30 September 2009

Book Review: The Handmaid's Tale

Title: The Handmaid's Tale
Author: Margaret Atwood
Published: 1998/1985 Pages: 311
Genre: Literary Fiction, Speculative Fiction, Dystopian Literature
Rating: 5/5

Buy  |  Borrow  |  Accept  |  Avoid

Plot Synopsis

Offred, a Handmaid in the Republic of Gilead, narrates her story. Told in fragments, Offred introduces readers to a world where women are partitioned out: a wife, a servant, a walking uterus. While she can remember her life before, a relatively normal life, she has become immersed in this new order, at once resisting and accepting her role.

My Thoughts

I am horrified, horrified by the warning inherent in the book. The believability of the civilization created within these pages spoke to me. First published in 1985, bits and pieces of the justification for the Republic resonate. Everything is "blamed on the Islamic fanatics"; this was done for the protection of women from rape, sexual slavery, and physical abuse; the suspension of personal freedoms were temporary; consistent identification is needed and "everyone approved of that, since it was obvious you couldn't be too careful"; and little by little rights and freedoms were denied to select groups with nary a word of protest. Everything being done to you and against you is done for you. It's all for your own good.

How far will a society go, how much will it sacrifice, for safety? For power? These questions, so prevalent in Atwood's book, are increasingly relevant in American society today. As we relinquish what were once considered our rights for protection against "terrorism", we slide further away from the ideal of democracy the country was founded on (albeit through violence, racism, and genocide). As we further objectify ourselves, elevating physical beauty and commodifying our bodies, we become less individual humans and more subject to social control and acceptance of our own lack of self worth.

And yet when I ask myself: Is Atwood's vision a likelihood? Will women be once again subjugated to male property under the auspices of protection? I have to say no. I believe in the goodness of men (literally males). I believe that women will not allow such a regression to take place. Of course, when Clinton ran for president, a few of my students made disheartening remarks about a female being president. Female students, under 22. Sad. Women are women's worst enemies.

Outside of the themes inherent in Atwood's tale, the story itself entices. At first discouraged by the short, choppy sentences and fragmentary retellings, I eventually became rather in tune with them, reading at a quick pace, easily comprehending the bite-sized bits of information given to me. I also felt this style highly appropriate for the narrator. Having been removed entirely from literacy and having verbally narrated the tale, Offred's voice, her pacing and disjointed sense of telling seems necessary.

I sincerely hope this tale is non-prophetic. As with all dystopian literature, I hope societies learn from the story, see their flaws as printed on the page and prevent the horror from happening. Of course, for this to happen, we have to read these tales.

The Handmaid's Tale is number 37 on the ALA's list of most frequently challenged books. What I find sad in this is that the book is normally challenged because it portrays the mistreatment of women. EXACTLY! The novel is a warning not an encouragement. What do we do? Ignore the possibility? Pretend that this mistreatment isn't a truism of the past, present, and possibly future? When will people realize that ignoring a problem doesn't make it go away? And that if you don't "nip the problem in the bud" so to speak through awareness and prevention, you may one day see Atwood's dystopian future? Maybe if we don't let kids hear the word rape, rapes won't happen? Yes, let's not warn anyone; they'll learn later.

Of course challenges to the book are made on other grounds as well: That it's anti-Christian. It's not; it's anti-fundamentalism. That it portrays sex. Yep, and people have sex. That it vividly describes birth and menstruation. Ovaries, vaginas, and blood, OH MY! I highly recommend reading this book both for the lessons within, and for the less socio-political amongst us, for the story itself.

Memorable Scene: At one point, the handmaids are gathered together for one purpose: the violent killing of a man they've been told raped a handmaid. The women use their bare hands to rip this man apart. Disturbing.

Memorable Quote: "That was when they suspended the Constitution. They said it would be temporary. There wasn't even any rioting in the streets. People stayed home at night, watching television, looking for some direction. There wasn't even an enemy you could put your finger on."

Side note: My spell check does not recognize the word vaginas...interesting.

Other Reviews
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The Zen Leaf


  1. I really enjoy the idea of this book, and looking back after a year, it's very positively memorable, but I didn't really like it much while I was reading. The narrator's voice irritated me, and I thought the writing was very sloppy. I wished it had been told in third person. I felt compelled to do a lot of editing, haha! But again, through time, what has stuck with me was the good points, not the bad, so I remember it more fondly than my original thoughts.

    My review is here: http://zenleaf.blogspot.com/2008/10/handmaids-tale-by-margaret-atwood.html

  2. Wonderful review! I started reading this once but wasn't in the right mood to read it and then never got back around to it.

    I agree that sometimes women can be women's worst enemy. =/

  3. Trisha - This is a fabulous book. I agree with your comments regarding women being their own worst enemies. I also agree that the very reasons for this book being challenged are the very reasons why we should be reading it and discussing the possibilities to avoid them becoming realities.

  4. What I want to know is whether you quizzed your spell checker on penis!

  5. I remember reading this in high school - it had such a profound effect on me. I really should read it again.

  6. I remember watching this movie in college and thinking it was bizarre. The book sounds interesting to me now though. Great review!

  7. I read Atwood. Notice I said I read Atwood, I don't love her books, I'm not even sure I like them but I read them. There is always something that is so strange and dark. I read her books with a little bit of fear that what she writes could become the truth. Though, like you I don't think it will, but I always read her books thinking maybe she is right.

    Love your blog.

  8. Amanda- I put your link in! Thanks!

    Jenny - You should try again. It's really worth it.

    Chris - Scary is definitely the right word.

    Michelle - Exactly!

    Rhapsody - I am so going to have to do that!

    Carrie - You really should. I can't imagine reading it in high school; it would have really had an impact I'm sure.

    Stacy - I have got to see the movie yet. Is it good? Or just bizarre?

    Krissi - Thanks for the compliment. I hope you keep coming around. When I was reading, the possibility of it being prophetic was definitely foremost in my mind. Even as I don't believe, I believe. A strange contradiction.

  9. Great review! I read this one years ago and it really resonated with me. I keep meaning to read more Atwood but still haven't gotten around to it yet...

  10. Heather - Thanks! You know, I'm sort of strange in that liking a book doesn't make me go out and read more by the same author. I'm not sure why; I just don't get in to "authors"..Perhaps I'm really missing out.

  11. Fantastic review! I also found this book terrifying, and the scenario described in it far from completely unlikely. I especially loved the last few paragraphs, in which you argue against the grounds on which it has been challenged!

  12. Nymeth - Thanks! I was feeling rather impassioned as I was writing. Reading it now the tone seems rather...testy. Oh well. :)


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