The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

September 4, 2009

handmaids tale Plot summary (with spoilers): Offred is a handmaid in the Republic of Gilead. Bit by bit, as Offred tells her story, the reader gets a better idea of what her world and her position in it are like, and how things came to be that way. For example, the Republic of Gilead is really the United States after a revolution led by religious extremists. Now, the country is basically a totalitarian regime where women’s rights and general freedoms are nonexistent. Special passes are needed to go anywhere out of doors, and even then, people are never completely out of view of video surveillance equipment or The Eyes.

There is also a population problem, caused by sterility resulting from excessive pollution, which is why there is a need for handmaids, who are essentially young women used as birthing vessels for men of high position. These are usually older men whose wives are past childbearing age. They have sex with their handmaids once a month in the hopes of producing a child. At all other times, the handmaids are virtually ignored or simply treated as property. This is evidenced in their names: “Offred” can be broken down into “of Fred”, meaning property of Fred.

As Offred’s tale continues, readers get a glimpse of what her life was like before Gilead when she was married and had a daughter, and how she has changed due to the circumstances she finds herself in now. We see how she interacts with the Commander (Fred), his wife Serena Joy, the Guardian Nick, the various Marthas, and a few other handmaids. Readers also learn of a Resistance movement, which helps Offred escape after being discovered as a traitor for “revealing state secrets”.

Liked:

  • I didn’t know what to expect from this book, so I was pleasantly surprised by it. I thought it was fantastic for the most part! The idea of a “dystopia” is not new, but the way it was presented in Handmaid’s Tale, with severe oppression of women, was interesting.
  • Offred was a very likable character. I was immediately drawn into her trials and tribulations, even though I had no idea what was really going on at the beginning of the book. Once I got my bearings and learned a bit more about Gilead, handmaids, Marthas, etc. I was hooked.
  • I liked how Atwood sprinkled recognizable remnants of the old United States through the current Gilead culture, and how most of the stuff was either black market or illicit. Scrabble, Playboy bunny costumes, hand lotion, Vogue, Cosmopolitan, reading, Harvard, jobs for women, currency… These details helped make the story even scarier for me.
  • I enjoyed the Moira subplot as well. She was a complex character, and served to show how these types of regimes can grind down even the most rebellious spirits. If Moira couldn’t even stand up to them, how did Offred have a chance? No wonder Offred couldn’t act when the Eyes came to get her.

Disliked:

  • I thoroughly disliked the tacked-on ending, that part about the academic conference on Gilead that takes place 200 years after the events of the novel. I’ve read some analysis of The Handmaid’s Tale, so I understand to a certain extent why Atwood chose to include that section, but I still HATED it. If this book had ended ambiguously with Offred’s fate hanging in the balance, I would have given this work 5 stars. The real ending just deadened the impact, IMO.

Rating:
Overall, I thought The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood was a very good read. Though not full of action, it still manages to grab the reader’s attention right from the start, and the sympathetic protagonist draws readers into her plight, hoping that she will manage to survive somehow. Although the ending wasn’t to my liking, I still give this book 4 stars out of 5.

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