Sep 2, 2008

The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

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.


I'm sorry there is so much pain in this story. I'm sorry it's in fragments, like a body caught in a crossfire or pulled apart by force. But there is nothing I can do to change it.
The protagonist of this story is Offred, the Handmaid of the title. Offred lives in Gilead, a dystopian society with a totalitarian government. As she tells her tale, we are given glimpses of the past, and we gradually discover how she went from being an ordinary twentieth-century woman, with a job and a family, to being a Handmaid. A Gilead Handmaid is, as Offred puts it, “a womb on two legs”. Fertility is low, and therefore women who are capable of reproducing are used for that purpose.

“Offred” is not this woman’s real name. She was renamed when she became a Handmaid, and her name is composed of the proposition “of” and the name of the man she belongs to, a commander named Fred. All Handmaids are similarly named – Ofwarren, Ofglen. They are belongings. They are objects.

The most terrifying thing about The Handmaid’s Tale is that the kind of society it describes doesn’t sound as far-fetched as it should. For example, after reading this book I read Freakonomics, where I discovered that in the 1970’s, Romanian dictator Ceauşescu created a force that became ironically known as the “Menstrual Police” – their job was to regularly round up women and give them pregnancy tests. Those who failed to conceive were forced to pay high “celibacy taxes”.

And equally terrifying is the fact that the process of transition from normal society to Gilead is not as unfamiliar as it ought to be - freedoms being gradually withdrawn, changes being slowly implemented, mentalities changing faster than we ever suspected they could, and through all of this, people growing used to a new state of affairs like figurative frogs in a heating pan.

While a "celibacy tax" is not exactly the same as the horrors described in The Handmaid’s Tale, it’s not as far from it as that, and both are examples of women being defined by – reduced to – their ability to bear children. In Gilead, all women, not just the Handmaids, are defined by their ability to procreate or by the lack thereof. The fact that a Handmaid who fails to conceive in two years is declared an “Unwoman” says it all. In fact, Gilead is a society where everyone is defined by their gender, and I mean “gender” is the narrowest possible sense. What is done to women determines how men live their lives too. It determines how every single person interacts with others. By dehumanizing women, men also dehumanize themselves. This is well shown in Offred’s interactions with the Commander, a man she thinks she might have even liked in other circumstances.

In a society with such a great power unbalance between the sexes, there can be no real intimacy between couples. There can also be no real closeness or solidarity between women. Women are hierarchized—the Wives are supposedly more powerful than Handmaids, but their situation is really not to be envied. The Wives have no real power, and they resent the Handmaids. The Marthas (housekeepers) fear the Handmaids, and the Handmaids cannot confide in one another. Everything is monitored. Everyone is ruled by fear.

The Handmaid’s Tale is a memorable story, and Margaret Atwood’s writing is beyond amazing. I haven’t read much of her work before, and in the books I did read I liked her writing, but until now I hadn't been awed by it like I was while reading this book. And it’s not just the writing; it’s the story’s pace, the characterization, the sheer power of what is being said. The Handmaid’s Tale is frightening, moving and impossible to put down. It’s a story that will stay with me for a very long time.

Other Blog Reviews:
Life and Times of a New New Yorker
In Spring it is the Dawn
Reading Reflections
Under the Dresser
Care's Online Bookclub
Just What You Want
The Bluestocking Society
Melody's Reading Corner
Rebecca Reads
Valentina's Room
Reading Room
Books and Needlepoint
Dog Ear Diary
Read Warbler
Jenny's Books

(Let me know if I missed yours.)


  1. Wow. Great review! I thought this was such a powerful book as well. And completely terrifying. Thanks for linking me!

  2. Great review! I read this a while ago for a book club selection and it awed me also. The story is still fresh in my mind, I think partially because, as you said-it really isn't that far fetched. It sparked a lot of discussion in our book club and I think we were all frightened by the possibility of anything like that ever happening.

  3. I'll admit this isn't a book I've ever felt the desire to read but your comments have raised the same question yet again:

    Do you really see the women of today allowing anything like that to happen to them? Ceauşescu was a brutal dictator and to use his situation as an example is a little bit, in my opinion, dishonest.

    Don't get me wrong, I do understand the basic point that it could happen but I have a difficult time believe that the women around me, in the US would simply lay down and allow their rights to be stripped from them. We've come too far to ever take the back seat again, don't you think?


  4. Amanda: You're welcome!

    Dar: It is frightening. And I can see how this would be a great book club selection. The discussion must have been really interesting!

    CJ: I think it's highly, highly unlikely that this would happen in the United States or in Europe. But for example, this book also reminded me of Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi, which I read earlier this year. Persepolis describes how Iranian society began to repress women so completely. It wasn't always like that, and it didn't happen all at once. My point with Ceauşescu was that things like this happened not too long ago, and in some parts of the world they still do. I apologize if I sounded dishonest. That wasn't my intention, nor was I trying to make a political point about the United States.

  5. Great review of an awesome book! This was actually the first book I reviewed on my blog, you can click here to see it.

    The example you gave of the celibacy tax is a great one. Even though this seems so far-fetched, we've seen how extremist religious beliefs can lead to women being subjected to this kind of treatment, and it happens suddenly a lot of times as well. Very scary!

  6. Thanks for the great review, Nymeth! I've this book, and a few others by Margaret Atwood in my pile. I only read one of her books so far and thought her writing style is very unique. I've heard a lot of great reviews about this book so I can't wait to devour it.

  7. Over the years, Margaret Atwood has become one of my favorite authors. The Handmaids Tale is horrific and sticks in your mind... I often think about this book when I use an ATM card (no need for cash).

    Another favorite is Alias Grace, which I think you would really enjoy.

  8. The first time I read this I was so enthralled that I called in sick to work that afternoon so I could finish it. :-) I'm glad you liked it so much!


  9. You've written yet another great review! This is a book that will stick with me for a long time as well. What other Atwood books have you read? After reading this one, do you think you'll read others by her? I recently picked up Alias Grace at a library sale, but I haven't heard anything about it.

  10. I only have a handful of books on my "must read again someday" list and this is probably at the top of the list. I had never read anything like it before (I read it about 6 years ago) and it still haunts me. You've written a really powerful review--and it really makes me want to abandon all my other reading and devour this one again.

  11. Have you read The Blind Assassin by Atwood? Cause it's really good, too. In fact, I think I like it better than The Handmaid's Tale.

  12. I really need to give this particular Atwood another try. I couldn't finish it when I first read it. I was fairly young, so perhaps that was it. Or I just wasn't in a place to DEAL with it. It is powerful. Great review!

  13. It's time to reread this one. I've been meaning to for years, but haven't the opportunity to do so.

    This is a very powerful review of a very powerful book. Because the future painted by Atwood is dark indeed and yet you can almost feel why. There's a certain tangible quality to her imagined reality that makes this work terrifying.

    In World War Z (I know this may sound far off) there's a part there in the end that deals with a society where women's reproductive abilities during the aftermath of the zombie war. That portion is such a small part of the book but somehow echoes Offred's tale.

    And Atwood's story is well-researched as far as parts on actual history is concerned. At least that part on the Philippines. Just a bit. But that portion is true and well, horrific to say the least.

    Great and powerful review indeed. I need to reread this soon.

  14. Yeah, this book freaked me out a little when I read it. So did Atwood's Oryx & Crake (which is more about the destruction of society via scientific advancements than a dictatorial revolution). And if you liked The Handmaid's Tale (well, "appreciated" might be a better word), you might want to give I Who have Never Known Men a try sometime.

  15. well now... i think i finally found out where "Enterprise" got the story line for the "maid to have the baby for the couple that owned her"...

  16. I must admit that, though I enjoy a dystopian novel here or there, after seeing how bleak the film was, I didn't rush out to read this book. Having said that, it always catches my eye when I see it on a shelf, and I do catch myself thinking about the plot.

    What bothers me most is that I can almost imagine this happening in a future society, look at modern many cultures have attempted to wipe out another. If some environmental catastrophe/nuclear fallout/GM food (delete as appropriate!) caused humanity's fertility to suffer, how would people react? How would society react? Somehow, this doesn't seem impossible. And that's what scares me the most.

  17. This is definitely a memorable read isn't it? It's been a long time since I've read the book but I do remember feeling so awed by it. I've liked several other Atwood books but this is my favorite.

  18. I read this a few years back and thought it was one of the best books I've ever read!! It didn't seem too realistic until you see the progression of how things started to go bad. I remember the one scene when she tried to go and use her credit cards at a store, and they wouldn't let her. Truly frightening!

  19. Kim: Thanks for the link! Somehow google reader didn't come up with your post...I've been noticing it doing that more and more lately. And yes, that's what I was trying to say. In the case of Romania it was political extremism, but it boils down to the same.

    Melody: It certainly is unique. I look forward to seeing how you like this one!

    Daphne: Thanks for the recommendation, I will definitely look for Alias Grace. And you know, I think I'll remember this story when using an ATM card too.

    Lezlie: Now that's what I call being a devoted reader! :P

    Laura: I've read The Penelopiad and Bluebeard's Egg. I have The Blind Assassin in one of my challenge lists, so I guess that'll be my next one. I'm really looking forward to reading more of her work. And I've seen some great reviews of Alias Grace, so it looks like you have some great reading ahead of you!

    Trish: I can definitely see myself re-reading this in the future. It really is a haunting book.

    Em: Not yet, but I will before the end of the year. I'm really looking forward to it :)

    Terri B: I hope you enjoy it more the second time around! Sometimes it's really a matter of timing.

    Lightheaded: Like you said about Fire & Hemlock, I can now see why this is one of your favourites! And I so need to read World War Z.

    Jena: Thanks for the recommendation!

    Deslily: Possibly, yes!

    Mariel: This is a sad book, but it has some hopeful moments as well. Do give it a try sometime! I wonder how people would react if that happened too. This kind of scenario really doesn't seem impossible.

    Iliana: It certainly is!

    Stephanie: That scene is one I won't forget either. And it's exactly the gradual progression that makes the whole thing seem possible.

  20. I found this book so disturbing I think I've blocked a lot of it from my memory. It would be a terrible thing if society ever got that far.

  21. Wow...this is another one that I've wanted to read but have pushed off for a long time. I had no idea how powerful and disturbing it was. At least it sounds pretty disturbing to me. What's even more disturbing is the fact that, like you said, it's not far off from what goes on today and has gone on for centuries in this world. It's sad when women are looked at as simply child bearing beings. I had no idea about the "celibacy tax" that you talked about. That's really just disgusting! Definitely bumping this one up on my "to read one day" list.

  22. Handmaid's Tale is my least favorite of Margaret Atwood's books. I much prefer Cat's Eye, and The Robber Bride is one of my all time favorites. But, I agree with you how the Tale doesn't seem that far fetched. I still think of her putting butter on her hands in lieu of lotion, and I read this book years and years ago. So, maybe it wasn't her hands, but you get the idea...

  23. I havent' read this one by her. YOu have a great review (as always!) but I'm not sure I can read it since I know I will get so angry that women are treated like this (Persopelis sounds fascinating but again I would end up in a rant if I read it!). We need more Xena Warrior women! But, I can see, if suddenly getting pregnant were difficult, how the survival of the species would overcome all politeness and niceties. I guess I also wonder why Atwood portrays it so negatively when women could be cherished instead - guarded because of precious ability. I'm still not sure I'm going to read this book, but that's just me, not your review. You certainly have all of us talking about it!!! lol

  24. i've only read a little bit of atwood and as long as i can remember i've been wanting to read this one!

    its good to see that you enjoyed it - and that i it wasn't just the friends i had at university who liked it!

    you've reminded me of just how much i want to read it again...

  25. Jeane: It really would. I hope it never does.

    Chris: It is disturbing. And I didn't even mention how the actual, er, reproduction ritual is conducted. It's not that it's graphic or anything, but emotionally it's so disturbing. I really think you'd enjoy this one!

    Bellezza: I look forward to reading Cat's Eye and especially The Robber Bride, because of the connection with the Robber Bridegroom fairy tale. And yes, it was her hands...the book is so full of memorable little details like that.

    Susan: I actually think you'd really enjoy Persepolis, even though it can be infuriating! And maybe this as well. You have a point about women becoming precious if that were to happen, but at the same time I wonder if forcefulness wouldn't be used. Would it be mandatory for all women who could have children to have them? Would they be forced to have an x number of kids? Hopefully we'll never have a chance to find out.

    JP: You should read it! A lot of people are very passionate about this book, and I can now see why.

  26. I've wanted to read this one for a while. Have almost bought it a couple of times, but then didn't. I have this fear, and I honestly don't know where it came from (if I read something or if I just pulled it out of thin air or what) that it's difficult to read. I don't mean emotionally. I mean as in hard to understand the writing. I realize you did just say her writing was incredible, but like I said, I've got this fear that I won't understand it. Hopefully you'll now tell me that I'm totally off the mark on this one, so I can actually bring myself to finally give it a try. Your review most definitely made me WANT to more than ever.

  27. I can't believe that I still haven't read this one! The subject interests me - although maybe it's masochism rearing its head because I find it terrifying how realistic such ideas sound and then I can't get them out of my head. I must get around to reading this, finally.

  28. If I had known you hadn't read this I would have put it on our challenge list! I love this book and I find the sex scene very interesting the way it relates back to the Old Testament. Yes it definitely does stay with you. I read ita few years ago and still have the story burning brightly in my mind.

  29. Debi: I know what you mean. There are some authors whose writing I find beautiful but also very demanding in terms of concentration. But you know, I didn't think that was the case with this book at all. It's written beautifully, but also in a simple and straightforward way. I'm totally sure you'll understand it. Do give it a try!

    Joanna: It's terrifying, yes, but well worth reading all the same. I look forward to reading your thoughts on it.

    Rhinoa: I have no idea why it took me so long to read this but now I finally have. And yes, I found the connection to the Old Testament story very interesting too.

  30. That little factoid you gave is super creepy. This is the scariest book I ever read and the 2nd I reviewed on my blog:

  31. Chris, isn't it? Thanks for the link!

  32. I read this book in college in one of my women's studies classes. I thought it was a great book, but pretty scary. Great review, btw.

  33. Wonderful review Nymeth! This book terrified me when I read it. It's one that has stuck with me. Atwood is a master at her craft IMO.

  34. I also haven't read any Atwood but this has been on my list for a long time. Sounds incredibly powerful.

  35. I read this! You said "mentalities changing faster than we ever suspected they could" and yes, I think that was the scariest part. I didn't love this book, but I was reminded again and again that yes, such a society could develop! I also had a hard time putting it down.

  36. Hello,

    I have a link for another review:

    Thanks! I am adding your link to mine!


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