Book Review: The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

Title: The Handmaid’s Tale

Author: Margaret Atwood

Published: 1985

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Final Rating: 5/5

It is rare that I have the attention span to focus on a book until it is completely finished, but I began reading The Handmaid’s Tale as part of a Goodreads group’s book discussion around 11am Tuesday morning on the plane and finished it later that night in the hotel room. I couldn’t stop thinking about it when I wasn’t reading it and I was reading it every chance I could get, completely immersed in the experience. My thoughts on this are still abstract, so this review will read a little abruptly and harshly at times.

I had tried reading the book before a few months ago (coincidentally on another plane trip) but didn’t get very far because I found the writing style disjointed and tough to follow. This time, I viewed the jumpy writing style as a stream of consciousness (my own internal monologue is never linear or predictable), and it felt like I personally was Offred. I was invested in her responses and dreams and actions, and perhaps because she never stated her real name, it made me identify with her even more.

The setting and environment and rules itself were chilling, partially because some of the rules in place in Gilead are showing up in our society. To be reduced only to a breeding vessel as a Handmaid is absolutely terrifying as someone who is childfree, but oftentimes whether or not we have/want children is one of the first questions women are asked and contributes to our identity, even when children are not even remotely involved in our lives. If I do not want children, that should not even come up as part of how I am identified or noted in today’s society. Yet children are so deeply ingrained in our society that the simple choice to not have children is regarded as strange or a “phase” or something that will change over time. In reality, a woman not wanting children should be as accepted as a person who doesn’t want a snake as a pet. But because women in today’s society are ranked by their maternal status, we are treated as Wives and Handmaids. Think about how some women are so desperate for children that they would go through surrogates or artificial insemination. Or how other women choose to be those surrogates or sell their eggs. No, it is not as excessive or forceful as Gilead, but there is a lot of foreshadowing in how these views of women could be pushed to demean and degrade women, and in some cases, those extremes already exist.

In Gilead, women both exist for men’s pleasure but they are also placed on a teetering pedestal. The Commander uses Offred for entertainment and takes her to a brothel, where other women are there for men to use, but she still must fall in line with what he expects (Offred describes herself as his whim); otherwise, she risks being sent off to the Colonies. The Handmaids are revered once they are pregnant and have given birth to a child, but at the same time, if they are unable to conceive (even if the man is shooting blanks), they are at fault and they may be sent off to the Colonies or become a Martha. Several months ago, I was sitting at a table in a restaurant, listening to a man talk to his guy friends about how he and his wife were trying to conceive, and she had to go through a battery of tests to determine whether or not she was fertile; he never once mentioned going through his own fertility tests or even remotely considering that perhaps he was the one who was to blame. But if he did go through those tests (obviously as a last resort), I wonder if he would have admitted that so freely to his friends as opposed to laying the blame on his wife, who was presumably at home and had no idea that he was sharing such intimate details of her body with his friends.

There is no such thing as a sterile man anymore, not officially. There are only women who are fruitful and women who are barren, that’s the law.

The Handmaidens were told to look forward to pregnancy, desire a birth, and never try to prevent it. Today, women are continuing to face an alarming trend of being told whether or not we can use contraception based on outdated views of women (such as the Hobby Lobby case), how we can choose to prevent those pregnancies, or if we even have a right to our own bodies if conception does occur (which happens even if all other preventative actions are taken). There is an entire political party that bases a large amount of their platform and energy on anti-choice propaganda and trying to regulate women’s reproductive systems. If they had their way, we certainly would be racing towards that Gilead ideal of women’s bodies and this notion that women should never have a right to their own body once pregnancy becomes a possibility.

Women in Gilead are also deemed responsible for men’s actions to them. The women are responsible for setting the boundaries and being fully clothed and hiding themselves from the man’s roving gaze. He is viewed as a powerless being and the women must be the ones who are above temptation and maintain those rules. And again, if she breaks those rules, she may be sent to the Colonies as her punishment. How many times have we heard that women must not dress provocatively, that women must be the ones to cover up and not wear short skirts or drink too much or flirt too suggestively, that we must be solely responsible for not tempting men because they are too weak to resist?

Margaret Atwood wrote this book in 1985, when feminism was facing a serious backlash from the rights women gained in the 1960s and 1970s. The Reagan administration was cutting funding to women’s programs and closing domestic violence shelters; abortion clinics were being bombed and anti-abortion legislature was being passed at an alarming rate. Religious figures were trying to get women to return to the home, and many people were fighting against the wave of feminism and progressive changes. Atwood could have never predicted that in 2016, we would still be dealing with these issues and women’s rights could have backslidden even more. Yes, we can vote and we can have a job and own a house, but can we say without any doubt that we have the full and absolute rights to our own bodies? Can we write off the anti-feminists and religious right, spending time and money and political lobbying to destroy women’s rights and our ability to choose, as things of the past?

So in final review, “The Handmaid’s Tale” was an absolutely riveting read, one of the best books I have ever read, but it was eerie and ominous at the same time. There are far too many correlations with today’s society for this book to be a comfortable read; it is not a book that you can read and put aside without a second thought after finishing it. However, it’s a refreshing, and unique, change to have a book that makes such an impression on me without doing things for “shock value” or trying to make it excessively horrific. It stuck with me more because of my own personal connection and reactions to the book, not because the book itself forced its peculiarity on me. Yes this book has been noted as a valuable and important piece of feminist literature, but it also appeals to the dystopian book fans. It is far more scary than most horror books I’ve read that keep me up in the night because, unlike demons and ghosts, the mindset and thought patterns that created Gilead exist in today’s society, and that is far more terrifying than a thing that goes bump in the night. And for that reason, and because this book is relevant to me in a way that other books have never been, I’m keeping this book in my memory as one of my all-time favorites and one that I can see myself remembering and pondering for quite some time.

I read this book on my Kindle, as it is available through the Kindle Unlimited program. With Kindle Unlimited, I also got the Audible book (11 hours in length), narrated by Claire Danes. The Audible narration was well done, and as it is Whispersync compatible, it was an excellent way to continue the narrative while I was driving.

The Handmaid’s Tale is 324 pages and is available on the Kindle, Audible, and Amazon.

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