The Handmaid’s Tale

Below is my review of The Handmaid’s Tale, a dystopian novel written by Margaret Atwood, which was first published in 1985. I read the book with expectations (always a mistake) of gaining a compelling insight into the role of women in society. On this count I was disappointed.

While I felt fairly ambivalent about The Handmaid’s Tale, it did get me thinking about dystopia and science fiction. In that sense, I suppose it helped inspire last week’s post on the power of books to help us remember the past and see into the future.


The Handmaid’s Tale is set in the future, in what used to be the United States. Now called the Republic of Gilead, society is highly structured under a theocratic dictatorship, with women and men separated into classes and roles.

Offred, the book’s protagonist is a handmaid—a woman sent to an upper class family to bear children. (Environmental damage and sexually-transmitted diseases have caused wide scale infertility).

Throughout the novel, Offred (as in, possession “of Fred”) has flashbacks from her life before the Republic, when she had a husband and daughter (she doesn’t know what has become of either).

Offred is invited into an ambiguous and unsanctioned relationship with Fred, her Commander. At the same time, the Commander’s wife Serena Joy—knowing or suspecting that the Commander is infertile—suggests that Offred have sex with Nick, the family’s driver, in order to get pregnant.

Offred is breaking the rules with both the Commander and his wife, and to complicate matters further, she and Nick begin an affair.

I won’t spoil the rest for you…

The Verdict

I felt a bit ho-hum about The Handmaid’s Tale, even though I tried to cut it some slack for being published in the mid 1980s. I didn’t develop a huge amount of empathy for Offred. Her memories of her husband and child could have been really poignant, but they were somewhat detached.

While she is breaking the rules, she is basically only doing as she is told. I guess overall, I find her too passive. The affair with Nick is the only rebellious action she takes on her own (and I can’t help but feel this is a betrayal of her husband).

As for the book’s dystopian vision for the future, I suppose I didn’t see any great lesson or parallel (that I might see, for example, in a book spelling out the possible consequences of our willingness to hand over personal data).

Perhaps a future in which women have their funds seized (a warning about credit cards) and are forced into classes, including one breeding class, seemed more powerful in the 1980s. This special report about outsourcing surrogacy to developing countries springs to mind as a more believable response to widespread fertility problems.

I read The Handmaid’s Tale on Oyster books.

Other resources:

Here is a 1986 New York Times Review of the Handmaid’s Tale, by Mary McCarthy. I fine this historical reference particularly interesting in the context of today’s widespread use of credit cards:

Another reader, less peculiar than myself, might confess to a touch of apathy regarding credit cards (instruments of social control), but I have always been firmly against them and will go to almost any length to avoid using one.

And here you can read Margaret Atwood in 2012, reflecting on being haunted by The Handmaid’s Tale.

Finally, below is the trailer for the 1990 film adaption of The Handmaid’s Tale. It actually looks pretty terrible, but I love the big hair.


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