Review: The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood


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Book Title: The Handmaid's Tale

Author: Margaret Atwood

Date Published: 05/07/2007

Publisher: Vintage Books

Number of Pages: 324


‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ is a series of diary-style extracts, told from the perspective of an unnamed narrator. Set in the future, America has been transformed into a post-apocalyptic world where women are relegated to various official statuses, dependent on their worth to this new, dystopian society. Those deemed no longer useful are condemned to certain death in the now deadly wilderness. Our main character, newly renamed ‘Offred’, is a handmaid, used to combat an epidemic of infertility and help those in power continue to breed.

High school literature classes were my first real introduction to feminism. At least, it was the first time I began to listen. In our last year of school, we got the chance to study some great second-wave literary landmarks, like Angela Carter’s ‘The Bloody Chamber’, and Margaret Atwood’s ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’. The latter has recently enjoyed a resurgence in popularity, probably credited to a recent high profile TV adaption, and is, of course, the most recent read for the official Girl Gang book club. 

I decided that there was no better time to re-visit Margaret Atwood’s bestselling novel. When I first read it, ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ seemed dangerous, and exciting, in a way that none of the other books I had read at that age were. For full disclosure, it is also violent, graphic, and contains many upsetting scenes. If you find content that includes sexual violence triggering in any way, you may want to approach this book with caution.

I also greatly admired Atwood’s literary techniques. I had never read an author who experimented so interestingly with structure. I loved that the historical notes were a part of the story, and one that many people accidentally skim over. My literature teacher also pointed out just how genius the structure of this novel is.

Note: If you haven’t read this book, you may want to turn away now. Spoilers are ahead

By the end of the novel, we learn that America has been returned to a state of normalcy. That the book we have read is a series of extracts, that the author is unknown, and that historians could only do their very best to guess in which order the story unfolded. But here’s the best bit; whichever order you read the chapters in, it still makes sense, and it completely transforms the story every time.

It is a masterpiece in tension, and subtlety. You notice new things with every rereading. For example, the ‘heroine’ of the story may not be officially named, but if you look hard enough, the clues are there. The fact that the narrator is so unreliable adds a complexity that I would like to see more of in modern literature. It is a rich and powerful creation.

But, from a feminist perspective, it leaves a lot to be desired. As Noah Berlatsky pointed out in The Verge, Atwood has openly acknowledged that she based many of the aspects of her dystopian society on the experiences of American slavery. Yet race is completely absent from her tale. All that is left are a couple of offhanded comments suggesting that people of colour were forcefully ‘relocated’. With one large sweep, Atwood completely erases the experiences of women of colour so that her novel can focus on the experiences of white women. ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ might be a story about a gendered dystopia, but not all women are white.

There are also sporadic references to the middle east. Offred compares the Handmaid’s to “paintings of harems”. Many countries were going through tumultuous and traumatic changes at the time, but the references haven’t aged well. The comparisons to slavery, and the experiences of women in some middle-eastern countries read like a dystopia that is less based in gritty-reality, and more in liberal anxiety, a cautionary tale written for white women, warning them that the worst possible thing that could happen to them is for their whiteness to be taken away. This is, essentially, what Atwood achieves by removing women of colour from the story.

Atwood is a marvellous writer, and a one of the best story writers of the modern world. This book is a classic, and was iconic at the time it was published. It’s a great story but, just like my high school literature lessons, whilst it might be a great introduction to feminist thought, there is a lot more out there. A great book, perhaps, but there are feminist narratives that have a lot more to teach young girls about the world we live in.

Read this if you liked: Kindred, The Bloody Chamber, The Power. 

Have you read ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’? Let me know in the comments below what you thought, and whether more recent and high-profile conversations have made you reconsider this famous tale.