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Literary Fiction Review: ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ by Margaret Atwood

Synopsis courtesy of GoodReads

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

This is the story of Offred, one of the unfortunate ‘Handmaids’ under the new social order who have only one purpose: to breed. In Gilead, where women are prohibited from holding jobs, reading, and forming friendships, Offred’s persistent memories of life in the ‘time before’ and her will to survive are acts of rebellion. 

Provocative, startling, prophetic, and with Margaret Atwood’s devastating irony, wit, and acute perceptive powers in full force, The Handmaid’s Tale is at once a mordant satire and a dire warning.


I wish this story were different.  I wish it were more civilized.  I wish it showed me in a better light , if not happier, then at least more active, less hesitant, less distracted by trivia.  I wish it had more shape.  I wish it were about love, or about sudden realizations important to one’s life, or even about sunsets, birds, rainstorms, or snow” [Page 279 of the Vintage Books edition]

Offred, I am afraid that I must respectfully disagree; there is nothing that I would change about this story.  I haven’t a clue where to start with reviewing The Handmaid’s Tale because I loved it so much.  Even if you don’t make it all the way through my ramblings, know this: every time I am asked in the future to name my favourite book, this will be high up on the list I garble as a response.

The Handmaid’s Tale isn’t “just” a compelling story of one woman struggling to reconcile herself with a new life and survive but manages to make some clever socio-political points without beating readers over the head with A Message.  The writing style is disjointed but wholly consistent with the Offred’s experiences.  Her memories, for example, use more colourful language while her day-to-day experiences are gut-wrenchingly bleak as Offred uses a whole host of techniques to avoid dwelling on her new position.  I loved her completely and read her story with a mixture of pity and horror, through moments that left  me feeling queasy, through happier moments and through moments that made me well up with tears.

Having studied at a single sex high school, I’m surprised that we didn’t study this, or at the very least parts of it.  The Republic of Gilead has restricted the roles of women to Wives (of the higher classes) and their Daughters, Handmaids (whose duty is to procreate) and Marthas (women who are no longer able to have children but are useful for fulfilling domestic duties, such as cooking and cleaning).  Worst of all, though, are the Aunts.  The novel is set at a time when the Republic of Gilead is in its infancy and the government (such as it is) is straining to impose its ideals on those that remain within its control.  The Aunts are older women responsible for ‘training’ young women for their new role as baby-makers and enforcing corporal punishment against women that dare to break any of the new rules.  Reading, for example, is a great sin – no good can come from an educated woman, after all.  There’s something horrific about women grooming other women for slavery and their motivations and the relish with which they undertake their new role are…well, horrific.

Even the names of the Handmaids are sinister.  It took me a good two thirds of the book before I twigged but each woman is named after the man to whom she belongs: Of Fred.  I think that in some editions it’s actually written somewhat less subtly as OfFred.  When I did understand it, it’s a perfect example of the type of detail that made me stop for a moment and think, one small way in which the Republic of Gilead removes women’s identities and freedoms and transforms them into property.  And yes, it is terribly, terribly sad.

I think that deep down what made this novel have such an impact on me was that, even reading in the 21st century, stories of women struggling under oppression and against legal systems in which they remain second-class citizens remain regular features in international news.  I’m lucky enough to live a reasonably progressive society where I haven’t been restricted in my career and life opportunities because of my gender but Offred’s story serves as an at times very emotional reminder that many women aren’t as fortunate.  In an interview included in an earlier edition of the book, Ms Atwood said, “This is a book about what happens when certain casually held attitudes about women are taken to their logical conclusions“.  In some ways, that’s all you really need to know.

Overall:  Without question, a new favourite.  There are few books that I would genuinely say that I intend to re-read at some point; this is one.  I was so invested in Offred’s story that I no doubt missed countless political references or ideas that are there to be mulled over.  I would love to spend the time one day re-discovering The Handmaid’s Tale – most highly recommended.

Date finished: 10 January 2013
Format: Paperback
Source: Bought
Genre: Literary fiction
Published (pictured edition): by Vintage Books USA in October 2010