The Handmaid’s Tale

Book cover: The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret AtwoodEarlier this year, I finally caved and signed up for Audible. I’d been eyeing the Claire Dane’s narration of The Handmaid’s Tale since before it was even available for purchase, and I was putting off reading anything by Margaret Atwood until I finally read what’s probably her most famous title. Well. It took me long enough, but I finally got my my introduction to Atwood/Claire Dane’s narration.

The book is set in the dystopian Republic of Gilead — America in the near future — where all of the former government officials have been killed off and a new totalitarian government has taken over. Women, once free to work and do as they pleased, are now living in a twisted theocracy. They all have roles in society, and the handmaid’s role, one of “honor” in this new world, is to breed. Offred — literally, “of Fred,” Fred being the commander she’s been assigned to for now — has lost her mother, husband, and child in the regime change. Her carefree friend from college tried to rebel against the new world order, and Offred has a sickening idea of what became of her and others who can’t or won’t follow orders.

For now, she’s stuck trying to conceive a child for a wealthy couple, forced to endure all the uncomfortable requirements that entails. Through her tightly-controlled movements, readers get to see what women have become: Marthas (domestic servants), Aunts (guards who have terrifying power), Jezebels (little more than state-sanctioned prostitutes whose usefulness is short-lived). There are even Unwomen, women who are either unable or unwilling to fit into any these roles; they’re sent to the Colonies to do hard labor until they die. It’s a bleak and brutal world that Atwood paints with unflinching detachedness. People have little to hope for or even dream upon with nostalgia even though it wasn’t so long ago that they were all living perfectly formal and fulfilling lives. There would be no point to think of the past; to do so would be dangerous.

Danes captures it all so well. If I had to do it over again, I’d probably read the book in print first, though. There are a lot of areas that I would have liked to reread and ponder over. The ending also leaves you with so many questions, so for sure that’s one area where I wish I’d had the print version on hand.

Still, it’s pretty amazing that this book was written almost thirty years ago. What’s even more amazing depressing is how relevant some of the themes remain today. Being in Texas, especially during this past year, the whole religious-conservatives-take-over-and-make-people-have-babies-against-their-desire thing is particularly chilling when when you follow through with that type of mentality and take it to its (il)logical conclusions. And that’s why this book has such staying power. It’s not too far in the future, and though the events that occur are taken to extremes, they are not entirely farfetched.

The Handmaid’s Tale was first published in 1985 and was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 1986. I listened to the Audible a-list Collection version.

Goodreads | Amazon
Format: Audiobook
Length: 11 hours
Narrated by: Claire Danes
Source: Purchase

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6 comments

  1. Vasilly

    I’ve been eyeing this same production too. I think I’ll read it in print while listening to the audio version.

    The way things are going in Texas right now is scary. My family’s from there and my aunt is always trying to persuade us to move back “home”. No way.

    Nice review, Melissa!

  2. Stefani

    I’m glad you wrote this, because while I’ve heard people talk about The Handmaid’s Tale a number of times, I never really knew what the plot actually was. Definitely something I’ll check out! I also have The Blind Assassin, which has been sitting on my bookshelf for far too long…

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  4. Jeanne

    I taught this book for years, and one of the things I asked students to explore was the effect of the satiric elements of the afterword (the “historical notes”) on the way they felt about the ambiguity of the ending. It’s a book well worth rereading.

  5. bostonbibliophile1

    this book really shook me up when I read it, about 10 years ago. I probably should re-read it at some point. At the time Gilead reminded me of the Taliban and the strictures put on women under that regime. Very scary indeed.

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