The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

The Handmaid’s Tale
Margaret Atwood


I hadn’t read The Handmaid’s Tale in over ten years so I was glad when my book club chose it for this month’s discussion. And it fits right in with the National Banned Books Week (September 23 -29). The Handmaid’s Tale has been challenged or banned many times since its publication in 1985. In Atwood’s dystopian story, the American government is overthrown and replaced by a theonomic military dictatorship in which fertile women are used solely to bear children and all other women are either assigned to a hierarchy that enforces this policy or sent to the Colonies to clean up toxic waste. The idea is to build up the country’s dwindling population, which has suffered due to nuclear explosions and other contamination. The men’s roles vary according to station and include Angels and Guardians, with Commanders at the top.

The story’s narrator is a handmaid, Offred, so named as belonging to her Commander. Handmaids are assigned to the Commanders and their presumably barren wives who participate every month in an orchestrated Ceremony in which the Commanders try to impregnate the handmaids. Although Offred is not at the bottom of the hierarchy, she is nonetheless trapped and by no means secure. If she doesn’t become pregnant, she could be sent to the Colonies.

As with all forms of oppression, ways to communicate, small freedoms, and an underground resistance give Offred hope, but their discovery is slow and unsure. A risky relationship with her Commander and even more dangerous connections with others could go either way as Offred tries to reconcile the life she lost with what may be possible. I enjoyed rereading The Handmaid’s Tale. It’s a look at what could go wrong and is a good exercise of thought. I recommend it to readers who like speculative fiction and to all readers who like seeing how characters fight back in both small and large ways.

The Handmaid’s Tale is also a popular television series. Streamed on Hulu, the show has won eight Emmy awards and a Golden Globe Award for Best Television Series – Drama. Seasons 1 and 2 are available to watch and Season 3 is in the works. You can even see Atwood in a small cameo role.

You may also remember the 1990 movie, directed by Volker Schlondorff and starring Natasha Richardson, Faye Dunaway and Aidan Quinn. Harold Pinter wrote the screenplay.

I also read a great article about what influenced Atwood when she wrote The Handmaid’s Tale. Click here to read Atwood’s March 10, 2017 essay in The New York Times: “Margaret Atwood on What The Handmaid’s Tale Means in the Age of Trump.” Here are some highlights:

  • Atwood began writing in the book in 1984.
  • She was living in West Berlin at the time, before the fall of the Berlin Wall where she “experienced the wariness, the feeling of being spied on, the silences, the changes of subject, the oblique ways in which people might convey information, and these had an influence on what I was writing.”
  • She wasn’t sure she was up to the task of writing a dystopian, speculative fiction.

Atwood also answers three important questions about the book

  1. Is it a feminist novel? She says no, and yes. No because the women in her story are not all angels, and neither are they so victimized that they can’t make moral decisions. But she clarifies, “If you mean a novel in which women are human beings — with all the variety of character and behavior that implies — and are also interesting and important, and what happens to them is crucial to the theme, structure and plot of the book, then yes. In that sense, many books are ‘feminist.’”
  2. Is the book antireligion? No, it’s against using religion “as a front for tyranny.”
  3. Is the book a prediction? She calls it an “antiprediction” and explains that if this kind of future can be described, maybe it won’t happen.

Thanks for visiting – come back soon!

24 thoughts on “The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

    1. Thanks Jill. Atwood prefers to call it speculative fiction over science fiction. I’ve read a lot of dystopian novels over the years, but I still prefer regular fiction or historical fiction. Thanks for reading and commenting. It’s been a busy week!

    1. Hi Noelle – it’s a pretty quick read despite the serious subject. I read it in about 4 days. Thanks for reading and commenting – always appreciated! Hope your land is drying out down there.

  1. Lovely review. It’s been years for me as well since I read The Handmaid’s Tale. Based on your thoughts here, I’m assuming it still holds up! I’d really like to revisit the book. I’ve been really impressed with the Hulu production, although I’m feelng a little wary about where they’re going with the story as of the end of season 2.

  2. This may sound strident, but I think “Handmaid’s Tale” should be required reading, somehow. It has haunted me ever since I read it years ago, and its “anti-prophetic” quality is chilling indeed. It lays bare dark elements of the collective American spirit that keep seeping into the light of day, never more so than right now. It may be speculative, but it could SO happen.

  3. Fascinating background to Atwood’s novel. I read it when it first came out, and then a decade or so later. I thought it was well-written and Orwellian-like. (I’ve read a few other Atwood novels and didn’t connect with the writing at all). As far as the TV series – no thank you. I always prefer a book, and one like this that’s so intense and overwhelming (and depressing with such mean-spirited characters) is not something I need/want to see on screen. And from what I’ve read from reviews, the ugliness and cruelty is overdone at points into gratuitousness, which is unnecessary.

    1. I have heard the same thing from many other friends. I haven’t watched the series but one of my book club friends said she’s wary of watching season 3 because of how intense it was. Thanks so much for stopping by to comment, Pam. Hope you’re having a nice New England fall day. We finally have a rainless day here!

  4. When I had read this book, I found it brilliant, disturbing, distressing yet realistic. Women have been treated like maids, reproductive machines and personal properties for ages. They still live in the shadow of men and are completely controlled by them in many parts of this world. Female feticide is the grim reality of 21st century and speaks volumes about the oppression and servitude that is perpetrated on women. Today’s ‘Aunts’ are the traditional mother-in-laws who find pleasure in making maids out of their daughter-in-laws.
    I wouldn’t like to watch TV series as I avoid unpleasant and violent scenes, which add unnecessary stress to life.

  5. Thanks for the review, Barbara. I’ve never read the book and unsure if I will. But I definitely won’t watch the TV version based on what you and others have said about it. Even the previews have me changing the channel. So, I’ll probably stick to my regular fiction and enjoy. 🙂

    1. Hi Lauren – yes I know what you are saying. These days I tend to prefer watching shows and movies that are entertaining more than intense. The book is good and Atwood is an excellent writer – very diverse, however. Thanks so much for reading and commenting. I’ve been so busy lately I haven’t been reading as many blogs but I hope to get back to that soon. Hope you are doing well!

    1. I haven’t watched it – I have heard it is very intense. I’m not sure I’m in the mood for that, so I may wait. I think the book would be the place to start though, but Margaret Atwood is a consultant to the show so it’s probably pretty close to the book’s ideas. Let me know if you watch the series – I’d be interested in your reaction. Thanks for stopping by and commenting, George. Looking forward to your next post!

  6. It’s been ages since I’ve read this book. Thanks for reminding me of it. Maybe I’ll try to hunt down the audiobook at the library and give a re-read (listen?). The interesting thing about the show and movie is that Atwood’s agent gave away her TV/Movie rights long ago, so she’s earning nothing from the show, but I’ve heard her say she’s okay with that because the sales of the book have skyrocketed thanks to the renewed interest. I don’t think I could take such a positive attitude if that happened to me.

  7. Nice review – I read this recently too and enjoyed it. One of the things that struck me was how plausible it seemed, so it’s interesting that she wrote it while living in West Berlin. I love the anti-prediction idea of describing a society like that so that it won’t happen.

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