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on November 13, 2008
The Handmaids Tale is a dystopian novel by Margaret Atwood. This story takes place in the Republic of Gilead, the future version of the United States of America. With plummeting birthrates, handmaids are assigned to bear children for elite couples. Because many women are infertile from environmental pollution if you can't have children you are declared unwomen and sent to colonies to become the work force for the society. This story is told from the perspective of Offred, a woman who after proving fertile becomes a handmaid. Offred serves the Commander, and his wife Serena Joy. Like all woman and handmaids, the main character has very little freedom. She can only leave the house for shopping trips where she walks with the same person, wearing the same red dress every day. This story goes through Offreds daily life while revealing pieces of her past. She used to have a husband and a daughter, her own friends, her own money, and lived a normal life before the architects of Gilead changed everything.

This book was very good. It was very interesting and thought provoking. I was so into it that I read it in only a few days. I recommend this book to anyone who's looking for a good dystopian novel!
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on May 21, 2002
I thoroughly enjoyed reading Margaret Atwood's "The Handmaid's Tale". I found the slowly unraveling plot to be exciting and imaginative, and the setting that Atwood creates is simply stunning.
Reflecting back on the book, however, several weaknesses clearly stand out. For instance, the beginning of the book reveals very little of the context of the story, but by the second half most of the story has been revealed, and only the plot (not extraordinarily interesting on its own) is left to be resolved. So by the ending, the only suspense that Atwood has held back is the fate of Offred, and the "conclusion" is somewhat lacking in punch. I personally felt that the denouement was inconsistent from the pacing of the rest of the book, and a little silly.
My strongest reservation against this book, however, is the dull subject matter. I don't get it; is it supposed to be political? feminist? apocalyptic? In any case, I felt this aspect of the book was the weakest. Rather than condemning the totalitarian government, Atwood seemed more interested in exploring the torment of Offred, which is where the true strength of the book lies. Besides, how many times have we heard this same futuristic story before?
Although I question some of the author's choices, I would not be reviewing this book if I did not sincerely enjoy it. Despite the (at times) overly political themes, the book is never boring. I also whole-heartedly suggest Margaret Atwood's other books, many of which are stronger than "The Handmaid's Tale".
ps. In case you don't know how the book ends yet, I suggest you stop reading these reviews!
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on April 22, 2002
The Handmaid's Tale was an amazing book. Although it took me a few pages to get hooked, after the initial boredom I couldn't put it down. It is the story of Offred, who is the handmaid for a Commander and his wife, who cannot have children. The book is set in the Republic of Gilead, which used to be the United States. Women in Gilead are forbidden from any pleasure in life. They may not read, or write, have jobs, own land, or even go by their own names. Offred and the other women in Gilead are extremely strong and should be admired.
At times the book did confuse me. Offred speaks in a sort of stream of consciousness throughout the novel. That was kind of hard to get used to but it was used to reveal all of her inner thoughts and her personality. She jumps from the present to the past, and sometimes she will give an entire account of an event only to say, "But that's not how it really happened." Some parts of the story were disturbing and I think it takes a mature reader to look past that part of the book and get to the true meaning. Aside from that, the plot of the book is fascinating. I could really relate to Offred and that need for real love that we all have. As I read the book I had many questions. By the end of the book I had found only some of the answers, while others really depended on my own interpretation of the book.
I also liked the fact that the world the citizens of Gilead once lived in is the world we are actually living in right now. This made the events of the book hit closer to home and seem more real. Although somewhat difficult to read, it was very touching and was really one of those books that make you think. The book touched me deeply and I would recommend it to anyone looking for something deep and thought provoking.
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on March 25, 2002
I first read this book in college, and have reread it a number of times since then. The story is set in the newly-formed Republic of Gilead, what used to be the United States (and more specifically the story is set in and around Harvard Square in Cambridge, MA). Atwood incorporates a number of different and some might say disparate schools of political theory into this dytopia, including communism, Christian fundamentalism, and radical feminism, and shows what happens when normal citizens fail to educate themselves about ideas that may differ with their own. While many reader may consider this novel completely feminist or anti-Christian, a closer look reveals neither to be true. The Republic of Gilead twists Christianity considerably from its true message; in fact there is one passage where Baptists (who a lot of people think of as the "most religious" Christians) are being beseiged by the Gileadean army. And it makes a number of jabs at the goals currently held by some radical feminists, among them striving for a man-free "women's culture". All in all, this is a book that gets off to a somewhat slow start but really grows on you after awhile, and by the time you get to the end, you want to pick it up and start all over again. The scariest but also most imspiring part was thinking about what we as a society can do to prevent this.
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on December 11, 2001
Dystopian novels abound and one might think that The Handmaid's Tale is just another. Written in the tradition of 1984 and Brave New World, Margaret Atwood takes this genre to a new level.
While many dystopian novels focus on a far distant future when the past is forgotten, Atwood's Tale focuses on the transition period, the primal generation. Offred, a "handmaid" in the Republic of Gilead (the former U. S.), remembers what it was like to hold a job, to earn money, to own property, even to read -- all of which have been denied in this "modern" society.
While the former society was imperfect, women were free, valued for the contributions they could make to society. Here they are not "free" -- they can't travel, gain eduction, etc -- but they are technically "free" from many of the former problems -- rape, sexual objectification, etc -- and valued now only for their ovaries.
Offred is a sympathetic heroine. The story is told in a style reminiscent of stream of consciousness, she is merely thinking her story to herself. The narrative is compelling and the themes are significant. Atwood's style is poetic without being sentimental. All in all, it is a worthy work.
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on October 14, 2001
I came upon this book at Waldenbooks about a couple of weekends ago, and I decided to look at it. I haven't read the entire book, but what I did read was truly horrifying. The story takes place in a future where women have been robbed of their rights. They can't hold jobs, have their own money or property, have their own names, and they're no longer allowed to read. They have been reduced to the role of babymakers--literally. The reason for this is that the United States, which is now known as the Republic of Gilead, has been destroyed by a nuclear war. As a result, most of the female population has been rendered infertile. The few who are still fertile are indoctrinated into becoming handmaids, women whose sole purpose in life is, literally, to make babies. They are then shipped off to affluent households to produce children for couples who are unable to have any of their own. The handmaids who, after three tries, don't produce offspring are sent off to the colonies to clean up nuclear waste and are labeled "unwomen."
This scenario is truly terrifying, but it can also make one feel lucky for what we have in today's society. I feel lucky to live in a society where women are valued for more than just bearing children; where women are women, whether they have had babies or not; where women have their own names; and where women are allowed to work, have their own property, read, and get educated.
It is scary to think that a scenario like this could happen in our country. Hopefully, it never will-- not if we don't let it.
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on October 10, 2001
This is not a medieval tale; the time is the not-too-distant future; the place: probably in what we know as Boston, MA. The government is a combination of brutal dictatorship with a Luddite cast of mind. Women have lost all rights and are to think of themselves as pure vessels of procreation-that is when they think at all.
The book is presented in diary form, one that has been written after the fact. We never know our heroine's birth name. She, like her fellow handmaids, is christened anew when she is posted to a new assignment. A handmaid's job is to get pregnant by the high-ranking husband-of-the-house who hired her. If there is a resulting child, it belongs to her employer and his wife. The birth rate is very low and live births are few. If she succeeds, she is given another post. If she fails after three posts, she is banished or worse. Her present singularly ugly name is "Offred." Her employer is "Fred" and she is merely "of Fred."
Offred is an intelligent, sometimes lyrical woman, who in the very recent past had a husband, child and career before the upheaval. She is often suicidally depressed, but tries very hard to resign herself to the present without completely losing her sense of the past. She is lyrical and evocative and has a shrewd eye for her fellow humans. She accepts but does not respect the laws and persons she lives under.
Many of these reviews are by students that were forced to read this novel on assignment. I was fortunate to come by it by happy chance. I sympathize with being directed to read; I have never enjoyed George Eliot or William Wordsworth for that very reason. However, Offred has much to proffer and does so in an engaging manner. Her situation is dire. Her description of sexual intercourse with her employer vividly emphasizes her shame and the low caste she has been assigned. The customs surrounding the birth of a child are repulsive, prudish nonsense.
I did not see "Handmaiden" as a feminist tract. It seemed to me the men were just as regimented and unhappy as the women. I enjoyed this well-told futuristic story and recommend it. You can even provide your own ending.
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on August 20, 2001
This is the second Atwood novel I've read. While it's quite good, I think it falls short of the The Blind Assassin. Neither as ambitious, nor as fully realized, IMHO. Although most reviewer's focus on depictoin of the 1984-ish dystopian society in which Atwood sets the novel, the heart of the book doesn't lie in political or social commentary. Instead, it's in the human interactions among Offred and the various people, from all levels of society, she encounters, as well as in Offred's own struggle to reconcile her need to reach out to others with her opposing need to protect herself from the grievous harm others could cause her. (In this way, it reminds me of Joseph Heller's comment that Catch-22 was not a "war" novel, but in fact was fundamentally a peacetime novel.) One quibble: Atwood does a terrific job in constructing the fictional world in which Offred lives, and as readers we quickly come to accept it as her "reality". However, I found the scene in which she depicts how the "revolution" actually came about a bit forced. Better, in my opinion to have simply depicted it as a fait accompli. But still, a very good, engrossing book.
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on August 2, 2001
Unlike what most of the postings suggest, the novel is NOT anti-Christian. Offred prays to God more than once, Ofglen tells Offred she believes in God, and various sects(Baptists, Jesuits, Catholics, Jews, Jehovah's Witnesses and Quakers are those mentioned) of Christian religions are just as persecuted if not moreso than the women are. It's barely even what I'd call a feminist novel, the book doesn't seem nearly as propagandizing as I'd first assumed it would be.
In addition, it is not Atwood's best work. It's wonderful, a compelling read, and Atwood breaks many literary rules, with almost always a positive effect. In any other author's repertoire, this would certainly stand out. But compare her prose here to, say, the Blind Assassin or Robber Bride. It's blown out of the water. It's almost juvenile in comparison.
Atwood excels, however, in her treatment of the genre. The heroes and heroines of most post-1984 novels are revolutionaries, maverick thinkers, non-conformists. Also, their universes seem to be crafted by the author to fit exactly their strengths and weaknesses; don't we all wish such traumas were custom-made? Instead, Atwood focuses on Offred, who remembers the days when times were better but doesn't exactly care to attack the problem on her own. She vows to herself to accept her new life and try to move on, as long as she can stay alive. Not until she is approached by several underground workers does she decide to act on what every other handmaid is feeling. And she does nothing to really bring about the downfall of Gilead, she's just another handmaid who happens to get lucky and escape the system. She fails at her 'mission', she abandons hope, and never quite recovers it. She ready and willing to die when chance brings about her redemption. Offred is a true, real character, one of the best of the genre.
Also, Atwood's portrayal of the Republic of Gilead is small-scale, and never reveals the nature of the system or its creation, making it seem more realistic. The characters never break into long monologues about Gilead's history; they all know it, and only reveal information in small references. Even in the slightly redundant historical notes no explicit knowledge is given. They're university students, they've all learned this before.
A Handmaid's Tale is a very engaging and easy read, yet it can also be very profound, and it ends in about the right place. Just as it is about to get redundant and melodramatic, it is able to end realistically, and only barely seems to end too fast.
So pick up A Handmaid's Tale if you're looking for an above average spin on most Utopian novels, but don't expect this to be an example of Atwood's later work. You'll be much more entertained with the aforementioned Blind Assassin and Robber Bride, or Cat's Eye or Alias Grace.
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on July 27, 2001
The Gileadian Takeover happened very quickly, and before anyone had a chance to react, martial law was announced, women were robbed of their jobs, and all marriages after the first were declared unlawful. To halt the dropping Caucasian birth rate, unattached able-bodied women were corraled into "Red Centers", where meekness and submissiveness were hammered into them under prison-like conditions. Later, these "handmaids" were redistributed to affluent households, childbearing being their only goal in life. This is the tale of one of these unfortunates: 33-year-old "Offred" can still remember her husband and daughter, being allowed to read and write, but with every passing year this Calvinist society claims more and more of her.
Very surprisingly, "The Handmaid's Tale" did not at all strike me as especially feministic. Its dystopia is all the more striking because everyone is discomfited - both the opressor and the opressed. Out of the numerous cautionary tales I've read this is the rare one that takes into account almost every side of the story: whereas others usually pose one side as unjust tyrants and have the other side engage in a just struggle, the quietly nightmarish world of "Handmaid's Tale" is especially appealing in that its central character, a nameless everywoman knows only by a patronimical (Offred - "Of-Fred"), is out not to revolutionize, but to survive. Indeed, this is a tale of finding contentment in the unlikeliest of places, of living day to day, of forming relationships, of adapting, and of coping. Not wasting any more time than necessary on the do-not-resuscitate plot (Offred's eventual escape), Atwood commits every last drop of her writing prowess to examine the personalities of her characters and the numbing effects of the new order. In doing so, in constantly examining and re-examining Offred from every perspective, she makes her so multi-faceted as to make her more than a character - she becomes an excellent interface between the reader and Atwood's conceptual vehicle.
The profoundly disturbing - of not particularly likely to happen - dystopia Atwood creates serves as a stage for examining the various drives and motivations of her characters, using the veil of strangeness to abstract her findings into something approaching objectiveness.
Something I didn't expect was how particularly inert men are in the world of the "Handmaid". While the narrator speaks no more cynically of them than of the women, it is women who seem to run everything, from the general social order to the secret underground. Men appear content - if not especially happy - with their secret burlesques and generally acting as if they still had any real power.
While I enjoyed the gentle manner with which the author maintained my attention despite the poststructuralist approach, there are few memorable ideas that the book communicates. I feel that I will remember it solely for the ludicrous, gruesome visual trappings - and that's quite a misfortune.
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