Handmaid's TaleFirst edition

The Handmaid's Tale

Novel, 1985
approx. 109,000 words
Notable lines
First line

We slept in what had once been the gymnasium.

Great lines

He wanted me to play Scrabble with him, and kiss him as if I meant it.
This is one of the most bizarre things that's happened to me, ever.

We were the people who were not in the papers. We lived in the blank white spaces at the edge of print. It gave us more freedom.

Moira had power now, she'd been set loose, she'd set herself loose. She was now a loose woman.

Don't let the bastards grind you down. I repeat this to myself but it conveys nothing. You might as well say, Don't let there be air; or Don't be. I suppose you could say that.

Last line

Are there any questions?

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The Handmaid's Tale


The sexual counterrevolution

If you're familiar with science fiction, or speculative fiction as it's often called now, you're bound to be disappointed with The Handmaid's Tale in one respect: it's not particularly innovative conceptually.

Futures in which existing currents are extrapolated into society-wide dogma are a staple of the genre. The idea that the conservative backlash against progress might grow into a distorted kind of Christian-Right dystopia is not exactly a new one.

Moreover, it is not developed credibly in The Handmaid's Tale. The depiction focuses almost entirely on the role of women as baby-makers and housekeepers in the former United States, now called the Republic of Gilead. (Gilead, by the way, is the Biblical land in which part of Jacob's story takes place—Jacob who used his wife Rachel's maid as a surrogate mother for his children, as quoted in the novel.) But we don't see how this state of affairs came about nor get any idea of all the other political and social upheavals that must have been involved.

Margaret Atwood's interest, as usual, is in the power relationships between the sexes. But even this is incredible in the novel. The bizarre ritual, for example, by which high-ranking men mechanically fornicate with slaves, known as "handmaids", while the latter are held between the legs of the official wives in bed is meant to shock the reader, but I found it awkward and ridiculous. I have a hard time imagining any party to the tryst going along with this setup. Yet somehow, in only a very few years, this fictional society, in which this form of procreation has become the norm, has overthrown existing American power and became entrenched. How? Why?

But we're not supposed to ask such questions. Atwood is not interested in those issues and neither are her readers, I'd bet. They're willing to stipulate the victory of religious right-wingers in order to proceed with this thought experiment examining the position of women.

As a narrative, The Handmaid's Tale doesn't go much further than that. What there is of a plot is designed chiefly to get the heroine, Offred (her patronymic Gileadean name from "of Fred", as her real name is never revealed), around enough to show us the various ways women are treated in this projected world. When the tour is complete, the conclusion is thrown together quickly.

Then why is this novel so highly regarded?

It does tell us something about the position of women. I suspect half the readers find this to be exaggerated nonsense and the other half find it revelatory. And I don't think the division is necessarily along gender lines. Some liberated women are likely repulsed by what they see as revelling in victimhood, and some liberated men will feel guilt over what they recognize as their fellows' attitudes reflected in the rulers of Gilead.

Atwood is also very good at drawing the reader into a character's inner world with telling details of daily life that other authors would miss. We do care about Offred. As much as we can, that is, while simultaneously being bored by her. I keep asking throughout the novel: when is she going to actually do something to fight back? A vain hope, it turns out.

A novel has to be more than a character study or social inquisition. I understand A Handmaid's Tale was influenced by George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, another novel whose plot exists mainly to show us around an alternative world, thereby revealing our own. Nineteen Eighty-Four, though, goes deeper into that other world, and thus our own. And, much as I have problems with Nineteen Eighty-Four, by the end of the story I am provoked by it. By the end of Handmaid's Tale, I am amused but unmoved.

Except the end of the story is not the end of the novel. After Offred's first-person account of her life as a handmaid, Atwood has added a clever chapter in which future academics discuss the diary we've just read. It too is apparently inspired by Orwell's book which also features appendices. However it comes across to me as a last-minute attempt to add historical context. Too late. What I really want is a better story along the way.

— Eric McMillan



Margaret Atwood

The Blind Assassin

Power Politics

The Handmaid's Tale

See also:

George Orwell

Nineteen Eighty-Four

The Left Hand of Darkness

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