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  • Writer's pictureMelba Jones

The Handmaid's Tale - A Review

Updated: Oct 16, 2023

The Handmaid’s Tale by Canadian writer Margaret Atwood.

This isn't exactly fantasy, but I feel compelled to write about it as I've totally binged the series on TV and am waiting the next (final?) season with tapping fingers.

It is a dystopian, almost fantastical, chilling novel that was written in 1984 and produced as a TV series in 2017. Atwood’s novel has been a landmark in the dystopian genre and has seen unprecedented success. The main theme in this novel is how women’s rights altered over time. The narrator’s perspective switches between the past and present in order to snow this. Overall, this is an amazing novel that deals with difficult themes innovatively.

Margaret Atwood is a Canadian writer, essayist, environmentalist, and poet who has published a range of different works that include 18 books of poetry, 18 novels, 11 non fiction books, nine collections of short stories, eight children's books, two graphic novels, and essays in publications. To say she is accomplished as a writer would be an understatement due to the amount that she has published and the excellent reception she received from each piece of work.

Atwood’s work is not only enjoyed for entertainment purposes, but for the cultural and political impact of her work. Almost all of her work focuses on issues regarding gender, race, environmental issues, animal rights, or social justice issues. The Handmaid’s Tale is the pinnacle of women’s political fiction, even to the extent of protestors wearing the handmaid’s outfit at marches relating to women’s issues.

The Handmaid’s Tale is set in a fictional place of the Republic of Gilead, which was formed by a revolutionary radical Christian group (Sons of Jacob) when they overthrew America and changed it into a military dictatorship. The Sons of Jacob rearranged society to a hierarchical model, in which women have no rights over their reproduction as the polluted planet has left very few women fertile.

The main character is a woman named Offred, and she has to produce children for one of the commanders (ruling men) as she is a Handmaid’s so that is essentially her only function in society. There are few other roles for women in Gilead society - Commander’s Wives, the Aunts, the Martha’s, Econwives, and widows.

This dystopian novel is told from the first person perspective of Offred, and she discusses the duties of her current role as a Handmaid, her past life with her old family (husband and son) and her private thoughts. There are small glimmers of happiness and hope in her situation, and you continuously root for a better future for her, especially after she begins to form a relationship with Nick who is the Commander’s chauffeur.

Offred is the narrator and the female lead in The Handmaid's Tale. In Gilead society she is expected to bear children for the Commander by participating in the ‘Ceremony’, which is a ritualized sexual act in a clinical manner to impregnate her. Reproduction is Offred’s only place in society, yet she is internally defiant against this. Throughout this novel we learn of her past relationships, and she is radically against the current system yet endures it for her own safety and in hope for change. To the rest of Gilead society she may seem compliant and weak, the reader learns throughout that she is passionate, loving, and strong.

At the beginning of the novel, Atwood has the reader thinking that she is passive towards the patriarchal society yet by the end it is evident that this is a coping mechanism. A quote that perfectly describes Offred’s character in this book is: “Ignoring isn’t the same as ignorance, you have to work at it.” Often in literature, female leading characters are presented as externally emotional and concerned with romantic interests, yet Atwood offers the opposite in this novel as Offred is externally nonchalant and preoccupied with her own means of survival. At times, Offred is not always likeable too, which is unusual for a female protagonist. Overall, Atwood has created a complex and multi dimensional female protagonist that is strong and occasionally stereotypically masculine with their actions and thoughts as she appears very passive.

Also regarding the theme of gender in this novel, it is considered one of the greatest modern pieces of feminist literature. Throughout The Handmaid’s Tale, the staunch patriarchal and religious society is continuously critiqued for its oppression and objectifying of women. Additionally, it is interesting that Atwood critiques radical and feminism too through Offred’s mother - who was involved in censorship, aggression, and violence. It seems that Atwood is trying to suggest that each reader must make their own minds up about the gender issues rather than force feeding her ideologies.

Whilst romance is far from Offred’s main concern in The Handmaid’s Tale, it makes up a large element of this book. The reader is provided with flashbacks of Offred’s past relationship with her husband Luke with whom she had a son with. While their relationship is portrayed as relatively healthy and normal, a standout point is Luke’s lack of anger when the government fired all women from their jobs and took all of their money. Perhaps Atwood was trying to illustrate that sexism is engrained so deeply in society that even ‘good guys’ have underlying misogynistic beliefs.

The reader’s are informed of Offred’s relationship with her Commander’s chauffeur - Nick. Offred and Nick have an intimate relationship and slowly begin opening up to one another as their partnership progresses. Throughout the novel, Nick participates in small acts of rebellion that make him seem trustworthy yet it was never confirmed if he was or not. This adds a strong element of excitement to the relationship, particularly with the cliffhanger this novel ends on…

The Handmaid’s Tale is an essential read for any dystopian or science fiction lover, as well as anyone who is passionate about social issues particularly gender issues. Once you have read this book, it will become very obvious why it has been so successful and why it has been so culturally impactful.


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