Book Reviews: The Handmaid's Tale

Monday, September 13, 2010


This month I've been participating in a read-along over at Classic Reads Book Club. We've been reading The Handmaid's Tale and will be wrapping it up discussions on Sept. 27. So if you've read if before and want to chime in, please do! That being said, here are my thoughts on the book.

The Handmaid's Tale
by Margaret Atwood
★★★★★


Offred is a handmaid's whose story unfolds in Atwood's famous dystopian novel. She lives in a world run by men, where women are powerless. They've lost their right to make decision, to learn how to read and even to have a job. The rulers claim they have "freed" the women from the painful tasks of having to find a husband or take care of themselves. Any women who are fertile are turned into handmaids and assigned to a home where they are forced to bear children for a married couple.

When I began the book I assumed this was a dystopian set decades in the future, where the women had no memory of life as we know it. I quickly learned that Offred used to have a job, money of her own, a husband and child, etc. The decline into her current policed state was swift and terrifying.

I loved Atwood's bleak prose. Offred's resignation and despair were palpable. The tense relationships between the characters were thrilling. Offred was forced to walk a tight rope of suspicion in every conversation, never knowing who she could trust.

In one scene Offred is using butter she hid and saved from a meal as lotion on her skin. It's been so long since she's been anything but the potential carrier of a child that the concept of being loved is almost obsolete to her now. She says...

"As long as we do this, butter our skin to keep it soft, we can believe that we will some day get out, that we will be touched again, in love or desire."

It was the small acts of rebellion like this, breed from a spark of hope, that made Offred such a heartbreaking character. After Offred loses her ability to support herself she struggles in her relationship with her husband. That shift of dependance in their relationship changed everything...

"We are not each other's, anymore. Instead, I am his."

I can't recommend this book highly enough. Though it's 25 years old, it's more relevant than ever. Atwood's writing reveals the story bit by bit, allowing the horror of the changed society to creep up slowly. The story is masterfully told, creating a chilly world that's a far too easy to imagine.

14 comments:

Jessica said...

I saw the film first years ago when it came on TV late at night and I loved it so brought the book afterwards (the film is quite a good version I think)A classic for sure

Jeanne said...

Okay, you mentioned the butter. Here I go. Every time I teach this book (and it's a perennial favorite of mine), I ask the college-age audience if any of them can imagine putting butter on their faces. No one has ever spoken up. I'm FIFTY YEARS OLD NOW and I still shudder at the thought! Yesterday I put some "non-comedogenic" Oil of Olay under my eyes and got a red bump on my cheekbone! So butter?!!!!!!!
Maybe it's Atwood's Canadian upbringing? Can you put butter on your face in the far north and not break out within two minutes?

Shelley (Book Clutter) said...

This book blew me away, so I'm always happy when someone else loved it! I especially loved the way the story unfolded bit by bit and her writing is wonderful.

Avid Reader said...

Jessica - I haven't seen the film, but I keep hearing good things about it.

Jeanne - I can't imagine being so desperate for a bit of lotion that I am willing to smear butter on my face. It's such a small thing compared to the rest of what she goes through, but it still highlights the situation perfectly.

Shelley - Sometimes it feels like books are our children or something. When someone else loves one that we love it's so rewarding.

Alexandra said...

I remember the butter scene well. It's the stuff of nightmares. Also reminds me of Fight Club and their home-made soap production...

I agree with you that what is really impressive about this book is that we're not as far away of such a society as we might think.

Teacher/Learner said...

Sounds chilling. I've never read Atwood before but they're on the good ole' TBR list. Are all of her books dystopian?

Bibliophile By the Sea said...

I thought this was awesome when I read it in January. Great review.

She said...

Margaret Atwood is amazing! She creates such interesting stories that aren't that far fetched. Have you read Oryx and Crake?

Becky (Page Turners) said...

I love Atwood. The style and content of her books is incredible and can't be matched by many authors. This isn't one of my favourites of hers, perhaps because we had to study it at school, but it is still an amazing book

Cat said...

I love Margaret Atwood and I love this one especially. Love your thoughts on it. You're totally right in the way you've said the horror is slowly revealed.

Gregory D. Rothbard said...

You might like watching 1984 the movie, which has a weird Utopian viewpoint. Also Sinclair Lewis's It Can't Happen Here is a great book for any one interested in police states and social theories on Control of the State. The book is set in America and shows how quickly we could become taken over by someone who wants to run the government in an Utopian? style.

Avid Reader said...

Teacher - I don't think all of her books are dystopian, but I think see tends towards those and post-apocalyptic books.

She - I have read Oryx and Crake and I liked this one even more. I'm excited to read more by her after falling for this book.

Gregory - I will have to check those out. They sound great!

Mrslouwho said...

In the end I don't really know what I think of the book, parts of it are disturbingly real and other parts seem too intentionally poinent, I don't like the feeling of being hit over the head when I read. It's the same problem I have with The Scarlet Letter, actually.

That said, the scene where Offred and the couple are trying to concieve is so despairing and tense on all three sides that I had to put the book down. The stark realisim gave me actual nightmares. Atwood had managed to take a beautiful thing and deform it so realistically that I feared for the future.

Avid Reader said...

I read a recent interview with Atwood where they asked if she felt vindicated because so much of what she wrote about had already come true (credit cards and such). She was horrified and said that of course she wasn't. She wrote the book because she wanted people to read it and think, I never want that to happen.