The Handmaid’s Tale (1988)

By Margaret Atwood

They also serve who only stand and wait.

1985, USA: a new regime takes over and everything changes, but the change is insidious. Now women can no longer work, own property, or even retain control over their own bodies. Under the new regime women are divided into several…I guess you could call them “ranks”: there are the Wives, the Marthas, the Aunts, and the Handmaids.

How was it is to invent a humanity, for anyone at all. What an available temptation.

The Handmaids are given to families of high rank who don’t have children; their job is to basically get knocked up and have babies for said family. These Handmaids are trained, more like brainwashed, at the Red Center where they’re taught “modesty” and their duties. One Handmaid, Offred, retells her story as a Handmaid, she remembers life before this regime, had a husband, a daughter, friends, and was happy.  She struggles in this new world order and vacillates between her fear and desire to escape and her unconscious assimilation into and acceptance of her new lifestyle.

Atwood published the story in ’88, Hulu made a tv series recently, and I mean you probably know the story and don’t need my summary.

Don’t let them suffer too much. If they have to die, let it be fast. You might even provide a Heaven for them. Hell we can make for ourselves.

Oh. My. Goodness.

Whatever you’re doing right now, put it down and pick up Handmaid’s Tale and read it because it’s so.darn.good.

The plot is terrifying, the word that keeps coming to me is insidious. And what makes it even more terrifying is that it is, in a twisted way, realistic. There are people out there, men right’s activists, people who year for ye good old days, or misogynistic pigs, who would happily instate a Gileadean society, who see women as mere objects, “two legged wombs” to use Atwood’s phrase. It is utterly terrifying.

But who can remember pain, once it’s over? All that remains of it is a shadow, not in the mind even, in the flesh. Out of sight, out of mind.

And speaking of realistic, you could teach a whole class on rhetoric using this novel. It is phenomenal. Atwood’s prose is and the way she has her narrator speak, she presents this radical, disgusting, scary ideas in a way that makes it seem normal, ordinary run-of-the-mill everyday talk. And Offred herself has moments where she realizes how she began, unconsciously, to believe what the Aunts at the Red Center have been trying to indoctrinate her with. I honestly don’t know how to describe it but the way she presents these radical ideas is terrifying because she takes away from you the safety net of “oh we’re different, that can’t happen to us, we’re not monsters” myth; no this was adopted by people that you might know, by normal people, not monsters. It’s just mind blowing and no matter how many times I say it’s amazing and terrifying I can never do it justice, so just read it.

A friend of mine described Atwood’s writing style and said, “smoke comes off the pages.” It’s electric, eloquent, simple yet ornate. Beautiful. She captures human nature and human thought in an extraordinary way, no psychology book or any of those self-help book can capture it in such a way.

The narration had an enchanting nature about it where it’s not the breathless can’t put it down but more the feeling of being in a trace and unable to put it down because it messes with your head a lot and the narrator herself confesses her unreliability as she reflects on the nature of storytelling.

Oh and Atwood makes several references to Milton’s sonnets, as if you need another reason to read it.

As you can probably tell, I fell in love with the novel and it’s definitely one I’d read again and recommend to family and friends, just maybe not my grandma.

Score: 5/5

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