THE HANDMAID’S TALE – Margaret Atwood (1985)

The Handmaid's TaleA lot has been written about this book. It’s on number 37 of American Library Association’s list of 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books of 1990–2000, and that’s ‘challenged’ like in ‘banned on certain schools’. There has been lots of feminist discussion of the book too – both favorable and unfavorable. The content of this books mixes sexuality, hardline religion, totalitarian politics, reproductive oppression and American culture in one explosive cocktail: perfect tinder to kindle a debate among the participants of the culture wars.

I don’t have the time nor the energy to contribute a lot to those debates. Atwood seems to have written a book that makes people think, and I can’t object to that. As far as the feminist debate goes, I’ll only say this: I have the feeling this book neither vilifies men nor simply victimizes women, and as such I think it’s intelligent and balanced.

While The Handmaid’s Tale retains its appeal, and might even be considered a timeless book, it seems to breathe the atmosphere of the 1980ies: an atmosphere of uncertainty, and even pessimism: the onset of AIDS, the Cold War, pollution, nuclear accidents, Reagan and rightwing politics.

There has been some debate whether this book is science fiction or just speculative fiction. Atwood seems to favor the latter, but to me this seems not much more than a semantic discussion. SF or SF, it is a book set in the not so distant future (the end of 20th century, seen from 1985), with a certain dystopian feeling: pollution and the likes have caused extreme fertility problems in the Western world, and in the USA there also has been a “catastrophe” of undisclosed nature, a nuclear meltdown maybe. This has led to a political revolution, with all the members of Congress killed, the constitution suspended and an extremely totalitarian & theocratic regime installed, the “Republic of Gilead”.

I’m not sure the book worked for me.

It does succeed – masterfully even – to evoke an atmosphere. In that respect, the first person narration of a woman who is reduced to someone whose sole purpose is breeding works very well. The novel has a claustrophobic vibe, and just as the protagonist is kept uninformed and shielded off, the reader too only gets glimpses of the totality of the world and times the book is set in.

The prose is excellent, poetic even. Atwood manages to evoke a lot without that many words, and for me this is her true strength. The book is only 324 pages, but it’s not a light, quick read, as one needs the concentrate in order not to miss anything.

The sidewalk is red brick. That is the landscape I focus on, a field of oblongs, gently undulating where the earth beneath was buckled, from decade after decade of winter frost. The colour of the bricks is old, yet fresh and clear. Sidewalks are kept much cleaner than they used to be.

&

She goes to the sink, runs her hands briefly under the tap, dries them on the dishtowel. The dishtowel is white with blue stripes. Dishtowels are the same as they always were. Sometimes these flashes of normality come at me from the side, like ambushes. The ordinary, the usual, a reminder, like a kick. I see the dishtowel, out of context, and I catch my breath. For some, in some ways, things haven’t changed that much.

It didn’t succeed in suspending my disbelief. I didn’t buy the regime. Atwood’s mastery of atmosphere and language is great, but her world building is off. It’s is inconceivable that a scenario like the one described would take place. 100% inconceivable. Sure, there have been crazy totalitarian/theocratic regimes in the past, and there’s the likes of North Korea and Saudi Arabia right now, but the Republic of Gilead takes the cake.

It’s just too much: a sectarian religious conspiracy that manages to kill every member of  Congress including the president, and at the same times gains control over the military and other law enforcement (or at least can hold those at bay). They also succeed in quickly installing a totalitarian regime that:

  • reverses to sexual norms harsher than those in the Victorian age, in which no one is allowed to have sex for pleasure
  • forbids women having money & possessions
  • manages to separate children of unwed parents from their mother & father
  • disbands all non-Christian marriages
  • enslaves all the fertile, unmarried woman for breeding purposes
  • forbids reading, and most other forms of culture
  • doesn’t recognize love to be of value
  • manages to relocate all African Americans to “National Homelands” in the Midwest

…and all that in about a year or five!!

It’s described that people in Manhattan collectively burned their bras and other lingerie – as sexiness is forbidden all of a sudden. Has Atwood been in NY? It’s big, and it’s cosmopolitan. Every house there (and in the rest of the country) searched for magazines, records, books, dildos and the likes? Every woman fired on the same day? Etc. Etc. It is ludicrous. 100% ludicrous. People would react, and not in the lukewarm way – the occasional guerrilla bombing – it is hinted at in the book. Such a regime would simply not be able to take hold, let alone manage to control and brainwash the bulk of late 20th century American nation in under a decade.

At first I thought the fact that the protagonist had known other times, pre-Gilead, was a strength of the book. It made for a nice contrast, and a conflicted character – a mere brainwashed sheep wouldn’t have been as interesting. But as the novel progressed, and the extent and history of the new regime became clear, it proved to be its weakness. If Atwood had conceived some far future society in which this barren new world would have slowly taken hold, I could have bought it. As near future history, it fails.

All this is not to say Atwood doesn’t show insight in the workings of totalitarian regimes: she does. My beef is mainly with the way and speed it is established, not how it works. That latter part is fully thought out and resonates deeply with what we know about the workings of similar regimes and cults.

As in most books, there are some minor inconsistencies and plot holes, but one is worth noting. It’s not explained why this new regime felt a need to manifest itself, but it’s made clear that an extremely low fertility rate helped to make it all possible… yet the regime forbids artificial insemination and fertility clinics. Consistent world building this is not: even an extremely religious regime would find or fabricate some religious doctrine to be able to grasp at these possibilities for more births.

Aside from the farfetched setting, another weakness of the book is its lack of plot: there is not much of a story. At first this didn’t bother me: Atwood slowly reveals the setting and the characters, intriguingly. But about a third in, things start to drag as not a lot happens. At the halfway mark this is fixed to a certain extent, but it all remains rather small. This lack of plot is not a fatal weakness, since the mood, the prose and the claustrophobia continue at a steady level, just as the glimpses at the regime’s inner mechanisms. Because of all that the book remains readable.

On top of all this, I’m not sure about the main character’s psychology. Yes, the book’s mood is bleak, and the protagonist is not a happy camper, but she seems to hold up pretty well: her child has been taken away, her husband is probably murdered, she’s more or less imprisoned, and for all practicalities she’s raped at regular intervals. Her mindset as it is described is maybe plausible, but unlikely.

The book ends with some historical notes that place The Handmaid’s Tale firmly in the  tradition of “found footage” texts. It doesn’t add anything and makes the ending feel a bit bloated. It also exposes the book for what it is: an artificial construct. It could have easily been cut.


I think Atwood wanted to bite off too much with this book – it never feels too preachy, but at times I had the feeling she did try to communicate a too pessimistic warning. Since the dystopian warning is so overdone and partly illformed, it might be hard to take serious for some readers, and as such it might miss a part of its desired effects. With some limited editing, the novel could have been much more believable.

Maybe I’m too critical, as the book does have merit. The Handmaid’s Tale seems generally loved, so Atwood must have struck a chord. I cannot recommend against it, just don’t expect a setting that is fully realistic.

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10 responses to “THE HANDMAID’S TALE – Margaret Atwood (1985)

  1. You liked Hunter of Dune (2006) and it had sandworms and intergalactic space travel. Pretty sure we haven’t discovered them and won’t anytime soon… you claim to not like the novel because the future is ridiculous is in itself, ridiculous. It’s a copt-out argument because you yourself read SF that is way more impossible, outrageous….

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    • I don’t think it is a cop-out. My argument is based on internal consistency.

      Dune is a story set in outer space more than 20.000 years in the future, whereas The Handmaid’s Tale is set on late 20th century Earth. There’s a huge difference between that, but that’s not my main defense, as I agree that Dune is more fictionally outrageous.

      My main argument would be that Frank Herbert didn’t aim to write something realistic, while Atwood did. She herself has said the following in an interview with the Guardian: “Science fiction has monsters and spaceships; speculative fiction could really happen.”, and a few years later later, in the same newspaper: “For me, the science fiction label belongs on books with things in them that we can’t yet do, such as going through a wormhole in space to another universe; and speculative fiction means a work that employs the means already to hand, such as DNA identification and credit cards, and that takes place on Planet Earth.”

      So when it comes to suspension of disbelief, I do think both books can (and should) be judged according to different standards.

      In the end suspension-of-disbelief-arguments are not about whether this or that is possible in real life, but whether this or that is possible in the world the author has imagined.

      Did you think the political future in The Handmaid’s Tale was believable?

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      • Dystopias are hyperbolic by their very nature. Stories do not need to be “realistic” or “predictive” to offer valid social critique. I suspect you read older SF and simply ignore the “in the year 2000 this will happen” as there are OTHER compelling and relevant elements!

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      • Why would a dystopia be inherently hyperbolic? The Water Knife isn’t, to take just one example. Neither is Green Earth, and I’m sure there must be tons of others.

        I agree that stories don’t have to be realistic or predictive to offer valid critique. I didn’t say The Handmaid’s Tale doesn’t offer valid critique, and just to be clear: I even think it does.

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      • Why can’t a dystopia be hyperbolic? Part of the point is to put the terms of the critique in the extreme to pound home the point…. To highlight current sexism, misogyny, attempts to control the bodies of women… Have you been reading about the hate filled nonsense spewed by the the right in the current US election, or observed the rise of the neo-Nazis in Sweden? It is ALMOST hyperbolic in itself!

        And when is most of SF plausible? Other than some, if we were to figure out how to get to another planet tomorrow type story. Plausible and SF most of the time doesn’t go together — and it doesn’t need to — it’s about telling a good story, commenting on the present, presenting warnings about the future IF (the operative word) certain things happen.

        And, our recent past, Hitler, etc has shown how genocide is absolutely possible!

        This all reminds me of Norman Spinrad’s The Iron Dream (1972) — in some alt-history past, Hitler comes to the US before WWII and writes SF (you read the novel he writes), and it’s a wet dream of world conquest and racial extermination in the future with a Hitler-esque main character. And a pseudo-scholarly analysis at the end written by the editor of the book states, “this is not possible of course.” And it was, in our timeline…

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      • Sure dystopias can be hyperbolic and successful. But I’m not sure of putting things in the extreme always is the best strategy to “pound home the point”.

        I’m well aware of the rise of the populist right in the US and Europe. I’m not saying a totalitarian regime couldn’t take root in the Western world anymore, nor that genocides aren’t going to happen anymore. I just don’t think it is possible in the way Atwood describes it. Hitler as justification is a bit off: the 1930ies in Germany were a different time than the end of 20th century in the USA.

        I agree about SF being about telling a good story first – just as all novels in whatever genre. As I’ve written in my review, I think THT also lacks a bit in that department.

        I don’t agree that fiction should necessarily comment on the present or warn us. It can, surely, and to great success, but if it starts to put the message before the story, it often fails, as it becomes a transparent, too obvious sermon.

        “IF” indeed is the operative word. That’s why I can enjoy Dune. But it’s the way of this “IF” in THT that I have problems with.

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      • Metaphors and allegories and fables and surrealist elements CAN interject into SF — it is not some genre of prediction or realism! The Handmaid’s Tale does not need nor want to be some vision of what will happen to offer a critique of the present (in this case 1984).

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      • I never claimed SF should be a genre of prediction or realism. But Atwood herself for years has made a point of not wanting to call her work “science fiction”(those Guardian quotes), but today admits to write “social science fiction”. It’s that very social science part of the founding of Gilead that didn’t convince me.

        Also, advocating internal consistency isn’t the same as wanting prediction or realism.

        I agree that as a critique about the 1980ies, or as an allegory, the book does have merit. I only think it would have been (even) more powerful if it would have been a bit more plausible.

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  2. It’s been a long time since I read this one, so I had forgotten about the time-frame detail: if, on one hand, remembering a different past does add poignancy to the present situation, on the other the handful of years that has passed since the change in regime seems indeed a bit short for the “new order” to have put roots so deep. But Atwood’s prose is such that it was easy (at least for me, with hindsight) to put aside some doubts and let the story carry me away.

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