In Which I Finally Read The Handmaid’s Tale

There are always books that one means to read, that ‘should’ be read – and for me one of them was The Handmaid’s Tale. It was published before I was even born, so it has always been popular, always been revered in my experience. This book was always on my list, always something I thought I should read, something that I might find interesting. The new TV series based on the book, coming out later this year, finally pushed me to buy a copy and actually read it.

I was surprised how short it is (my copy is about 300 pages). When I’d read about it before it had always seemed like this grand story that needed time and patience; and in some ways this was true. For a book of its length, there is an awful lot of ‘content’ in The Handmaid’s Tale. There is an awful lot left unsaid, or only implied. Our narrator, Offred, shares her story but is also careful and guarded, only telling what she chooses. We never learn her real name, for example. The ending is also somewhat ambiguous.


Margaret Atwood apparently classes this novel as ‘speculative fiction’ rather than ‘science fiction’ and I think that’s correct. It is a dystopian novel above anything else, an alternative history of America. But like science fiction it is very detailed and ‘high concept’ with a lot of context needed to really understand what’s going on. Offred gives this to us in pieces so that at first we are lost and following her blindly, but as the book goes on we get more of the wider picture and start to form our own opinions. This was also my experience with the other Atwood novel I’ve read, Alias Grace. That novel has a multitude of perspectives and truths, and while The Handmaid’s Tale is not quite so psychological, it is multi-faceted and filled with the possibility of deceit and betrayal – amongst the characters, but also for the reader.

Atwood likes to challenge her readers, and this novel was certainly challenging to me. It was an infuriating mix of fascinating story, intriguing narrative technique, and utter misery and oppression, for both the characters and the reader. I can’t say I really enjoyed The Handmaid’s Tale, and it took me a while to read because sometimes I just didn’t want to hear about the nightmarish world that Offred inhabits. During my breaks between reading I wondered whether the book seemed like a feminist novel to me, and in some ways it does – it is about women fighting back. But it also isn’t. Women have been complicit in creating the Republic of Gilead. You wonder what the Wives, Aunts, Econowives, and Marthas really think about the way they live – they have a better deal than the Handmaids, but they are still trapped, and any power or agency they have has been given to them by the men.

I also wondered whether the book is trying to make a statement about religion, or rather when you reduce religion to its fundamentalist principles and then use those for your own gain – on a personal or national level. The Republic of Gilead is ruled by religion, but none of the characters we encounter seem very concerned with it in any form except one of authority. Do any of them really believe in God? Offred mentions ‘true believers’ but they seem few and far between.

One thing that frustrated me was the lack of detail about the rules, and how things became this way – but I suppose that is the point. Offred only tells us what she wants to, and she is clearly traumatised by the whole situation and what she has gone through before – thankfully we do learn about her past throughout the novel. I think this is also just me as a reader – some people are happy with ambiguity in a novel, and others are not. For me, it felt like there was so much more that could have been explored, and while I appreciate that Atwood chose to be ambiguous in order to leave open possibilities, and to encourage the reader to speculate, I didn’t really like this side of The Handmaid’s Tale. At the end I felt unsatisfied, and wished there was more discussion, more investigation. Everything was just so vague and uncertain. I know a lot of people love this book, but it just didn’t do it for me. Atwood is a masterful writer, especially in her carefully planned plots and her manipulative narrators, but for me The Handmaid’s Tale was too frustrating, too impenetrable, too miserable, and too unpleasant for me to enjoy. Still, it’s an inspired concept and I am curious to see what the new TV adaptation will be like – although I know for certain that it won’t be any fun.


Originally published in 1985 by McClelland & Stewart. Reprinted many times, most recently by Vintage. I read the Vintage Future Classics 2005 edition (pictured above).

Purchase from Wordery and Foyles.


13 thoughts on “In Which I Finally Read The Handmaid’s Tale”

  1. I read this quite a number of years ago now. I remember what you mean about things being vague and unexplained. I think the idea is just that you’re dropped into this new world and have to adjust instantly. The same is true of sci-fi sometimes, where you feel like you’re playing catch-up for the first however many chapters.

    For me the book I’ve heard loads about and always meant to read is Orwell’s 1984, which I’m reading now.


    1. That’s true, I suppose the immediacy conveys some of the strangeness of their situation and how Offred has had to adjust to her new life. I’ve read a bit of 1984, but not the whole thing – I think I’d find it interesting, but I don’t think I’d enjoy it much!


  2. You’re really the only other person I see referring to the complicity of the oppressed. It’s decidedly the element of the book that I found the most astute.
    Like you, I found it dull. Maybe because it’s not a visual book at all.


    1. It’s so interesting how different people react to a book like this. I almost feel a bit bad for not really liking it. Offred’s voice is very flat, and I did find it hard to visualise things. I’m glad I found your review!


  3. It’s really interesting how this book is having a real surge in popularity and as a discussion topic in the current political climate. I read it as a sixteen year-old and I sometimes think I was too young for it at the time. I should really take another look. Really enjoyed your review and discovering your website 🙂 Hope you’re having a good week!


    1. Yes, I think with our weird current politics and the new TV version there’s been a lot of renewed interest. I’m almost glad I didn’t read it when I was younger so it’s so grim and may have put me off reading other Atwood books.


  4. This is also a book I’d been meaning to (and putting off…) reading for ages. Quite agree that it’s not really something you want to re-read in the near future, but the concept is so interesting and very (scarily) relevant today.

    I really liked the portrayal of religion in the book, especially not showing many people that are ‘true believers’. In societies which are dictated through religion it becomes as much of a government as anything else, especially new religions like the one in this novel (there are a lot of examples of oppressive regimes brining in/re-tooling religion to help back up their new society) so for me that aspect really rung true.


    1. I agree with you about the religion – I thought there would be more encounters with people who are true believers. The religion is clearly used to govern as you say, and you can really see parallels in our world. Glad I read it even if it wasn’t very enjoyable! Have just had a look at your blog and it looks great! Will be reading more soon…

      Liked by 1 person

  5. […] I read this last month after having meant to read it for years, and I’m glad I finally did. I was spurred on by the upcoming TV adaptation, and also by the fact that this mad dystopia seems oddly relevant these days, especially in the States… my review is here. […]


  6. “I am curious to see what the new TV adaptation will be like – although I know for certain that it won’t be any fun” – ha! What a good point. I am also curious about the show, but you’re right, it’s going to be depressing and heavy and without humor. I’m not sure why I would want to watch a show like that!


  7. Reblogged this on auntyuta and commented:
    I have seen the whole TV series, but I have not read the book yet. This review was interesting for me. Is it possible that the book gives us a less clearer picture about the Handmaid’s Society than the TV series. I should really read the book and find out.


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