The Handmaid’s Tale

  • Author: Margaret Atwood
  • Publisher: Penguin Random House Vintage
  • Publishing year: 2016 (original 1986)
  • Number of Pages: 497
  • Cover Illustration: Eoin Ryan
  • ISBN: 978-1784871444

‘A chair, a table, a lamp. Above a relief ornament in the shape of a wreath […] There must have been a chandelier, once. They’ve removed anything you could tie a rope to.’

Offred in The Handmaid’s Tale


This is one of the best books I ever read and one of the worst at the same time! The worst book because of its content: the abuse of women, using them as breeding animals. And those infertile, soiled or not cooperating are sent to ‘The Colonies’, places where they have to clean up radioactive soil, killing them off eventually. Or they are hanged… people with other meanings, thoughts, sexual preferences… they all end up on The Wall…

This is Gilead, a totalitarian patriarchal theocracy in a dystopian world where women have no rights and a minor few use the Bible literally to create a society where Commanders and their spouses rule and where handmaidens are used to conceive (breed!) children… these handmaidens are trained first by Aunts and the household is done by Marthas… so those are the tasks women get in this new world!

Of course there’s resistance and we often here there’s a war going on, somewhere in the background of this story… we never actually get to see any of it so all we know about this war is hearsay.

Telling her story in this book is Offred, formerly known as June. Her new name is to indicate she’s now the possession if Commander Fred (off Fred) and that goes for all the handmaidens’ new names (Offglen, Offwarren…)

Offred is stuck in this life and has no more free will. All she can do is go to the store, always accompanied by another handmaiden, or stay in her room. And once every month there’s The Ritual, where she lies in the lap of Serena Joy (Fred’s wife) while he (ab)uses her in order to get her pregnant.

But Offred is nostalgic for a time before all this and she uses her time alone to think back to a time where she was free, where she was married and lived with her husband and daughter… free! She thinks of her friend Moira often, the one she met again in The Red Centre, where they were trained to be handmaidens by the Aunts (Aunt Lydia, a very pious b*tch that trained both, portrayed splendidly in the tv-series by Ann Dowd)! She thinks of her mother, a free spirit with whom her relationship was… strained.

But most of all her freedom to read the news, to read anything actually. Her freedom to be able to work, to earn money, to do whatever she pleased. The freedom to smoke or have a drink and have sex. Her freedom, that is gone now!

This is one of the most intense books I have ever read in my life. This was written in 1985 and feels unrealistic. What country would ever allow this to happen? But this reality feels closer than ever before. This is not a scenario that’s so unthinkable or unrealistic as we might think… women’s rights have always been subject to discussions, mainly by white straight elite men (those that rule in this novel as well!) and at the moment I can unfortunately refer to the abortion law that’s been retracted in many states of the US in 2022… but apart from that there’s the entire #MeToo movement that came to be a few years ago! I’m glad to see women fight back but wouldn’t it be better they wouldn’t have to fight at all? (The same goes for Black Lives Matter, for lgbtqia+ rights…)

Nolite te bastardes carborundorum – a Handmaid’s defiance!

Back to this novel:

Offred is very nostalgic and has somehow accepted her role in this new society. She doesn’t have much choice since it’s either play her part or end up in The Colonies or on The Wall!

But there’s defiance within… there’s a battle surging to rise to the surface. Will her fight come to ground or will it be slain even before it started?

This is one of the best books I have ever read and I don’t like it because I hate its theme! There’s a sort of powerlessness to the story… you can only watch and bear witness to what’s happening. Men are assholes (and this comes from a man!)

And the worst part of it all… in her memories before she is taken and brought to The Red Centre, while the society is collapsing piece by piece, her own husband unwillingly (or unconsciously) plays a part in the new society by allowing her rights be taken away one by one… (at a certain point she’s fired from her job and loses all her accounts and money and it’s only men that can have money, he allows this to happen and even takes her money) and this is something that could and would happen in real life as well, I’m sure! People stand by and just stare at what’s happening all around them, not acting or trying at least to stop it…

I strongly believe this could happen to us… and that’s why this book installs a certain fear in me…

As you may all know, this book has been adapted in a movie and more recently in a tv-show that spans six seasons (the sixth season is yet to be released and will be its final season) and a few years ago a sequel was written by Margaret Atwood, The Testaments.

As for the tv-show, with the amazing Elisabeth Moss: that show is wonderful and oozes the same kind of powerlessness that the book has but there’s more of Offred’s defiance and of course the first season follows this book very well but what comes after from season 2 is completely new and fabricated by the makers of the show (I sure hope Atwood had her say as well!) – there are some ‘historical notes’ at the back of this book that explains some of the following season’s inspiration though. Although I might have preferred the ambiguity of the ending, not knowing what happened to Offred, whether she was saved or sent off to a certain death or the colonies…

If you haven’t seen it yet: check it out! It’s a great show!

One more thing that is very remarkable in this story is the use of color… the clothes for women all have some kind of meaning (especially the Wives and the Handmaidens) – the Wives all wear a blue dress (referring to the Virgin Mary) and the Handmaidens all wear a red dress, with huge white ‘wings’ to block their view (handmaidens are not allowed to look around!) The red symbolises the menstrual blood, as they are the only ones still capable of bearing children! The way Marthas, Econowives (women who are married to lower classed men) and Aunts are dressed is visible in the tv-series and only mentioned briefly in the novel.

Let me end this review by saying I sure hope this remains fiction (I know, in some parts of the world there’s some reality to it) and the countries that are unfriendly to women I sure hope they will soon realise they are wrong! Very much so! I get a sad and frightening feeling when reading this novel… but I hope there’s hope… for Offred and the other handmaidens… there’s hope for a better world… for everyone! (Or am I being naïve?)

Little addition I was thinking about afterwards: who is Offred talking to in this book? Luke, her husband whom she expects to be dead? Or her daughter whom she hopes will be freed of this insane society? or maybe Nick, whom she went to in the night… no, not Nick, I’m sure…

Another afterthought: There’s such a distorted kind of justice in the Gileadean society, it makes me wonder how far people are willing to go…

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