Monday, June 14, 2010

Review: The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood
Genre: Dystopian Fiction
Pages: 311
Date Published: 1985 (I read a 1998 reprint edition)
Publisher: Anchor Books
Source: Paperback Swap
Rating: 4 of 5 stars

Back of the cover blurb:
Offred is a Handmaid in the Republic of Gilead. She may leave the home of the Commander and his wife once a day to walk to food markets whose signs are now pictures instead of words because women are no longer allowed to read. She must lie on her back once a month and pray that the Commander makes her pregnant, because in an age of declining births, Offred and the other Handmaids are valued only if their ovaries are viable. Offred can remember the years before, when she lived and made love with her husband, Luke; when she played with and protected her daughter; when she had a job, money of her own, and access to knowledge. But all of that is gone now...
This book was a trip to read. It is set in a future where birth rates have dropped because of the chemicals our bodies have been exposed to over time. In this future, a religious sect has taken control of the government and society, establishing the Republic of Gilead, a place where men are in charge and women are not allowed to read or make their own decisions. Women are basically valued only for their ability to have babies and take care of the chores at home. Men who are higher up in the government's hierarchy are provided with a Handmaid if their wife has been unable to have children. These Handmaids are strictly monitored and given few choices in their existence. Suicide is such an attractive way out for them that they are not allowed access to glass, knives, matches, ropes, or any other tools they could use to kill themselves.

The Handmaid's Tale is written in a style that some readers might find confusing. It's not a standard narrative, but feels sort of like someone reminiscing or recalling events that happened to them. But that's essentially what it is--the memories of a Handmaid's life. It also incorporates flashbacks to her life before Gilead, which can sometimes be hard to follow. But once you reach the end and read the fabulous "historical notes" at the end, everything comes together and makes so much more sense. I was blown away by the story. It was terrifying and depressing, and yet there is still this small ray of hope that Offred (the main character) might find a way to escape Gilead.

One of the things that really struck me about the book is how religion had run amok in the dystopian society depicted on the pages. The powers that be claim that all of these changes have been made for the women's own good--that it makes them more secure and protected--but really all it does is oppress and objectify them. The power and influence of the religious leaders in this society underline all of the reasons why I'm supportive of religion staying out of the government in our country. It is too scary to watch one sect gain power and force everyone else to follow their teachings and their beliefs. And it is the opposite of liberty and free will.

I am so glad I read this great book. What an interesting way to approach topics that have been important in our past and present, and are sure to be important issues for the future. I just hope that we never go down that road toward Gilead. If you like dystopian literature, you should give this one a try. I think it has the makings of being a classic. It won the 1985 Governor General's Award and the first Arthur C. Clarke Award in 1987, and it was nominated for the Nebula Award (1986), the Booker Prize (1986), and the Prometheus Award (1987).

I read this book in May as part of a read-along hosted by Pam at and although I was unfortunately only able to participate in one of the weekly discussions, it was fun. All that I have left to do is watch the 1990 film adaptation, which is more difficult than I expected because Netflix isn't carrying it right now.

Related linkage:
Reading Challenges: Women Unbound, Awesome Author Challenge, Speculative Fiction Challenge


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