Review: The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

5 of 5 stars
Published 1985

A classic Canadian novel, Margaret Atwood spins a tale of a dystopian society where women are only valued as servants or as baby makers. A military coup changes things in America overnight and society in the now-named Gilead becomes male-oriented and locked down. The environment has become toxic and it has affected the fertility of both men and women. Women who have proven to be fertile are forced to become Handmaidens, forced to keep populating the country via a rather bizarre ceremony involving a husband and apparently barren or post-menopausal wife who would then raise the child if it’s viable. Other women are Marthas, women that are the cleaners, cooks, servants. EconoWives are somewhat outcasts, unable to bear children.

This is the story of Offred (Of Fred, Handmaidens are forced to give up their true names) who is a Handmaid, living in a home with a Commander “Fred” and his wife, “Serena Joy”. Offred narrates the story from some time in the future, hoping it will be passed on. We do not find out her real name though we do know she was married “before” and had a child before everything changed. The child was taken away from her and she assumes her husband was arrested. Maybe he’s dead. She survives. She hasn’t been completely indoctrinated into the new dogma but keeps her head down and tries to stay alive in the hope that she just mind find her daughter some day.

The Commander seems to take a liking to her and offers her a bit of freedom behind closed doors, with a game of Scrabble, occasional illegal reading material, small luxuries like hand cream.  If Offred’s clandestine activities are discovered by the Commander’s wife, she could be killed. But Serena Joy has her own agenda that includes Offred and her potential fertility. Offred is treading a fine line and it could prove disastrous or it could lead her to freedom.

What was particularly interesting in the “Historical Notes” at the end which answers the question “If Offred narrated the story, how did it get published?” I won’t elaborate, due to spoilers.

Ms. Atwood wrote this book while living in a divided Berlin, three years before the Berlin wall came down and her observances of the restrictive society had some influence on the novel. The story is kind of creepy when you read about all the restrictions the government put on society and on women in particular. The coup and it’s creeping, insidious removal of rights and freedoms makes you look at the society today and makes you wonder that the prospect of it happening in our world might not actually be so unbelievable.

The book is being made into a 10 episode series this spring and I am rereading it in anticipation. It will be shown on Hulu in the U.S. and on Bravo in Canada, with Netflix picking it up after it’s finished.


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