Book Review: The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

The Handmaid's Tale - Margaret Atwood

The Basics

Offred is a handmaid living in a distorted, highly patriarchal world. She always wears red, and she has to abide by a strict set of rules. She is a vessel, and nothing more, at least outwardly. Inwardly, there is a struggle happening, a tale she has to tell.

My Thoughts

This is the review I was dreading. This book is a beloved, dystopian classic. And I didn’t like it that much. That’s vastly disappointing, because dystopian fiction is sort of my thing, but this didn’t hit any of the right buttons for me.

Firstly, the writing. It was written in a stream of consciousness style, and I appreciated why. Offred is not allowed to read or write, so we aren’t reading diary entries. We are directly inside her head, reading her thoughts. It’s very clever. And so irritating to read. Her similes and metaphors were bizarre. She would say off-the-wall things like something looks like a smell or feels like a color. And I just couldn’t stand it. I think I was supposed to find it unique and beautiful, but I kept noticing it and found it insipid. It read like a teenager writing their first poetry with the apparent assumption that poetry is weird. It wasn’t evocative like Atwood intended. Not for me, at least.

As for the feminist angle of the story, it hit some notes perfectly and others were quite flat. The world itself was a good example of any woman’s purest nightmare. Where a woman’s sexuality belongs to a man, not herself. Where we, as a gender, are subjugated to the point that the privilege of news or reading or sharing your thoughts is a crime depending on your status. The most terrifying part of the entire story for me was when the main character flashes back to when it all began. The day she lost her job and couldn’t access her bank account and discovered the reason was the men had taken over and decided to limit what women could have power of. And it was only the beginning.

But then what does Atwood do with this world? Anyone who revolts or is of a different religion or sexual orientation or anything they don’t like is killed, so revolution isn’t in the cards. I’m still not entirely clear on why any of it happened in the first place other than the men felt like doing it, which seemed thin to say the least. So we’re left with following Offred day in and day out, reading her weird, tangled thoughts, waiting for something to happen. When the story finally heads in a direction where something is happening, something that could change everything, it fizzles. And the end is left open to interpretation. I sort of wanted to sling the book across the room when I read that ending. The least it could’ve done was give me some closure, good or bad.

So from that above paragraph, what I’m trying to say is, Atwood really only succeeded in giving a worst case scenario that is indeed very frightening with nothing else particularly engaging about it. Offred is not a rebel. In fact, while she struggles with wanting independence, with raging inside at all she’s been through, the moments where she has a choice, she chooses to obey. Perhaps I was to believe that she was so beaten down that she felt no other choice, but it didn’t read that way to me. It read as someone seeking liberation who was too mixed up about what freedom is to make a choice that mattered. So even her liberation is just a form of obeying, and I was highly disappointed in that. Her friend we hear about on and off through the story, Moira, would’ve made a much more interesting protagonist. I wanted more of her and less of Offred really.

When I heard this book was a feminist story, I expected so much more from it. Less of this gray, drab complacence. Offred is not Winston in 1984. She is a drone who stays a drone, and we can’t even tell if her ending is a beginning or a tragic demise. I feel like this book gave me so little when I expected so much. For the record, if you want some very fearless feminism in your books, read Angela Carter. It’s much more satisfying.

Final Rating