Hi everyone! I hope you are all well. Today is Friday, which means it is time for another review. Today, I am reviewing The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood.
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood was first published in 1985 by McClelland and Stewart, and (my copy) is 311 pages long. Some people may know of it from the ongoing Hulu series based on the book.
The plot of The Handmaid’s Tale unfolds in a near future dystopia in the Republic of Gilead, formerly the United States. In this oppressive society, women are treated as second-class citizens who are only valued for their ability to bear children and look after men.
Offred is our protagonist, though this is not her real name; it is a name she is given. It describes her position; she is ‘of Fred’, Fred being the name of the Commander to whom she ‘belongs’. Offred’s real name is never given in the book, although various adaptations have given different names.
Offred was married to Luke, and they had a daughter. However, when the Republic of Gilead was established, all divorces became nullified, meaning her husband was still married to his original wife, making her an adulteress.
Because she has proven she can conceive, Offred is placed with the Commander and his wife, Serena Joy, who is believed to be infertile. Her primary purpose is to bear a child for them.
She struggles with her new role in society, and we, the reader, see her resistance to Gilead and all it stands for through her inner thoughts. Her life is in danger at all times and could be taken away from her at any moment if she fails to comply with the rules of Gilead or if she speaks out against its oppressive regime.
You cannot help but root for Offred as she attempts to escape Gilead and reclaim her identity. As you are reading about the society she is living in, it is easy to feel claustrophobic and trapped, which lets you easily empathise with her.
Aunt Lydia works at the Red Centre, where she trains and ‘re-educates’ women, preparing them for life as a Handmaid. She is not a likeable character in the least and sees her job as her true calling, believing wholly in the religious philosophy of Gilead. I found her to have no redeeming qualities at all.
Moira is Offred’s best friend. They met when they were in college and have been close ever since. Moira is a lesbian and must hide the fact due to homosexuality being one of the many things punishable by death.
Not long after Offred is made a Handmaid, Moira is too, but she is rebellious. She continually tries to escape and often engages the guards simply to be challenging. Finally, she gets out by threatening one of the Aunts, stealing her clothes, and walking out unnoticed.
Unfortunately, Moira is later recaptured, but since she is too rebellious, she cannot return to the Red Center. She is given a choice: go to the colonies or become a prostitute. Moira chooses the latter, knowing it will be better than the alternative.
The Commander is head of the household, where Offred is essentially enslaved as a Handmaid. Outwardly he appears to be a well-mannered, friendly man, yet, we soon learn from how he treats his wife and others that he is mean and cruel.
He takes a liking to Offred, though, often meeting up in secret with her in his study to play Scrabble, something considered forbidden in Gilead, as are the fashion magazines he lets Offred read.
Offred learns that the Commander had a similar relationship with his previous Handmaid, which led to her taking her own life when his wife found out for fear of what she would do in revenge.
Sometimes, the Commander shows his softer side when he’s with Offred. He confides in her that he feels lonely and complains that Serena no longer understands him. This causes Offred to have conflicted feelings about him; on the one hand, in some ways, he seems just as much a prisoner of Gilead as she is. On the other hand, it is a prison of his own making since he helped form Gilead.
Serna Joy is married to the Commander. She had advocated for ‘traditional values’ and the establishment of Gilead, yet, she dislikes what it became.
Serena was a televangelist until the state took away her rites, power and public recognition. Offred remembers seeing her on tv while waiting for her Saturday morning cartoons to start when she was little.
Serena hates being part of the monthly fertility ritual known as ‘The Ceremony’, and although she is forced to accept it as part of her life, she ends up making a deal with Ofred, arranging for her to have sex with Nick, the Commander’s chauffeur, to increase her chances of conceiving.
Ofglen is a fellow Handmaid partnered with Offred to go grocery shopping since Handmaids are forbidden from going anywhere alone and are expected to police and spy on each other. Nevertheless, Ofglen and Offred form a bond.
It turns out, Ofglen is part of the Mayday Resistance, a group working against Gilead from the inside. When she disappears, Offred is told she committed suicide before the government apprehended her and forced her to give them information.
Atwood paints a vivid picture of an oppressive regime that is eerily very recognisable to the world we live in today; her descriptions of Gilead make it feel like a living, breathing place.
The novel tackles challenging topics such as gender inequality, religious extremism, and reproductive rights head-on, all while managing to be entertaining.
It also shows that those with any kind of privilege should be fully conscious of it and, when possible, use it to help those with none.
Atwood also does an excellent job of exploring complex emotions such as fear and anger without sacrificing the pacing or the plot development.
Often while reading, I thought, ‘Oh, that could never happen.’ Well, I suppose I was wrong because I learnt recently from watching an interview that none of the stuff in The Handmaid’s Tale is made up. According to Margaret Atwood (and she would know), all the horrific events in the story happened somewhere in the world at some point in history.
The Handmaid’s Tale is as relevant now as it was when it was first published almost four decades ago, and as well as helping us see what the systemic oppression of women can look like, it is a powerful and thought-provoking reminder of our shared responsibility to create a just world where everyone can live equally with dignity and respect.
Its characters are realistic and relatable; its setting is immersive; its message is thought-provoking, and its pace keeps you turning pages until the end. If you have not read the book, I highly recommend you do – you will not regret it!
I am giving The Handmaid’s Tale 8/10.
This book has been adapted into a television series, two movies, and even an opera, so it is clear that it still resonates with and touches people even after all this time.
Have you read the novel or watched any of its adaptations? If you have, which do you think is the better adaptation?
I love the tv series because it expands upon the novel allowing more time and scope to explore the characters and storyline.
As always, thank you for stopping by to check out my review!
Until next time,
© 2023 GLT
Categories: Book Reviews, Reading
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