The Handmaid's Tale - Margaret Atwood

Updated: Jun 22, 2021

In the interest of honesty, I must admit that the first time I heard of this was at the release of the television adaptation. Until university I hadn't really read much Dystopian fiction, so I was surprised to learn that this was first published in 1986.

Even though I had (eventually) been made aware of The Handmaid's Tale, I had no idea what to expect. I have read a few Dystopian novels now, and one thing is clear to me - they all have their own, unique way of dealing with the potential future of the human race. I resisted the TV adaptation even though I was unsure whether I was going to read the novel either.

Dystopian Fiction was the one module in my third year of university that I wholly regret not choosing, my reasons for rejecting the module in favour of others was a real error in judgement on my part so upon finishing my degree I decided to look up the module's reading list and work my way through at my own leisure. And so here we are at The Handmaid's Tale.


I picked it up this morning and began to read, but with one thing and another I just struggled to engage with it. So I put it down to start again later. I'm now ready for bed having read the first seventy-five pages and here are my thoughts so far:

  • I was initially puzzled at the layout of the book. The chapters aren't outlined in the contents, so I couldn't help but wonder why they were there at all as the book is sectioned off into sub-chapters anyway (they are listed in the contents instead). However, now I get it, it's a clever way of sectioning of the contents that makes following the story that bit easier; especially helpful given the tendency of the narrator to jump between three different timelines.

  • Although clearly a Dystopian novel, I get a real sense of the Victorian from it. The Martha's and their love of gossip being relayed from the servants grapevine, all being conducted in the kitchen, is very Downton Abbey (I'm tired and struggling to find a literary example here so please excuse the television reference - I will update once my brain is back to full speed). Based on this alone, I think I'm going to dig this novel from start to finish!

  • I love the way the reader is spoon-fed information slowly, only learning more when it's necessary for the progression of the narrator's story. It gives a personal feel to the reading experience, as though we are not simply reading someone's story but are rather being entrusted to someone's secret, to their private life they are reluctant to share with just anyone.

  • Not much has really happened yet, the most exciting things so far (without giving too much of the plot away) are some dead men, brief insights into the protagonist's own motherhood experience, and an over-friendly female-health check-up appointment. However, each chapter and sub-section has me itching for the next, and if it weren't for my lazy eyelids and an early start tomorrow, this would have been a novel to be kept in hand until the early hours, unwilling to put it down until completed.

But for now I'll say a reluctant goodnight to The Handmaid's Tale, with full intention of ignoring my to-do-list for tomorrow in favour of a morning spent with the words of Ms. Atwood!

10/06/2021


I really thought I would have finished this book by now. I completely neglected it over the weekend in favour of socialising with friends (and cocktails) for the first time since the Covid-19 pandemic began, so I can use that as an excuse I guess. But I picked it up again today as I really fancied sitting in the garden sun with a book; one of my favourite things to do when the sun comes out. I only managed about 50 pages, which was a bit disappointing but honestly, I think it was enough. Here's why:

  • There is a slightly disturbing sex scene in this section that I would usually need to take a moment to process (little side note: I never used to be affected by things like this so emotionally, but since having children I will now cry at pretty much anything happy, sad, and in between). This time though, so little had happened so far, and the pace of the story so slow that I was ready for something graphic, or disturbing, or just downright weird (which it was). And although I found it a bit frustrating that I was so disengaged at this point that I wanted something freaky to happen, I can't help but wonder if it was intentional? On the face of it, the sex act is actually not that bad; it's consensual, for a purpose, and completely out in the open... it's just weird! So with all that in mind, I think that to make the sex scene appear to the reader the way Attwood needed it to, the part that preceded it had to be a bit flat and uneventful. If so, it's a very clever tool and certainly worked for me.

  • Another observation of this section is found primarily in Chapter Twenty, in a section called Birth Day. In the chapter, a handmaid has gone into labour and all surrounding handmaids are collected to assist with the birth. It was a really interesting section and I particularly love the way Attwood portrays the handmaid's as one being, connected through a shared identity to the point where all the attending handmaid's could feel the physical pain of the childbirth in progress.

  • This isn't my only observation in Chapter Twenty, however. In the opening pages I was repeatedly reminded of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, in particular with reference to one of the Commanders wives as 'The Wife of Warren'. This choice of title took me to thoughts of Chaucer's 'The Wife of Bath'. It is certainly easy to see where the similarities are in these two characters, written hundred's of years apart, lie, and I certainly don't think it was unintentional; for one, both characters are full of pride. Although the two characters have different motivations and lifestyles, I am expecting to learn later in the novel that The Wife of Warren had a less than pure past with a few ex husbands hidden away and starts the female characters in The Handmaid's Tale on a path back to the notion that, as in 'The Wife of Bath', women should be able to do what they want.

Of course it's always a dangerous game to start trying to predict the way a story will unfold, especially in the Dystopian genre. It's certainly piqued my interest again, and now that the pace of the novel in picking up, I'm looking forward to seeing it through to the end to find out if my prediction is correct.

13/6/2021


I don't usually struggle on where to start these little musings, but I really seem to be drawing a blank here, so I'm going to go off on a tangent and see where it leads me, instead of the usual format. Here goes..

I actually read another part of this book a few days ago, but although I usually put a book down and instantly pick up the laptop and start typing away, this time I didn't feel up to it. It's no reflection on the book, I really like the direction it's taken, I just seem to have hit a slump. So I left it. I went on a lovely walk on one of the most beautiful parts of the North Wales coastline with a fellow Literature boffin, and although we didn't talk about The Handmaid's Tale for a worthy amount of time, I think I managed to figure out my issue:

I am reading the book with the knowledge of it already being a TV series, so I keep finding myself trying to imagine the events as they might be on screen instead of relying on my own imagination! It's definitely affecting my reading experience and I wish I had read it years ago instead of now seeing Elisabeth Moss every time I read it. She is the only actor I have seen that is in the show however, so it isn't a complete loss.

So on to what I've read so far. I picked it up again at chapter Twenty-two and managed to get swept up in it enough that I ignored my scheduled afternoon of DIY to read up to chapter Forty. So much has happened, and I'm loving the story progression.. so actually I am going to pause here to do a brief re-read before sharing my thoughts. Until tomorrow (hopefully).

17/06/2021


I had tried to go back to reading in a way that mimicked the leisurely way I read pre-undergrad degree, but what I found was that I lost a lot of what I wanted to reflect on if I read more than around 75 pages. I went back to The Handmaid's Tale this morning, with pencil in hand, and made many notes in the margins (note that I said pencil not pen!) on the section I had previously read. What a difference it makes. I don't normally dish out advice as we are all of us very different, but I'll make an exception here: If you are used to taking notes when you read, don't give it up. If you have never done, give it a try- it might not work for you but sometimes scribbling your thoughts as you go really opens up a text in new directions. (Side note: as a mother I like doing this so that when my daughters are old and I'm long gone, they can look through the books I read and see a little part of the world through my eyes.)


Now, I have so much to say on this text but I am already aware that this is becoming quite a long thread. So I am going to focus on just a few ideas I picked up on:

  1. Stockholm Syndrome. The book is riddled with it. I'm sure it is something that has been said a hundred times before by much better minds than mine, but you just cannot ignore it. Once the secret meetings between Offred and the Commander start, he soon starts to groom Offred to view him as more than her owner, her captor. He systematically gives her gifts, encourages her to pity him, and compliments her intelligence which results in Offred experiencing jealousy of his and feeling that she 'is happier than [...] before', even going on to believe that she is using him! Although you could argue that the novel is one long representation of what Stockholm Syndrome looks like in a Dystopian setting, I'm not completely certain of what my views are on this arc, but I'm sure I will pick it up again at some point later.

  2. The cyclical nature of existence. What stands out to me in the novel is that although it is the human need for progression that brings about the downfall, the return to the older, archaic ways are evidently also damaging to humanity. Therefor, while there was (in the minds of some) a need to stop progression on the path that it was headed, there is also a need to avoid repeating those same mistakes. Which makes me wonder: if they are 'going back in time' to adopt those simpler ways, but in a more severe manner, won't the 'progression' that inevitably follows also be more severe? Will that be the end for humans? Are we doomed to keep repeating the same mistakes in a hundred different ways before we ultimately undo ourselves completely?

  3. Where should our sympathies lie? The Commander would certainly argue it is with him, but so too would every other character. I can't help but wonder if we are meant to get it wrong. At the beginning my sympathy lay fully with Offred and the handmaids, but as the story progresses I found myself questioning my allegiances. The Commander's wife seems initially to be a character destined to be catalogued alongside the other villains; the Aunts, the Commanders, the Eyes.. but I can't help now, by chapter Forty, feeling sorry for her. While Offred has in fact gone down in my estimation. I'm not saying I don't sympathise with her situation, but is she worth it? She broke up a marriage to win Luke for herself and seems to be making the same mistake again. Her saving grace, of course, being that circumstances are very different; and does she really have a choice? For me it's a grey area that let the Wife of Warren slip into my sympathy and I look forward to seeing if it stays that way for the final section. It seems to be an inventive way to highlight to the reader that one should never judge a book by it's cover (excuse the pun) and that one has to look deeper than what a person shows on the outside. Although written in the eighties, never has that message been more relevant than in todays technological age!

18/06/2021


Sometimes life seems to just take over! I had hardly anything left to read of this book, but could I find an empty part of the day to finish? Seems not. So with an hour to spare this afternoon, I finally got to see how The Handmaid's Tale ends. Except - it doesn't! I like a book to end, I'm not going to lie. I find it really frustrating to invest my time and energy into a tale, to end up with no sense of closure. In my opinion, this book was actually an introduction: a book that ends at the beginning. But now I'm torn. Am I invested enough to want to dedicate more of my time to reading the second book in the series: The Testaments? Or am I too frustrated, and yes maybe a little too stubborn now, to bother reading a novel that might also have no closure in it's ending? Or shall I just catch it all on Netflix? Well, being me -I had to have a little delve into what The Testaments will tell me. At first, when I read that it is set fifteen years in the future and told by three new women I decided that no, I won't be reading on. BUT! I read a detailed overview from a friend (sans spoilers) and now I have to read The Testaments! I'm not going to tell you what changed my mind.. but watch this space! I'm sure there will be a new post dedicated to the second book in due course!

22/06/2021


Image courtesy of Microsoft Bing images


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