The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

I first read this book probably a decade ago in a Women and Literature class.  I know that we read some great stuff in that class but this was the book that stuck with me.  It was one of those things where even years later I would catch myself thinking about it a couple of times a week.  Then, as the election got closer it started popping up more and more.  I thought about it every day.  I already owned the paperback but I downloaded the audio and then I bought the ebook and I started a reread.

What I find surprising is how much of the book didn’t stick with me.  There were things that I remembered, like the wall, and then there was the whole main plot that I forgot.  I remembered the memories and for got where the story was leading and what exactly happened at the end.  My most vivid memory, playing Scrabble, came later than I expected.  I was surprised by the slow build.

Because that is exactly what Atwood gives us here, a slow build.  By the time I was nearing the end of the book I still had no idea where it was heading but I had this intense feeling of dread every time I picked up the book.  It actually gave me nightmares, an experience I didn’t have last time.  It was, in short, an intense reading.

Atwood shows us a dystopian society where women have been stripped of their rights.  We only know our protagonist by the name that has been given to her, Offred.  She is Fred’s handmaid and is thus “of Fred.”  Her position in society is both honored and looked down on.  As a woman who is of child baring age and who has had a child previously, she is highly valued in a society where birth rates are declining and birth defects are rising.  She is given good food and exercise to keep her healthy and every month takes part in a ritual in which Fred attempts to impregnate her.  In an ultra-Christian society, this is also a reason to look down on Offred.  It is not uncommon for handmaids to commit suicide and they only have so many chances before they are sent to the colonies.

But Offred remembers the time before, because it wasn’t so long ago.  She remembers having a husband, a child, a job, her own place.  She remembers the strong women she was surrounded by and she remembers when things began to change.  Through her memories, we see the changes occurring and just like her we are powerless to stop it.

This is seriously a book that I think everyone should read, man or woman.


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