The Handmaid’s Tale. A Feminine Dystopia.

dystopia: n. an imagined place or state in which everything is unpleasant or bad

There are books that wrestle with your insides. They twist upon themselves, cramping, writhing, peristalsing until a  peculiar taste rises into your mouth. It surprises you with its bitter, jagged notes…this doesn’t do it justice.  The taste defies description. It is distinct, like a memory, uniquely poised to pounce on you in an unguarded moment. The years pass. The details fade. But the taste of the story you can always recall, recommending it with a shudder, discussing it with other readers in knowing, reverent  susurrations. The adjectives communicating little. The tone, volumes. ‘Good’ takes on a different meaning. ‘Well-written’ means you cannot forget: Branded, as you have been, by a master misanthrope.

From my past, Animal Farm, is one such book. 1984 and Brave New World stir similarly. Seven Types of Ambiguity and  Rohypnol also rankle. Perhaps you know others? We have seen a vision of humanity that cannot be unread. History lives to warn and life, when it echoes literature, is a little less surprising. We have been educated.

In The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood imagines the Republic of Gilead in which the social order as we know it has been subjugated to an unknown fundamentalist regime in a forseeable future. The details are fragmented and the chronology is vague but in this time, conception and childbirth have been impaired by radiation exposure and nuclear fallout. Artificial reproduction has been outlawed. Surrogacy, given its biblical history, is sanctioned.

Overnight, women are shut out of their bank accounts and stripped of their rights to independence, employment or office. Women considered to be socially inappropriate – single, divorced, in second marriages, non-matrimonial relationships or homosexual are taken from their homes. Their children are redistributed among the childless couples in the upper eschelons. The women of child-bearing age with demonstrated reproductive success are taken into the Rachel and Leah Re-Education Centre where a group of saddistic “Aunts” in hassocks teach them the ways and means of their new role. As Handmaids, their old identity ceases to exist and their new purpose is to bear children to the Commanders with infertile wives.

Handmaids are allocated to households based on seniority and named according to the Commander who owns them. Our narrator, for instance, is Offred. Their activity, diet and living conditions are dictated by the Centre with a view to optimising fertility. They wear red habits – identifying their position and distinguishing them from other female roles. Intercourse with the Commander is a monthly ceremony, performed according to prescribed standards under household observation and is followed up with rigid medical scrutiny.

The whole household: Commander, Wife, Handmaid and Marthas (cooks and housekeepers, women of even lower status) depend on the conception and birth of a normal child (not an Unbaby) for survival and will covertly break rules to achieve it. And though the life of the Handmaid is preferable to that of a Martha, an Econowife or an Unwoman, shipped to the colonies, it is degrading, demeaning and depressing. Suicide and reproductive failure (a deportable offence) are the two greatest risks. Those who break the rules are “salvaged” by means of ceremonial ‘particicution’ and their bodies are publicly displayed as a warning.

Order is maintained by an omniscient government, known as “The Eye”.

As for every other failed ideology or indoctrination, human nature pervades and therein lies the story. If you or I woke up one day in this reality, would we be Offred? Outwardly accepting our fate while inwardly questioning it? Would we be her best friend Moira, a lesbian who absconds from the Centre and goes underground, holding her own kind of power as a prostitute in a black-market speakeasy. Would we be her mother?  A lifelong lobbyist, shipped off to the colonies. Or would we be Ofwarren? Accepting new rules with naive, misguided zeal, desperate to please.

Men are not without their difficulties or nostalgic tendencies. Some miss the chase. Some miss eroticism – intercourse is strictly transactional and perfunctory. Some think fondly about the era in which they could be chivalrous. No-one moreso than Offred’s Commander. And yet, Offred remembers them vigorously burning lingerie, books and women’s magazines from the ‘time before’ with righteous,ecstatic looks upon their faces.

Everybody misses passion. And intimacy. Cracks become apparent in their pristine, practised enamel. Offred suspects these may be exploitable but she too has weaknesses that can be manipulated – a missing husband, daughter and friend and a critical mind that, though under-stimulated, could not be completely ‘re-educated’.

“He even has novels…On these occasions I read quickly,
 almost skimming,trying to get as much into my
head as possible before the
next long starvation. If it
were eating it would be the gluttony of the famished,

if it were sex it would be a swift furtive stand-up
in an alley somewhere.”

The writing in structure, language and phrasing is of course elegant. I would expect no less from this author. Those with a penchant for allegory and satire will not be disappointed. The dystopia is frightening and beautifully contrasted with Offred’s recollection and imagination of a better time. I would have liked a better idea of the proposed Utopia – was it a reaction to circumstance? or was there a ‘desirable’ vision somewhere in the propaganda. If I am to credit the human race with an about-face on feminism and free love, I really need to know how it was sold to them. In this respect, I felt the story was lacking in both Snowball and Napoleon. But then again, what story isn’t improved by a talking pig?

  • Friends, readers, tell me of your favourite dystopian fiction!
  • If you’ve read The Handmaid’s Tale, how do you think this new social order came about?
  • Have you had a feminist rant lately that you would like to share with the class?

222 responses to “The Handmaid’s Tale. A Feminine Dystopia.

  1. I always pictured an end of the world scenario, where desperate, terrified people would do anything to try to create a new world order. It has always reminded me of The Holocsust — completely unthinkable and yet absolutely possible.

    Great post!

    • It certainly does have that element of possibility to it. But I also think the reality of the holocaust and other similarly horrific moments in history are what makes these kinds of stories so foreboding – it’s almost impossible to dismiss them as fiction.

      Glad you like it!!

  2. I’ve read most of Margaret Atwood’s fiction (and some of her poetry and essays)— she’s amazingly versatile as a writer.

    Here’s what I remember about reading “The Handmaid’s Tale”— I was in college, and it was the mid-to-late ’90s. Right after I finished reading this book, I was driving down the street and saw an advertisement for ATM/credit cards, which were new at the time, on a bus bench. The advertisement, geared toward women, featured a disembodied manicured hand holding an ATM-backed credit card.

    Kate, on seeing that, I totally got a case of the shivers. In fact, it still kinda creeps me out.

    • That would definitely creep me out! I’m surprised you didn’t run around campus telling everyone the sky was falling in manner of henny penny.
      I have a copy of The Penelopiad waiting on the shelf and I know I have the Blind Assassin (unread) somewhere in storage…which one should I do next?

      You are amazingly versatile as a writer, was she an inspiration to you?

      • I nearly did go running in circles like Henny Penny! That ad gave me the creepy-crawlies!

        Okay, my two Atwood fave novels are: “Cat’s Eye” and “The Robber Bride.”

        Short fiction: “Wilderness Tips.”

        Essays: “Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing.”

        And finally, poetry: “Morning in the Burned House.”

        I haven’t read everything-everything that she’s written, esp. her essay collections and her poetry, but I am getting there.

        Thank you for the compliment about versatility (which is a big, honking deal to me!) And yes, yes she was. I wanted to be a functional, working writer— not necessarily a specialist. Contemporary writers like Atwood showed me how to do it. I am v. grateful for that, you know?

      • The Blind Assassin is fantastic! I also rather liked Alias Grace.
        I found the Handmaid’s Tale is the sort of story you wish you’d be able to forget, but it’s unforgettable.

  3. I’m almost ashamed to admit that I haven’t read a lot of dystopian fiction, apart from Animal Farm. Currently reading The Road for a Literature class though, and my favourite dystopian story would probably be The Matrix. I would find it absolutely terrifying to have such little control over my mind and world.

    The Handsmaid’s Tale sounds fantastic, and it has actually been recommended to me. I’ll definitely have to add it to the list of books I need to read over Christmas/Summer (oh, why did I not use my time wisely before school started again?).

    • I always find the holidays are the hardest time to decide on just one book to focus on. I can definitely relate to that feeling of having wasted time.

      And don’t be ashamed, it’s much better reading these books one at a time with years in between. Reading them in close succession can be a little too much of a good thing 😉

      I haven’t read The Road how are you liking it so far?

  4. We read this book in one of my lit classes last year. As to how it came about, I remember talking about fundamentalist countries in the Middle East that might have been Atwood’s inspiration. Also, we theorized that the book takes place in a former college town (I think it was near Harvard) in Massachusetts, which you can tell from some of the details of the setting. Given that, the area has old ties to Puritan influence.

    On another note, I don’t think I would say that the life of a Handmaid is preferable to that of a Martha. Sure, the Marthas have to work, but at least they have some measure of control over their own bodies and aren’t under threat of death if they fail at something they can’t control (as the Handmaids are expected to give birth to healthy children from Commanders who are often sterile).

    • I’m from Australia, so it’s a little more difficult to locate – but when you say Puritan, I think The Crucible which is really very apt indeed. As for Marthas, well I felt their bodies were probably plundered by men of lower ranks. I can’t imagine they would be well protected…but you are right, they do seem to have more appealing chores in the story.

      • I see. I got the impression that all women were well protected in Gileadean society from some of the passages about how desperate the lower ranked men seemed (like the guards when Offred taunts them), but I suppose I could be wrong.

        I haven’t read The Crucible, but I know it’s about McCarthyism through the lens of the Salem Witch Trials, so it’s probably a good example. If you’ve read The Scarlet Letter (or know what it’s about), that’s also a great example of Puritanism.

  5. Yes, I’m right there with Peter Galen Massey. Very good introduction to a novel that many of us have read. I’m glad you brought it back to life with your review. What a great introduction and analysis. Congratulations.

  6. Your post has good timing! I just read The Handmaid’s Tale last week.
    Margaret Atwood seems to skip over a lot of the details behind how the new social order came about. She vaguely mentions that there were protests after women’s rights were stripped away, but not much else. That’s probably because such an extreme change couldn’t take place in such a rapid manner as it did in THT… Could something like taking away half the population’s rights to their bank accounts happen so swiftly? I think not.

    • As someone who hopes to be a published writer, I find that the hardest part of dystopian literature is the progression from the society one lives in to the society that they wish to explore. In many cases, leaving that up to the reader can serve to better the story. This is because the reader will always fill in the blanks with details that are most disturbing to them.

      But you bring up a good point. A world where half the population loses their rights should give the reader something to make that shift plausible. I always saw the events being similar to the events that allowed the nazi party to rise to power so quickly. There was a frightening situation that threatened the populace, which was won over by a charismatic person, or group who made subtle changes to the political system. These subtle changes then allowed them to rapidly, and legally strip women of their rights before anyone could tell what happened. (can you tell what I fear happening to the world I live in?)

      • I really like your theory about leaving the details to the reader on this. It’s absolutely true that stories are more chilling when we are left to insert our own demons into the narrative.

        It’s a bit unfortunate how effective (and diabolical) charisma can be in times of crisis. I completely share your fear.

    • Apparently it’s the cool thing to do this week 🙂 My friends set it for their bookclub.
      You know, I agree with you it’s very easy to be skeptical on that score. But then there are moments in history like the hyperinflation of the german reichmark that make me think one way or another, anything is possible.

  7. Also read Ninteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell.

    Saw that someone mentioned The Road here. I saw the movie which was so chilling, but great. A film that I would say is in my top 10 of all time, yet one which I don’t think I have the heart to ever watch again.

    • Oh I’ve been working up the courage to watch The Road for quite some time. It seems like the kind of thing that will send me on a movie tangent – like when I watch Schindler’s List and have to go on a history rampage. I can see why you think of it in a top 10 but treat with caution kind of way 🙂

    • My husband read and then watched The Road. I’m tramatized by proxy.

      I will say that there is no equal to Orwell. He’s just the pinacle of great writing. Animal Farm is an interesting look at the past, 1984 a peek at the dark future, but Keep the Aspadistra Flying and even Down and Out in Paris and London are enriching insights into our own world. Orwell is my hero.

  8. Atwood’s is my favorite. The seeds of what happened in Gilead are all here today, but not merely in a simple way. They are in the tug-of-war that we see in politics today. Not one side or the other, but the fight between the two. In this type of environment, people become rigid and righteous.
    Congrats on the Freshly Pressed!

  9. I have’nt read this book but for me Orwell is the master of the dystopian novels.What he wrote more than half a century (Animal Farm, 1984) ago are very relevant even today. Relevance is the key word and I suppose that is what makes a book a masterpiece, a classic .Great post.I am keen to read Atwood’s book….

    • Orwell will probably always be my favourite, I learnt so much about literature from reading and analysing his books in school. I should really go back and read Animal Farm. Thanks for visiting 🙂 Will stop by your blog soon.

  10. I have always wanted to read that book, but have never gotten around to it. But where on earth did you get that definition of dystopia from? It’s terribly inaccurate and incomplete. Oh, I see, it was the first thing to come up on Google. <—- check this page out. It has a way more comprehensive definition that would probably lend itself better to your article as well.
    Dystopia usually involves one class of people being very oppressed by another class.

    • The definition does seem lacking doesn’t it? I thought so too. But it came from the oxford dictionary online (of all places!). I looked around for a few others but in the end went back to that one, as imagination plays such a huge part in the novel and for the following: We could argue this point for quite a long time, certainly in many pieces of literature dystopia is as you describe. But linguistically, it’s just the opposite of the Utopia however that might be envisaged. We seem to have applied all the other connotations by convention. Funny how literature can do that to us huh?

      • Well, if that’s the one you chose, you must have felt it was the best fit for your article. Maybe, like you said, we kind of see other connotations in the concept now. In the meantime, I have to get my hands on this book! 😉 Congrats on being Pressed!~

  11. This book scared the bejeezus out of me when I read it in college. I haven’t read too much dytopian fiction, either, apart from 1984, Fahrenheit 451, Brave New World, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, The Stand, and Lord of the Flies…perhaps I’ve read a few more than I thought.

    • Hahaha! “scared the bejeezus” is exactly how I would describe it (except that I was apparently feeling more long-winded when I wrote this… I really need to read Lord of the Flies, but just the idea of it has me trembling in my boots and always has had. Sounds like you are down with the good books, I rate that. Thanks for commenting here. Will stop by your blog soon!

  12. My whole blog is quickly becoming one big feminist rant. This book is my “favorite” dystopian book mostly because it scares the crap out of me. As for how Gilead came about, turn on Fox News.

  13. I love reading dystopian fiction, but I can’t stand the uncomfortable feeling that spreads down my spine to my toes from reading it. Handmaid’s Tale was the first dystopian work I read at about 16 years old, and I still feel uncomfortable thinking about it. What choices would I make were I in the situations the characters are placed in? I’m still not sure, twenty years later.

    • I don’t know if I would have kept reading after the ceremony when I was 16…I’m not at all surprised that it still makes you feel uncomfortable. I don’t know what I’d do either. I like to think I’m a fighter, but I am no good at breaking rules :s

      • I was recently at a conference, and we were reminded that activism should feel uncomfortable. I agree to a point, but there are actions that could be taken in this world today that would push me far beyond the point of discomfort. So what would I ultimately do?

      • It is far too hard to pick just one novel to be your favorite (at least for me). I generally break them into genres or regions. I did my senior thesis on HT and Surfacing – how language is rebuilt. I enjoy HT, but I think Surfacing has a lot more to offer about the individual. It’s hard to find, but Atwood also did a piece “susanne moody” it has illustrations – very intersting.

  14. Great book, but Atwood misses out on a great opportunity. If she wanted realism, she should have made the worst offenders bankers. Write in the Rockefellers and Rothschilds. Now there’s a spooky story. I’m a guy, and ANY form of dictatorship scares me, regardless of who it appears to oppress. If you don’t stand up for the little guy, you’re next.

    • I would like to read that novel – bankers achieving world domination through nefarious means… Standing up for the little guy is a great ethos to have. Will protect you from so many evils I think. Thanks for visiting!

  15. Great commentary on this book….it is making me consider it for my “good” Book Club (one is much better than the other). We have 13 people, & each person only gets to pick a title every 13 months. …so I choose carefully! I love the custodian genre, but typically don’t actually like the individual titles! I’m not sure if I “liked” this book!

    • I was talking about it with one of my great friends from the bookshop and the first words out of her mouth were “Oh that’s a great book! I don’t like that story.” Pretty great achievement for a writer right?
      I think it will be a hit with the “good” book club but I too would balk at the idea of having to select just one book for 13 months… what if I’m voted off the island?

  16. I have always loved Handmaid’s Tale due to the thread of hope that she weaves into the story. The one dystopian story, sort of, that really sticks with me is Lord of the Flies. I’ll not sure if everyone would consider it dystopian, but It give me the same sort of feel that you talk about.

    • Lord of the Flies gives me that feeling without having even read it (though I still intend to). I might have to hide the book in the freezer every so often just to get through it though…
      It is hopeful isn’t it? How does she do that?

  17. I read this in highschool and it was one of the first prescribed novels i actually likjed. Nay, loved! It was great to write essays about because it provoked such strong feelings! I have since read a couple of Atwood’s books and enjoyed them all – particularly Oryx and Crake, another with a dystopia setting.
    Congrats on fresh pressed 🙂

    • Thanks! The provoking books were always my favourites in highschool or the ones that were meaty to deconstruct. I wish we’d been set the Handmaid’s Tale but I am, to this day, grateful for the months we spent working on Animal Farm…
      I feel that by the end of this week I’m going to need to read all the Atwood novels in quick succession. Have always been curious about Oryx and Crake – it’s such a cool title.

  18. I read The Handmaid’s Tale a few years ago and yes, it is up there with 1984 for the shiver-factor. What I remember best is the sunny atmosphere of the book, while still being chilling, as opposed to the bleak dark dreariness of 1984. It is a masterful piece of writing.
    You might like “Consider her ways” by John Wyndham and “I am Legend” by Richard Matheson, for your next Dystopian read.
    Congratulations on being freshly pressed.
    (and by the way, a hassock is something you kneel on in church. I think you mean a cassock.)
    Thanks for your interesting review 🙂


    • Thank you for the recommendations, compliments and correction! I will go fix it now, you are right. I was a little more blase about mistakes on my blog until about 12 hours ago…I wonder how long I’ve been carrying that misconception around for. Have knelt on those things many a time and sure we called them something else (uncomfortable, perhaps, I was very young…).
      Hope to see more of you around here, particularly if you are so keen to hand out good recommendations!

      • I am following… so I am sure you will see me from time to time. Thanks for taking my correction as it was meant… gently. 🙂 I remember a conversation I had with my mother, at
        end of which we were both in tears of laughter.. to do with the confusion of cassock with hassock, hassock with tussock, tussock with cossack, and finally cossack with samovar… ending with something about a tea-urn.. I should blog about it perhaps…

        the end of which

        • No problem – even writing stuff to publish here is accepting that I may mistakes 🙂 every so often I have to check that a word I use frequently does actually make sense in the context which I intend to use it when writing.
          I would like to hear the story of the conversation ending in a tea-urn. Sounds like something my mother and I would get confused about.

  19. “But then, what story isn’t improved by a talking pig?”
    Well, quite! ‘Charlotte’s Web’ without Wilbur? ‘The Sheep-Pig’ without Babe? Unthinkable.
    Thanks for the review/thoughts on THT. I’d avoided it before, after someone described it to me, rather dispiritingly, as ‘novel-length social allegory’. Well, I mean… doesn’t exactly make it sound alluring, does it? My favourite dystopian visions – ‘Fahrenheit 451’, ‘The Matrix’, ‘Blade Runner’ (based on the truly depressing ‘Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?’ by Philip K Dick)… and ‘Animal Farm’ too, of course. See the comment re talking pigs above.

    • Talking pigs do have such a special quality don’t they?
      Thanks for visiting, commenting and following! Hope I can live up to expectations. I too was given a completely misleading synopsis of the Handmaid’s Tale and put off reading it for years. Based on what you’ve said here, I think you’ll like it. I will see your read of THT with finally reading Fahrenheit 451 myself and we can go from there…what do you think?

  20. I think this book is in my Kindle. Now I’ll have to “dust it off” and attempt to read. I agree with Brave New World and 1984.

  21. I have read this book twice, once in high school and once some time after. However, I don’t think I was mature enough either time to grasp the true meaning of the literature, and think it may be time for a re-read! 🙂

    • I am always in full support of a re-read! Hope it doesn’t terrify the bejeezus out of the adult you though. Thanks for visiting and commenting 🙂

  22. Animal Farm continues to make me shiver; Lord of the Flies was the cause of numerous nightmares and 1984 made me think twice about politics in general… dystopian visions have made me apprehensive, paranoid and intolerant but are by far produce the most vivid and engaging pictures of all literature.

    • Vivid is a great way to describe it! I’m sure that’s where all the related nightmares spring from.
      Did you ever see Brazil? It is the only exception to my dystopia knee-jerk response but that’s because I fell in love watching it. I guess everything has the potential for the beginning of something exciting. I hope the nightmares have not put you off the genre for good – I’d hate you to miss out on the upsides.

      • I still love everything dystopian, but should definitely lower it down a notch. I’m glad I experienced those nightmares, it seems that the greatest way to consider something in your mind is to do it in fear and I definitely have those thoughts at bay. I still get by far the most thought-provoking reads from the genre, usually not while reading but in retrospect (As soon as I finished Lord of the Flies all my fear left, however I was thinking of it afterwards for years), and I will continue to enjoy the genre and spread the enjoyment around. Brazil is now on my Movies To See list; thank you for recommending it.

  23. I utterly loved The Handmaid’s Tale and wholeheartedly believed it was a possibility in this world when I read it some 20 years ago. The other book (or more famous movie) that comes to mind is by one of my favourite authors, PD James – Children of Men may seem a more plausible possibility

    • Children of Men was terrifying wasn’t it? I still don’t know why Julianne Moore was in it. But I remember coming out of the cinema feeling exhausted.

  24. As soon as I saw this post I wondered if you were inspired to read this book at this time because of the controversy going on in the US and Canada (possibly elsewhere) about women’s rights pertaining to birth control. Have you heard of the protest by the radical handmaids in Ottawa?
    It’s pretty clear to me where they found their inspiration.

  25. Reblogged this on deadlyeverafter and commented:
    No matter what genre you typically read, The Handmaid’s Tale drags you in and holds you. It forged a path for dystopian literature since, I believe, and I am certain that The Hunger Games would never have existed without it. Now I am amped to read it again!

    • I was thinking about the Hunger Games too. Thank goodness there are no children snapping other children’s necks in THT – that was a bridge too far for me.

  26. I love 1984 – it’s my favorite dystopian novel.
    I also loved The Handmaid’s Tale & Brave New World – actually, most authentic dystopia is always enjoyable to read.

    With dystopia- I often read it and accept it at face value – For all these states of eventual dystopia, it is arrived at first slowly…little by little things subtly change and we don’t see it; then something huge occurs to upset the balence of everyday life and as we struggle to find order again the powers that have been planning for a new society put things in place able to make these huge changes becase society is at its most vulnerable and wants to believe that someone is going to take care of their problems and horrors. Then you wake up and realize you’ve been subjucated and have lost control over your life. You’re in total mental shock that you just go along like sheep until the cracks begin to surface.

  27. Great review Kate! Some years ago there was an uproar over this novel by the incoming freshman’s parents at the private, Liberal, Catholic U I attended for my MA. The English Dept. eliminated the concept of a central text for all freshman based solely on the controversy surrounding this novel. I’ve always wanted to read it, and your review (again!) just conforms that I should read it! Thanks Kate!

  28. Thoughtful review of a novel that I loved, despite finding it terribly depressing. Maybe it was the fascination of contemplating the nightmarish, the horrific, or the masochistically uncomfortable pleasure of examining my own life and society through the lens of the story. (I do think you’re right about the talking pig, though.)

    • Thank you! I think you’re right about both the fascination of contemplating and the masochistically uncomfortable pleasure of using the lens. I have thanked my lucky stars I am a woman of the current generation so many times in the last few weeks and have been vowing (moreso than usual) to keep working on taking steps forward for the benefit of the next one.

  29. Reblogged this on The Spellcraft Column and commented:
    Funnily enough I actually have to read this for my Science Fiction class. Dystopian novels or stories are my favorites regarding Science Fiction. I have noticed that the title is inspired by The Canterbury Tales as well and the image on the cover of my copy actually reminds me of my interpretation of the Wife of Bath. Even though I am a fantasy-orientated writer, its’ very premise is inspiring to me as it comes off as a fantasy as well regarding the way women are treated. Dystopias can either be worlds where only the strongest survive or a new order is created that is extremely repressive. Personally, I would like to a dystopia where the world reverts to the Dark Ages essentially, combining both genres in essence. Perhaps I shall be the one to write this tale…

  30. Pingback: The Handmaid’s Tale. A Feminine Dystopia. | Lusty not Musty·

  31. I think the best example of a sort of flip side to the Handmaid’s Tale is a short story by Kit Reed called “Songs of War.” Not a pleasant story, and not the “flip side” you might expect. Sort of why even the flimsiest attempts by women to assemble and fight back are doomed to failure.

  32. This is a great review! I read The Handmaid’s Tale when my sister had to read it for her English class (in Germany) and I thought it was amazing, though disturbing. I tried to read it again a few years ago but was dreading what was coming next so much that I only gor halfway through. One of my favourite dystopian novels is a book called Z for Zachariah. I read it in English class, too and it was terrible! The title is derived from a children’s book where A is for Adam and the protagonist thinks that since Adam was the first man, Zachariah must be the last one. When a nuclear war breaks out and she is left all by herself this takes on a sinister new meaning. Eventually someone finds their way to her but that is not necessarily a good thing.

      • Nice post Kate! I’m looking forward to reading ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’. And Lemoed, I would agree that Z for Zachariah is a good dystopian novel. I read it as a teenager, and my thoughts still sometimes come back to it even though it’s been years.

  33. This is a great review! I tend to like dystopian novels, even though they give me the chills. I’ve read and liked “The Hunger Games”, “Animal Farm” (of course), “1984”, “Soylent Green”, and I’m currently listening to a radio version of “Brave New World”. My husband and I still like to quote that “some people are more equal than others” or will point out “a pig walking on two legs” whenever we see it. There was another movie I saw with Clive Owens that I liked. I think it was “Children of Men”. I will definitely check out “the Handmaid’s Tale” as I cringe in horror 🙂 In light of the way some people in the US wish women to be treated in 2012, it sounds like a good read.

    • I hope you like it. I too am often forced to acknowledge that “some people are more equal than others”. Or “four legs good, two legs bad.” It was Children of Men, I was thinking about that movie while writing this post but thought if I started writing about film the post would get very out of hand.

  34. Great post! I really enjoyed your thoughtful review. I thought about your question of how the these people were sold an about-face on feminism and free love. Perhaps it was not sold on them, but forced?

    I think we sometime forget that in many countries free love, feminism, or basic human rights are not an option. And If you think about times in our history where civil war has stripped people of these rights, the books scenario can seem plausible as a post war reality.

    It is a thought provoking question…

    • Thank you! I imagined it as a post-war phenomenon as well. Which is ironic really, because the last two world wars were quite integral to the achievements in earlier waves of feminism.

      • You are right. That is very ironic. I hadn’t thought about that. Thanks for bringing that up! I am actually working on a short film that deals with some of these elements/issues. It’s always a good idea to consider all perspectives.

  35. Read that book too many years ago to count (meaning, I have no idea when I read it!) But it’s one that has stayed with me. What I remember most is the way she recounts how it all happened–and how easy it was to imagine each step happening…

  36. I read the book quite a while ago. I remember thinking that the plot was good, but I really wished someone else, maybe a fantasy writer, had written the story. I find that I don’t particularly like her style. I prefer novels that paint a scene with fine strokes and Atwood is more like a Pollock painting. I read Ornyx and Crake, which I liked better. My favorite dystopian novel would have to be Strange Deliverance by Mary Brown.

      • I think if it was done right it would be. I enjoyed Children of Men which is in a more traditional format. I just didn’t enjoy her particular style of writing for that novel. I like being able to paint a picture in my mind of the surroundings and people and I find that she doesn’t give me enough details to be able to do that. Funnily enough, I enjoyed her novel Alias Grace. Probably because it was set in the past, and I could fill in enough of the blanks myself from other novels based in the time period.

  37. I absolutely love Margaret Atwood, she is one of if not my favourite author. I read this 8 or so years ago for the first time in uni. I recently picked it up again but have yet to complete it. Have you seen the film?It was ok.

    I really liked 1984, The Road, Oryk and Crake and The Year of the Flood. My friend lives around the corner from Atwood, and when I was home last a few weeks ago I was going to try to ‘spot’ her in Toronto but alas I forgot. Next time!

    • I haven’t seen the movie – right now the pictures in my head are too defined, someone else’s interpretation might ruin it. But when I have the opportunity to watch it, I will!

  38. Great review! I read this book (and orwell’s 1984 and Huxley’s Brave New World) when in highschool and boy, did all these books terrify me! Even at that age I could see that these stories were very much probable (well not so much Brave New World as the science is so inaccurate, but I got the gist of Huxley’s warning) However, these books were all written as a warning for perpetuating social inequalities. I recently had the misfortune of reading some of John Norman’s Gorean sci-fi novels. Norman’s Gorean philosophy is that men are naturally dominant and woman are naturally submissive. His books are riddled with women being slaves to men and the doublethink that “Freedom is slavery.” I think that this series was more terrifying than the aforementioned books as women as servants to men is presented as a philosophy and a way of life to actually live by and strive for. These books seemed to me the very oppressive ideas that Atwood, Orwell and Huxley warns against.

    I’ve been having quite a few feminist rants as of late. Just had a rant on women and servitude on a my blog a couple days ago. I feel another one coming…

    Congrats of freshly pressed!

    • Wow those Gorean novels do sound unfortunate. I think I would have thrown them down in disgust and gone stomping around the house!

      Will have to stop by your blog and have a look at your rant. I do love a fine one!

  39. LOVE this! I’ve heard of it,now I must read it! My go to dystopian novel is 1984- it started my obsession! My most recent favorite dystopian read is actually a YAL book, though, called Divergent. It’s worth a look. Not the most eloquent of writing but fantastic characters and story development!

  40. Had completely forgot about this book, good one…
    I recently read “The Knife of Never Letting Go”, which is as dystopian and hopeless as many others, but with a little interesting twist…a good read by itself and also part of a trilogy, if you want to know where it ends

  41. I love how dystopian fiction takes an aspect of our human spirit and represses it through some sort of moral or governmental means. Our humanity cannot be repressed and the fun is in seeing how the strength of our internal needs overcome external controls. I haven’t had the pleasure of reading Margaret Atwood’s work. After your review, I’ve added The Handmaid’s Tale to my must read list.

    strength of our needs

  42. I remember this story vividly even though I read it many, many years ago. It creeped me out then and I was pretty young and naive.
    Now a HS teacher, I expose my students to a few gems in my film class – Fahrenheit 451 and Soylent Green come to mind.
    It is pretty scarey how easilly our freedoms can be taken away from us, in that gradual, shifty manner.
    Congrats on being FPd. Enjoy the ride!

  43. A Handmaid’s Tale introduced me to Atwood back in the mid-1980’s. It’s a story that unfortunately seems to gain a little more truth with each passing year! I’ve been a Margaret Atwood fan ever since this book. Thanks for the post and for a reminder–I may have to dig out my old copy and re-read.


    • Oh I hope you enjoy the re-read. But I also help it hasn’t gained any more truth since the last one…that is not a good road for us to be heading down at all!

  44. I saw the film in jr high and read the book in high school. It, as you put, left a taste in my mouth, the imagery, obscene ideaology remains since I first was exposed to it at age 12. Perhaps it is because I was becoming a women, going through peuberty at the time that it touched me so deeply but it remains one of my favorite books of all time

  45. I am a fan of dystopian fiction, and “The Handmaid’s Tale” is one of the best. I’m also drawn to “1984,” which I reread every few years. I would also have to include “Anthem” by Ayn Rand. I think what most fascinates me about dystopian fiction is its ability to linger long after I have finished the last page. Excellent post.

  46. I’m so glad I happened upon this post. Atwood is by far my favorite author and it was so fun to read your post on the very first book I read of hers. The dystopia was so eerie and curious; I too wanted to know more of the background on the fall of society in the book; nonetheless, Offreds perspective is so collected and intricate…I don’t think I’d change a thing. It is altogether perfect. You describe it well – the words were so well written that the feeling, the taste in our mouths from that book are unforgettable. It is why I have read all her others. She is an incredible writer.

    • I am enormously flattered that you like my review when you have had so much experience with her writing. Which is your favourite of her works?

      • definetly Lady Oracle although Alias Grace is close behind. But Lady Oracle made me laugh. thanks for writing the review – I have never been able to write one. And it was such a perfect description

  47. The Handmaids Tale is one of my favourite books, just like Animal Farm, it touched something deep inside me, something that made me insides twist but ultimately left me a better person. As for other great dystopias, Wool by Hugh Howey is an excelelnt one. Great blog!

    • Thanks! Nice to have you here. I hope you stick around. I love that stories have the ability to make us better people. Will have to check out Wool!

    • The second Ayn Rand recommendation in the comment thread! It appears he is an author I can no longer procrastinate over. And I know exactly where to find a copy (in my sister’s bedroom).

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  49. My favorite would be Neil Gaiman’s Babycakes. It told of a world where animals just disappeared and humans ended up eating baby meat, wearing baby leather, doing baby testing. In literature class, it has been mentioned that eating babies is not as novel as we think it was. According to my professor, a great famine has been recorded in Chinese history where families were forced to trade their infants with another family’s infant so each family could have meat to eat. Furthermore, there were records of this that included recipes. Accordingly, female baby meat was preferred over male’s because it was more tender. The thing about dystopian fiction that makes it unforgettable are the images that it rolls in your mind, and the ever-present question on morality.

    • I would have a hard time forgetting that too! I have a few Gaiman books to get through. Was planning to start with American Gods. What do you think?

      • Well, I’m on the same page as you. His works are on my to-read pile literally piling dust as I work away double shifts. But I’ve read reviews and they’ve been good. The thing with Gaiman is he has his own world and he doesn’t really give in to the dictates of his soaring popularity; unlike some authors who just publish and publish for the sake of pure moneymaking. I’ve spent an entire week in my university days poring over his Sandman.

  50. Great post. You’ve reminded me of why I used to teach this book and should maybe go back to using it. I see your point about there not being a Napoleon in the story, but we have to remember that when Atwood wrote the book, it was in the middle of the conservative 80s with the Reagan revolution in full swing and a lot of power being wielded by the Falwells and Robertsons, the moral majority, etc. Orwell was writing in response to the rise of charismatic leaders like Stalin and Hitler, while Atwood seems more to have been worried about the rise of powerful groups–groups with guns who make claims about a moral high ground. The coup she describes in the book always struck me as frightening and not that unrealistic when we consider the overthrows that have happened in other countries. Think Taliban. While it may not be as emotionally satisfying for readers as having a Big Brother to pin our feelings on, Atwood still does a remarkable job of showing the potential power of ideological factions. Maybe more realistically dystopian these days than the dystopia built around a Stalinesque leader.

    • That’s a very good way of putting it – ideology as the threat, rather than charisma. Do you think ideology can be as powerful without charisma?

      I’m actually surprised I wasn’t asked to study this book. It certainly has a lot of qualities that were favoured by the curriculum at my school.

  51. I thought the book was very good and could be easily compared to events in certain societies nowadays re: how poor mothers were baby factories who cleaned and cared for their baby but had no rights of motherhood over it. Yet the upper class women didn’t go through the pain and didn’t need to clean the baby or care for it – just see it when it was presentable, but got to keep the baby and call it her own. .

    What also made the book interesting was that it wasn’t just men who asssigned women these roles, it was other women who controlled and administered the system.

    • I thought the way women asserted their status over other women based on the positions they were assigned was quite chilling. Almost a master-stroke of social engineering in maintaining the new order – we are sometimes our own worst enemies in this respect, don’t you think?

  52. I read this book about 25 yearsw ago, and as you say it has that lingering foreboding. My take THEN on how it may have happened is even more chilling NOW with all the anti female legislation happening in the USA,
    My take was some sort of catastrophic incident which demanded reform. As in ‘real’ life men hold the majority of power in governements and corporations, and they enjoy power. So, with the existence of such a power imbalance it is not far fetched to see how men can change laws so opress women – as I said earlier, it is happening right now in
    the USA!
    I do think I will read this book again…

  53. my favorite dystopian book is The Giver. I read The Handmaid’s Tale last fall and it was disturbing and frightening. The more time that passes, the more interesting I find the book.

    • I have noticed the delayed effect of it to. Particularly with all the feedback on this post! The most enthusiastic responses seem to have been the people that first read it at the youngest age…

  54. I read THT several years ago. It made me really think. It scared me a little, because I think it could easily happen. Maybe not exactly that way. But since most people wouldn’t do a thing until it affected them, it could happen. This book definitely made my stomach drop.

  55. Amazing post! I read The Handmaid’s Tale a few years ago, just after I’d had a bad experience with a very sexist boss (I guess I must have been looking for some kind of female solidarity at this point). I found it very chilling, because it didn’t seem too far off from being possible. I studied history and literature at university, and so thought the contrast between Offred’s intense psychological telling of the story and the clinical eye of history was pretty profound – it’s strange how time and study can distance you from the emotional impact of atrocities. Something about the book, maybe the references to actual historical events, made it seem very real, and I know it’s childish, but it gave me nightmares. It was a great read though, I do really love it!

    • Thanks Yosola! It’s funny that you mention your sexist boss – I still can’t watch Mad Men because of men I’ve worked with in the past. It doesn’t seem so ironically historical to me.

      I really like your point about the contrast between intense psychological telling and clinical eye of history, that really does express the poetic feeling behind the fragmented prose.

  56. Awesome post! Dystopian novels are my favourite type of fiction. I was first introduced to the genre with Orwell’s Animal Farm. In university, I decided to explore Russian dystopian novels and found my current favourite, We by Yevgeny Zamyatin.
    I’m a big fan of Margaret Atwood and after reading your post this will be the next book on my ereader! Thanks for a great description, I don’t know how this book hadn’t gotten on my “must-read” list!

    • Thank you Meredith, glad you liked it! I’ve never heard of We but I’ve just looked it up and it sounds brilliant! I will be looking for a copy for myself and I know just the person who will love it for Christmas. So glad you bought it to my attention! Russian literature is a whole area I am just beginning to explore.

      Let me know what you think of THT when you get around to reading it. Do you have a favourite Atwood book?

    • I see you are from Canada and can only guess that Margaret Atwood is all tied up in memories of school and teachers for you. Maybe revisit her someday? I think the teachers might have been on to something with this one 😉 (Don’t you hate it when they’re right?)

  57. I heard Christian organizations hated the book as it apparently touted
    the evils of Abramhic religions – As much as I have considered writing such books it’s hard to build a good distopia without makeing someone
    think your insulting their belief system, though sometimes if the shoe
    fits . . .

    I have always liked farenheit 456 – people say it’s about censorship –
    and the use of mass media to control the masses – I also think it’s
    about the increased shallowness of modern culture – but my favorite dystopia – the one I truly love to hate – is in the novel “Make Room,
    Make Room” The movie Soilent Green was inspired by this novel –
    a world where suicide was encouraged, and the bodies eagerly canibalised by a starving public – though the novel makes no mention of cannibalism. I have always feared overpopulation more then anything – I could almost see myself killing for extra space in my appartment – or murdering a rich man for a taste of real food. The thought of human extinction seemed trival after that – at least for a time there would room to roam. I also got to thinking – If someone
    does something terrible in a terrible situation – to what extent is it
    their fault? and to what extent, is the situation’s fault?

    On my site is a novel called Rust, a mystery set in a deserted and
    ruined land. A pilot survives a crash, and takes shelter in an abandoned theme park, someone from her past is following her
    – but will not show himself. I am curently seeking an audience to
    help me see what improvements, if any are nessary – there are
    also many shorts for people in a hurry, I would describe most of
    my work as eerie – ghost stores with a little something different.
    I welcome all readers. 🙂

    • Hey, thank you for giving such a great comment! I’m not surprised THT ruffled a few feathers in the christian circles, but then again, I’m sure that would have made me more keen to read it, rather than less. Nothing like a bit of institutional ban to get me on my literary soapbox.

      As for situational terribleness (that’s what I’m calling it now), I tend to look at it as something we all have the capacity to do rather than a cause for blame. I guess it keeps the world a little less surprising for me if I think of people as violent and competitive by nature, but civilized by convention? There’s no knowing what any of us will do when provoked beyond the limits of our self-control…

      • Your welcome. I have no objection the book based on my are anyone one else’s beliefs, I do think if
        something makes you doubt the merits of your philosophy, you should consider those doubts.

        My be you have a good reason to doubt . . .

    • Also meant to say, I had a quick look at your site and I do like the tenor of your writing. I’ll have another look sometime but am a bit short of time for the kind of critique you are asking for. My best advice if you want to sell the work though is to go into the market and identify the books you think yours fits with and write and pitch to publishers accordingly. If you’re happy self-publishing, you can write whatever you like, but the big guns are, and always have been, pretty conventional in their tastes. Whether this is right or not I have no idea, but it’s certainly their approach to every project they sign up.

      Harry Potter has pretty much the most conventional good guy vs bad guy, coming of age, overcoming obstacle plot going around, the fact that it is put together exceptionally well, gives it it’s edge.

      Hope that gives you something to think about.

      • Thanks, One of my other stories has already been excepted. RUST is still in the works though. I don’t
        care for one dimentional villains – they are a petpeeve
        of mine in any work – and I feel fantasies limit themselves. Rust doesen’t have a villian – it’s basically about someone trying to make contact with an unremembered past – thanks though.

        Writing in the conventional sence is too big of a risk for me – there are too many other titels too compeat with in those genras – My favorite books are done in
        a style only their specific authors could pull off – my
        plan is to have something no one else has – wish me luck.

      • Also – you may wish to try Burlap cat –
        A story of mine that focuses on an old
        stuffed toy with mysterious powers, it
        is one of my simpler ideas, I recomend
        part one.

  58. Loved this post and the way you discuss THT. My favorite dystopian novels would be The Giver and The Hunger Games. I know that last one will get a lot of eye-rolls from true literary critics, but I love it no matter what!

    • Thanks Erin, and those are all very good recommendations. There will be no eye-rolling here. Some of my most discerning bookish friends LOVE the hunger games and that was a really long time before the movie was thought of. I haven’t got around to reading it, but I know they don’t make this kind of fuss lightly so I definitely will.

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  60. I read The Handmaid’s Tale for my final year of secondary school and really hated it at first (not a fan of dystopian fiction at all) – but after re-reading I found that I didn’t mind it so much. Really interesting tension between some of the characters like Offred and the Commander as well as Offred and the Commander’s Wife which Atwood portrays really well. I also loved how the theme of fragmentation was portrayed within the chapters, literally in the aftermath and within Offred’s character – Atwood really constructs the novel with great skill and I now appreciate that. One of my favourite parts is the description of the garden near the end, some lovely poetic (if slightly sinister) writing that I thought you wouldn’t get in the dystopian genre. It has definitely made me more open-minded to other genres.

    Would love some suggestions for some ‘easy’ dystopian fiction (besides the typical 1984 and Animal Farm).

    • I’ve been having a think about this question and it seems to be a difficult one to answer – what do you mean by easy? Easy to interpret/analyse or easy to read? Short stories might be a good place to start looking for it, what about something like We Can Remember It For You Wholesale by Philip K Dick? It’s the inspiration for the movie Total Recall.

  61. I’ve read a lot of Atwood’s work but The Handmaid’s Tale remains the one that instantly pops into my head when her name is mentioned. As with The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. LeGuin, this book never fades and often when I’m buttering a slice of bread I think of that other who hid butter in a shoe so she could moisturize her dry, cracked hands. That image will be with me until the day I die!

    • We are doing Left Hand of Darkness! Definitely. Would you like to lead it? Since it is your pet?
      My hands the last few weeks have been raw from dry weather and surgical scrubbing…I can definitely sympathise with hoarding butter for skincare/

      • Ugh, I know how that can be too 😦

        I’d love to do Left Hand of Darkness but I’d have to re-read it first. The themes that hit me when I first read it about 30 years ago are still bright and fresh but the details are long gone.

  62. Kate, this post was FABULOUS! And my it’s still looking so fresh and pressed (congrats again)! I’m sad to say I’ve never read this book, but I VERY often think about things like this (you know, like, say, a world without chipmunks or cheese) and whether or not human nature would prevail. I always wonder whether I’d be willing to ‘go underground’ or revolt, or if I’d be a part of the problem for fear of punishment. I think we all want to believe certain things about our own nature, but how can we ever know until we’re faced with it?

    • I can’t believe you even mentioned a world without cheese. I would be helpless and cease to function if it ever eventuated. I’d revolt for cheese. People would be afraid of me in a cheese-deprived rage. At least somethings about ourselves are easy to know 😉

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  64. I absolutely love this book. It gives me the creeps. And, I know, I know–things are going to be fine. But I always imagined the current political landscape to be the sort to lead to this kind of oppressive government. All the rhetoric about what it means to be a “real” American, the attack on women’s rights…

    • Oh I hear you – after the things we learn in school it just seems CRAZY that we are alive to hear some of the rhetoric going around in western nations at the moment!

  65. Hello
    I really like dystopian fiction; I actually wrote some on my blog. My favorite one, though, has gotta be either Animal Farm or 1984; George Orwell is one of my favorite authors

  66. I read A Handmaid’s tale awhile ago, but I remember enjoying it. Brave New World has to be my favorite dystopian novel…and like you said, 1984 is a great one as well. I don’t know if this necessarily qualifies as a dystopian novel but Stranger in a Strange Land is another must-read classic sci-fi book.

    • Ooh I haven’t read that but I will add it to my list! Thank you for recommending it. I am very late to the sci-fi party, I’ve only just read Dune this year and will be moving on to LeGuin soon as well.

  67. After reading your post, I think I need to dust off the copy on my bookshelf that I read years ago shortly after it was published and re-read it! ~ Kat (p.s. excellent blog — I have only just begun to explore it, and look forward to following!)

  68. I can’t believe you didn’t tell me about this blog post/book! You know how much I love dystopias! It all started with Orwell and then one undergrad course compulsory reading lead to another and now I think my favourite would have to be A Clockwork Orange (and not because of the movie at all!). It’ an amazing book and still echoes so loudly today – it was all I could think about during the London Riots. I loved The Hunger Games but I never know if that just falls into the secret, shameful, “exhausted brain” part of my book history that probably enjoys Twilight.

    • Agh! I thought I did tell you…my bad! I was thinking about your love for dystopias and your uni subject while I was writing this, it still makes me a little sad that the closest option I had was gothic fiction…it was awesome but it was no Orwell.

      And I still haven’t read clockwork orange. Sigh.

      My copy of the handmaid’s tale is waiting for you when you get home! Plus any othe books recommended above that I can find before then… The Russian ones look particularly promising and I know you love a bolshevik.

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