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The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood – Book Review

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood – Book Review
Book Name: The Handmaid’s Tale
Author: Margaret Atwood
Publisher(s): McClelland and Stewart
Formatt: Hardcover / Paperback / Audiobook / Ebook
Genre(s): Literary Fiction / Dystopia
Release Date: 1985

The Handmaid's Tale (Hulu poster)When I kicked off the Fantastic Literature column, I mentioned that Hulu was producing a series based on Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. And that television show has helped spur a renaissance around the 1985 book, with libraries seeing waitlists for the book run a mile long, and the iconic costumes popping up at state and national protests. So when it came to picking the next Fantastic Literature selection, the choice was a no-brainer.

Of course, reviewing a classic brings with it all sorts of difficulties. The Handmaid’s Tale is almost as old as I am, and this book has been a standard in academia for decades. The Handmaid’s Tale has been judged a classic many times over by critics and fans. What more can I say? After all, you can see my score above. This isn’t going to be a hot take. The Handmaid’s Tale is most certainly a classic. It will last for ages, and it deserves to. So please consider my enthusiastic recommendation a pebble on the mountain of praise The Handmaid’s Tale has already and rightly received.

It is a crushing and acute dystopia that is also filled with moments of hope, beauty, and cleverness—a testament to Atwood’s colossal talent. Not only does this book straddle the divide between literature and genre fiction, but it has also jumped from the page to pop culture. The Handmaid’s Tale is mandatory reading not only if one is to be conversant in the classics, but also in discussing the world today.

As a brief disclaimer, this review will cover only the book. The Hulu series, the opera, the play, the ballet, the radio play, the movie, and every other adaptation should be considered separately from this.

The Handmaid’s Tale takes place in a near future United States where the government has fallen due to a variety of attacks and disasters. A religious movement suspended the constitution while attempting to restore order, but temporary, emergency orders became permanent. Women’s rights died, and the Republic of Gilead was born.

The Handmaid's Tale cover art by Erin McGuireThis is the story of Offred, a Handmaid kept by a high-ranking Commander because his wife is incapable of having children. The idea is that the Commander would impregnate Offred, and she would give the Commander and his wife, Serena Joy, a child, a nod to the Biblical story of Rachel telling her husband Jacob to impregnate her handmaid Bilhah, so Rachel could have children “through” her. The Commander, Fred, is Offred’s third and final assignment (and the source of her current name). If she fails to conceive, she will receive a de facto death sentence (because in Gilead, there are no sterile men, just women who can’t conceive—and such women need to be punished for their failure).

As we experience the rules, the costs, the dangers, the paranoia, and the rebellions of this world through Offred’s eyes, we also see the system’s imperfections. The Commander begins an illicit and illegal affair with Offred (their relationship should begin and end with a monthly sexual ceremony involving the Commander, Offred, and Serena). And Serena arranges for Offred to have an affair with Nick, a chauffeur, to increase the chances of pregnancy. And through another Handmaid, Ofglen, Offred learns of the underground resistance movement, Mayday.

The system struggles because it is built on violence, fear, and falsehoods. Contrasted against the present, Ofglen also flashes back to her previous life, her husband and daughter, the rise of Gilead, the family’s failed escape to Canada, and Offred’s indoctrination as a Handmaid.

The Handmaid's Tale (cover 1)As you may have seen in the commercials for the Hulu series or in photos of the political protests, the Handmaid’s uniform is a red dress that covers her from neck to wrist and ankle. Offred wears shoes and gloves and a white hat with two large wings that double as blinders. She looks at her feet, very aware of what she can’t see and what she can’t show. That restriction, concealment, and deprivation is something all women face in Gilead, but especially the Handmaids, who are essentially treated as ambulatory uteruses. Sacred and taboo. Prized and reviled.

With her options so limited, Offred turns inward, recalling all that was taken from her, circling around themes found in fading memories, zooming in on specific words. It reminded me of a prisoner who has experienced long-term solitary confinement. With no sources of stimulation or distraction, they must make the everyday extraordinary by examining it minutely, inch by inch, atom by atom. Yet unlike a prisoner, whose future has been altered, Offred’s future has been altered and her past has been distorted, warped by lies, faded by time. It’s devastating and heartbreaking to watch what little Offred has that she can call her own is slipping away.

Like most standout dystopias, the world is a character unto itself. Like the worst political parties around today, Gilead’s Sons of Jacob cherry-picked Bible verses and used false memories of an imaginary past to justify their actions and describe their ideals. Atwood also used real historical regimes to create Gilead’s rules and norms that inspire fear and control class, religion, and sex. And like those real regimes, they are frayed around the edges and broken within. Rebels fight on every frontier. The elite use their positions to cheat and break the rules.

The Handmaid's Tale (cover 2 by Patrik Svensson)But where The Handmaid’s Tale shines is taking those bits of history and extrapolating surprising details from them. For example, in Gilead, women are not allowed to read, so when Offred and the Commander are having their affair, and they play Scrabble, the word game takes on an illicit, almost kinky aspect.

I’ll be honest, it took me a long time to write this review, and not just because of the concerns I addressed earlier. No, it was because The Handmaid’s Tale packs an emotional wallop. Reading about Offred’s indoctrination and learning about what has happened to her since (and all women in Gilead) is a grinding, crushing, overpowering experience. But there are also moments that are cutting, quick, lethal. Betrayals, disappearances, and death are sprinkled throughout the book, gutting hope and reinforcing the fear-based power of the regime.

Nevertheless, hope is never extinguished. There are sprouts of hope, struggling for sunlight and a chance to grow. Rumors of resistance are spread widely, but are they real? Or bait placed by the secret police? Is Mayday the real deal or flim flam? Does Gilead win when hope dies? The book ends with an epilogue that answers these questions, but I won’t say much about to avoid spoilers.

The Handmaid’s Tale was published in 1985. The Berlin Wall was still standing. AIDS was spreading. Thatcher and Reagan were in office. Atwood’s concerns then are still widely felt today. What governments have done throughout history, they continue to do. The subjugation and disparaging of women have remained perennial issues. Perhaps these sorts of issues are the foundation of any classic dystopian story. But then Atwood builds on that foundation with her top-notch skill, telling a tragedy and horror story in a beautiful manner. It’s both depressing and inspiring. Read. Cry. Resist.

Title image by Erin McGuire.


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