Thursday, 19 April 2012

Small Thoughts on The Handmaid's Tale

On my post about dystopia, Farrell asked me if I read any Margaret Atwood. A few years ago, The Handmaid’s Tale was recommended to me. I bought it, got to Chapter 5 and put it down again, not to be picked up again until last weekend. I remembered the comment, and I thought I’d try reading it again. I’m incredibly glad I did. 

For anybody that hasn’t heard of The Haidmaid’s Tale, it is set in a dystopian future US, renamed Gilead, in which a nuclear accident and other factors have seen a massive decline in birth rates (the backdrop of the novel reminded me somewhat of The Children of Men by P.D. James). To remedy this, Gilead, overwhelmed by religious extremism, has decreed that a select amount of women must be Handmaids. This means they must serve high ranking couples who are childless and bear them a child, if the wife is unable to conceive. Offred, the main character in The Handmaid’s Tale, is essentially telling the reader about how she came to be a Handmaid, giving flashbacks to her former life in the US, along with her current situation as Handmaid to a Commander and his wife. 

There are a lot of themes in this that I didn’t grasp when I first tried to read it. It’s very critical of religious extremism, and the control religion has over our society. The religion in question was Christianity, which I found interesting, since typically religious extremism is usually associated with other religions. But in The Handmaid’s Tale, this was not the case. Of course, religion is very important in America, much more important than in Britain. Former contender for GOP presidential nomination, Rick Santorum, and the Christian right of the Republican Party are a very good example of this; religion in America is not only a personal issue, but a political one too (then again I would say this, I study American politics).

Since the novel was published in 1985, decades before the 'War on Terror' and our modern acquaintance with religious extremism, I imagine the novel was quite shocking to some when it first came out. I’m not especially religious, but I would think the way Atwood criticises the Bible through her novel would be incredibly shocking to anybody who is more religious. Alongside this are the aspects of feminism which come into her novel; since the ‘new feminism’ movement of the 60s and 70s had just been and gone, I’m not surprised Atwood was influenced by this. 

It was a very thought-provoking novel. I really enjoyed it, as it was an atypical dystopian vision. I liked the feminist implications within it – I’m somewhat of a feminist myself – and it was interesting to see how Offred challenges her society and the regime enforced on her. I thought the mixture between Offred’s flashbacks of her past, her training at the Red Centre (where they train Handmaid’s) and her current life was intriguing. It kept you reading because you wanted to find out more about her past, or more about the present, and I liked that. There were many times when I had to stop reading, not by choice, but simply because I had other things which had to be done. Considering my busy schedule, I finished it in three days – I think that says it all. 

I'll definitely read more of Atwood’s novels. It was an good read, and since I’ve been re-reading a lot of books solely for education recently (I also study English Literature), it was a nice way to escape that reading rut. Also, I’m very excited that there’s a whole stack of new books I can add to the to-be-read list! 

Have you read any of Margaret Atwood’s novels? If not, what are your thoughts on my description of The Handmaid’s Tale?


  1. Margaret Atwood and Michael Ondaatje (watch the movie The English Patient based on his novel) are the most well known living Canadian authors. She lives in my area, so every few weeks I see her. She is a master of words, which for me makes it difficult to read her books (I get bored). But the plot for The Handmaid's Tale is interesting. It has the elements of Dystopian world. Offred falls in love with Nick, but is not sure if he's loyal to the totalitarian regime or belongs to the resistance. While this book did well and got many awards, it lost many readers. Comparing her writing to that of Susan Collins' of The Hunger Games, you see why she lost many readers. Susan collins writes simply focusing on the storyline. Margaret focuses on the words and on the storyline.

    1. That's really interesting! I agree that she is a great master of words, I suppose it goes to show how different styles appeals to different readers. Yes, I think The Handmaid's Tale is a great example of a mostly plot-driven novel, compared to The Hunger Games in which Collins incorporates aspects of plot-driven and character-driven incentive to read her novel. So you could say looking at it from that perspective, it's easy to see why modern dystopian fiction like The Hunger Games has so much appeal. Great comment, Giora!