood cleverly weaves this sub-plot into a major focus with remarks by Offred such as 'Context is all,' and 'I've filled it out for her...,' 'I made that up,' and 'I wish this story were different.' Does Offred's habit of talking about the process of storytelling make it easier or more difficult for you to suspend disbelief?
What do you feel the historical notes at the book's end add to the reading of this novel?”

Those are separate questions, but I think they’re related; both point to the use of the unreliable narrator. I’d say that the novel is more about shaping stories than about the “writing process;” that seems a little narrow. It is clear that Offred is choosing her details carefully--I think she’s pretty open about it--but that never made me less inclined to buy into the whole of her story, even if aspects of it were questionable. Perhaps that’s because my response to it is at least as much to the mood of it as it is to the content.

25 years after publication, The Handmaid’s Tale remains thought-provoking, controversial, and necessary reading. I’m glad I read it again. I’d consider reading it a third time. But I hope if and when I do, it’s become less plausible.

Rating: 4.25/5


  1. Great review! I read this quite a long time ago, but I am definitely due for a re-read. I remember that this one stuck with me for a LONG time afterwards.

  2. I NEED TO READ THIS!!! I have been wanting to read this for a very long time, and now I think it's time to put that desire into action. Thank you for the great review!

  3. Heard great things about this book. I've included it on my classics club to-read list. Goodreads classified it as a "classic" so I'm going with that. Look forward to reading it. Thanks for sharing your thoughts Florinda!

  4. I remember that Atwood was interviewed about The Handmaid's Tale in the wake of the some of the Patriot Act invasions into privacy, and she said how much more plausible what happens in the novel was then. I'm afraid it's even more plausible today.

  5. I've been meaning to read this one for a while too so I'm glad to see it stands the test of time.

  6. I was struck by how plausible I found so much of this book-truly scary as I wasn't even alive when it was first published!

  7. I have this one on my shelves waiting to be read. One day I will get to it, promise

  8. I listened to this one on audio a couple of years ago. It left me with such an overwhelming feeling that I had no idea how to put it into words. I've been meaning to actually read the physical book in the hopes of being able to process it more effectively because I think it truly is sadly plausible.

  9. I have read other Atwood novels, but not this one, despite it's being the most popular. Now I think I have an obligation to read it, if only because your review was fantastic! Thanks!


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