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The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood – Book Review

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Book Name: The Handmaid’s Tale
Author: Margaret Atwood
Publisher(s): McClelland and Stewart
Formatt: Hardcover / Paperback / Audiobook / Ebook
Genre(s): Dystopian
Release Date: 1985

Set in the near future, society has become something different; there’s a new hierarchy at play. The government has fallen and life has fractured as a result of pollution and radiation. The Republic of Gilead rises from the ashes. Men have taken the position of power as head of the household. They are in charge; they are the decision-makers. These are the Commanders.

Sitting below them are their Wives, dressed in blue to show their rank over other women. The Aunts in their dreary brown are in charge of training and indoctrinating the Handmaids: women in red who must hide their face with white wings. There are Marthas, in green dresses, who are cooks and housekeepers. Young, unmarried girls wear white virginal dresses and widows wear black.

Our narrator and protagonist, Offred, is a Handmaid. Following the upheaval from her previous life, she’s been assigned to a household to serve in her new role. The narrative is direct, often jumping between then and now, told completely in first person. Over the pages, the full story comes together. By day, we get a personal insight into this new life. A Handmaid is brought their breakfast by a Martha, they pair up with a Handmaid from another household to shop, they cannot be alone, they cannot show their faces outside the household, they listen to Bible readings by the Commander. They aren’t allowed to read; there’s no music or daily TV. What little they’re allowed to see or hear is of a religious nature. Food is rationed, with certain elements such as fish, almost unobtainable. At night, we discover the dark impact the state of affairs is having on Offred’s mental health. We learn that the previous Offred hung herself and that the current Offred was separated from her child when the Gilead regime came to power.  

We’re shown the Ceremony through Offred’s eyes. It’s the first truly dark scene and is uncomfortable reading, making it extremely clear just what is expected of the Handmaids. It’s Offred’s duty, as a fertile woman, to produce a child for a couple who are unable to do so. It’s not a process that Offred tries to stop. She is disconnected from the Commander and the Wife as she lies between them. She accepts what has become expected of her, what has become the new normal. If she cannot, she will be sent to the Colonies, and have what little luxuries she currently has removed. She has a status that is desired in this new society—people know she can provide the miracle of life, her red dress screams it. She can do what the Wives and Marthas cannot. She knows that she is nothing more than a “two-legged womb”. There is no love, no affection, no intimacy.

Offred is to give birth. There’s nothing else. She’s a possession of the Commander, stripped of her previous name and designated ‘of Fred’. She has no money, there’s nowhere she could go, she has no friends. She has been robbed of everything that made her who she was before. She knows that should the day come when she delivers a baby for the Commander, she’ll be passed on to another Commander, being separated from her child. The cycle would continue. Abortion is not an option—doctors who performed the procedures before are killed and hung upon the Wall as a reminder of their sin.

The stark way in which the narrative is handled, given to us directly as if being injected with Offred’s thoughts, is what makes the text so impactful. We are right there along with her. We feel the expectation and the submission. Religion has brought this broken society to these extremes, to the literal sense that women are the property of men.

I read about the various new US abortion laws the day after I finished The Handmaid’s Tale. I don’t proclaim to know much about politics, I’ll ring the shame bell because I should know more. I know even less about politics in America (we in the UK have something else going on right now). But Atwood’s imaginings seem to be leaking into reality. The Handmaid’s Tale is stark and honest; the echoes of reality are scary. It’s certainly impressionable and raises the right kind of questions about society and the way we view women. It’s a book I would recommend to anyone without hesitation. There are lessons we need to learn.

Title image by Erin McGuire.

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One Comment

  1. Loved the review and the book is definitely a disturbing read (but I do recall that the end presented a glimpse of hope for those who fight back). It can’t be denied that our society is moving in a direction of controlling women’s reproductive state. The book Atwood has written is a dark warning and one we shouldn’t ignore.

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