Book Review: The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood

The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood

Margaret Atwood is one of my favourite writers, there is something about the dystopian worlds she creates that draw me in and her description is so uncannily precise yet strange enough to create a slightly off-kilter image. I have read The Handmaid’s Tale several time, and decided that as I enjoy it so much I should give it a re-read and review it. It’s a sign of a good book when you can re-read it and enjoy it just as much as the first time – and The Handmaid’s Tale did just that for me! I think this time small details stood out to me, such as Atwood’s descriptions, and I took pleasure in these more than the story.


The Handmaid’s Tale is a dystopian novel, set in a future where due to excessive levels of pollution as well as a virulent sexually transmitted disease fertility levels have dropped, and the women that do fall pregnant often miscarry or deliver ‘unbabies’ – so deformed they won’t live. In addition to this a movement called ‘The Sons of Jacob’ has overthrown the United States Constitution and instituted a patriarchal, compulsory Christian regime – with the pretext of a focus on society multiplying.  Society is segregated by class, and within the classes by gender – with each person’s role being visibly shown by their clothing. Military men  and their wives have the highest standing; they are given concubines /handmaids (women who have been proven fertile) and are also served by Marthas (women too old to bear children) as well as men who are of such low standing that they are not given a women. If a handmaid fails to bear children in a designated time, or commits any other crimes – such as having any kind of relationship or doing a prohibited activity such as reading – then she is shipped off to the ‘Colonies’ where felons undertake dangerous work such as clearing up radioactive waste.

Offred is the protagonist in this tale, a handmaid old enough to remember the time before when she lived with her husband and her daughter. The narrative flits between the present day and he past – so we catch glimpses of the situation and how it builds up to the regime in which she is living. Through her we learn how women’s rights are slowly stripped away, their bank accounts are closed down and they are made redundant – so that when the overthrow happens they are virtually powerless.  In her current position Offred is a handmaid; proven fertile she has intercourse with the Commander at designated times – in a strange ritual which involves her lying in between him and his wife. This is her only role, the rest of the time she exists in a kind of limbo – unable to have friendships, or any entertainment such as reading.

As the book progresses the relationships within the household change. Offred’s Commander begins to invite her into his study on an evening, offering her forbidden luxuries such as hand cream and magazines. At the same time The Commander’s wife – worried that her husband is sterile has Offred sleep with their driver in the hopes of them conceiving a child. Offred’s anxieties about being caught doing something illicit (as any relations outside of the prescribed copulation with the Commander are forbidden) are compounded when her waking partner confides in her that she is part of an underground movement.

I remember my first read of the book and I  galloped through it,  so caught up with the world Atwood had created. One aspect which really interested me was how the society recognises the frustrations the women must feel – being banned from so many things – and thus provides safe outlets for this energy. At births, which are such a rare occasion, all the handmaids and wives in the neighbourhood gather – there is illicit alcohol, and because it is a celebration they have respite from their chores. The second occurs during a public hanging that all the handmaids must attend. In it a man is accused of a brutal rape as a result of which the victim miscarried – and his punishment is a Particicution; which means that the handmaids bludgeon him to death.

On this re-read Atwood’s description stood out to me and kept me thinking about what they impart to the meaning of novel . For example Offred describes a young man’s face as being like the pale skin underneath a scab. Similarly when looking at the colours of tulips, she sees the darker pink as if it was a wound. These images are unsettling, because of the juxtaposition we get the sense that the everyday objects she describes have become disturbing due the context they are in.

If you are interested in dystopian fiction – then this book is a must for you! Have you read any of Atwood’s books? I think I might have to have a re-read of Oryx and Crake!



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