The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

The Handmaid's TaleThe Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I first read The Handmaid’s Tale when it was newly published, a few decades ago. Sadly, it is no less plausible now than then.

I do not mean that the perfect storm of social and political factors is likely to occur in the US any time soon (for which let us give thanks to God!); I mean that underlying trends and tendencies that gave rise to the “Gileadan regime” described by Margaret Atwood are even more present today than ever.

Atwood is a poet, not a politician, and her social sensitivity may be even more acute for that reason. In Gilead, women are utterly disenfranchised. They have no existence independent of men. They may not hold jobs outside the home or use money. If they are unmarried they are assigned to a man, to serve his family as “Marthas” (domestic workers) or “handmaids” (child bearers).

The narrator of the story is Offred. (Handmaids do not even have names of their own. They are called by the name of the man they serve; when they are reassigned, their name is changed accordingly.) Offred was a college educated computer operator and mother of a little girl when the regime came into power. Through her eyes, her thoughts, her fantasies, we are thrust deep inside Atwood’s dystopian vision.

There is no happy ending to The Handmaid’s Tale. In fact, rather than ending, it just stops. Offred engaged my emotions. I liked her and felt sorry for her. I felt the pain of her difficult decisions, the humiliation of her capitulations. I was frustrated when the book ended. I wanted to know how the story continued.

I was surprised to find that this book affected me just as strongly in 2013 as it did in 1986, when it was published. It should be part of the cultural curriculum of everyone who thinks about the role of religion in society, the status of women, the rights of individuals. It should also be read by people who love wonderful, evocative writing. A true modern classic.

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