The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

>> Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

Genre: Dystopian Fiction
Publication Date: 1985
Pages: 395
Challenges: None
Source: Purchased Used

The Short Version:
Unsettling story of a dystopian world where everyone and particularly women are strictly relegated to specific roles and role of the handmaid is to bear children for others.

Why I Read It:
It has probably been 20 years since I first read this. A recent conversation on Twitter led to a readalong of this book hosted by Pam at for Margaret May. While I’d read the book ages ago and remembered the basic story this was the perfect opportunity for a re-read.

The Book:
Set in the not to distant future, the story is told by a handmaid known as Offred (she never reveals her real name). While she can remember the times before, she is forced to deal with her current circumstances. The Republic of Gilead is a highly structured society where people are required to exist within the rules for their assigned roles. Offred is a handmaid and her role is to bear children. She lives with The Commander and his wife (the wife was a televangelist in the time before). Once a month they all participate in a ‘ceremony’; the sole purpose of which is to impregnate the handmaid in a twisted interpretation of the biblical story of Rachel, her maid Bilhah and Joseph.

In the Republic of Gilead, women are not allowed to read, have their own money or hold jobs. There is a strict moral code that all must comply with or suffer the consequences (various forms of punishment, exile to The Colonies, or even death).

Offred tells the story of her current circumstances interspersed with recollections of her life before the political and environmental changes that led to the development of The Republic of Gilead. The reader gradually learns of her life in the time before with her husband and daughter as well as the things she experienced as the world around her changed.

An odd but interesting afterward adds a whole additional tweak to the readers' perspective.

My Thoughts:
I remember reading this book when I was in my late twenties and finding it quite unsettling. When Margaret Atwood wrote this in the early 1980’s it was a time when the ‘Moral Majority’ was growing and in the news along with the activities of some of the more well known televangelists and other religious organizations becoming very politically vocal and active. At that time of my life it was not a huge stretch to imagine a government like that of the Republic of Gilead in power somewhere and sometime.

Re-reading it now was still a bit unsettling. Different things jumped out at me this time. Beyond the ‘religion’ that developed in Offred’s world there were other things I found jarring. I just about dropped the book when the description of the collapse of the United States Government included the statement “They blamed it on the Islamic Fanatics”. Hmm – the more things change, the more they stay the same? 25 years after the book was published and parts of it still sound like the evening news.

I think what stood out for me while reading it this time was the difference from most other dystopian fiction I’ve read in the past couple of years. In most of those the current society and government has been in place for a long time and any references to a time before that remotely resembled our current world was far in the distant past. In The Handmaid’s Tale the storyteller is very much a participant in both the present and past societies. The drastic changes have taken place fairly recently and she had a full adult life in the time before and to read of her longing for that while she’s facing the facts of her current existence made it seem that much more real and touching to me.

You’ll have to forgive me. I’m a refugee from the past, and like other refugees I go over the customs and habits of being I’ve left or been forced to leave behind me, and it all seems just as quaint, from here, and I am just as obsessive about it.

This was definitely worth a re-read and I although I was only able to participate in one of the scheduled discussions hosted by Pam, I enjoyed it very much. Next week, I’ll be watching the movie version and our last Margaret May discussion will be about the book versus the movie.

If you are thinking about reading and discussing this for the first time or as a re-read please check out the Classics Reads Book Club at They’ll be reading and discussing this book together beginning in July.

Rating 4.5/5


rhapsodyinbooks 5/18/2010 3:17 PM  

I haven't read it for many years also. That is interesting about the Islamic fanatics. I'm reading a book now that takes place 20 years in the future, in which we are in a war with Iran and the governor of Texas is Jenna Bush. I wonder how that will seem to someone who rereads this book 20 years from now!

Thomas at My Porch 5/18/2010 4:52 PM  

I just re-read this in January myself. And it had been about 20 years since I read it the first time as well. And, like you, I felt it was definitely worth a second read. I wasn't really planning on reading it again but once I picked it up and read the first few pages I was hooked all over again.

Heather 5/19/2010 6:12 AM  

I didn't like this book when I first read it (not a fan of Atwood in general) but your thoughts about it tempt me to the idea of re-reading it...

Aarti 5/19/2010 9:44 AM  

I am planning on reading this book in the coming months with Heather of Raging Bibliomania. I am excited because I think it will be a great discussion book, and I am totally looking forward to sinking my teeth into it!

Anna 5/20/2010 8:54 PM  

I re-read this one a few months ago, and I thought it was even more powerful than when I read it 10 years ago in college. Then again, this time I'm a mom, so there was that.

Diary of an Eccentric

SuziQoregon 5/21/2010 9:54 AM  

Rhapsody in books: Oh I agree - wonder what folks will think of that in 20 years.

Thomas: I hadn't really been planning on re-reading it, but when the conversation came up I decided to. I'm really glad I did.

Heather: I've only read this and one other (Cat's Eye) by Atwood. I'm not sure whether or not I'm a fan. I did find them both interesting and I'm surprisingly glad I gave this one a re-read.

Aarti: I agree - I was very disappointed I was only able to participate in one of the chats for this readalong. It's definitely a book that makes you want to discuss it. I may pop into some of the discussions with the Classic Reads group has theirs later this year.

Anna: Oh I think that reading it as a Mom would definitely influence your thoughts.

Carole 5/27/2010 2:21 AM  

I disliked this book intensely and couldn't wait to finish it, I thought it was boring. Sorry, I know lots of people love it but the characters annoyed me so much. I've read 'The Blind Assassin' which I loved and also listened to 'Oryx and Crake' which I also loved. So, it hasn't put me off reading Margaret Atwood, I think she's a brilliant writer but 'The Handmaid's Tale' just wasn't my cup of tea!

SuziQoregon 5/31/2010 7:50 PM  

Carole: Interesting. I haven't read either The Blind Assassin or Oryx and Crake so I can't really compare.

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