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on December 30, 2000
I have read "The Handmaid's Tale" a number of times, both in English original and in Croatian translation (a pretty good one). First time I read it, it was because I have found it in a library of a Women's Study Centre in Zagreb, Croatia, so I expected it to be "feminist literature", and was therefore a bit cautious about it, thinking it would be some kind of pamphlet for women's liberation. Of course, I did not know anything about Margaret Atwood back then. First thing this book taught me is that M. Atwood is, above all, a great author, and that "The Handmaid's Tale" is a piece of plain good literature.
The somewhat circular narrative centres around and is being told from the perspective of Offred, a woman living in Republic of Gilead, the dystopian, future theocracy established on the teritory of today's United States of America. Gilead's government is organized by a group of very specific religious fanatics, basing their theology on a couple of chapters from the Old Testament, specifically the story about Sarah, Abraham's wife, who could not bear children, and therefore had given Abraham her handmaid, Hagar, to concieve children with her. Also written in that chapter is God's command to Hagar to completely submit to her mistress, and Abraham's observation that Sarah is to do whatever she pleases with her handmaid.
That is the point from which the treatment of handmaids is derived in the Republic of Gilead. As the increasingly polluted land caused infertility withing majority of women, the fertile ones, especially those who have been either married to divorced men (theocracy of Gilead does not recognize divorce), or single, but not virgins, are taken as "handmaids" to be awarded to high ranking families without children.
Offred has been given to the family of The Commander, one of the highest ranking officials of Gilead, married to Serena Joy, a bitter and slightly desillusioned fanatic. Her narrative focuses on describing daily routines in their household, her experiences and her memories of a past, normal life, with a husband and a daughter.
Apart from political description of Gilead's ideology (which is given masterfully, without unneccessary and boring descriptions, yet with frightening details), the main value of this book lies in Offred's introspection. She is a person completely determined by her biological function as a woman and a child-bearer, completely deprived of any other individual merrits or rights. The way Offred deals with that is beautifully portrayed; sometimes in a flow that resembles free-association ("It's strange now, to think about having a job. Job. It's a funny word. It's a job for a man. Do a jobbie, they'd say to children, when they were being toilet-trained. Or of dogs: he did a job on the carpet...The Book of Job."), sometimes completely ripped-off of any emotions, yet almost physically hurtful with recognition and fear of it possibly coming true.
Granted, Margaret Atwood did write about a woman deprived of her rights in a male-dominated world here, but I don't believe it is a feminist pamphlet. It's a book about human condition, as any other good book; talking about what people are capable of doing, good or bad.
Another note. This, of course, is a speculative fiction, a dystopian one, like Huxley's "Brave New World" or Orwell's "1984". However, I have heard many people say that this one is the least probable one in terms of ever becoming a reality, and therefore fruitless in its message. To these people, I would recommend reading some news from Afghanistan, since Talibans took over.
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on October 26, 2000
"I wish this story were different. I wish it were more civilized. I wish it showed me in a better light, if not happiness, then at least more active." So says master writer Margaret Atwood regarding her tour de force, The Handmaid's Tale. Set in the present-day Massachusetts of the future, Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale is the chilling portrayal of a totalitarian society as told through the eyes of a Handmaid named Offred. Offred, who can remember the time when she had a home, a husband and a daughter, now serves as a "birth vessel" and is valued only for her powers of reproduction.
Offred (her name was derived from "of" and the name of her own Commander, "Fred") is forced to live her life in a new dictatorship called the Republic of Gilead. Offred is allowed to leave her Commander's home only once each day; her freedom, like that of other ordinary civilians, has been stripped from her and she exists at the mercy of the heads of state who are known as the Commanders.
The Republic of Gilead, however, is a society in the midst of crisis. Its land and atmosphere have been polluted by nuclear waste and all but a handful of the population has been rendered barren. Those infertile women, women who will never, or never again, reproduce, are known as "Unwomen," and are sent to the Colonies where they must toil as laborers with no privileges, working to clean up the nuclear waste. The only exceptions are the infertile Wives of the Commanders. Women lucky enough to still retain their fertility, like Offred, are considered a treasured "object" of society and one whose role is to bear children for the Wives of the Commanders who cannot. In the Republic of Gilead they have a saying, "There's no such thing as a sterile man...there are only women who are barren." Offred, though, knows that in this nuclear aftermath, sterile men do, indeed, exist, and so she prays for a baby; not a baby that she, herself, wants to love, but one that will keep her from the dreaded fate of the "Unwomen."
Many of the events in The Handmaid's Tale are derived from the biblical story of Leah and Rachel and Atwood has chosen to use many biblical names throughout the book. There are Handmaids and Marthas, Angels and Guardians and many others.
The Handmaid's Tale is written in Atwood's masterful prose but this is not a linear tale. Be prepared to drop back in time, then flash forward, then drop back again. The writing, though, flows effortlessly and Atwood, as always, manages to keep readers riveted to the page.
Although many people might feel that The Handmaid's Tale is too futuristic to be plausible, many of the events depicted have happened or are happening somewhere in the world at this very moment. It doesn't take more than a few minutes to recall places where gender discrimination and human rights have all but been stripped away. Atwood, herself, said, "One of the things I avoided doing was describing anything in the novel that didn't happen in this world."
Chilling, moving, vivid, terrifying and sometimes even humorous, The Handmaid's Tale is a profoundly moral story. It is a true masterpiece of power and grace that will someday attain the status of a classic.
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VINE VOICEon June 3, 2002
The Handmaid's Tale - by Margaret Atwood
THE HANDMAID'S TALE is a frightening look at a not too distant future where sterility is the norm, and fertile woman are treated as cattle, to produce children for the upper class who cannot have any. The narrator Offred, as she is called in her new life, is the Handmaid for a top Commander in the new government. Once a month she is tested by a gynecologist to ensure that she is healthy, and then is taken to the Commander and his wife in the hopes of becoming pregnant.
Offred, along with the other handmaid's, are not allowed to look directly at anyone else. They all wear the same outfits; red long dresses and headgear that cover their bodies. They live together, spend most of their time together, and are taken care of, in the hopes that they will produce children for this barren society. In this society, most women are not allowed to read, and are treated as if they have no minds. The government dictates their role in society. If they disobey, they are punished severely.
Offred's memories often go back to a time when she was happily married to Luke, and with their daughter they were looking forward to a long and happy life together. Things changed when a military group took over the government, and immediately their lives as they knew it were over. Women lost all rights to ownership; bank accounts were frozen, land was taken away; fertile women were taken away from their husbands and families. A handful of older women were made into `Aunts', and their duties were to instruct and guide the handmaids, reminding them of their role on this earth, which is to procreate.
I have to say that my feelings during this book were of shock. In some sense, what has happened in this book has already happened in other parts of the world and can happen again. The control over women is very much like that of the women in Afghanistan. The control over religious choice brings to mind Nazi Germany, as one of the issues in the Handmaid's Tale is the elimination of anyone that refuses to be as one with the new government - religious persecution is justified and encouraged.
The Handmaid's Tale is a horrifying story of a government fully in control of each person's life and totally out of control. The book was so riveting that it took me only one day to read. I highly recommend this novel.
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on September 23, 2010
It really pains me when I read a book that is hailed as a classic many times over but for some reason or another it just doesn't click at all with me. This is the case with The Handmaid's Tale, which is unfortunate because I was very much looking forward to reading this book. I really really wanted to like this book but I can't force what isn't there for me.

The Handmaid's Tale is a dystopian novel set in Gilead, which is formally part of the USA. Most of this book is told in the first person perspective by a character named Offred. Offred is a handmaid, which means her sole purpose in this society is to produce children for her commander (whose name is Fred, Of Fred, you see). Because of the fallout from a nuclear war most women are unable to have children, but Offred is thought to be fertile so during times when she is most fertile she is more or less forced to have passionate-free sex with the commander for the sole purpose of having babies(since his wife is unable to do such). Other women play their role as well. "Aunts" keep watch on the Handmaids and are allowed to read and write (unlike the Handmaids), "Wives" are the highest level caste, whom are married to high ranked men. "Marthas" are older, infertile women and "Econowives" are women who are married to lower ranked men. For men there are commanders, who are high ranking men, "Eyes" who are like the police and "Angels" who fight the wars. Only babies who are deemed as "keepers" are kept, "unbabies" vanish to somewhere unknown. There are other elements such as the Wall where people are hung-up dead for all to see, if they violate the laws of Gilead.

What we have is an excellent setup for a good novel but unfortunately there are some serious issues with this book.

First, this novel is really disjointed. The novel often bounces between present-time and Offreds past, but the transitions aren't smooth. This novel is written in a stream of concious style and it just doesn't work for me. Because it bounces around all over the place it can be a bit confusing at times which draws me away from the story.

Next, the prose is just bad. I understand what Attwood was trying to do here, she's trying to make the character sound more real, but it often feels boring and the areas that are supposed to feel emotional just fall flat. It doesn't have that organic feel to it like, say, 'We' by Yevgenny Zamyatin, which is also written in the POV of the protagonist. Attwood often times tries to sound poetic but to me it comes off as just plain cheesy. She'll often write a cheesy poetic line, followed by a word or two which is supposed to feel impactful but it just doesn't to me. Or she'll write repetitive lines to try and build on the impact, but again it falls flat for me, for example -

"The Commander is the head of the household. The house is what he holds. To have and told hold, till death do us part. The hold of a ship. Hollow."


"What I feel towards them is blankess. What I feel is that I must not feel. What I feel is partly relief, because none of these men is Luke. Luke wasn't a doctor. Isn't."

Or lines like -

"Moira had power now, she'd been set loose, she'd set herself loose. She was now a loose woman."

This type of prose is strung throughout the book (in fact I just fumbled through a few random pages to find these for this review, there are way worse). I was constantly drawn out of the story because of the cringe-inducing prose.

The characters are also a bit flat. Offred is *slightly* three dimensional but most other characters are stuck in two dimensions. A good dystopia needs characters that really pop out of the page to succeed in pulling at my heart-strings.

Finally, the ending fell flat. There is virtually no resolution. It seems like Attwood was going for an ending which would spark conversation (and for many people I'm sure it does) but I really don't like books where there is no resolution, you have no idea what happens to the protagonist.

So, unfortunately this book just didn't work for me. It's hard for me to say I don't recommend reading it. Perhaps it's me and I'm just missing something. So, even though I give it a pessimistic 2.5 (rounded down to 2) I'd still say to check it out because so many people love this book.
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on April 22, 2002
The Handmaid's Tale was an amazing book. Although it took me a few pages to get hooked, after the initial boredom I couldn't put it down. It is the story of Offred, who is the handmaid for a Commander and his wife, who cannot have children. The book is set in the Republic of Gilead, which used to be the United States. Women in Gilead are forbidden from any pleasure in life. They may not read, or write, have jobs, own land, or even go by their own names. Offred and the other women in Gilead are extremely strong and should be admired.
At times the book did confuse me. Offred speaks in a sort of stream of consciousness throughout the novel. That was kind of hard to get used to but it was used to reveal all of her inner thoughts and her personality. She jumps from the present to the past, and sometimes she will give an entire account of an event only to say, "But that's not how it really happened." Some parts of the story were disturbing and I think it takes a mature reader to look past that part of the book and get to the true meaning. Aside from that, the plot of the book is fascinating. I could really relate to Offred and that need for real love that we all have. As I read the book I had many questions. By the end of the book I had found only some of the answers, while others really depended on my own interpretation of the book.
I also liked the fact that the world the citizens of Gilead once lived in is the world we are actually living in right now. This made the events of the book hit closer to home and seem more real. Although somewhat difficult to read, it was very touching and was really one of those books that make you think. The book touched me deeply and I would recommend it to anyone looking for something deep and thought provoking.
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on October 6, 2009
For me, reading about dystopian societies is no fun, but that's the point. It is disturbing, and gets you to think. I loved the author's style of relating the thoughts and memories of her was very realistic in the "stream of consciousness" way things flow, which offered a lot to think about in the way people react to extreme situations. I read for a book club, and it is a good book club pick. As far as being hate literature against Christianity, I think that such a view misunderstands and misses the point of the story. Dystopian stories are meant to point out the potential disaster, folly, or weaknesses of any ideology carried to extremes, how any good thing can be warped. I don't think the author, or most readers, would view it as an "expose" of the real nature of Christianity... it is meant to be a grotesque mutilation, and the vileness of that mutilation is meant to get you to THINK. It is to help us understand and be vigilant against the real potential of ANY belief or ideology being turned to ugly ends. Human nature is to be blind to the potential follies or abuses of their own cherished beliefs...and that is where the potential for disaster lies. Those aware of potential follies and their ugliness, will be more vigilant against it, quicker to defend against it.
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on November 7, 1999
I really enjoyed this novel. But, if you aren't able to enjoy non-linear narratives, don't read this book. In this memoir of a woman living in the not-too-distant future. A time where the Christian right rules. The Handmaid (Offred) is basically leased to a high-ranking family for the use of her reproductive system. I really enjoyed how the parallel between the religious society in the story with fundamentalist muslim religion. Those who don't believe that the Handmaid's Tale could ever happen, fail to see it happening today in many places throughout the world - Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia, etc. I think that readers really miss the point when they get stuck on the fact that this story takes place in the future. Keeping in mind that in some countries, women are not allowed to own realty, have bank accounts, must cover their heads and faces, cannot go out in public without a male escort, are not allowed to drive, and cannot become educated or become employed outside of the home, I was reminded of how greatful I should be that I do not live in a country where I would be a handmaid, wife, aunt, or domestic.
As like in real life, the characters in this story are all so real; everyone has an agenda, has something to hide, yearns for personal contact, status, and power. It is women who are used to control women and men still break the rules that they themselves created. Humanbeings will risk their lives to fulfill their desires.
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on May 3, 2000
Experiencing a world that people can only imagine was a feeling brought forth when experiencing this fine novel. Set in a new world called Gilead (once the US), Margaret Atwood portrays a society run by men, with women as subservient creatures. This novel is a fictional journal of a girl named Offred (pronounced Of-Fred). Offred is a handmaid in Gilead who becomes an unhuman figure of her Commander, Fred. This novel brings insight into what a world would be like if ran by men and left in the hands of men. Most people, including myself, would consider this novel a feminist novel, although, Margaret Atwood contributes numerous other style elements. Incorporated into this novel includes themes of self-knowledge and a presence of gothic imagery of the way the government controls womens lives. In this new society there are classes of women. No longer are women equal. They are divided into the Handmaid's, there purpose is only to create new humans; Martha's, the maid's of the houses; Aunt's, teachers and in charge of Handmaid's; and Wives, they are married to the Commander's and basically sit at home doing nothing. The men also have ranks, yet all of them over-power the women. In this novel, every page thats read wants you wanting more and I can turthfully say that whoever reads this will not want to put the book down. The reader will experience the day to day life of the main character Offred. It's as if you are really there experiencing it. The vivid descriptions of the house she lives in and the way she describes the city paints numerous pictures in the readers mind. In this novel, you will experience different characters, such as Nick, Ofglen, The Wife, and The Commander, which are emanate objects in Offred's life. The descriptions of these characters are wonderfully written. Motifs of flowers and nature make the reader feel comfortable and at home, while the motifs of dark colors and wilting flowers makes the book even more intense, if thats even possible. I would recommend this novel to anyone who enjoys a good reading and likes such books as "Brave New World" or "1984" or even if they enjoy books that show courageous women struggling to live in a twisted world. It is said that Margaret Atwood wrote this book to convey a satirical message of a subservient world where women do not have the right to read, write, vote, hold jobs, or do anything thats commen in our world today. Some might say that this book is patterned after a Puritan world. Although the women have no place but in the home in this novel, they are protected from such evils and the secular world that once was, since anything secular was demolished. A perfect world is what the men in Gilead had hoped to create, did they succeed? Did Offred gain her freedom? Well, i guess you'll just have to read "The Handmaid's Tale" to find out. Happy reading!
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on December 23, 2002
I had this book on my bookshelf for three years before I finally decided to read it. Now I'm kicking myself for waiting so long! The Handmaid's Tale is awesome and it has completed my favorites list of 2002. Highly recommended.
Margaret Atwood's story is set in the future after the United States has undergone a nuclear war and the government has been destroyed. In place now is a strict and dangerous political scene, where any type of crime can result in an execution and a public hanging on The Wall. Not only that, but women are made secondhand citizens and are no longer able to hold jobs, make money, read or write.
The Handmaid's Tale is told through the eyes of Offred in the former state of Massachusets, now called the Republic of Gilead. Offred is a Handmaid, or a surrogate mother of sorts, who is appointed to an infertile couple in order to get pregnant and help boost the population. However, it isn't as easy as that since the only legal way to get pregnant is the old-fashioned way, which causes jealousy and tension throughout the household. And with the rigorous government, Offred isn't allowed to complain or refuse unless she wants to be shipped off to clean up toxic nuclear waste for the rest of her life.
I absolutely loved this book and will recommend it to all my book friends. The Handmaid's Tale is the perfect book for book clubs as it will evoke numerous discussions on feminism, nuclear war, radical government policies, slavery, etc. Margaret Atwood poses the question of "what if?" and one can only hope that this tale remains fiction. Excellent, thought-provoking, fascinating and heart-pounding -- this novel will never be forgotten.
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on September 2, 2000
I could probably make a case for the implausibility of the concept that the book puts forward, but only if I got specific, the situation where people (men or women) are used as merely property and not allowed to have any rights of their own still happens all over the world, whether you like it or not. Ms. Atwood is too smart to try and predict what the future might bring, instead she merely illustrates what happens when you stop regarding people as people, when rights of a few take precedence over the rights of everyone else (for the sake of expediency, alas). In this wacky world, women aren't allowed to read or write due to an ultra-Christian (?) (they quote from the Bible) takeover of the country. Women are divided into Aunts, Marthas, Wives and of course the Handmaiden's, who exist to have children and are given to various Commanders to try and make kids. The novel concerns itself with the story of Offred (Of Fred) and it flips back and forth between her life before the takeover, during her education in those dark days before the present time and her current life as a Handmaiden. Atwood protrays all of this in very poetic language, the words she chooses are sometimes breaktaking, but mostly it's in the images she puts forward and in the general aura that the novel is given. There's a sense of inevitable helplessness, Offred isn't going to change the world by herself and the world isn't going to change in the next day, she realizes that and still wants to fight but isn't sure how. The flashbacks are all rendered quite nicely, and given the right sense of eerie timelessness. The story is never given a date so it could happen anytime but the point illustrated is more important than the details. Some might find her a bit too immersed in the concept, the story tends to float blissfully along but she never gets preachy and even though has the country taken over by an orthodox Christian group, she's not bashing Christainity, just about any religion has buried in it somewhere the same primitive attitudes about women. But for me, it's about more than women, it's about people and what happens when all of a sudden people are property, how it dehumanizes everyone, even as you try to remain as human as you can. A fine story, with the people brought vividly to life, warts and all, and one gives one pause to think. Also, don't skip the historical section in the back, it's a bit wordy and academic and doesn't really explain the cliffhanger ending any better, but gives a better glimpse in everything. All it takes is a little perspective, I guess.
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