Book Specs

Author: Margaret Atwood
Publisher: Anchor Books
Publishing Date: 2017
Number of Pages: 295 pages
Genre: Dystopian, Satirical, Speculative Fiction


Offred is a Handmaid in the Republic of Gilead. She may leave the home of the Commander and his wife once a day to walk to food markets whose signs are now pictures instead of words because women are no longer allowed to read. She must lie on her back once a month and pray that the Commander makes her pregnant, because in an age of declining births, Offred and the other Handmaids are valued only for their ovaries are viable. Offred can remember the years before, when she lived and made love with her husband, Luke; when she played with and protected her daughter; when she had a job, money of her own, and access to knowledge. But all of that is gone now…

My Thoughts

There are books and then there are classics.

Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is one of the most revered books in the world of literature but it I never heard of it until recently when I kept encountering it in numerous must-read lists. This immediately piqued my curiosity, hence, my resolve to avail a copy of the book. However, it was a challenge availing a copy of the book because several readers are itching to have their own copies of the book as well. Thankfully, Anchor Books ran a reprint of the book in 2017. The minute I saw a copy of the book in the bookstore, I didn’t hesitate in purchasing it. I also included the book in My 2018 Top 20 Reading List.

Set in the fictional Republic of Gilead, The Handmaid’s Tale is about Offred, the handmaid of the Commander and his wife, Serena. In the dystopic future, regular women have lost their ability to bear children, hence, the birth of Handmaids who are duty-bound to bear children for their masters. However, the Handmaid’s actions are limited – they cannot roam around freely and they are not allowed to fall in love. Severe punishments are meted out to violators. Such is the bleak fate of Offred and her fellow Handmaids.

“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. Pain marks you, but too deep to see. Out of sight, out of mind.” ~ Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale

The Handmaid’s Tale is an uber dense masterpiece that highlighted a plethora of subjects, most of which pertain to varying themes surrounding feminism. As such, it dealt with a lot of critical, controversial and sensitive subjects. Essentially, the Handmaids are stylized version of baby-makers, enslaved women who are revered only for their ability to bear children.

Beyond this perceived fornication, however, lies bigger psychosocial issues and concerns that are relevant even in the contemporary period. The way women were viewed, from ancient times to the present is underlined in Atwood’s bleak view of the future. Women have and will always be viewed as the lesser sex. The Handmaid’s Tale is a symptomatic allusion to what have always ailed our society. It satirizes this situation while underlining what is essentially wrong with us. This is demonstrated in the powerful line below:

“We were the people who were not in the papers. We lived in the blank white spaces at the edges of print. It gave us more freedom. We lived in the gaps between the stories.”

P.S. The powerful line above was also quoted by actress Elisabeth Moss when she bagged the Best Actress award at the 2018 Golden Globes. She played the role of Offred in the novel’s TV adaptation. She quoted the line in light of the various sexual abuse allegations which rocked the boat of the entertainment industry, stirring what has been tagged as the #metoo phenomenon. #Metoo is a movement wherein victims of sexual abuse come forward to share their story.

The objectification of women is one of the book’s centrifugal theme as the rest of the narrative emanated from it. Handmaids are indispensable but once their child-bearing ability have been fully utilized, they are simply discarded like ragdolls. They are treated inhumanely like slaves, mirroring the role women have played in the household and society in general since the dawn of reasoning. What makes the story compelling is how Atwood showed that each Handmaid has her own story to tell. Offred’s story, related in flashbacks, gives her a flesh, depth, and substantiation.

There were other social issues which were highlighted in the novel. There are undertones of corruption and power abuse of people with authority, like the Commander. They tend to blatantly break the laws. Substance abuse and infidelity were also underscored in the narrative. There were also times that the novel challenged social norms and religious dogmas.

The Handmaid’s Tale is a deep but bleak representation of the future. Every writer’s vision of the far future is always bleak. Every time I read dystopian fiction, I can’t help but cringe at the kind of cataclysmic future that authors have imagined. But if the things that are happening right now will carry on in the foreseeable future, then such bleak prophesies might hold true.

“When we think of the past it’s the beautiful things we pick out. We want to believe it was all like that.” ~ Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale

Margaret Atwood’s evocative depictions leave very little to the imagination. The details were intricately but exquisitely told, enhancing the texture of the story. However, this facet of the book has so infuriated a lot of parents that they moved for the banning of the book in literature classes because of what they viewed as ostentatious fornication. I personally have no qualms on Atwood’s depiction because it was sensitively dealt with. These provocative themes were portrayed as such to make the narrative move forward.

Somber and very strained is the book’s tone and Offred’s voice through which the reader can easily perceive the book’s sense of bleakness. Appropriately, it gives off a feeling of the narrative being stuck in the Medieval period. Even the setting itself gives off this Dark Ages vibe that is consistent with the story’s overall tone. It is like watching a black and white melodrama while a slow melancholic melody is playing on the background.

Atwood also did a very commendable job in the development of her characters. Offred, the Commander, Serena, and even the minor characters have faces, have characters that define them. Atwood did an astonishing job in knitting together all these different elements into one cohesive literary masterpiece. Moreover, the interactions amongst the characters were very well thought of. Everything was flowing naturally.

The true gem in the story is Margaret Atwood’s writing she told the story as it is without it going awry. The storytelling is packed with heavy punches but it was not overbearing and overwhelming. It is straightforward and the reader can immediately distinguish what the story is about without having to exert very much effort. The writing wasn’t poetic put it possesses a certain ring to it that makes it engaging from the start until the end. It is also filled with prophetic but wonderful quotes.

“When we think of the past it’s the beautiful things we pick out. We want to believe it was all like that.”  ~ Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale

The Handmaid’s Tale has been called several names – feminist, anti-religion and such. However, beyond such profane allegations, the book withstood time and is a shining masterpiece. It is dense and is wonderfully-written, which if I may say so, is rare. Yes, there are several critical parts that raised the eyebrows of the casual spectator but the opulence of its text make it soar above other books. The Handmaid’s Tale got me fired up for my next Atwood book.

Dystopian novels have become quite the vogue but they should take a page from Margaret Atwood.

Happy reading!


Recommended for readers who love dystopian fiction, those who love well-written narratives, those who are looking for critical plots, the feminist readers (although let me emphasize that on a deeper reflection, the book is not purely feminist), those who love Margaret Atwood’s books, and those who are looking for a perfect allegories of the maladies of society.

Not recommended for overly sensitive and inflexible readers who are easily offended by powerful imageries that go against their limited views, and those who cringe at the perceived objectification of women in literature.

About the Writer

Photo by The New Yorker.

Margaret Atwood was born on November 13, 1939 in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada to Carl Edmund Atwood, an entomologist, and Margaret Dorothy Killam, a dietician and nutritionist. She spent most of her childhood travelling between Northern Quebec, Ottawa, Sault Ste. Marie and Toronto.

At the tender age of sixteen, she realized she wanted to write professionally, and worked hard to realize that dream. She graduated with Bachelor of Arts in English in 1961 at Victoria College in the University of Toronto. She took her graduate studies as a Woodrow Wilson fellow at the Radcliffe College of Harvard University.

In 1961, Atwood’s first book of poetry, Double Persephone, was published and won the E.J. Pratt Medal. Her first novel, The Edible Woman, was published in 1969, a social satire. Her 10th novel, The Blind Assassin, was critically acclaimed and won the 2000 Man Booker Prize and the 2000 Hammett Prize. Some of her renowned novels include Bodily Harm (1981), The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), Alias Grace (1996) and The Penelopiad (2005). She has also published several short story and poetry collections, and some non-fiction works. She has also written television scripts. Aside from writing, Atwood has been a very active professor and lecturer, having taught in schools like University of Toronto, University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, and New York University.

She is currently residing in Ontario with her partner, Graeme Gibson. They have one daughter.