The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood

Book #242

Reviewer: Ms Oh Waily


The Handmaid’s Tale is a dystopian novel, published in 1985, which won the Arthur C. Clarke Award and the Governor General’s Award.

The setting is the near future in the USA.  Our narrator is a Handmaid called Offred.  We are introduced to the current state of the world through Offred’s eyes, and via her memories in flashback we are given glimpses of how the USA becomes the Republic of Gilead.

Following a bloody coup the government of the USA is taken over by a group called the ‘Sons of Jacob’.  This signals the beginning of a strict, military based theocratic society.  Offred is old enough to remember what life was like prior to the coup when she had a husband, a daughter and a job.  By the time the narrative of the story begins that life is a thing of the past, and she is now a Handmaid valued only for her functioning ovaries and reproductive abilities.

Society is now defined by roles and women are now kept uneducated and forbidden to read. They are now totally under control of the state with pretty much no rights, even to the point of being assigned to men.

Like all good dictatorships, there is a class system and hierarchical power structure. There are the elite men – the Commanders – for whom a Handmaid may be provided.  There are the Wives of the Commanders.  There are Marthas, Aunts, Guardians, Angels, Econowives and the Eyes.  All easily identified by their attire; their roles defining their status in society.  Everything is tightly prescribed to allow for complete control.  Ritual is found everywhere.

The Handmaid’s role is to be a concubine of sorts to the Commander they are assigned to, and to be a surrogate for any children that may arise.  It is the official line that only women are barren and not the men themselves.

We are taken through a world of constant fear, from the point of view of Offred.  She shows us the mental state of someone living under that sort of strain, where you cannot trust anyone in case they expose you. The novel has many themes, but I think it is predominantly interested in the power structures of a dictatorship and their effect on the people under them.  This passage is a good indicator of that.

Behind the barrier, waiting for us at the narrow gateway, there are two men, in the green uniforms of the Guardian of the Faith, with the crests on their shoulders and berets: two swords, crossed, above a white triangle. The Guardians aren’t real soldiers. They’re used for routine policing and other menial functions, digging up the Commander’s Wife’s garden for instance, and they’re either stupid or older or disabled or very young, apart from the ones that are Eyes incognito.
These two are very young: one moustache is still sparse, one face is still blotchy. Their youth is touching, but I know I can’t be deceived by it. The young ones are often the most dangerous, the most fanatical, the jumpiest with their guns. They haven’t yet learned about existence through time. You have to go slowly with them.
Last week they shot a woman, right about here. She was a Martha. She was fumbling in her robe, for her pass, and they thought she was hunting for a bomb. They thought she was a man in disguise.There have been such incidents.

Pervading fear and what it can lead people to do within a strict, hierarchical, dictatorship is quite heavy material and this book is no exception. The writing is very easy-going, but the story isn’t.  You keep reading because you want to know how she arrived where she is; what happened to her husband and daughter; and what will happen to her by the end of the novel.  It’s a compelling read.


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