A review of “The Handmaid’s Tale” by Margaret Atwood

“The Handmaid’s Tale” was published in 1985 and I eventually read it in 1994. When the sequel “The Testaments” was published in 2019, I was keen to read it, but I wanted to reread the original work first. The first book is a record made by a Handmaid called Offred who serves a senior Commander in what used to be the city of Bangor, Maine, USA before, in the near future and after a violent insurrection, the country became the closed, totalitarian state of Gilead in which the role of women is subjugated entirely to the aim of restoring a declining birthrate caused by a variety of environmental disasters. As Offred explains: “We are two-legged wombs, that’s all: sacred vessels, ambulatory chalices”.

There is not a lot of plot, since not that much happens over the short period of the story and the ending is inconclusive, but there is a great deal of exposition as Offred constantly recalls and records the creation and organisation of Gilead in all its macabre, ritualistic detail. This is a terrible world of typecasting through colour of clothing, such as Handmaids themselves in red, Wives in blue, Marthas in green, and Commanders in black. It is a nightmare vision with places like The Red Centre, The Wall, and Soul Scrolls and horrific events called Prayvaganzas, Salvagings, and Particicutions. 

At the black heart of it all is The Ceremony when the Handmaid has to have sex with her Commander while the Commander’s Wife holds the Handmaid in place. Births themselves are semi-public affairs and less than perfect babies simply disappear. Offred slowly strikes up forbidden relationships with key actors, but will this lead to her escape and freedom? Canadian author Atwood presents a compelling story that seems sadly prescient now that we have a United States in which women’s rights, especially in relation to their own bodies, are under such challenge.


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