Book Review: The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

In The Handmaid's Tale, Margaret Atwood paints a disturbing picture of a society which has used a twisted view of Biblical precedent to enslave and oppress women. The non-linear storytelling, filtered through the traumatized eyes of a "Handmaid," may not appeal to everyone. Yet this thought-provoking tale has a powerful message for those who are open to considering the implications of its dystopian world.

The Handmaid's Tale is narrated by Offred, a Handmaid in the new Republic of Gilead. Like other handmaids, her name changes according to her assigned placement with a Commander. During the course of the story, she is named Offred because she is assigned to a Commander whose first name is Fred (Of Fred).

What does it mean to be a Handmaid assigned to a Commander? In the Republic of Gilead, the United States government has been overthrown and a new society has taken its place. The population is in decline and live, healthy births are a rarity. Commanders are the highest ranking officials, and those whose wives are unable to have children are assigned Handmaids to live in their home and bear their children.

Handmaids are the focus of the story, but they are only one class of women in this despicable society. There are the Aunts who train the Handmaids, the Marthas who work in the Commanders' homes as cooks and housekeepers, the Wives who are married to the Commanders, and the Econowives who are married to men of lower ranks.

Women of each class have their own uniforms: billowing dresses in assigned colors with matching hair coverings. There are strict rules for how this society runs, including rules which make men the absolute head of the families and make it illegal for women to read or question male authority.

The story unfolds in its own haunting, fragmented way, slowly revealing Offred's life in time before Gilead; the life she led when she was an independent woman with rights and a family of her own. We learn about Offred's time in the Red Center where she was forcibly trained in her new role. We learn about some of the other women at the Red Center, including Offred's spunky friend from before the revolution and what happened to her when she fought back against the system.

We also learn that Gilead's fanatical society has many secrets, including a shadowy resistance, and leaders who are less than devout when they are behind closed doors.

The Handmaid's Tale is a frightening look at an extreme world where religious fanatics have created a violent, oppressive society. While Gilead may seem unrealistically extreme, it's easy to see elements of this dystopian society in our own culture and in countries around the world.


  1. I didn't read the book, but I did see the movie w/N. Richardson. Soooo scary good. In many ways we are already in a society like that. That's why the battle for secular society and The New Atheist are so important. If I ever see a used copy of it, fo sho I'll grab it. Awesomeness.


  2. Kriss, My copy came from a used book store years ago, and Amazon has several used copies for under $5, so it shouldn't be too hard to find one. :-)

    Imo, the book is 10,000 times better than the movie. But I read (and fell in love with) the book first, and that never bodes well for an adaptation.

  3. I don't think Gilead itself is unrealistically extreme, but rather the transition to Gilead is what is unrealistic. Atwood paints a somewhat vague picture of a military coup that overthrows the government. To me, this seems to ignore the non-extremist character of the 1980s U.S. military.