The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood (1985)
As all historians know, the past is a great darkness, and filled with echoes. Voices may reach us from it; but what they say to us is imbued with the obscurity of the matrix out of which they come; and, try as we may, we cannot always decipher them precisely in the clearer light of our own day.
One-sentence summary: Offred is a “handmaid” living in a terrifying near-future dystopia, where women have lost all their rights and are valued only if they can get pregnant.
When read: I first read this when I was younger, as a teen, and then reread it about a decade later.
Why read: This is a classic dystopian novel; I read a lot of those.
Impressions: This was the first Atwood novel I read (she is now one of my favorite authors), and although I loved it at the time, my estimation of it has fallen over the years and as I’ve read more of Atwood’s work. This novel is set in a dystopian future, in which the U.S. government has been taken over by Christian fundamentalists and a lot of basic rights have been stripped away. Due to extreme pollution, many people have become infertile. Those women who are fertile are enslaved as Biblical-style handmaids, conceiving and bearing children for wealthy, infertile women.
I think this novel has been so widely read because its core message is a frightening warning about how quickly and easily the freedoms we take for granted can be stripped away. What struck me the last time I read it was the method of depriving women of their rights that was used: Their bank accounts were frozen, and electronic access to their money was cut off. As we are well on our way to a cashless society, this struck me as an all-too-real danger, one we placidly accept. The feminist themes, while compelling, strike me as a little to heavy-handed today. However, my rating of it is still high, and I definitely think it’s worth reading for anyone interested in the dystopia sub-genre.
Current status: I have a copy of this book in my library, and I probably will reread it someday.
- The Handmaid’s Tale won the first Arthur C. Clarke Award in 1987, despite Margaret Atwood’s denial that the novel is science fiction; she prefers to categorize it as “speculative fiction.” I discuss Margaret Atwood and science fiction more here.
- The title was inspired by Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.
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