The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood

April 23, 2010 § 25 Comments

I’m sorry there’s so much pain in this story. I’m sorry it’s in fragments, like a body caught in crossfire or pulled apart by force. But there is nothing I can do to change it.

About a month ago, I read The Penelopiad, my first Atwood. I had rather enjoyed that one, but many left comments saying that it was The Handmaid’s Tale that finally did the trick for them. And well, being quite the fan of dystopian novels, I couldn’t resist the temptation. And indeed, The Handmaid’s Tale is a very disturbing novel, about women in a world I’d much rather not imagine us living in.

The Handmaid who narrates this story to us is someone called Offred. That’s not her real name, of course. Rather, it is more like a title, or maybe an attachment; a way of identifying to whom she belongs to, her Commander. Of-Fred. She is a Handmaid, and therefore her prescribed attire is a red, shapeless piece of cloth that covers her from neck down. She’s also obliged to wear ‘wings’ on her head; a hat of some sort, I presume, that functions also as blinkers – things that stop her from seeing much without turning her head around.

In this Republic of Gilead, the Handmaid does nothing much more than go to the market (never alone, mind you, but always paired up with another Handmaid from another Household), and once a month, she attempts to be ‘fertilised’ by her Commander. Really, a Handmaid’s true duty is to bear child. The Marthas, their attire green, are the ones who do most of the housework, while the Wives, the wives of Commanders, sit around and knit all day. It’s a ‘delegation’ of work, or something like that. In this new world, in this republic, women no longer need to fulfill so many roles. They each have their own, and they are to be happy for it.

I have to say, those who left comments about how they loved this book were not wrong about it. Dystopian novels hardly ever go wrong for me, but The Handmaid’s Tale just took me tenderly and flew away with my soul. I was disturbed, not only by the environment in which women were made to exist, but even more so by how close to reality it could potentially be. I almost wish I could have read the entire book and concluded, “This is too far-fetched, too ridiculous to ever be real,” but the truth is, it hit much closer to home than I would have wanted it to.

The spectacles women used to make of themselves. Oiling themselves like roast meat on a spit, and bare backs and shoulders, on the street, in public, and legs, not even stockings on them, no wonder those things used to happen.

Change is almost never sudden, like what Offred tells us. It’s like putting a frog in water and slowly boiling it. The frog would die without ever having been the wiser. Throw it in a pot full of boiling water and it would jump right out in an instance. Small freedoms, those we take for granted, are slowly chipped away, slowly pulled back, with reasons such as for our own safety, for our own good. We surrender these freedoms unwittingly, and there will come a time when these liberties would be all but a distant memory.

There was this one speech a Commander made to the women in Gilead which has stayed with me for a while. It’s painful to think that there might exist such thinking, but what makes it sadder is that maybe, somewhere, dystopian or not, a woman may be believing all that he says.

“I will that women adorn themselves in modest apparel,” he says, “with shamefacedness and sobriety; not with braided hair, or gold, or pearls, or costly array;

“But (which becometh women professing godliness) with good works.

“Let the women learn in silence with all subjection.” Here he looks us over. “All,” he repeats.

“But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence.

“For Adam was first formed, then Eve.

“And Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived was in the transgression.

“Notwithstanding she shall be saved by childbearing, if they continue in faith and charity and holiness with sobriety.”

Atwood’s writing is beautiful; and no one can say she can’t tell a great story. The Handmaid’s Tale was frightening, chilling, yet completely engrossing. It’s a book I’m bound to remember for a long time.

Rating: 4.5

For: Women Unbound Challenge
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§ 25 Responses to The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood

  • chasing bawa says:

    I read this many years ago and still remember feeling a sense of shock and familiarity with Atwood’s novel. I felt her to be a writer that was apart from the authors I was reading then. I then went on an Atwood binge (as you do). I also recommend The Blind Assassin which, also beautiful, is quite different.

    • Michelle says:

      This book felt quite different from The Penelopiad, but there was still *some* similarity in style. I’m now really curious what The Blind Assassin would be like.

  • Anna says:

    It’s a very powerful book. I re-read it and reviewed it recently as a group read with a couple of other bloggers. It was even more powerful the second time around.

    • Michelle says:

      It is quite powerful, isn’t it? I’m wondering if I’ll ever re-read it (and if I do, it might be quite a few years from now). I wonder what I would think of it then? It seems like the kind of book that would reveal more layers, the more times you read it.

  • Amanda says:

    I had issues with the narrative voice of this book. I didn’t like how she kept jumping around or how she felt the need to sit me down and explain things, or how Atwood decided to explain away the first person voice with the found tapes and such. I just wish she would have told the story and that’s that. It would have been more powerful that way. As it was, I was too distracted by the annoying things for this book to have been powerful for me. :/

    • Michelle says:

      I had a little issue with how she decided to end the book as well, I had thought that the book would have been even more powerful had it been allowed to hang. But I had no problems with the narrative at all, I thought it was very well done, and it just kept me hanging on for more.

  • Nymeth says:

    “I was disturbed, not only by the environment in which women were made to exist, but even more so by how close to reality it could potentially be.”

    Exactly. This book terrified me, but I could not put it down. And I loved the writing SO much.

    • Michelle says:

      The writing was just beautiful. She has a way of making you want to read more, know more, and still hope at the same time that maybe she won’t tell you so much. I’m now really keen on trying her other books.

  • JoV says:

    Glad you like it. It disturbed me too much and Offred was made to be so mindless that it is not one I will go back to. For dystopia novel, I’ll choose 1984 by George Orwell anytime.

    But you do a great job picking the right quotes from the book.

    • Michelle says:

      Nineteen Eighty-Four is definitely one of my favourite dystopian books, but I do feel that this book was easily up there on the same level. There was a certain tension, some form of uncertainty to Offred, maybe quite subtle, but I definitely felt how uncomfortable she sometimes was, even with herself being so submissive. And for some reason, I think it rings quite true. It can be deceivingly simple to crush an individual’s perseverence and principles, especially when it’s done bit by bit.

  • Mel u says:

    I liked this book a very lot-it is disturbing as one could see it happening!

    • Michelle says:

      I think that’s what made it most disturbing, the believability of it all. It’s almost like we can see how our world could end up like Gilead, if we’re not careful about what we are fighting for these days.

  • Aimee says:

    I loved The Handmaid’s Tale. Now all you have to do is read The Blind Assassin! I think my next will be Oryx and Crake, and then I’ll try her latest one The Year of the Flood.

    I’d also like to comment on JoV’s seeing Offred as ‘mindless’. I can see where that’s coming from but I sensed a lot of anger, frustration and despair beneath that monotone voice of hers. I thought her coldness was what made it…and it’s a very ‘Atwood’ thing to do with her female protagonists, I’m starting to believe.

    Nineteen Eighty-Four is of course one of my favourites, as is Brave New World, but I like to think this ranks up there with them. I find the idea of the dystopian novel to be highly romantic, that’s why I like ’em!

    • Michelle says:

      I definitely want to read The Blind Assassin, especially reading your raving review about it. I’ve heard good things about Oryx and Crake as well, so maybe we might exchange notes some day?

      I quite agree with you on how Offred was portrayed. Like you, I felt there was definitely some level of frustration, almost a tinge of rebellion, though quite subtle and under a lot of pretense.

      Loved Brave New World as well. =)

  • savidgereads says:

    I loved how you said that this book ” took me tenderly and flew away with my soul” thats a wonderful way of describing a book.

    I loved The Handmaid’s Tale when I read it and swore I would read more and moreAtwood and yet I have only read a few when after reading this I wanted to read her entire backlog of books there and then.

    If you are wondering where to head next, The Blind Assassin is marvellous but dare I say harder work than this one.

    • Michelle says:

      Thanks Simon. =)

      Everyone’s recommending the Blind Assassin as my next Atwood, so I’m definitely going to take that advice. Maybe not straight away, but definitely soon.

  • Aarti says:

    I’m so glad you liked this one as I plan to read it soon! I have heard much the same thing that you mention before- that it’s scary because it could easily happen.

    • Michelle says:

      I hope you enjoy your read as much as I did. (I’m not sure if I can even say I enjoyed it, much as I was disturbed by it. But it was definitely well-written, the kind you don’t want to put down).

  • Bina says:

    That was my first Atwood book, and I loved it. I think it shows dystopian literature at its best. Have you ever read Amélie Nothomb´s Sulphuric Acid? It´s one of the most terrifying and terrifyingly possible concepts.

  • mee says:

    I made the comment in my head and forgot to type it out 😛
    I skimmed the post a bit because I intend to read it soon. But I’m now torn between The Handmaid’s Tale and The Blind Assassin. Which one first? Such a dilemma!

    • Aimee says:

      Mee – I know you’re asking Michelle about this one, but might I suggest The Handmaid’s Tale be read first? Only because it’s a lot shorter – and you’ll get a good feel for the style before plunging into the slightly epic Blind Assassin.

    • Michelle says:

      Mee, I think you’re going to quite like this book. =)

      Thanks Aimee for that little piece of advice. You’re proving to be quite the person to listen to when it comes to good books to read, judging from how much I loved this book, and the His Dark Materials trilogy. =)

  • Susan says:

    Su, I’ve read quite a few reviews for this book, and yours is outstanding. What an interesting sounding novel!

  • kiss a cloud says:

    Michelle, I don’t like dystopian novels very much, so was afraid to pick this up. Do you think I would like it though? Am very intrigued. I did absolutely love her Cat’s Eye and The Blind Assassin.

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