Full review here.
Any pretense of objectivity must be here dispensed. I love this book. More than that, I have a level of nostalgia for this book rivaled only by the Harry Potter series that so consumed my childhood. The Handmaid's Tale was the first book I read that truly impacted me in a literary way, and by that I simply mean it isn't a novel of sheer plot; aesthetics, politics, and subtext dominate. Now, as an educated and more experienced reader, I recognize that in the realm of literature (whatever that is), these characteristics are not exactly rare, but to the twelve-year-old me who randomly picked this book off her mother's shelf, this was totally foreign.
In retrospect, I was far too young to have read it when I first did, and I knew at the time that I didn't understand half of the complexity - a social critique? Theocratic totalitarianism? Feminist anxiety? Biblical references? Caste systems? Unreliable narration? It all went over my head, as did most of Atwood's prose. What remained was a visceral understanding that this was unlike anything my little tween brain had read before. Just for context, around the same time I first read The Handmaid's Tale, I was reading Pearson's Guests of War trilogy, Montgomery's Anne of Green Gables, Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia, and Adams' The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. All excellent fiction, but The Handmaid's Tale is a different beast altogether.
Lengthy preface aside, The Handmaid's Tale isn't so much a story as it is an exploratory mission into a very unhappy world; dystopia abounds in the Republic of Gilead, once the United States, now a fundamentalist, theocratic dictatorship. A complicated social caste can be reduced to three tiers of importance: race, gender, and class. It's alluded to throughout the text that Gilead is now a Caucasian society; other races having either been killed off entirely or mysteriously shipped elsewhere. Patriarchy rules the land, and in the tradition of so many SF dystopias, women have been reduced to the status of property. This is not to say there isn't an internal stratification within the female population: wives/daughters, econowives, aunts, Marthas, handmaids, Jezebels, unwomen.
The reader follows Offred (Of-Fred, a patronymic; she's named for the man to whom she is assigned), a young handmaid responsible for bearing children for the often infertile wives. Atwood crafts the Republic of Gilead as a very uncertain world; rumors and propaganda mix with possible truth, and the reader is frequently left confused. The cause of the rampant infertility? The validity of the Children of Ham's relocation to Africa? The nature of the President's Day Massacre? Details on the unspecified, ongoing war? These questions are compounded by Offred's narration, which puzzlingly is written in past tense. The (meta) epilogue, titled Historical Notes furthers the complexity. There are no easy explanations; the Republic of Gilead is just as opaque to the reader as it is to Offred.
Atwood doesn't clarify things either. The very title, The Handmaid's Tale, references Chaucer. The significance? I always interpreted it as linked to the Canterbury Tales' internal inconsistencies. The Chaucerian community has long debated the proper order of individual tales, and how differing orders shift the meaning of adjacent tales. It's an uncertain and unstable text, likely unfinished by Chaucer or with the remaining parts having not surfaced. The Handmaid's Tale is equally unstable and unfinished. But, like much conversation about The Handmaid's Tale, this is only speculation, and thoughts about the importance of the title are welcomed in the comments below.
The social criticism is highly evident, and while I say few things with certainty about this text, I will say this: it's very political. Atwood has stated that she invented no practice or belief espoused by the Republic of Gilead, but rather amalgamated many current and historic conventions, geographically diverse, into one hyperbolic pastiche.
Still, The Handmaid's Tale is very much a product of its time. It reacts to anti-feminist movements and religious fundamentalism, as well as offers a critique on the short-lived anti-pornography subset of feminism that resulted in the unlikely alliance of feminists with the religious right. Ultimately, the Republic of Gilead presents the political consequences of assumptions about the inferiority of women.
Is it science fiction? The question has dogged Margaret Atwood since its publication, and while her stance that science fiction is distinctly different from speculative fiction has always irked the literary theorist in me, I appreciate her recent work, In Other Worlds, which elaborates her position. It comes down to a question of personal definitions, and I have always seen The Handmaid's Tale as science fiction-lite, a work that only extends the modern use of technology minutely, but with powerful social ramifications. The skeptic in me would argue that literary snobs and academics are less welcoming to science fiction because of its pulpy connotations, and this might be damaging to sales.
It's beautiful and terrifying, and regardless of your views on SF, I give this book my highest recommendations. But then again, that is coming from someone who was once a twelve-year-old girl reading The Handmaid's Tale under her bedsheets.