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Brave New Reading List: The Handmaid’s Tale

by Brita Thielen

Confession: I have never before read a Margaret Atwood novel.

This feels like a gross oversight, possibly on par with a mortal sin. A simple online search of the “The Handmaid’s Tale” brings up over 400,000 results, and the novel has been reviewed nearly 16,000 times on goodreads with an average rating of 5 stars. And let me tell you, it’s worth the hype. I cannot remember the last time I have been so completely blown away by a novel.

The Handmaid’s Tale (1985; Houghton Mifflin) takes place in the realm of Gilead, formed in the U.S. after a combination of environmental factors has severely impacted human fertility. The story is narrated by a woman known only as Offred (Of Fred), a Handmaid in the new regime whose job it is to get pregnant and bear a healthy child. She, like other Handmaids, is assigned to a high-ranking male in the new government – love is not a factor here, only the possibility of procreation. To be a Handmaid is to be chosen; these women have previously born healthy children, so the logic is that they should be capable of doing so again. If they fail, they are declared “Unwoman” and are shipped out of Gilead, which many characters in the novel consider a fate worse than death. Thus, in a perverse way, women like Offred are both valuable and expendable in their society.

Offred remembers a time before Gilead, when she was happily married and had a child of her own, but these people have been stripped from her life along with her bank account, ­­­­career, and sexual freedom. Women are no longer allowed to read or assume positions of authority, aside from Wives, who are the official married partners of men but may or may not be able to produce children. Homosexuality and masturbation are also high crimes. Gilead is essentially a theocracy, dominated by an unnamed Christian sect that justifies its policies through specific Biblical passages, particularly the story of Jacob, Rachel, and Leah.

Without giving spoilers, let me just say that Offred is far from happy in her new life. Her narration captures the loneliness and powerlessness she feels constantly, and she revels in small acts of disobedience. She longs to be reunited with her husband and daughter and craves authentic human connection – friendship, love, touch, anything really – which she is denied as a Handmaid. I think one of Offred’s most poignant lines is, “I want to be valued, in ways that I am not; I want to be more than valuable.”

One beauty of The Handmaid’s Tale is the way in which Atwood uses language. Offred often reflects on language and engages in wordplay, such as when she describes a friend who escaped from Handmaid life: “. . . she’d been set loose, she’d set herself loose. She was now a loose woman.” Since reading and writing are forbidden for women, Offred relishes language in the one space she can still control: her mind. Of course, this aspect of the novel resonated strongly with me as a woman and literature-focused grad student, but I think it will strike a chord with anyone who loves words and books. Atwood’s writing itself is also lovely, and I found myself pausing to relish sentence after sentence, wishing I could compose one half as beautiful.

While there is certainly no shortage of new dystopian fiction on the bookstore shelves, it is well-worth it to put The Handmaid’s Tale at the top of your list. It’s a classic for a reason. And while you’re at it, follow Margaret Atwood on Twitter (@MargaretAtwood). If she can write a novel this gorgeous, it stands to reason she can compose one hell of a tweet.

Recommended if: You like brains and beauty in your novels. Also, feminists, this book is definitely for you.