The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

the handmaid's taleImagine a world in which you are not allowed to read?

The Handmaid’s Tale is a dystopian novel, set in futuristic United States and tells the story of Offred, a handmaid to a Commander in the district of Gilead.  This is in a time where women’s freedom was controlled and where fertility rates were low. Women, who previously reproduced healthy children, were commissioned to serve as handmaids to Commanders and their wives who couldn’t have children. Their sole purpose is to reproduce, but they weren’t allowed to read or write. Even in the shops, there were picture signs, not words. Knowledge is power, right?

Offred tells her story, past and present, but does so in a slow pace. Only later in the story she reveals that she is a handmaid. As someone who believes in women’s rights, it was a scary to read about how the women were controlled, with the purpose (or excuse) of keeping them safe. Offred, in her past life, had a husband and a daughter, had her own job and her own money. She believed in love. Then one day it was just taken away from her – she got fired from her job, lost all her possession, because women were not allowed to have their own money and property. She and her husband planned to escape, but that didn’t get them very far.

This novel I believe might be my first dystopian novel I’ve read, and arguably a really good read.  This novel brings up various topics such as women’s rights as I’ve mentioned above, but also education and human rights as a whole. Here we have a society that believes a woman’s value is measured by her fertility and that alone. She lives in a male dominated society, she isn’t allowed to have individuality and she must hide her face and wear shapeless clothes. To be honest, there are countries were this happens, not at the same level of severity, but indeed so. If the handmaid does not produce children or children with disabilities, does not obey the law then she will be sent away to the colonies to work cleaning up waste etc… which is an infringement on human rights, not just women’s rights. She isn’t allowed to be educated too, books were burned, but later in the novel she develops a friendship with her Commander, who allows her to read books and magazines. Imagine my delight at that!

I loved the ending of the book, but only partially. For the purpose of not giving too much away I’m not going to say how it ended, but those who are familiar with the book would know why.  I want to know what happened to Offred, and what her real name is, which never gets mentioned in the book. The ending is open for interpretation and so my imagination runs wild.  This was such a good, yet scary read and also a definite reread.  I really do recommended it to those who love classics, and especially if you love dystopian fiction. I will be exploring more of Atwood!

Have you read it? Share your thoughts in the comments section.

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  • I love this book both for Atwood’s dystopian vision and her beautiful writing. I think she wrote it after visiting Afghanistan and seeing how women were treated there, but it’s also a more general critique of the way women are treated in religions. It’s also a dystopian version of a feminist ideal of women’s groups, unity among women (eg. the scene where the Handmaids get together for a birth). Women are highly valued and protected, but in a terrifying way.

    Atwood’s books tend to have ambiguous endings. I think she’s written on how she doesn’t like the idea of definitive endings, because stories are ongoing. We choose where to start and telling and where to stop, but there are still events before and after.

    • Thanks for your insight.
      Her writing is beautiful yes, and it was cleverly written. I will definitely sought out more Atwood novels, maybe even join the Atwood Project or Project Atwood challenge!

  • I am an optimist so I settled for the happier ending in my mind 🙂

    • Same here, Nish! Did you enjoy the book?

      • @Melinda: Oh, I loved it. It was one of the top books I read last year 🙂

        • I’m going to read some of her other works too. I have The Blind Assassin and Penelopiad.

          • I am planning to read Penelopiad too. The Blind Assassin is very popular, but I didn’t care too much for it. Maybe I was just not used to her writing style.

          • I will keep an open mind regarding The Blind Assassin and not have too high an expectation. Thanks for the tip.

          • @Melinda: I am planning to read Penelopiad too. The Blind Assassin was my first Atwood book and I didn’t like it very much. Maybe I was just not used to her style.

          • Let’s hope we enjoy Penelopiad as much as this one! 🙂

  • This sounds great.Going to see if I can get it here so I can read it too.

    • I hope you enjoy it once you do read it, Tasneem!

  • Atwood also wrote my first dystopian read which was Oryx and Crake. I hope you get a chance to read it. It’s a really great book. I think Atwood is a hit or miss with people. My brother read The Handmaid’s Tale in High School and absolutely hated it. A lot of my friends in High School didn’t like Atwood and I was groaning internally when I had to read Oryx and Crake in University, but I ended up loving the book. Great Review Melinda!

    • Thanks for the suggestion! I guess she is one of those love or hate authors.

  • Jennifer @ The Relentless Reader

    Love, love, LOVE this book! I’m due for a re-read 🙂

    • If you plan on NOT doing it anytime soon, maybe I can re-read it with you 🙂

  • This is one of my all-time favorite books. I read it when I was 13, if I remember correctly, and it was the first time that I consciously *thought* about what it meant to be a woman in a male-dominated society (although our society isn’t as bad as Offred’s, we still have to deal with all of that on a lesser scale). It was a real eye-opener for a 13yo. I’ve read it a bunch of times since then.

    I really like the ending, too.

    • I can imagine it being an eye-opener. I can think of a few countries were female oppression still happens, especially in the eastern countries. I will definitely re-read this one again.

  • I read this. Creepy isn’t it. Mostly because you can see similarities in some real life societies now.

    Ali

    • That’s exactly my thinking too! There are similarities, not as severe, but it is there. So it’s scary…

  • This is one of my all time favorites, my gateway drug to all the Atwood. She does a dystopia better than ANYONE. I’m SUPER stoked for the final installment of the Oryx and Crake series!

    • I can see why this is a favourite in the dystopian genre. Atwood’s writing is beautiful. I can’t wait to discover more of her books. A second mention of Oryx and Crake! Will have to check it out.

  • A book I’ve been meaning to read for a long time, I have a lovely copy I bought but it is still waiting. Thank you for reminding me!

    • I hope you enjoy it, Lindsay!

  • Oh God, were they not allowed to read? I’ve obviously blocked out some of the more upsetting aspects of this book! I read and loved this a few years ago–it really blew me away–and I haven’t enjoyed another Atwood book nearly as much since then. I feel like she set the bar way too high with this one. :p

    • Yes, the handmaids weren’t allowed to read. That was my “oh no!” moment. Maybe do a re-read? 🙂

      I’m going to read more Atwood, but atleast now I know not to have too high expectations of them.

      • I find that I enjoy Atwood’s speculative fiction more than her more mainstream fiction. Couldn’t get into The Blind Assassin, hated Surfacing and Bodily Harm, short stories are meh. But Oryx and Crake is amazing, loved The Penelopiad as well.
        Cat’s Eye and The Robber Bride are the mainstream exceptions though – enjoyed those a lot.

        • Thanks for sharing your Atwood experience. I have The Blind Assassin and Penelopiad, but I don’t think I’ll be reading either of them any time soon…

  • This is one of my absolute favorite books. I’m so glad you liked it!

    • Yep, I know you and Rebecca loved it. I can see why! Now for some more Atwood…

  • I have this on my Classics Club list and actually bought a copy the other day. I cannot wait to get started, I have loved everything I have read by Atwood so far.

    • I hope you enjoy it Ellie! What’s your favourite from Atwood so far?

  • I’m glad that you enjoyed this book, even if you didn’t love the questions that weren’t answered. This book is a favorite of mine for sure.

    I do like how you talked about how similar things are occurring in other countries. Is true, we have countries run by religious sects that cover women up completely and almost take away many of their freedoms.

    • It was such a good read, Rebecca and I know if I read it again I will enjoy it even more and read things I might have missed the first time. I really wanted to know where she is, what happened to her and if she is still alive.

      I think that’s why it’s scary to read it, because we know it does happen, but only mildly.

  • I absolutely loved this book. I read it so long ago that I should reread it at some point because I think I will get more out of it now that I have more life experience and have seen more of the gender gaps in the world. I have it on my list for Classics Club, so I’ll get to it one of these days!

    • Loved it too! I will sure read it again too. Talking about classics club – I’m suppose to read one per month and I’m SO behind 🙂

  • Great review- this is one of my favorite books. I definitely remember being freaked out by the whole scenario.

    • Thank you! Yeah, it’s scary. I will read this again, for sure.

  • This is one of those books I have seen around various times and every time I wonder if I should read it. Though it sounds interesting I do not really feel that it would be a read for me specially after your review which is great again!

    • Thanks Ciska! This was a lovely book, but if it doesn’t sound like your type of book, then that’s fine. There’s a lot of other books that’s sitting on your shelf *wink wink*

  • I have yet to read anything by Margaret Atwood, but this is one of her books which is at the top of my list to try. I can’t even imagine living in such a world. Thank you for your great review and insight!

    • Thank you! I hope you enjoy it once you read it. I’m glad I read this one first, because everyone says it’s her best. I will read some of her other popular novels too and see how I like Ms Atwood 🙂

  • I’ve not read too much of your review, just because I want to read it so I am wary of putting myself off (I’ve tried to read Atwood before and struggled). You’ve described this differently to how I’ve read it described before so I may bump this up the to-read pile.

    • Hi Alice, thanks for stopping by. I hope that you enjoy it once you read it. Which Atwood novels have you tried before? Did you read bad reviews before?

  • I read this last year but unfortunately never blogged about it (it seemed very difficult to discuss for me but you did great :)). I did really enjoy it. I’ve struggles with one othe book by Atwood because it was a little too vague for me (Surfacing) so I was very happy with how much I enjoyed The Handmaid’s Tale.

    • I’m glad you enjoyed it too, Iris. I must admit, it was a struggle to write the review, because I didn’t know how to explain what I felt or what I think about it. Also some things I thought about while reading it, might not be something I would want to mention in a review…

      Will you read this again? Maybe then you can do a writeup! 🙂

  • It seems I’m the only one yet to read Margaret Atwood and I am going to rectify that soon. Great review, Melinda.

    • Thank you. I hope you do get to read Atwood soon 🙂

  • A great novel, even if a scary one!

  • I actually had this novel in my hand on one of my visits to my local library and put it down again. The storyline is very interesting but I have to say, women still get oppressed in certain countries today still & still so severe, not too long ago, a woman was sentence for being raped (now that is severe)… I will definitely borrow this book from the library the next time I go. Beautiful review 🙂

    • Thanks Celeste! I think you should give this one a go. Lots of people calls it one of the best dystopian novels. I enjoyed the read, it wasn’t WOW, but it was really good.

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  • Great review! I have The Handmaid’s Tale on my own list, and one of the ones I’m most excited to read; this review only increases that. I look forward to reading more from your blog!

    Lindsay
    http://untamedshrews.wordpress.com/