Book reviews

I first read The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood as a teenager during the 1980’s. The horror of this dystopian story has stayed with me for more than thirty years.

I decided to re-read The Handmaid’s Tale prior to reading The Testaments and I’m glad I did. I think I took more from the story as an older reader but despite considering myself to be older and wiser (!) I am still wondering what I can say about this book which hasn’t been said a million times before…

Regardless, I’ll start with a recap of the story which is narrated by Offred, a Handmaid in the Republic of Gilead (formerly the USA) in an alternate version of the future which started around the 1980s. Prior to her present-day life, Offred (her real name is unknown) lived and worked in the USA, and was married to Luke with whom she had a daughter. Her mother was a feminist who had fought hard for women’s rights.

Following an overthrow of what we would call normal life by a regime who followed an extreme interpretation of Christianity, women all over the USA lost virtually all of their rights. Offred lost her name, her job and all access to her bank accounts. She lost the right to read, write and to be educated. As Luke had been married previously, their marriage was considered void by the regime. The family tried to escape to Canada but were unsuccessful.

Because of a series of events including nuclear disasters, very few women were fertile so the regime divided women into categories with the intention of using surrogacy to increase the population. When the story began Offred was a Handmaid, a member of a household whose role it was to become pregnant on behalf of those who were infertile. The Handmaids had very little freedom and wore red to signify their status, along with bonnets that blinkered them. Offred’s name signified that during the time of the story, she was posted to the household of a man named Fred.

The wives in Gilead wore blue, to signify their status and the Marthas, or household staff, wore green. The Econo-wives, who were expected to carry out all household functions, wore stripes. White was for young girls and black for widows. ‘Unwomen’ are sent to the Colonies to clean up radioactive waste, a task which they will soon die at.

Offred’s third posting was to the home of a Commander in the regime. She told the story of her day-to-day life alternately with stories that provided a glimpse into her past. Offred was well aware that the Commander’s wife resented her, even though she recognised her as a former Christian television personality who had publicly supported the new regime. (Having said that, it is doubtful if the wife knew she would be supporting the practice of her husband attempting to impregnate their Handmaid as the two women lay hand-in-hand in the marital bed).

Offred was disconcerted when the Commander invited her surreptitiously to his study to play Scrabble, as contact outside of the prescribed sexual ritual was forbidden. Their personal contact increased over time until the Commander had Offred accompany him to a government brothel, dressed as a whore. Without any irony the Commander commented to Offred that men had always required a variety of women sexually and that women subliminally knew this and prior to the changed regime, owned large wardrobes to provide variations of themselves to men.

At the same time as Offred was seeing the Commander without the knowledge of his wife, the wife arranged for Offred to have an affair with their chauffeur, as she believed the Commander was infertile.

Things came to a terrible climax when the Commander’s wife realised that her husband and Offred had been meeting outside of the prescribed ritual sex sessions.

Most frighteningly, and something I don’t believe I realised the first time I read The Handmaid’s Tale, was that it was mostly women who were watching, reporting on and judging the Handmaids and other women in Gilead. The Handmaids were trained by older women called Aunts who were also responsible for choosing and carrying out their punishments. The wives and daughters had limited social lives and control over their households but their wishes could also determine the fate of a Handmaid. The Handmaids couldn’t even trust each other as some Handmaids were spies for the regime. Everything that happened that required blame to be attached was a woman’s fault. In real life, sadly this is often also the case too and women are often each other’s own worst enemies.

Many of the character’s motives, actions and outcomes are ambiguous which added to the sense of unease I felt as I read this story. I frequently felt angry, too, as I compared the female character’s lives with real life. Women in many countries still don’t have the same rights as men and probably won’t in my lifetime. Women in many workplaces don’t earn the same amount of money as men. Women in many households don’t have a voice. Women across the world have less educational, career, sporting, religious and political opportunities than men. More women are affected by domestic violence. Women have difficulty voting in some countries. I’m not even going to touch the controversial issue of women’s right to manage their own fertility.

While you never know what you will get from a Margaret Atwood novel, you do know in advance that the ideas in her novels will be shocking, far wilder and madder than you could ever have imagined yourself, let alone written down or been brave enough for others to read and judge what goes on in your imagination.

While I am really looking forward to reading The Testaments I will wait a few more weeks and read some books from other genres before I start it to let my emotions settle down again.

Comments on: "The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood" (13)

  1. Still haven’t read this one or The Testaments! Coincidentally I was writing a review at the weekend of a book set in Egypt 100 years ago, and there are so many similarities between that real society and Atwood’s invented one, especially what you say about it being women who must take the blame for a lot of it. There’s no doubt our lives are better now, but freedom is a fragile thing – you only have to look at all these dictators and “strong men” prsidents springing up in countries where that felt unimaginable a couple of decades ago. It’s all a bit terrifying…

  2. Rights are terrifyingly fragile, even in present times. Looking at the governments of other western countries is frightening enough, let alone those of countries with other values. I feel grateful daily to live where I do in this present time. The Handmaid’s Tale is a good reminder not to take anything for granted.
    How is it that you have never read The Handmaid’s Tale? I would have expected that you read it first time around.

  3. I really like this book- and its horror stayed with me too! I also really enjoyed the Testaments so I hope you enjoy that too 🙂

  4. I have an in-built resistance to anything that gets labelled “feminist fiction” because too often what it really is anti-man. But your description of this one makes me think that this one is more thoughtful than that, so you’ve tempted me! 😀

  5. I’m really looking forward to The Testaments and am avoiding reviews of the same so that I can be as surprised as possible by the story when I read it 😀

  6. I don’t think I’d describe this as anti-man as there are male characters in this who are feminists and female characters who are not. I’d describe this as anti-religious zealots…

  7. I actually have a review of both the books on my blog- once you’ve finished the testaments you could check them out and see if you agree with what i thought 🙂 x

  8. Well, I can go along with that… 😉

  9. I haven’t read this either, but I think I should. I’m reading the bible at the moment for my project and it’s all there – the handmaids (evidently it came from Abraham), Gilead, women having to give a ‘sin offering’ after giving birth.

  10. Wow, that is a big reading task! I’ve never read the bible, despite having been brought up in a home where religion was important. So many authors use stories from the bible in their work that I’m sure you’ll add a lot more to your reading by knowing the original stories.
    It’s always the women’s fault, isn’t it?

  11. I’m following Roof Beam Readers daily schedule from 2018, reading the bible as literature. It’s the first time I’ve read it despite (like you) being brought up with it, so lots is familiar. I’m doing it to back up other reading and yes, so far it’s always the women’s fault. Jezebel has just been thrown out of the window to be eaten by dogs – but she put her lipstick on first!

  12. That’s terrible (and partly what I expected). Imagine if the bible had been written by women instead!

  13. I wouldn’t know where to begin with that thought!

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