Book Review: The Handmaid’s Tale

by The Cowl Editor on October 28, 2021

Arts & Entertainment

Book Review: The Handmaid’s Tale

Margaret Atwood’s Chilling Dystopian Vision

Tully Mahoney ’23

Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is a chilling exposé of a dystopian reality in which an extreme regime overtakes the US government and creates an ultra-patriarchal, religious state known as the Republic of Gilead. The novel is told from the point of view of a Handmaid, Offred, whose only duty is to produce children for a Commander, a Gilead official, and his wife. She is subjected to participate in a “Ceremony,” a non-consensual ritual that Handmaids undergo in order to conceive children. The main themes that Atwood highlights in the novel are women’s limited choices, the subjugation of women in patriarchal societies, and the female desire for independence.

Some events that take place in The Handmaid’s Tale are very contradictory of the Christian faith, yet the extremist government in the novel justifies these acts using Christianity. Non-consensual sex, adultery, murder, and pre-marital sex are just a few examples of this phenomenon. Such acts are fundamental sins and appear contradictory to a religious state. Atwood’s deep dive into an extremist interpretation of theology, paired with an equally extreme patriarchal mindset, led her to stray from typical Christian dogma. 

On sites like GoodReads, some readers gave The Handmaid’s Tale poor ratings due to Atwood’s lack of usage of quotation marks. These reviewers ignore the importance of her message and instead cling to grammatical choices. Atwood is fully aware of when and where it is proper to use quotation marks, yet she broke this rule with intention and purpose. If one’s main argument against a novel is its grammatical correctness, then they are not truly looking at its deeper meaning. 

The Handmaid’s Tale will make readers love it while simultaneously hating it. There were sections of this novel that hurt to read, forcing some people to picture uncomfortable scenes that they would have never imagined, even in their wildest dreams. A book that makes a reader cringe as they read, yet compels them to keep reading, is a book that is worth one’s time. This dystopian world is a feminist’s nightmare, yet its terrifying reality opens readers’ eyes to the warning that Atwood is attempting to convey as she demonstrates what life would be like if humans adhered to extremist misogynistic views. Notably, the sense of horror present throughout The Handmaid’s Tale is not only limited to its women and their lack of independence, but is also seen in the men who have near-total power in their society, yet show no signs of joy, happiness, or love, which are three components of truly living.

The Handmaid’s Tale is a novel that is important for people of all walks of life to read. History is taught because everyone must learn about the past to not repeat its mistakes. Reading The Handmaid’s Tale can help prevent the realization of a society like described in the novel, one that allowed for a horrible reality for women.

Atwood has a wonderful ability to make a distant reality feel real. Readers are able to see Offred’s world, feel her contempt, and hear her conversations, which will transform their current views on the society in which they live. The Handmaid’s Tale feels very slow in the beginning half, but it is worth pushing through because this section of the text provides a lot of context for its second half, which will leave readers unable to put the book down.

The Handmaid’s Tale has been made into a Hulu TV show for those who are less inclined towards reading or like to pair their books with imagery in film. This reviewer must note that she could not get past the first episode because she felt like it strayed too far from the book and was not an accurate depiction. Nevertheless, the series does a fair job of conveying the general idea of the novel.