This week, I review modern classic, “The Handmaid’s Tale” by Margaret Atwood. I had originally read the book as a teenager, and was inspired to reread and review it after learning more about the new Hulu series that has been adapted from the book. Even after having read it once and remembered a lot of it vividly, and having seen the original movie adapted from it, it was a good experience revisiting the story. I’ve heard that the series so far has updated several aspects of the novel, however, having not started that yet, this review will only cover the book.
I’m glad I reread the book both for its cautionary warnings some have shown extra interest in during our political climate and as I missed so much of the author’s subtly and brilliance the first time around.
The Hulu stock photo above shows the author, Atwood, as she is now, and the same book jacket I remember being on the original book I read. As with the story itself, the book cover has been changed and there are several versions. As far as I know the book content has not been changed in any editions, though I do have a suggestion for one such change I will explain later in this review.
The overall story is a simple one of what is happening in Gilead, what is the United States with a society, laws and norms we would not recognize in which women have no rights. Our narrator, who now goes by the name Offred, is now a handmaid, living a life very different from the one she had as an independent woman before the events of the story. Even her name is not her real one, it is a combination of the word of, to denote belonging to and Fred, the name of the commander whose family she serves. As a handmaid she has two main jobs, the first is to go to the markets to pick up groceries, using coins with photos of what she can get for them, as most women are not permitted in this society to read, and to bear a child for the Commander. Due to wars and biological problems, most women were unable to bear children.
As a young woman with little status, this was one of few options available to her. Prior to the recent times, she had been a wife to Luke and mother to a young daughter whose name we are not given. We see pieces of memories of her husband and child, sometimes one, sometimes both, woven into the story. The three had tried to flee to Canada, to escape the events of the novel, however, they had been found out. The society had retroactively outlawed many things including abortion (as now “all (healthy) children are wanted children) and divorce, making our narrator in an unlawful union. We are never told what happens to Luke, we are given a possibility for what may happen to the daughter.
Offred describes events from her life before and those of now. We learn how society stood by and let women lose all their rights and become property and the rigid rules that everyone lives with including that babies with abnormalities and women classified as troublemakers become literal Unpeople. The author describes many things in detail and yet barely touches on other things. This technique along with random flashbacks to other times helps us feel the mounting confusion and desire for a resolution that Offred feels.
The ending of the book is what changes it all for me. There are actually two, an abrupt one and another that in some ways resolves things and in others does not. It feels like it should have had a more final ending and not one that left more questions that it answered. If the author is committed to this ending still, it might be helpful at least to have a question and answer section to address it and perhaps even the new interest in and relevance of parts of her book.
Rating – four and a half baby booties our of five