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The Handmaid’s Tale (1986)

by Margaret Atwood

Other authors: See the other authors section.

Series: The Handmaid's Tale (1)

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingMentions
32,66193849 (4.11)2012
This look at the near future presents the story of Offred, a Handmaid in the Republic of Gilead, once the United States, an oppressive world where women are no longer allowed to read and are valued only as long as they are viable for reproduction.
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    Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman (krazy4katz)
    krazy4katz: An upside down recommendation, as this is an "all-women" utopia rather than a dystopia, but a fun read.
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    When She Woke by Hillary Jordan (sparemethecensor)
    sparemethecensor: The Handmaid's Tale is the classic forerunner to dystopic fiction of sexist futures. When She Woke picks up the mantel with a more modern version of a misogynistic theocracy taking over government. Both show terrifying futures for the state of women in society.… (more)
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    Kaelkivial: Both stories of strong women who resist (in one form or another) the system that holds them down. Both books fairly fast paced and gripping; acts of violence and loss scattered throughout.
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(see all 63 recommendations)

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English (898)  Spanish (9)  French (6)  Catalan (5)  Dutch (4)  Finnish (3)  German (3)  Swedish (3)  Norwegian (1)  Italian (1)  Hebrew (1)  All languages (934)
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Absolutely engrossing. Just brilliant. ( )
1 vote misterebby | Jul 5, 2020 |
The Handmaid's Tale follows Offred, a handmaid in the new Republic of Gilead. Offred is part of a class of women called the handmaids and their sole purpose in the society is to conceive and bear children for families who can't conceive.

Offred has flashbacks to the life she once lived before the overthrow of the government and the formation of the Republic of Gilead. She can remember being married to a man named Luke and they were parents of a little girl of their own.

Since the Republic of Gilead viewed all divorces as crimes against God, the marriage was nullified. Luke was most probably murdered in the woods, their daughter was taken to a new family and Offred was made into a handmaid in punishment for her crime. Other alternatives were even more horrifying.

I wish I could have continued the story and was left with so many questions. Whatever you do, don't skip the Historical Note at the end of the book.

This novel seems even more vital in the present day, where women in many parts of the world live similar lives, dictated by biological determinism and misogyny. I found the novel very absorbing and disturbing. I haven't seen the HBO series but I think I will now that I've read the book. ( )
  Olivermagnus | Jul 2, 2020 |

This book. This wonderfully written beautiful and haunting book. I seriously had to go and read another book after I finished this since this book left a distinct chill in me.

Probably because at least in the United States right now, we have our Congress doing it's level best to walk back women's rights to pre-1920s levels right now. I adore Atwood for saying that she doesn't consider The Handmaiden's Tale science fiction, she considers it speculative fiction, i.e. this could happen one day.

A friend said to me jokingly the other day that eventually they are going to say women who are unmarried are not allowed to vote. I don't tend to talk politics in my book reviews, some would probably be surprised that no I am not a Democrat. And heck no to being a Republican (I refuse to be part of a party where the majority of them keep doing everything possible to walk back my rights as a woman) I am actually a Libertarian. So for me I tend to see a lot of gray in political issues. Except for when it comes to a woman's right to make decisions about her own body. That one touches a bad nerve in me.

When I was in high school, my class did not have to read this whole book. We read excerpts and I don't think at the time (I was 16) the implications that something like this could ever come to pass. It was 1996, I pretty much thought, oh science fiction, and went back to reading one of my R. L. Stine Fear Street books. In grad school when I took an Anthropology of Women course (I still have fond memories of this) this was one of the books we could read for extra credit with us discussing it in an oral report. I chose to read The Color Purple instead. Now I wish that I had just read both or maybe all of the books my professor had on her list.

The Handmaid's Tale is a story told from an unnamed female narrator. We know that other people call our narrator Offred (meaning Of and the name of the man that belong to as his handmaiden coming next) who is a woman in her early 30s. Readers find out that Offred had two previous posts (meaning men she was forced to sleep with as a handmaiden) and was not able to conceive. If she doesn't conceive with the Commander (Fred) this time, she will be declared an Unwoman and sent to the Colonies.

Yes that's right, no babies, you are not a woman.

We read about Offred's day, how she goes to the market to buy food with another handmaiden (because the handmaiden's are not to be left alone among themselves) how she goes home and sits, wait, and thinks.

With her waiting we have Offred explaining how things went from a society where she was happy and employed, to one where it seems like overnight things changed and women were no longer recognized as having any agency over themselves at all. The scene were all working women were fired and sent home and Offred feeling angry because she feels adrift with no job or money to call her own touched me a lot. I honestly don't know what I would do if I was told I couldn't work or hold my own money. That me being a woman meant that I had no power or say over what I can do.

Readers come to find out more about the Gilead society and can piece enough together to realize this country is now the former United States.

Women in this society are divided and forced to wear colors showing their status to all that see them. The Handmaiden's wear red, Wives wear blue, Marthas (servants) wear green, Econowives wear striped dresses (wives of poorer men), Daughters (daughters of Commanders and Wives) wear white.

The men in this society are either Commanders, Eyes (secret police), Angels (fighting wars against unknown countries/persons), or Guardians (routine police in Gilead).

This story takes many twists and turns with Offred even acknowledging sometimes the memory she is re-telling is not true, instead she wishes it were true. She does her best to own up to what she conceives is her own failing to be stronger. Heck, if I was Offred I would probably have been curled up into a ball. I usually don't like unreliable narrators while reading a story since it feels like a cheat. However, in this case, you don't have Offred being an unreliable narrator. Instead at times she recounts a memory, or something that she wished had happened.

The writing at times is brutal in certain aspects because you have Offred merely recounting something that sounds like a woman's worst nightmare, but in her eyes, is something that she needs to endure based on the training she received.

My red skirt is hitched up to my waist, though no higher.
Below it the Commander is fucking.
What he is fucking is the lower part of my body.
I do not say making love, because this is not what he's doing.
Copulating too would be inaccurate, because it would imply two people and only one is involved.
Nor does rape cover it: nothing is going on here that I haven't signed up for.

Yeah I am going to disagree with Offred on this one. The entire society of Gilead is one that forced women who are fertile, no matter their sexual preferences, to have sex with men that they did not want. I call that rape. And based on what we learn about how these women are trained to accept their new statues, I would one hundred percent called it coercion as well since the women are threatened that they will be sent to the Colonies or worse if they disobey.

Though I am going over how horrible it is for women in this fictional Gilead, it is just as bad for some of the men. One of the most outrageous things I read was when we have Offred recounting that any man that had a second marriage, that marriage was declared invalid, and his wife and any children taken.

Readers also get to read about men that are hung for being gender traitors (meaning that they prefer men) and doctors are too for either providing contraceptives to women in the past or performing abortions.

The flow of this book was perfect. I was able to finish this in a day. Each chapter flowed perfectly into the next one. Each chapter with it's headings that called out something that was going to be remarked upon was great. The chapters were also very short so you don't feel as if you are actually spending a lot of time reading this story.

The setting of Gilead sounds like hell come to Earth. As I said earlier, due to clues given by Offred, we realize that this new Gilead was the former United States. Though at times some of the slang that people used sounded almost British at times. We do know that Gilead is at war with some person(s) unknown though Offred can't tell what is going on besides Gilead is winning. Though even Offred has doubts about that. My comments that I made were how could something like this happen with no one fighting back. Though I could see how in the events portrayed in the book, how awful it was for those that voiced any disagreements with what was going on in Gilead.

The ending of Offred is left ambiguous though readers are given certain clues where they can decide for themselves what became of her when her tale is over. ( )
  ObsidianBlue | Jul 1, 2020 |
I didn't like this book very much. I understand it's a story told from one perspective, but it lacked, for me, any background information that would make the story more interesting for me. A lot of things are never really explained and that made it difficult to get into the story. And the ending...what kind of ending was that? You abruptly enter a story and then also abruptly leave it. I hate books that are this way, always feels like the writer didn't know where to go with the story, or how to bring it all back together.
I give it 2 stars because some parts were entertaining to read, but it was just mostly blah. I was constantly hoping to get answers, or at least a story that would go somewhere, but nothing. Maybe I'm not smart enough to 'get' this book? ( )
  prettygoodyear | Jun 29, 2020 |
Notes upon re-reading, September 2019:

Last time I read The Handmaid's Tale was 1996. I was in college, working the desk in the basement weight room of the physical fitness building, which offered ample reading time. At the time, the novel reflected the fears driving my feminist fervor. It seemed somewhat extreme as a possible future, but I felt I could trust a member of the previous generation, the Gloria Steinem generation, to know what I should worry about.

This time, I still find the novel extreme but possible, but it seems less scary than it did when I was nineteen. Maybe I have less fear to be reflected (doesn't seem likely; although the tenor of my fear has changed, I feel just as fearful, if not more so). Maybe I've come to realize the fallibility of the generation before me (definitely true). Whatever it is, I just don't see women as the targets we once seemed to be. Women's rights are still the flag in the middle of a tug-o-war rope, women's worth and identity are still based on our bodies, but for me to accept that I, an upper-middle-class woman of European descent, am the primary target for abbreviation of rights would be ignoring large amounts of evidence to the contrary.

Also, I think Atwood's later writing is just better. The Handmaid's Tale feels like a warm-up for her MaddAddam trilogy, and her Tempest retelling (Hag-Seed) left me agog. So, I still appreciate this novel, still respect its cultural significance (and now that I've lived in the Boston area, the setting has more relevance to me), it just doesn't resonate with me in my forties like it did when I was a not-yet-twenty. ( )
  ImperfectCJ | Jun 28, 2020 |
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» Add other authors (46 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Atwood, Margaretprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Balbusso, AnnaIllustratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Balbusso, ElenaIllustratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Boyd, FlorenceCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Danes, ClaireNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
David, JoannaNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Marcellino, FredCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Moss, ElisabethNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Pennati, CamilloTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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And when Rachel saw that she bare Jacob no children, Rachel envied her sister, and said unto Jacob, Give me children, or else I die.

And Jacob’s anger was kindled against Rachel, and he said, Am I in God’s stead, who hath withheld from thee the fruit of the womb?

And she said, Behold my maid Bihah, go in unto her, and she shall bear upon my knees, that I may also have children by her.
                              — Genesis 30:1–3
But as to myself, having been wearied out for many years with offering vain, idle, visionary thoughts, and at length utterly despairing of success, I fortunately fell upon this proposal . . .
                              — Jonathan Swift,
A Modest Proposal
In the desert there is no sign that says, Thou shalt not eat stones.
                              — Sufi proverb
For Mary Webster and Perry Miller
First words
We slept in what had once been the gymnasium.
As all historians know, the past is a great darkness, and filled with echoes. Voices may reach us from it; but what they say to us is imbued with the obscurity of the matrix out of which they come; and, try as we may, we cannot always decipher them precisely in the clearer light of our own day.
Time has not stood still. It has washed over me, washed me away, as if I’m nothing more than a woman of sand, left by a careless child too near the water.
The shell of the egg is smooth but also grained; small pebbles of calcium are defined by the sunlight, like craters on the moon. It’s a barren landscape, yet perfect; it’s the sort of desert the saints went into, so their minds would not be distracted by profusions. I think that this is what God must look like: an egg. The life of the moon may not be on the surface, but inside.
But remember that forgiveness too is a power. To beg for it is a power, and to withhold or bestow it is a power, perhaps the greatest. Maybe none of this is about control ... Maybe it’s about who can do what to whom and be forgiven for it. Never tell me it amounts to the same thing.
There is more than one kind of freedom, said Aunt Lydia, freedom to and freedom from. In the days of anarchy, it was freedom to. Now you are being given freedom from. Don’t underrate it.
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The Reading Guide Edition is the substantial equivalent the main Handmaid's Tale work, with a few additional pages of questions for groups to consider at the back. Please therefore leave these works combined together. Thank you
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Offred is a Handmaid in the Republic of Gilead, serving in the household of the enigmatic Commander and his bitter wife. She may go out once a day to markets whose signs are now pictures because women are not allowed to read. She must pray that the Commander makes her pregnant, for in a time of declining birthrates her value lies in her fertility, and failure means exile to the dangerously polluted Colonies. Offred can remember a time when she lived with her husband and daughter and had a job, before she lost even her own name. Now she navigates the intimate secrets of those who control her every move, risking her life in breaking the rules.
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