Book Review – The Handmaid’s Tale

Book: The Handmaid’s Tale

Author: Margaret Atwood

Warning: strong feminism lies ahead in this post. Get out now all who do not believe in equality of the sexes.

Second warning: spoilers abound ahead. If you haven’t read The Handmaid’s Tale and do not want to have the story spoiled, please do not read this review. I was too riled after reading to attempt a spoiler-free post.

The window. The desk. The chair. Those are three sentences toward the beginning of Margaret Atwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale. When I read them I had to put my book down and ask myself what the heck I had gotten myself into with this story. Umm… those aren’t actual sentences. Those are nouns. What about the window, the desk and the chair? Why are you naming the things? Can you finish your thought? I didn’t understand the writing in this novel, but that may be because I opened it almost immediately after I could emotionally detach myself from the ending of A Court of Wings and Ruin by Sarah J. Maas (review coming soon).  I found the way the story jumped around between the present and the past disorienting and confusing. There were times I had to re-read parts to figure out where we were in the story.

This was a strange and haunting tale. The story was left unfinished, which actually suited it, but left me with a sense of anticipation for the climax of the story. The book is set in the post-apocalyptic world of Gilead, which came to power after a terrorist attack that killed all the members of Congress and the Executive Branch, effectively removing the sitting government from power. A fundamentalist group, the Sons of Jacob, took power under the pretext of restoring order and holding fair elections, but we (the readers) later learn the group never intended to hold elections. Rather, the Sons of Jacob fully intended on taking power of the country and changing the social structure to one inspired by Old Testament social and religious fanaticism with newly created social classes.

Through the narrator’s flash backs, we learn that the elimination of women’s rights was a quickly paced double-strike of abolishing the right to work on the same day as abolishing the right to hold a bank account. The women were angry, but  pacified by the promises of the “short-term” nature of these changes and the “impending elections”. The final step in this new order took place when women were sorted into social classes  based on their ability to bear children (Handmaids being the fertile, Marthas being the lower class servants and Wives being the upper class sterile). The emphasis on reproductive ability is due to declining birth rates, which are attributed to infertility caused by nuclear fallout. There it is again: the Biblical references with the naming convention and duties of each group.

If a woman is placed as Handmaid, she is assigned to a Commander for 2 years during which he attempts to impregnate her. After two years (or if she is successful – Yes. I used ‘she’ because it is the woman’s responsibility to become pregnant. Of course, men cannot be sterile! How ridiculous! – I don’t think I need to say this, but that was sarcasm, people. Sarcasm.), she is assigned to another Commander and becomes his property for another 2 years. It is essentially consensual rape. If she becomes pregnant, she is forced to give her child to the Commander’s wife to raise. What now? You would have to rip my child away from my cold, dead fingers after our fight to the death. And when you fight me, momma bear mode will be activated in all its glory.

Let’s talk about the characters’ names. The Handmaids are all stripped of their birth names and given names that are ‘of’ plus their “Commander’s name”. Offred is the narrator of the story. Offred. Of-Fred. Meaning belonging to Fred. Fred’s belonging. Property of Fred. Wait, what? Excuse me? Property? I think not.

The most interesting part of the book was the Historical Notes in the back of the book. I did a double-take when I turned onto that page and had to confirm with myself that the book is indeed fiction. The Historical Notes section actually told of why/how Gilead came to be and its’ place in history. It was explained to us the heroine’s place in Gilead’s history which I found helpful from a closure standpoint.

I chose this book for our book club last month for a few reasons. First, the content felt especially and aptly politically relevant (don’t worry, I will NOT go there). Secondly, in all my feminist readings, I hadn’t gotten around to reading this iconic tale that is on every “Books Every Woman Should Read” list. And lastly, because the show was coming out on Hulu and it looked particularly intriguing.

There were a few points during the story I tossed my book down in frustration and anger. There were times while reading I was so angry at the world of Gilead, the heroine and the other characters that I almost gave up. I found the heroine, Offred, stilted, unmoving and way too accepting of her lot.

Overall, I found the story interesting and worth the read, but it riled me. As a woman, I will tell you that if my government tried to take away my basic human rights (let’s not go there with the current political conditions, please), I would fight with everything I had in me against it. I would rage and rage and never give up the fight.

Phew. That might be my longest review yet. Ok. Feminist rant concluded. Please share your thoughts regarding The Handmaid’s Tale in the comments.

If you liked The Handmaid’s Tale, try:

Brave New World

1984

Blindness

Never Let Me Go

The Road