Book Review: The Handmaiden’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

I had been meaning to read this book for years. After I moved, it got packed in the bottom of a box of books, and I finally found it again.

This book reminds me of 1984, only looking at society from a more personal, feminine, perspective. The novel is written (spoken) through the voice of a woman named Offred. Through her narrative, we are able to piece together details about the world we are introduced to, the Republic of Gilead. We come to understand that there was some type of disaster or decline in (what was once) America. Birth rates have declined, possibly following excessive pollution. There was also a religious upheaval that happened as a reaction to this.

As part of the new order, Offred (who was born with another name, but her name means “Of Fred,” who is her commander) must live with the Commander and his wife, and their servants. Her job is to allow him to mate with her once each month in hopes of bearing a child for the Commander and his wife. Like the other handmaidens, Offred has to wear a red dress and a white face mask to keep herself covered; she even wears most of her coverings at home (even while in bed with the Commander and his wife). Much of her time she spends waiting as she is not allowed to have a job or money of her own.

She has several flashbacks of the time before, during which she had a daughter and a husband. Over time, women were allowed fewer and fewer rights. Women are trained and monitored by “Aunts” using facilities and supplies from the time before. Now, people who don’t follow the orthodoxy of those in power are hanged along a large wall protecting Offred and her kind from the outside world. At one point in the book, a group of tourists arrive and gawk, showing us that not everyone in the world agrees with the strict religious (and perverse) order that imposes itself on Offred. The tourists give us hope that perhaps the tormented world Offred lives in does not extent to all of humanity.

I won’t spoil the ending, but I did enjoy the connection I noticed to 1984 by George Orwell. In both novels, we are stuck in a limited perspective. As a result, we are never completely sure of who knows what, who is in charge, what secrets are actually secret. Just as in 1984, this helps the reader experience the paranoia the characters must daily endure.

The liability of this limited perspective is that it’s scattered, much as Winston in 1984 is unable to fully express himself. Offred jumps between past and present. But for me, that structure worked. At times, it moved a bit slowly, but that was the point: Offred spent much of her time waiting for her ovulation so that she could mate with the Commander and hope to bear his child.

The book is definitely disturbing, and it’s for mature audiences. It’s not graphic, but the ideas are disturbing. It’s a book that makes me appreciate the freedoms we have today. I won’t ruin the ending, but I did enjoy how Atwood chose to end it. If you love dystopias, this book might be for you.