The Handmaid’s Tale

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The Handmaid's Tale By Margaret AtwoodFirst of all let me start with how I came across this book and the rest of Margaret Atwood’s novels. It was during the final year of my degree and my tutor suggested that I read “The Handmaid’s Tale”. After reading that, I went on to read many others of hers as such as the Blind Assassin, Alias Grace, The Edible Woman and The Penelopiad. I enjoyed her books so much that I decided to write my whole dissertation on two of her books, The Handmaid’s Tale and The Robber Bride.

Margaret Atwood is a Canadian writer who has written a huge amount of work ranging from novels, to short fiction to poetry to children’s books. She is known for her feminist views which do crop up time and again in her novels, none more so than “The Handmaid’s Tale.” She has been shortlisted for the Booker Prize 5 times and has won it once with one of my favourites, “The Blind Assassin” . Thankfully, to all Atwood fans, she is still writing today.

The Handmaid’s Tale is narrated by the main character, Offred who lives in the Republic of Gilead, a place that has overthrown the United States of America. The novel is set in the near future (post 1985 when The Handmaid’s Tale was published), where a group of Religious extremists have overthrown power and has taken over the Government. We are introduced to a completely new world as seen by Offred, where reproduction rates are dangerously low and therefore “Handmaids” are assigned to powerful couples living in the society who are unable to have children. Offred, who has been deemed fertile, is assigned to a Commander whose first name is Fred (therefore her name is Of Fred), and his wife Serena Joy. Offred is called upon each month to have sex with the Commander. Intercourse is silent and is done with the Commanders wife, Serena Joy present. Serena Joy will sit behind Offred during intercourse and hold her hands.

Offred also slips into frequent flashbacks of her previous life before the regime took over – she had a husband, Luke and a child. Both of these are taken away from her as the regime take over and she is captured. We find out that the women in this society are one of two types – fertile like Offred and sent to a “Re-education Centre” to be taught how to be solely concerned with childbearing, how to serve men etc, whilst the other women who cannot have children are considered “Unwomen” and are sent to the Colonies which we are led to believe are like concentration camps. The Handmaids have a freedom restricted lifestyle, are constantly watched by the Secret Police Force of Gilead (named “The Eyes”) , for example, the Handmaids can never have their doors fully closed so no privacy whatsoever, are forbidden to hold down any jobs and if the handmaids do leave the confines of their Commanders home, its only to go on short, infrequent shopping trips.

I won’t be spoiling the rest of the novel – but the book is about how she copes, what happens to her when she doesn’t become pregnant by the Commander and what happens to the other women in the society who she is in contact with. This book reveals what might happen in a society that is taken over by Religious Extremists and is thoroughly believable. There are many religious themes throughout the book which take a strong hold; the Handmaids are clothed in a similar manner to women in Islamic societies who also have very few rights, punishment for crimes often lead to amputation, abortion is not an option and doctors who perform this operation are hanged. On looking up the facts of this book, I’ve found out that this was written during the time Regan was in power and religious conservatism was on the rise, so perhaps this was even more believable at the time of its publication. In fact, there are so many religious and biblical references, I couldn’t even begin to go through them all!

There are several characters in “The Handmaid’s Tale“, namely Ofglen, who is Offreds shopping partner and a member of a underground rebel organisation, Nick, who Offred starts to sleep with to fall pregnant as well as the Commander and Serena. However, the most interesting characters are Offred herself and her friend Moira. Moira is never given a handmaids name as she manages to escape the Regime. She later turns up in a brothel. Contrasted next to Offred, she is depicted as courageous and determined, whereas Offred seems to be if not happy, but accepting of her new role in society.

However, I find Offred as the narrator a very interesting character and much more courageous in her ordeals than Moira. Often Offred is very matter-of-fact when it comes to her life in Gilead which does point to her submissive nature.

“This is honestly one of the most beautifully and brilliantly written books I’ve ever read”

However, as a reader, it is easy to warm to her as she is intelligent, loving and most importantly possesses a great sense of humour despite her predicament. Quietly rebelling (she says she is NOT Of Fred – both saying she is not his chattle and also a play on Afraid) she is one of the most interesting heroines I’ve ever read about as she tells a story that is all the more powerful as she is the voice of all of the women that live in the Republic of Gilead.

I think by now it is clear what my opinion of this book is. This is honestly one of the most beautifully and brilliantly written books I’ve ever read – so much so that I wish that I had written it! It’s one of the few books that I’ve read a couple of times over (not just for my dissertation!) It is so interesting, on each read something new is revealed to you, or a certain theme holds a different meaning from when you first read it. “The Handmaid’s Tale” is thickly layered with so many interesting themes, from pornography, to rape, to childbirth, to religion that it does seem impossible to grasp it all fully on the first read.

I guess a negative of this is that readers may view it as a very feminist piece of writing, but DO NOT let that put you off. It is a compelling story that goes beyond the feminist focus. I can’t really describe it, but the story of life in Gilead is chilling, interesting and most of all so authentic – you really do get a sense of how life could really be like this. It’s a powerful and frightening story and a novel that I think everyone should read. Margaret Atwood writes some beautiful books which are full of wonderfully written phrases and imagery, but this is the best of her plots, thoroughly enjoyable and highly recommendable. She is my favourite author so I will put my hands up and say I’m biased, but she is fully deserving of all the praise given to her for this book!


A couple of my favourite quotes from The Handmaid’s Tale:
“Time has not stood still. It has washed over me, washed me away, as if I’m nothing more than a woman of sand, left by a careless child too near the water.”
“She’s in her usual Martha dress, which is dull green, like a surgeon’s gown of the time before. The dress is much like mine in shape… but…without the white wings and the veil.”
“Moira was like an elevator with open sides. She made us dizzy”

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Handmaid's Tale (The)
by Margaret Atwood

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