The Sunday Salon Review: The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood

Another Sunday, and a new month, too!  This week brought more nasty weather — ice storms followed by rain — so why am I pinning my hopes on the groundhog, who predicted an early spring?  People believe what they want to hear, I guess 🙂

Thankfully the crummy weather was offset by good reading.  Following on the heels of Virago Reading Week, I picked up the feminist classic and 1986 Booker Prize nominee, The Handmaid’s Tale.  My daughter had to read it last summer for her AP Lit class, and I’ve eyed it for months now.  I’m surprised I never read it before!  What rock was I living under?

I was also stunned to find that the 1986 Booker Prize winner was Kingsley Amis’ The Old Devils.  This was one of my all-time least favorite Booker winners (read my review).  And The Old Devils is a very masculine book, celebrating the joys of drinking, and sex with various partners.  I find it really sad that the Booker judges awarded the prize to Amis and not Atwood, who wrote a much more thought-provoking book describing a totalitarian society in which women existed solely for the benefit of the men. Sigh.  Have we learned anything in the intervening 25 years?  I hope so.

Read on:
The Handmaid’s Tale is a chilling view of a repressive, controlling society — the Republic of Gilead — in which women are confined to specific roles, all designed to meet the needs of men.  They lose personal freedom of both movement and speech, and fear for their lives.  Women are grouped into castes and wear a common uniform.  Marthas are responsible for cooking and housework.  Wives represent the highest caste, married to high-ranking men called Commanders (“ordinary” women are known as Econowives).  The Handmaids’ primary purpose is reproduction.  Handmaids are assigned to Commanders, and subjected to a monthly ritual in hopes they will conceive.  Those who fail (and yes, it’s always the Handmaid’s fault) are moved to a new post, and exiled if they remain unable to bear children.

The story is set well into the future, but the characters still remember their lives “before.”  Offred is one of the Handmaids, separated from her husband and young daughter and assigned to a high-ranking Commander.  She recounts her training period in the “Red Center,” and the systematic way in which the women are forced to submit to governmental authority.  She dutifully dons the required long red habit, and the white headgear that blocks most of her vision.  Once in the Commander’s house, Offred discovers evidence of the earlier Handmaid, including a mysterious foreign phrase carved in the floor.  On her daily trips to the village shops, Offred makes tentative contact with other Handmaids.  While they cannot converse openly, every opportunity to exchange a few whispered words helps them better understand the world around them.  And yet one never knows who to trust.  Men and women are routinely executed and left on display.  Fear and betrayal run like electricity through the community.

I don’t want to say much more about the plot; it won’t do justice to the book because it really must be experienced.  Margaret Atwood paints a bleak and disturbing picture, all the more so because of its resemblance to certain aspects of contemporary life.  Atwood drops several hints about how the United States turned into Gilead, critiquing many aspects of late 20th-century society.  Despite its extremes, it’s not that difficult to imagine.  Some aspects of Gilead exist in the world today: extreme repression and fear are not uncommon, and even the most “enlightened” societies subjugate certain elements.  As Offred adjusted to her new life and struggled with loss, isolation, and confusion, I willed her to find a way out.  I wanted the totalitarian regime to crumble.  I wanted good to triumph over evil.  But that’s not the point of this novel, and Atwood won’t let her readers off the hook so easily.  This is the sort of book that strikes you between the eyes, leaving you with a lot to think about.


Read more from The Sunday Salon here.


24 thoughts on “The Sunday Salon Review: The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood

  1. A great review of The Handmaid’s Tale – especially the line about it striking you between the eyes. That is such an accurate statement!

  2. Thanks for the review — I read this ages ago (probably close to 1986!), and am due for a re-read; glad your daughter’s class list encouraged you to read it.

    Very interesting about which book won the Booker the year THE HANDMAID’S TALE was published — what a contrast!

    • Dawn you’re right — a real contrast. And I’m just so disappointed in the judges, to have a shortlist that included both The Handmaid’s Tale and The Old Devils, and to choose the latter. Yuck.

    • Jo, this book clearly stands the test of time and I think it would be the kind of book you could re-read at different points in life and take something different away from it each time.

  3. I’m so glad you felt this book so deeply, Laura. I think it’s one of the most important books of the 20th century. She is such an astute woman…look at how she used the war in the book to create the illusion of a country under siege, only to reveal that the war was a false, manufactured thing created precisely to control the people of Gilead…kind of resonates today, doesn’t it. Give the people something else to hate so they won’t hate you: Sun Tzu.

  4. Fantastic, passionate review Laura! I loved this when I read it and it truly is a classic of our times. Margaret Atwood is such a clever, brilliant woman. I adore her books and how she writes about such important and subversive issues in a way that is still entertaining and gripping. A magnificent writer!

  5. Terrific review of this book, Laura. This is one of my favorite Atwood novels … really sticks with the reader. The Robber Bride is probably my all-time favorite of hers (so far!). Glad you finally got to this one…should be required reading (especially for young women!).

  6. ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ was the first Atwood I ever read and I do remember being very impressed by it. However, I moved onto ‘Alias Grace’ which didn’t work for me at all and it has only been this past year that I’ve come back to her with any enjoyment. I’ve recently read ‘The Blind Assassin’ and thought it was excellent so i must try others now. Any suggestions?

    • Annie, I liked Alias Grace but I think The Handmaid’s Tale was a more compelling read with more of a message. The only other Atwood I’ve read is the Blind Assassin so I’m in the same boat as you. But I think I’ll follow Wendy’s recommendation and read The Robber Bride next.

  7. The first time I read this book, it didn’t really strike me as that interesting or powerful. The second time I read it, it was deeply creepy thinking about how this world could happen. Funny to think what happened in my life in between those two readings.

    • Robyn, thanks for stopping by! I agree this book could hit you quite differently depending on where you are in life. This book may have to go on my “re-read from time to time” list. Not that I actually have such a list, but if I did, this would be on it along with To Kill a Mockingbird. Hmmm … now I’m thinking about what else would be on that list !

  8. You’ve done such a fine job of talking about this book without stealing even a fraction of its power by revealing specifics. I’ve read it two or three times but I think it’s time that I re-read it too. I was amazed on my last reading (maybe 8 years ago, whereas the first time I read it I was in my later teens, and there may have been a third time in between) that it felt every bit as relevant as it had after publication. Wow.

    Did I miss, or have I forgotten, how your daughter found it?

    • Wow, thanks BIP! I actually found it quite challenging to write the review. I really, really don’t want to have spoilers and yet sometimes that can make it difficult to express the power of a book. I’m glad it worked, because I wasn’t at all sure it did 🙂

      As for my daughter’s reaction, I know she liked it … she was reading it while we were on a car journey and I kept asking questions. But it’s difficult to engage her in real book chat (just the usual teen/parent dynamic at play). I wish I could have been a fly on the wall in the classroom discussion!

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