Mike's Reviews > The Handmaid's Tale

The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood
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Dec 10, 11

bookshelves: dystopian, feminism, speculative-fiction
Read from November 20 to 23, 2011

Margaret Atwood immediately lets the reader know that there is no balm in Gilead, not even in the form of hand lotion to smooth a woman's hands roughened by physical labor. Atwood's dystopian novel of a theocratic government in what was formerly the United States of America is a reflection of fierce feminism shared by the most outspoken women of the time protesting the sexual exploitation and domination of women by men, particularly through the pornographic industry.

"The Handmaid's Tale" illustrates the position of Andrea Dworkin, Katherine MacKinnon,Dianna Russell, and others that the sexual exploitation of women through pornography or prostitution serves as causation for violence against women.

The sex positive feminist of today might well read "The Handmaid's Tale" in a different light than when it was published in 1986. Candida Royalle and Tristan Taormino, among others, most likely would have the attitude, "It can't happen here."

Atwood's novel, told by Offred, remains a compelling story of male domination of women. The subjugation of women through the use of a theocratic form of government remains within the realm of possibility. Consider the warnings of Muslim Clerics this week that women being allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia would result in the decline or disappearance of virginity.

In Atwood's tale, a right wing fundamentalist group, The Sons of Jacob, take over the American government following a staged Islamic attack on Washington, D.C., in an event that becomes known as the massacre of the President. America becomes known as "Gilead," meaning "hill of justice," or "mound of witness."

Caught in an endless war reminiscent of that in "1984," Gilead begins to experience more serious problems that will affect its very existence. More and more women are becoming sterile, or, not that the men will admit it, somethings gone seriously wrong with sperm count.

Women who have shown themselves capable of producing children are imprisoned and given the term handmaids. Their children are adopted by couples in positions of authority. Handmaids are assigned to Gilead officials for the purpose of procreating the species. These potential mothers are robbed of their identity and known by the patronymic of the official to whom they are assigned.

"THT" is especially riveting in that it is told in the present tense in the first person by one handmaid assigned to the Commandant Fred. Hence, we know her only as "Offred." The use of tense and voice lend to the tension of the plot as this technique leaves the outcome completely unknown.

Offred gives us only the slightest glimpse of her personal appearance. She stands 5'7", she tells us, as she catches a glimpse of herself in a mirror.

Once a month, Offred participates in a ritual, lying back against the body of the Commandant's wife, Serena Joy, a former televangelist, as Fred attempts to impregnate her. Offred's perception is that she is not the victim of rape as she has consented to perform this duty. The fact that had she failed to fulfill this role would have resulted in her being placed in a house of prostitution, or even worse, banishment to the colonies, for burial of the war dead or clearing of toxic waste does not seem to dawn on her.

However, Fred is not content to leave his relationship at a monthly ritual. He has Offred sent to his library where he asks her to play a game of Scrabble with him. Such fraternization is prohibited. Nor are women allowed reading material.

Initially, the Commandant presents as a somewhat poignant figure, desiring the companionship of a woman with a mind. More so, the Commandant appears to miss the idea of intimate companionship. However, Fred loses any appearance worthy of sympathy when he smuggles Offred into a brothel, passing her off as a woman hired for the night. Even within the most strict theocracy the forbidden fruit is the most sweet.

Offred's flashbacks to the time before are particularly heartbreaking. She was married, in love, and a mother of a five year old girl. The coming of Gilead's dictatorship is evident. Offred, her husband Luke, and their child attempt to escape by taking a supposed picnic. The outcome is inevitable. Offred loses her husband, her child, and herself.

Offred's relationship with her mother is particularly interesting. Her mother was a classic feminist of the 1970s. This was a time that "Our Bodies Ourselves" was practically required reading in college women's studies classes. Her mother was a participant at the first "Take Back the Night" observances. It should be noted that Take Back the Night was originally associated with the feminist anti-pornography movement, before it became more widely associated with sexual assault prevention.

Offred was actually embarrassed by her mother's outspoken nature. She would have preferred her mother to be more like her contemporaries' mothers. One wonders how she felt about her mother's attitudes after the societal controls of Gilead were in place.

Against Offred's self-portrait, Offred presents her stronger, rebellious friend Moira. Moira was never one to follow convention, even in the freer days of pre-Gilead America. Moira's actions after the theocratic takeover are in direct opposition to Offred's. Moira attempts escape, defies authority, and remains resistant emotionally, though she complies outwardly with the demands made of her. Nevertheless, she is still free in comparison to Offred.

Offred's compliance with authority at times is frustrating. The reader may lose patience with her lack of resistance. Yet, she is in a different situation than Moira. She does have a child. Perhaps it is the dimmest hope that she might one day be reunited with that child that accounts for her lack of active resistance.

But the severity of Gilead's dealing with failure to comply must also be factored in to Offred's inaction. Those deemed unacceptable to the policies of Gilead are salvaged, that is, executed. Their bodies are hung on hooks on display as a constant reminder of the consequences for disobedience.

As should be expected, for every dictatorship, there is an active resistance. It is through this resistance that Offred eventually achieves her escape.

The ultimate downfall of Gilead is not revealed by Atwood. However, we know that it occurs. We also know that Offred's tale is discovered and told. In the ultimate denouement of THT, the authenticity of Offred's tale is debated at an anthropological conference. A male scholar lectures that a fellow scholar had dubbed the story the Handmaid's Tale after the fashion of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. At one point the lecturer refers to Offred's story as the question of the Handmaid's "tail." Atwood offers no solace that gender equality will ever be achieved.

While one may question Offred's courage, I suggest that enduring the unbearable to ultimately serve as a witness to evil is a form of courage in and of itself. To borrow a bit from Faulkner, Offred not only endured, she prevailed. Ultimately Atwood's message to each of us is that we have a choice to accept gender bias, or attempt to stop it. Offred inspires me to stop it.


















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Comments (showing 1-13 of 13) (13 new)

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Kathy Good choice!


Philippa You're aheaad on December!


Melki You are like some shining, golden God of book reviewing...


Michael I wish I could review books like this, I run out of what to say after 3 paragraphs :P


Mike Melki wrote: "You are like some shining, golden God of book reviewing..."

Now, Melki, you're gonna make me blush. *laughing* Golden God? Not hardly! That head under the hat is slick. Telling the barber to zip it was the most liberating thing I ever did. No bad comb-overs for this fellow. Shape? Roundish. Eyeglasses, absolutely necessary. The great thing about goodreads is you know you can talk about books without watching folks' eyes glaze over. *grin* That's what I love about this place.


Mike Knowledge Lost wrote: "I wish I could review books like this, I run out of what to say after 3 paragraphs :P"

KL, Thanks for taking the time to read the review. But, sir, you are in the top 25 best reviewers on this entire site. That says a great deal about what you have to say in your reviews. Plus, my man, we couldn't do without you in Literary Exploration or Pulp Fiction. Happy reading!


Booksy Absolutely 100% agree with KL, I wish I could write reviews like you do Mike. A stunning overview of the setting, underlinng the most exciting ideas and sub-plots, interesting observations on hiw the tense and the voice chosen by the author contributes to the ever increasing suspense of the novel. Amazing piece of writing!


Mike Booksy, Thanks so much for your kind words. I thoroughly enjoyed my second read of this! I'm looking forward to next month's selection.


Cecily Brilliant review.

However, if there are contemporary feminists and others who really think "It can't happen here", they're missing Atwood's point.


Kathy Great review of one of my favorite books.


message 11: by Mike (new) - rated it 5 stars

Mike Cecily wrote: "Brilliant review.

However, if there are contemporary feminists and others who really think "It can't happen here", they're missing Atwood's point."


Oh, yes. I agree completely, Cecily.


message 12: by Mike (new) - rated it 5 stars

Mike Kathy wrote: "Great review of one of my favorite books."

Thanks, Kathy. So good to see you! Whatcha reading?


Kathy Just started Redeployment. Gut wrenching thus far.


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