The Handmaid's Taleby Published 01 Apr 1998
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Offred is a Handmaid in the Republic of Gilead. She may leave the home of the Commander and his wife once a day to walk to food markets whose signs are now pictures instead of words because women are no longer allowed to read. She must lie on her back once a month and pray that the Commander makes her pregnant, because in an age of declining births, Offred and the other Handmaids are valued only if their ovaries are viable. Offred can remember the years before, when she lived and made love with her husband, Luke; when she played with and protected her daughter; when she had a job, money of her own, and access to knowledge. But all of that is gone now...
The Handmaid's Tale Reviews
Consider this not a ground-breaking work of literature. Consider this not a piece of fiction boasting an avant-garde mode of narration.
Consider it not a commentary on the concept of subjugation of the weak by the ones holding the reins. Consider it not a thinly veiled feminist diatribe either.
Instead, consider The Handmaid's Tale an almost physical experience. Consider Margaret Atwood a fearless deliverer of unpleasant news - a messenger unafraid of dishing out the bone-chilling, cruel, unaltered truth and nothing but the truth.
Move over Bram Stoker. Move over H.P. Lovecraft. Fade away into oblivion, Edgar Allan Poe. Disappear down the depths of obscurity, Stephen King. Your narratives are not nearly as coldly brutal, your premonitions not nearly as portentous.
Because Ms Atwood, presents to us something so truly disturbing in the garb of speculative fiction that it reminds one of Soviet-era accounts of quotidian hardships in Gulag labour camps.
Speculative is it?
Aren't the Offreds (Of Fred) , Ofglens (Of Glen), Of warrens (Of Warren) of Gilead equivalent to the Mrs So-and-So-s of the present, reduced to the identity of their male partners? Isn't the whittling down of a woman to the net worth of her reproductive organs and her outer appearance an accepted social more? Isn't blaming the rape victim, causing her to bear the burden of unwarranted shame and social stigma a familiar tactic employed by the defense attorney?
Hasn't the 21st century witnessed the fate of Savita Halappanavars who are led to their untimely deaths by inhumane laws of nations still unwilling to acknowledge the importance of the life of a mother over her yet unborn child?
Doesn't the 21st century have materially prosperous nations governed by absurd, archaic laws which prohibit a woman from driving a car?
Doesn't the world still take pleasure in terrorizing activists like Caroline Criado-Perez with threats of rape and murder only because they have the audacity to campaign for female literary icons (Jane Austen) to become the face of Britain's 10-pound note?
Do I not live in a country where female foeticide is as normal an occurrence as the rising and setting of the sun?
Are we still calling this speculative fiction?
Some may wish to labour under the delusion that the women belonging to this much vaunted modern civilization of ours are not experiencing the same nightmare as Offred and are at perfect liberty to do what they desire. But I will not.
Because when I look carefully, I notice shackles encircling my feet, my hands, my throat, my womb, my mind. Shackles whose presence I have become so used to since the dawn of time, that I no longer possess the ability to discern between willful submission and conditioned subservience.
But thankfully enough, I have Margaret Atwood to jolt me back into consciousness and to will me to believe that I am chained, bound and gagged. That I still need to break free.
I thank her for making me shudder with indignation, revulsion and righteous anger. I thank her for causing bile to rise up my throat.
And I thank her for forcing me to see that women of the present do live in a dystopia like Offred's United States of America. We just prefer to remain blissfully blind to this fact at times.
Disclaimer:- I mean no disrespect to the other writers mentioned in this review all of whom I have read and deeply admire.
Looking back on my original review, it reads as quaint compared to the draconian state laws recently being passed, my state of Ohio being one of them. Make no mistake, this not about ‘life’ it’s about controlling women. If you can’t decide what happens to your own body you do not have freedom. This is about bodily autonomy.
Women have the RIGHT to legal and safe abortions with no qualifications. The fact that the narrative has gone to ‘in cases of rape and incest’ is troubling. Rape...incest...life of the mother....horrible birth defects....you’re young, single and not ready....you have five kids and can’t afford more, it doesn’t matter!
This is a medical procedure and pregnancy is a risky condition, it can cause death. Every woman has the right to decide whether or not they want to take that risk. Period.
Men don’t have anything that compares to this. No law is forcing them have vasectomies, or even denying them their bonner pills.
7/7/17 I'm just going to leave this here.... fuck Paul Ryan.... but not literally, ew.
Sleeveless women? My stars and garters!
03/31/17. So, this Russia thing.... Am I right?
2/5/17.....just another giant step towards making this book a reality, like they always dreamed of.
Original review written in 2o12:
WARNING: This review is being written after I worked a 13 hour day, with another one on the horizon tomorrow, and a glass of wine and while watching the Rachel Maddow show. Current events have put this book on the forefront of my mind, and damn it I got to get this out.
I have never written a review on The Handmaid's Tale because I love the book, and it is so hard to write about a book you love.
Ehh, what the hell.
OfFred was a normal everyday woman with a career, a name, a life like all women have come to expect and take for granted in this age. When the Religious Right came into power, they began to put into practice their insane beliefs which strip women of their identity, their rights, their body, their very name. Women are to be called Of(whatever asshat they belong to), instead of, say Beatrix. Reproduction is an issue because all the toxins in the environment have rendered many women infertile. But if you are fertile, woe to you, you get to be a baby factory against your will, get promised to some jerk you don’t love or even like because someone deemed him important enough to breed. Oh, come on!
This book was written in 1986, FYI. I thought it was scary and sort of possible when I first read it, but farfetched. This could NEVER happen in the United States of America. Never would it be allowed to happen here, we are too educated.
I turn on the news (in twothousandandfrikntwelve) and certain religious factions on the right are trying to defund Planned Parenthood, because they perform abortions which is only 3% of what they do (with NO federal $ going towards them). Mostly PP provides healthcare to women who wouldn't get it otherwise………..icky poor women.
Now it’s birth control? Seriously? Birth control??????? Did I wake up in 1950? Am I stuck in a Atwood novel? 98% of Catholic women (technically I’m one of them) use/used birth control. Even they are asking WTF?
I’m not sure what these people are trying to do. There are more women than men and we vote……unless that’s the next right on the chopping block.
There have several updates to this review that I have removed to make room for the next. what follows is the most recent one.
It’s been nearly a week since the unimaginable happened and I had to let the shock wear off before I could put a coherent, non-rage filled update on this review. Not that I don’t have rage, I have plenty to spare, but I think it’s now at a level that is manageable enough for me not to just type out a string of obscenities. That being said…
Update 11/14/16: An unqualified, racist, xenophobic, sexist, pathological liar, psychopathic reality star was elected to be the 45th president of the United States and the leader of the free world.
The United States has officially shat the bed. Few foresaw it, but in hindsight, it was coming down the road for a very long time. The United (divided) States voted for Hillary Clinton on whole (popular vote) by over 2,000,000 votes and counting (millions are still out in California, for example), yet Donald Trump is our president elect (gag) due to an antiquated electoral college system (which I could explain, but I’m not because Google can do that better than I can.) Now, I’m all for ditching the electoral college, unless the electors decide to do what it was intended to do under this circumstance; to save us from ourselves. See, our founding fathers knew that we would fall for some con artist, demagogue at some point in the future, so they wisely created the electoral college, a group of actual human beings trusted upon to stop such a calamity. I implore the folks of current electoral college recognize this election as a collective loss of sanity of less than a quarter of the population of this nation, and on December 19th put their votes towards the popular vote winner, Hillary Clinton. I realize that this is unlikely, but one can dream.
How did this happen? There are many factors involved. Lots of opportunity for pointing fingers and fighting amongst ourselves, which I will admit to being a party to…..guilty. But, in my opinion, what it boils down to is these four things: Division, misinformation, apathy and fear of the ‘other’.
Division: We are all in our own comfortable bubbles, digesting the information we are most comfortable with. For example, I never believed there was this much hate it this country because I didn't want to look at it; I knew it was there of course, but not at the level that it appears to be. Everyone wants to live where they feel they belong. Amongst those that are like minded and reaffirm your very rightness. Liberals don’t want to live in Indiana (or Ohio….sigh) any more than a conservative want’s to live in Washington state. We even do this in our social media as well (guilty again). This is what messed us up with the electoral college.
Misinformation: I am not going to tell you who’s right or wrong here, I’ll let this study speak for itself.
Apathy: Half…HALF… the country didn’t vote. You guys suck.
Fear of the other: This country harbors more racism than I can comprehend. The white people in this country seemed a little angry about the black man in the white house and the white men were staunchly determined not to have a woman (white or not) follow him. I don’t mean all white men, just too many of them (chill.) “The advantage for Trump among men is larger than the 7-point advantage Romney had in 2012 and much different than in 2008, when men preferred Obama over McCain by a single point.”-PewResearchCenter. But then there are the white women, 53% went for Trump…..oh my sisters, I have no words.
Which brings me to the reason why this update is relevant to this review and to this book (for those who tell me that my opinion is unwarranted....again.) Is the United States a more racist country, or a more sexist country? America has spoken, at least the ones who cared to speak, and the answer is “a goodly amount of both”, but in this election sexism won and women lost.
What a perfect time to be scared to death by this novel. It doesn't feel dated or far-fetched at all, thanks to President Trump.
Claire Danes is a pretty good match for this narrative.
Imagine the near future where power is overtaken by the religious right under the guise of protection from Islamic terrorism. Imagine the future where the roles of the women reduced to those assigned to them in Old Testament - they are no longer allowed to read, work, own property, or handle money. Imagine that due to the pollution and man-created viruses, the fertility rates are so low that the few fertile women (the Handmaids) are now a communal property and are moved from house to house to be inseminated by men of power under the watchful eye of their wives. Imagine the future where women can only be the Wives, domestics (the Marthas), sexual toys (the Jezebels), female prison guards (the Aunts), wombs (the Handmaids), or, if they are unsuited for any of these roles, Unwomen who are sent off to the Colonies where they harvest cotton if they are lucky or clean out radioactive waste if they aren't.
Well, after you've imagined that, you can imagine very easily how much I was terrified by this book. As a modern woman, I am horrified by the notion that at some point in time I can become nothing more than a servant, a toy, a reproductive organ. The world created by Atwood seems too much of a stretch of imagination at a first glance, but if the current climate, how implausible this feminist dystopia really is?
To say I am impressed by this novel is to say nothing, really. This book is one of those that stays in your brain and you keep coming back to it over and over again.
Having said that, I have to note, that this is definitely not an easy read. Offred (the protagonist Handmaid) is in many ways a frustrating narrator: she is broken, she is passive, she is desperate and her only goal is to make it through another day. The ending is ambiguous. The narration is complex with constant switching from present to past and back. But it all worked perfectly for me. For me, "The Handmaid's Tale" is a powerful novel that is in my mind next to Saramago's "Blindness," another book that left me sleepless.
Reading challenge: #22
I’ve been moved by books in the past, many times, but I’ve never before read a book that has emotionally drained me to such a degree. This is frightening and powerful. And sometimes it only takes a single paragraph to make you realise how much so:
“Yes, Ma’am, I said again, forgetting. They used to have dolls, for little girls, that would talk if you pulled a string at the back; I thought I was sounding like that, voice of a monotone, voice of a doll. She probably longed to slap my face. They can hit us, there’s Scriptural precedent. But not with any implement. Only with their hands.”
Needless to say, this is an absolutely awful situation. From the very beginning, I knew how much I was going to like this book. Its story isn’t one that it is simply read: it demands to be heard. It beckoned me to see the full force of the situation. The Handmaids, the average woman, have no free will or individualism; they are treated as simple baby producing machines. An oppressive regime is forced upon them, and to deviate from the said standard results in a slow and agonising death. There’s no hope or joy for them, only perpetual subjugation.
Indeed, this is where Atwood’s awe inspiringly persuasive powers reside. By portraying such a bleak situation, she is able to fully demonstrate what life could be like if we suddenly followed the misogynistic views of the old testament with fierce intensity. Women would have no power whatsoever. This would be reinforced by a complete cultural destruction and lack of any form of self-expression. They would not be able to read or write; they would not be able to speak their minds. It would even go as far as to condition them so powerfully, that they completely lack the ability of independent thought. And, to make it even worse, the women know no difference. Sure, the narrator of this remembers her past, but she’s not allowed to. She is forced to repress any sense of individual sentiment.
“But who can remember pain, once it’s over? All that remains of it is a shadow, not in the mind even, in the flesh. Pain marks you, but too deep to see. Out of sight, out of mind.”
The narrator has a horrendous ordeal, in an equally as horrendous world. The notion was devised as a response against a drastic decrease in birth-rates. Men in power have taken complete control of women in both body and mind to insure an increase in the declining birth-rates. As I mentioned, their individualism is repressed, but the men also prevent any physical freedom. The women are owned by the state, by the men and by corruption; their bodies are nothing more than a means to provide new life. In this, they are degraded to a state of sub-human existence; they are no longer people. Atwood suggests that they are merely a reproductive organ, one that can be discarded without thought, mercy or conscience. This is reinforced on every level; the language delivers this on a revealing scale. The names are suggestive of the oppression; the protagonist is called “Offred.” She is of-Fred: she belongs to him. The women are assigned names that are not their own; they are dubbed with the disgusting title of “Handmaiden.” By doing so they are left with very little of their former lives. The women are simply objects to be used, controlled and destroyed and the slightest hint of nonconformity to such an absurd system. But, here’s the rub. The best, and most haunting, thing about this novel is its scary plausibility.
The culture created is evocative of one that could actually exist. The way the men attempt to justify its existence is nothing short of terrifying. They make it sound perfectly normal. Well, not normal, but an idea that could be justified to a people. Not that it is justifiable, but the argument they present has just enough eerie resemblance to a cold, logical, response to make it seem probable in its misguided vileness. The totalitarian elements provide an image of a people that will do endure anything if they’re provided with a glimpse of liberty. The small degree of liberty the Handmaids think they have doesn’t actually exist: it’s an illusion, a trick, a shadow on the wall. They’re manipulated into believing it and become frenzied in the face of it. It is the ultimate means of control in its nastiness.
“A rat in a maze is free to go anywhere, as long as it stays inside the maze.”
This book was horrifying and strangely perceptive. If you’re thinking about reading this, stop thinking, just read it. It’s brilliant. It’s a book I will definitely be reading again because it is just so thought provoking and disturbing.
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Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale is a tale of terror as well as a warning. The dystopian future she describes in "Gilead" which appears to be centered in Boston (due to the reference to Mass Ave and the town of Salem) is chillingly misogynistic where women are reduced to strict categories: Martha for housework and cooking, Jezebels (easy to guess, right?), Eyes, Angels (soldiers for the state), infertile Wives and potentially fertile Handmaids. It is beautifully written with lots of flashbacks of "Offred",
the protagonist's name, of how things devolved into the horrors of her present. It is disturbing because it exposes the politics of reproduction and male sexuality taken to extremes of violence that are shocking and, yet, probably seemed one possible future during the Reaganite 80s when she wrote the book and now feel like the world of which Michael Pence in particular and perhaps Paul Ryan but most definitely Steve Bannon must dream. Could things so change as quickly as she describes in the book? Let us hope not. #resist
It is certainly the most explicitly feminist dystopian book I have ever read. It was thought-provoking cover to cover.
All in all, a very well-written feminist text that should serve as a clarion call for defending women's rights to maintain control over their own bodies and lives now and forever.
Just found this article about my last point: here
Drumpf's sexist, violent tweet against Morning Joe and the escalating attacks against reproductive freedom are moving the American experiment dangerously towards Atwood's Gilead. #resist
Apparently, there are also changes at the CIA that bring the spectre of Gilead a little closer. In another note, I just got Mona Eltahawy's Headscarves and Hymens which is also on subject.
Any of my review readers want to tell me whether the Hulu show about this book is worth my time or not?
[UPDATE] I have watched the first two seasons of the Hulu series and am hooked. That being said, I have watched 5 episodes of S03 and been disappointed. For those who may not know, only S01 is based on the book. The other two seasons are new writing (but with Margaret Atwood supervising the writer's room).
I am quite interested to know if anyone has already read the sequel that was just published in September 2019?