on 3 September 2006
I still don't know what inspired me to take this book home from the library that day back when I was 16- up until then the only "grown up" literature I had read had been formulaic historical romances of the Catherine Cookson variety.
I can now credit this book with opening the door to a whole different world of books from what I was used to- books that demanded me to THINK.
And, being only 16, and not reading this book as part of my English class but rather just for myself, I was swept away by it.
Then, a couple of years ago, I got hold of a copy and read it again, curious if it would still seem so mind-blowing (I remember re-reading my beloved Narnia stories as an adult and getting the shock of my life).
And I can say that, half a life later, this book remains one of the best books I have ever read. Why?
I am still amazed at the author's imagination. How did she manage to describe the menace of a totalitarian regime so well? Science Fiction often dates quickly, seeming at best naive decades after it was written. And for me, reading this book 20-odd years after it was written, in this older and wiser post-9/11 world, certain aspects of the book took on new meaning (religious fundamental regime, strict rules about women's dress, football stadium executions).
It may not be a perfect book, but I think it is worth reading for its ideas (and warnings). And all that aside, it's a gripping read!
on 22 January 2002
... it's a rattling good read.
Think about your ability to browse through an internet shop, the power you have to earn money, to hold it and to choose how you spend it. Think about your right to education, should you chose to exercise it. Think about warmth and love and husbands and children.
Imagine all that taken away, the sense of loss, love vanquished, family disappeared, and the comfort of books denied you. Imagine women colluding in oppressing their own sex.
But there is redemption in subversion and small acts of defiance.
It's a clever book, ideas subtly woven, like a fairy tale invoking the dark with the faint promise of light.
on 8 April 2002
This book is one of the best depictions i have read about a anti-utopian future society, along with others like '1984' and 'Brave New World'.
It combines a futuristic reality, feminism and politics to create a very detailed novel considering many different aspects of 'Gilead'.
'Offred' is the complex lead character who draws us into the seemingly perfect but corrupt world of Gilead. Her pain is experienced by the readers who long to remember exactly what she has forgotten, and what she wants to find out.
The experiences she goes through are strange, sometimes outright bizarre,and her world comes crashing down on us.
'The Handmaids Tale' is very thought-provoking, the future of women and indeed the world lies in the actions of today's society, and Atwood uses her perceptions of the present world to support the background of her novel.
Altogether 'The Handmaids Tale offers what all novels should: love, loss, action, comedy(ironic,but appropriate) vision, plot. It plays with all emotions.
A very good read.
on 7 March 2003
The book describes the story of Offred, a Handmaid, that is a woman ascribed a breeding function by society, and who is placed with a husband and wife higher up the social ladder who "need" a child. Through Offred's eyes we explore the rigidity of the theocracy in which she lives, the contradictions in the society thay have created, and her attemnpts to find solace through otherwise trivial things.
Whilst it shares many common features with George Orwell's 1984, Aldous Huxley's A Brave New World and Anthony Burgess' A Clockwork Orange, Atwood has managed to create a truly original piece of work, and deserves all the praise she receives for it.
Like the afore-mentioned works, The Handmaid's Tale works so well because it holds a mirror up to contemporary society whilst it explores how society might work in the future. It is a biting commentary about female emancipation, that never fails to make the reader stop and think about how things are now. Do women REALLY have freedom to, as is suggested in the book. The book also raises a number of interesting points about masulinity as well - are men only to be judged on their ability to fertilise women, and is there some "masculine" norm to which men must currently strive to achieve.
Atwood backs up this philosophical debate with a lively prose that is beautifully descriptive, and also a keen sense of how to narrate such a tale. She manages to provide a drip drip of detail that never quite satisfies the reader's thrist to find out what is happening, and indeed what happened.
The ending initially seemed disappointing, but the technique of using a section of Historical Notes at the end of the book substantially enhances the book, making the end a lot kore complete, by ironically leaving Offred's fate open to interpretation.
The Handmaid's Tale is a true 20th century classic. I am glad that it is on the A Level syllabus if it means that more people get to read this excellent novel.
on 16 December 2000
A stunning novel which depicts a world all too possible in reaction to today's permissive society. It tells the story of Offred, condemned after a military coup, in which she is forcibly separated from her husband and daughter, to become a handmaid, whose function is to produce a child for an infertile older woman. Atwood's remarkable non-linear narrative technique takes getting used to, the main plot being punctuated by both recent and 'time before' flashbacks, but the story is so absorbing that you quickly get accustomed to the style. The novel is eloquently written with its fascination for the nuances of language; (natural communication is suppressed, a common feature of dystopian fiction.) As time passes, Offred's desire for freedom and determination to resist the regime (a Christian fundamentalist state, closely based on misogynistic Old Testament teachings) increase. We are entirely gripped by her plight and willing her to succeed. Does she? You will need to read the book to find out, but I can promise you, you will not anticipate the very unusual ending.
on 24 December 2012
The Handmaid's Tale is set in a future America where epidemics and pesticides have made the majority of the population sterile and in the face of catastrophically declining birthrates a right wing, Old Testament fundamentalist theocracy have used this crisis as a pretext to completely reorder the social structure of America. Only a handful of women are able to have children: the so-called 'Handmaids' who form a sort of slave class and act as 'second wives' to rich and powerful men so that they can reproduce. The Handmaids are indoctrinated beforehand as part of a special religious order and much of the novel is concerned with their conditioning process. Although ostensibly a Christian dictatorship the women are 'covered up' and they live their lives under something akin to an extreme form of 'Sharia' law as outlined by, say, the Iranian Revolution or more recently, the Taliban.
The story centres around one of these handmaids, 0ffred and her life as a potential surrogate mother to a childless couple: a high ranking commander and his wife, Serena Joy. In this future American dystopia, as set out by Margaret Atwood, sex is very tightly controlled (under pain of death) and yet in spite of this powerful disincentive Offred is drawn into a complex web of transgressive relationships that are bubbling away under the surface of this supposedly perfectly ordered society. The political vision outlined in this novel is genuinely terrifying and Margaret Atwood has shown much skill in highlighting all of the potential tensions and contradictions that would be likely to occur in such a society. However, the 'religious right' in America are a declining cultural force and I'm not sure many people today worry about a fundamentalist Christian take over of America (America has changed enormously since the book was written) but I still found it to be a very compelling read about what can happen when the wrong people are in charge.
on 16 June 2005
Following a Christian fundamentalist coup d'état in New England at some point towards the end of the twentieth century, a Handmaid is one of a tiny minority of fertile women in a society which has been devastated by unspecified environmental catastrophes. Her function is to provide offspring for the ruling elite, and to be sent to her death if she fails. She lives in a nightmare world of public executions, lynchings, propaganda, impregnation ceremonies... "The Handmaid's Tale" is the story of her inner rebellion, and her struggle to retain her sanity and her memories of "the time before".
Margaret Atwood has been at pains to stress that her novel is not "science-fiction", but "speculative fiction". In other words, it is not about little green men arriving from other planets, but about what happens if men from the planet Earth decide to take some of their more extreme ideas to their logical conclusions. The novel was published in the mid 1980s, against the background of the rise to prominence of the religious right during the Reagan years. In the opening years of the twenty-first century, it has lost none of its relevance. Au contraire...
"Whatever is silenced will clamour to be heard, though silently." The novel constantly testifies to the vitality of the human spirit and its ability to survive in extreme adversity. "The Handmaid's Tale" has repeatedly been compared to "1984", but in fact is a much richer and deeper novel. Orwell's story is an important landmark in the novel of ideas, but Atwood, in addition to her ideas, has written a highly wrought poetic story, incorporating intensely moving meditations on love, loss and memory.
"The Handmaid's Tale" is without question one of the most important novels of the twentieth century. It demands to be read again and again and, in reading it, we must hope and hope that it never comes true.
on 13 February 2001
The Handmaid's Tale belongs to a genre that I normally leave well alone. A good story and science fiction rarely go hand in hand together with such astounding success. The world depicted in the book is a fictional one but it COULD happen, it almost too easy to imagine it and this is what makes the tale so fascinating and so terrifying. The charcter Offred is a normal person in an utterly abnormal and artificial situation, and we gain unique insight into the way she deals with it; with losing her husband and her daughter and trying not to lose her mind. She can rely on nothing and no-one but herself. Even so, she builds some kind of existence for herself. She manages to adapt to an incredible existence and makes a (sort-of)life for herself from nothing. The overwhelming impression left by this book is the idea of man's adaptability, how he struggles to survive under the most horrendous circumstances, and how he can triumph if only hope remains.
on 26 April 2001
This book has to be one of the most powerful, terrifying, and insightful books ever written about a very plausible future, where religion and politics win over morality. Margaret Atwood, has shown a deep understanding of the threats that women have faced in the past, and what they may possibly face in the future.
on 28 September 2013
New to the genre of dystopian literature, I wasn't sure what to expect when told by my English Teacher that my class and I would be studying "The Handmaid's Tale" by Canadian author Margaret Atwood, as part of our A-Level study, but this intense and powerful book had me gripped from the beginning.
The Handmaid's Tale successfully explores a range of themes to enable the reader to question the totalitarian state system and fill their heads with `what if' questions as to what would happen if our lives were dictated by a ruling authority. Two particularly significant themes in the anti-utopian novel comprise of women's role in society and society's control over its citizens in the "Republic of Gilead", a futuristic USA, but instead of a United States symbolising freedom, Gilead oppresses its citizens and instead emphasises racist, homophobic and traditionalist Christian morals and attitudes, so much so that going against the ruling regime is just asking for death.
Considered special as she is one of only a few fertile women, after infertility caused by AIDS and other diseases swept across Gilead, the novels protagonist `Offred', has just one function: to breed. Known as a `handmaid', a role Offred chose purely to escape being sentenced to `the Colonies' (a place full of pollution and nuclear radiation), along with those classed as `incapable of social integration' including feminists, lesbians and nuns, Offred is allocated a high-ranked couple and is employed by them to sleep with the husband, known as the `Commander', in order to become a surrogate mother for his wife, who is presumed to be infertile in a society that blames all problems on women.
Offred (Of-Fred; the `Of' to symbolise she is under total control by her commander and the regime of Gilead and `Fred' being her commander) tells us her story in first person narrative, allowing the reader to really connect with Offred and understand her feelings and actions as she describes her life under authority and also occasionally has flashbacks to her life before being a Handmaid, when she was married and had a young daughter, allowing the reader to begin to compare life with freedom and life without, ultimately allowing the reader to feel increasingly involved in the novel as we are able to imagine what our life would be like under this totalitarian system.
Offred's life as a handmaid is extremely significant in the novel as it shows how much oppression there is in society and how women are always being watched and scrutinised. However, what truly makes the novel intriguing is the Commander and Offred's relationship. Although starting purely professional - the Commander submitting to his role in society to get Offred pregnant in a process known as `the Ceremony' where his wife is present at all times, but this relationship soon becomes an illegal arrangement between the pair as they begin to meet secretly in his study, where he allows her to read fashion magazines, something Offred takes with appreciation as reading and writing is totally banned for women in Gilead. The Commander's wife, Serena Joy, a former televangelist, also has a part in Offred's life, arranging for her to sleep with the chauffeur to increase the chances of Offred falling pregnant, as the monthly `Ceremony' hasn't made Offred pregnant yet.
Through Offred's `shopping partner', `Ofglen' (the Republic of Gilead ensures women walk in pairs to ensure women are never alone and can watch over each other's behaviour), Offred learns about the resistance to the regime, known as Mayday, an underground network hoping to overthrow the dangerous and controlling authority in Gilead.
The novel's conclusion is unique and ambiguous, allowing the reader to decide his/her opinion on what really happens to Offred and read a fictitious `historical notes' section that explains the events of the novel in the context of a speech at the International Historical Association Convention in 2195, that ultimately suggests that the totalitarian regime in Gilead is eventually overthrown, but the rest is left for the reader to decide.
This fantastic book really made me think about how we and society looks at people from different backgrounds, occupations and classes and I, personally, found it really interesting to think of what life would be like if living under a totalitarian regime. The Handmaid's Tale is thought-provoking, interesting and I would really recommend reading it to get a flavour of life in a nightmarish, dystopian future.