Review: The Handmaid’s Tale

This week I finished The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood and thought I would write a review. Spoiler alert, this was full five-star read for me; the prose was engrossing and I flew through the final half of the novel. I’m excited to watch the Hulu series, which premieres in April. According to an article in The Atlantic, the movie version (released in 1990) did not do well, so it will be interesting to see how the Hulu series sits with audiences. And side note, how is this not on the RGRC….

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Summary

This novel seems to take place in the general New England area and is about a society that has suffered so much disease and pollution that much of the population has been rendered infertile. In The Handmaid’s Tale, women have become objects–owned property–and if they can’t produce children and work as a handmaid for the wealthy yet infertile older members of society, they are considered useless. The main character, Offred, works as a handmaid in the house of the Commander and his wife, Serena Joy. Through her first-person narration, she takes the reader through the society in which she lives, her daily tasks, her emotions and thoughts, and the various rituals and ceremonies in which she is forced to partake. At the end of the novel, “historical notes” are presented through the form of a male lecturer in 2195 who discusses Offred’s story and the society of Gilead.

Review

As you can tell from my introduction, I absolutely loved this novel. The prose was beautifully written and Atwood expertly wove Offred’s emotion into her narrative without causing her character to be unlikable (I have a tendency to dislike whiny female characters…). I can’t remember if I was distracted or if the beginning was just slow, but I did have a hard time getting into the novel, but once I was in, I was hooked. I do remember hitting the midway point of the novel and never looking back.

I think what propels this novel forward is the certain reality of it all. Offred still has vivid recollections of the past and the freedom she used to have, which arguably would cause her to feel more depressed, hopeless, and emotional about her new place and the new society; this starkly contrasts 1984‘s protagonist, Winston Smith, who doesn’t have clear memories of the previous world. Also, though the antagonist in the novel is religious fundamentalists, a specific group is never named, which almost makes the novel more horrifying–the enemy remains nameless and faceless, thus the reader can’t pinpoint who or what to be afraid of, leaving one’s mind to spin.

After finishing the novel, I did want read up on the buzz surrounding the book and the Hulu series. I did come across two articles that I thought were worth mentioning and discussing. First, there was recently an NPR segment concerning the novel’s placement at the top of Amazon’s Bestseller List. There is obviously a clear correlation between current U.S. politics and its recent rise to popularity as Russell Perreault, head of publicity for Anchor Books (The Handmaid’s Tale‘s publisher), states, “Since the election, [there’s] been [a] 200 percent increase in sales [of the novel].” You can’t ignore the weight of those numbers. During the segment, Atwood also comments on the reaction her book received when it was first published: “The English said, jolly good yarn. They obviously weren’t too worried about it…The Canadians, in their nervous way, said, could it happen here? And the Americans said, how long have we got?”

In another article, the author dives into a feminist reading of the novel. I think the article was originally published in 2014, but it seems as if it was re-published on November 9, 2016–a day after the U.S. presidential election. This article definitely presents a great discussion that readers of The Handmaid’s Tale should internalize. I think the final paragraph offers the most interesting thought:

“The world of 1984 has never existed. Neither has the one of Brave New World, or A Clockwork Orange, or any of the other dystopias that are supposed to tell us about the human condition. But all you have to do to recreate The Handmaid’s Tale is go back a few hundred years or move to the right country. A paranoid, in this case, is just a woman in possession of all the facts.”

To Read or Not to Read?

If you read one book in the next month, make it this one. Political views aside, this book is riveting, entertaining, and simultaneously horrifying. This novel will definitely be on my mind in the weeks, months, and years to come.

***

Have you read The Handmaid’s Tale? How do you think it compares to 1984 and other similar novels? Any thoughts on the two articles discussed above?

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