The Handmaid's Tale
February 22, 2017 7:04 AM - by Margaret Atwood - Subscribe

The seminal work of speculative fiction from Margaret Atwood. Offred is a Handmaid in the Republic of Gilead. She may leave the home of the Commander and his wife once a day to walk to food markets whose signs are now pictures instead of words because women are no longer allowed to read. She must lie on her back once a month and pray that the Commander makes her pregnant, because in an age of declining births, Offred and the other Handmaids are valued only if their ovaries are viable... Funny, unexpected, horrifying, and altogether convincing, The Handmaid's Tale is at once scathing satire, dire warning, and literary tour de force.

Goodreads page

Atwood's dystopia has been depicted in a 1990 full-length movie and a new 2017 10-episode show streaming on Hulu.

Sadlariously, the relevance of Handmaid's Tale was discussed on Metafilter in 2014. The new Hulu series was discussed last April.

As happened with 1984 post-election, The Handmaid's Tale has begun to top best-seller lists [note: WaPo], possibly also due to the Hulu adaptation. Margaret Atwood herself thinks Donald Trump has more to do with the boost in popularity than the Super Bowl ad for the series.
posted by chainsofreedom (34 comments total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
 
As a Boston-area native, I remember the creeping dread of familiarity while reading it until I realized that, yeah, it was set in the Boston area. And these days, I keep trying to calm my panic at the state of the US by thinking "well, I'm in a liberal enclave so I'm not as at-risk as people in other parts of the US, so I can focus on supporting people doing good work and I don't have to be making exit plans myself." But really, it can happen anywhere.

I'm not sure I can watch the show these days. Dystopia is seeming less remote.
posted by rmd1023 at 7:19 AM on February 22 [5 favorites]


I was talking about this book in terms of relating to the horror of the election and my mom was like I've never read this book what's it about. So I give her a brief summary then go into some of the more horrible parts and she looks grim and gets more upset. Now she won't read it because it's too frightening, and every once in a while when we're watching the news she'll get this funny look on her face and ask, "Do you think that Handmaid book could come true?"
posted by 80 Cats in a Dog Suit at 7:38 AM on February 22 [3 favorites]


I'm a couple chapters away from finishing my re-read of this. It's taking me longer than I expected, because it's bringing up so many feelings of overwhelm.

I first read this as a teenager in the early 2000s, and it was the first time I realized that rights could be taken away. The way I learned history in school, I assumed that humanity, civilization, and even America was on a trajectory of progress. That once the government recognized your personhood, you had a firm footing, and you would have a hard-won struggle for further rights, sure, but other people couldn't push you down from that ledge you made it to.

I mean, it's nothing special that a teenager's facile, naive understanding of history and of human nature gets ruined, but The Handmaid's Tale made me see it. And fear it. Later, I became better educated about things like what was won and then lost/destroyed/sabotaged for African Americans during Reconstruction, about how systems of oppression mutate, endure, and "justify" themselves. I could look online at photographs of pre-revolutionary Iran. I knew that Atwood was drawing not solely upon her imagination but on things that actually happened and that would happen again.
posted by mixedmetaphors at 8:46 AM on February 22 [16 favorites]


I think The Handmaid's Tale is less terrifying than the current political situation. At least in that book they're was a veneer of religion and a crisis in the background.

In reality though, the people in America striping women if their rights and ability to participate in public practically admit they have no motivation outside of hatred and privilege. And they're winning. Things are going to get much worse.
posted by happyroach at 8:56 AM on February 22 [1 favorite]


Whenever I've come across MRA type stuff online, about how women shouldn't be able to vote or have economic power, I've comforted myself with the thought that "well, at least these idiots have never read and never will read The Handmaid's Tale." I worry that the new found popularity of this book is going to give these idiots ideas.
posted by Balna Watya at 10:17 AM on February 22 [1 favorite]


I read this last year. I remember one of the things that stuck out to me was the brief description of how it all started - that the religious right staged a terrorist attack against Congress itself, got it blamed on Muslims and that became the pretext for a Christian-led state of emergency. It felt, today, frighteningly prescient for a book from the 80s. (Although, I was an early teen at the time it was published so my perception of what was "prescient" for the time is skewed.)
"I guess that's how they were able to do it, in the way they did, all at once, without anyone knowing beforehand. If there had still been portable money, it would have been more difficult.
It was after the catastrophe, when they shot the president and machine-gunned the Congress and blamed it on the Islamic fanatics, at the time. Keep calm, they said on television. Everything is under control.
I was stunned. Everyone was, I know that. It was hard to believe. The entire government, gone like that. How did they get in, how did it happen? That was when they suspended the Constitution. They said it would be temporary. There wasn't even any rioting in the streets. People stayed home at night, watching television, looking for some direction. There wasn't even an enemy you could put your finger on.
Look out, said Moira to me, over the phone. Here it comes.
Here what comes? I said.
You wait, she said. They've been building up to this. It's you and me up against the wall, baby. She was quoting an expression of my mother's, but she wasn't intending to be funny."
posted by dnash at 10:28 AM on February 22 [4 favorites]


FYI, Natalie Zutter is currently doing a re-read of The Handmaid's Tale over on Tor.com.
posted by Chrysostom at 11:22 AM on February 22 [1 favorite]


I guess that's how they were able to do it, in the way they did, all at once,

This is really chilling to me, because one thing about the last few months since the election, is that I always assumed that if the US became an authoritarian, fascist state, it would happen gradually. Like the proverbial frogs being slowly boiled alive. But it's been happening so quickly, with such shock and awe. Like in the book. At least we are resisting. We're not just numb. We gotta keep that up.
posted by lunasol at 12:10 PM on February 22 [5 favorites]


I was on hold for this at the library forever, and I really liked it when I finally got it last month, but holy wow was it strange to be reading it for the first time the week of the inauguration.
posted by jameaterblues at 6:32 PM on February 22 [2 favorites]


I first read The Handmaid's Tale in a college classroom, circa 1989 or '90, and the thing I remember most is the expressions on the professors' faces as students discussed the book as a book. I think of it now as a disconnect between those who were encountering these ideas for the first time, and those who had lived through many of the issues Atwood's novel addresses. They were Moira, they knew in a way that we couldn't. Having read THT recently, and in context of recent events--holy shit, it becomes less of a book than one possible survival strategy.

I feel like my sense of ownership--or maybe the idea that I have standing enough to make a claim on a self--eroded over the last 10 or 15 years. Part of it is the virtual revolution (the storage of music and books in the cloud, the endless unreadable EULAs I've clicked yes to, not knowing what I'm giving up, the emails I write instead of letters), and part of it is the overall deprecation of citizenship. I despair that Congresspeople consider my call to be paid for, or part of a distributed denial of constituent services attack; the framing makes me part of the problem rather than a citizen exercising my political voice. It feels like boiling. It feels like being branded as out-of-the-tribe, as being cast as an enemy. It's not just the "F" designation on my bank account, it's the ease with which all of my online contributions can be marshaled and shaped to make me look not like a citizen but an issue at the very moment that the king is wondering aloud who will rid him of the meddlesome resistance. (And here I think of Luke's vaguely patronizing reassurances, and imagine him thinking that Surely my wife is overreacting.)

So THT makes me reflect on both internal and external resistance. I've increased my civic participation in ways that I think about as being for the common good. I'm trying to stiffen my own spine, keeping up with the news and broadening my skills and trying to remember that my freedom is not limited to a hidden pat of butter and that it could be.
posted by MonkeyToes at 7:05 AM on February 23 [5 favorites]


This quote in the Tor re-read is chilling:
Ordinary, said Aunt Lydia, is what you are used to. This may not seem ordinary to you now, but after a time it will. It will become ordinary.
posted by computech_apolloniajames at 5:08 PM on February 23 [14 favorites]


It will become ordinary.

True and terrifying.
posted by MonkeyToes at 6:16 PM on February 23 [1 favorite]


I just re-read this quite recently. It wasn't a good idea from a mental health perspective.

I also don't think I'd ever connected (or maybe I did, and then forgot) that it was set in Cambridge. I immediately thought that the Wall must be at Harvard, and indeed, someone else agrees with me, and has made this cunning and not remotely terrifying map.

The first thing I did on November 10 was make an appointment to get an IUD. I'm very, very seriously considering going back in for a sterilization.
posted by athenasbanquet at 2:46 PM on February 24 [10 favorites]


I just read this for the first time, a couple of months ago. What made it really devastating, for me, was how gradually it reveals the history. Especially at times when you can start to guess what’s going on, only to find out later that it’s even worse than you thought.
posted by mbrubeck at 9:10 PM on February 24 [2 favorites]


"Atwood has said that one of her rules for writing it was that she “couldn’t put anything into the novel that human beings hadn’t actually done” and it is bracing to understand as an adult — as I didn’t, really, on my first read — that everything in the book, from public executions and forced births and separation of mothers from children, to the public shaming and banishment and physical punishment of non-conforming women, has historical roots in America, from slavery to Salem."--Rebecca Traister, "Rereading The Handmaid’s Tale, One Month Into the Trump Era"
posted by MonkeyToes at 5:27 PM on February 26 [11 favorites]


And to accompany that essay: Mary McCarthy's 1986 review of Atwood's novel. "Still, even when I try, in the light of these palely lurid pages, to take the Moral Majority seriously, no shiver of recognition ensues. I just can't see the intolerance of the far right, presently directed not only at abortion clinics and homosexuals but also at high school libraries and small-town schoolteachers, as leading to a super-biblical puritanism by which procreation will be insisted on and reading of any kind banned. Nor, on the other hand, do I fear our ''excesses'' of tolerance as pointing in the same direction."
posted by MonkeyToes at 5:36 PM on February 26 [2 favorites]


I read The Handmaid's Tale when I was about 17 and I've had nightmares about it ever since. It's been twenty years, and I'll still wake up from a random THT nightmare. Now that I have a child of my own, the nightmare focuses on my child being taken away from me and given to religious zealots to raise "properly." This is a literal fear that I also have in my waking hours due to our new regime: that my husband and I will be arrested for thoughtcrimes or something at some point and our child, our bright, healthy, strong male child is taken.

I just reread it (smart move? Maybe not) and was terrified at how...plausible the regime change seemed. They just had to kill all the current politicians and blame it on Islamic extremists! And then martial law that no one really fought because they were too freaked out (reminds me of our docile acceptance post-9/11)! And then shooting protesters! And then you close the borders! DONE. HOLY SHIT.

Besides being terrifyingly prescient, it's just a fucking great book. I love Moira so much. I love the bit where Offred is describing the Commander's attitude toward her, that he seems to enjoy talking to her, he's not thinking "bitch" when she talks.

Funny story about this book: a friend read it for the first time recently and she liked it okay but felt like it ended abruptly and on a cliff hanger. And I was like, "No, it really doesn't. You don't know for SURE what happened, but you know she got out, because the tapes of her story got out." And she accused me of making that up. And it turns out, she didn't read the last chapter because she thought it was a discussion section added for book clubs. AHAHAHAHAHA. And then she was like, "BRB, GOTTA READ THE ENDING" and how I laughed.
posted by Aquifer at 7:42 AM on February 27 [5 favorites]


So I read this... 20 years ago? and didn't re-read for this, so a lot of my impressions are about tone. I very much remember the feel of this book, more than 95% of other novels I've read. She created an atmosphere of smothering quiet.

I remember the scene in the club-type place where she's dressed up in feathers and sequins stood out as odd to me because the mood was so different - it was actually uncomfortable to read because of the mood shift. Also the sort of afterward -sociological part was kind of off putting to me because it made it feel less all encompassing. There's something really terrifyingly possible when you're immersed in the story and the afterward is a reminder that it's just a story.

I can't really remember how my 20 something self perceived the likelihood of the book as a possible real future. It does feel more possible now that I know more about what's happened in this world.
posted by latkes at 1:49 PM on February 27


This was the first book I (re)read in 2017. It was frightening, it was depressing, it was overwhelming, it was necessary.

I had also forgotten about the lampooning of academia in the afterword - which I appreciated.

A friend of mine is currently listening to the audiobook, read by Claire Danes - she says the delivery is very good, but as you can imagine, very hard to get through. I can't imagine how intense it must be to hear it rather than read.
posted by Gordafarin at 8:16 AM on February 28


Does the audio book have the click-clack of tape recorder buttons at the start and end of each chapter? It should.
posted by mbrubeck at 8:40 AM on February 28 [6 favorites]


I read this book once in my late teens, and it frightened me so much that I haven't read any of Atwood's other books since. Which I'll admit is ridiculous, but there you go.
posted by quaking fajita at 2:54 PM on March 3 [1 favorite]


NYT: Margaret Atwood on What ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ Means in the Age of Trump. Closing paragraphs:
In the wake of the recent American election, fears and anxieties proliferate. Basic civil liberties are seen as endangered, along with many of the rights for women won over the past decades, and indeed the past centuries. In this divisive climate, in which hate for many groups seems on the rise and scorn for democratic institutions is being expressed by extremists of all stripes, it is a certainty that someone, somewhere — many, I would guess — are writing down what is happening as they themselves are experiencing it. Or they will remember, and record later, if they can.

Will their messages be suppressed and hidden? Will they be found, centuries later, in an old house, behind a wall?

Let us hope it doesn’t come to that. I trust it will not.
posted by MonkeyToes at 3:12 PM on March 10 [4 favorites]


Also the sort of afterward -sociological part was kind of off putting to me because it made it feel less all encompassing. There's something really terrifyingly possible when you're immersed in the story and the afterward is a reminder that it's just a story.

I've heard this criticism a lot and I have to say this is actually one of the most important aspects of the book for me. Especially in the current political climate where you often hear things like, "we've made it through worse before," THT makes explicit what it means for a society to "make it through worse" and how much suffering that allows for and ultimately minimizes.
posted by telegraph at 12:04 PM on March 11 [16 favorites]


Yes, it's the fact that everything that happens in the novel is just part of normal history, that it's not an unending, ahistorical dystopia that makes it so scary.
posted by MartinWisse at 12:28 PM on March 11 [12 favorites]


I've heard this criticism a lot and I have to say this is actually one of the most important aspects of the book for me.

I was reminded the other day that 1984 also has a sort of afterward in a similarly academic tone, an explanation of Newspeak, that seems to imply that people survived Big Brother and returned to "regular" speech. It seems that maybe Atwood was referencing this ending. Here's a lovely essay she wrote on dystopias and Orwell:

The 20th century could be seen as a race between two versions of man-made hell - the jackbooted state totalitarianism of Orwell's Nineteen Eight-Four, and the hedonistic ersatz paradise of Brave New World, where absolutely everything is a consumer good and human beings are engineered to be happy. With the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, it seemed for a time that Brave New World had won - from henceforth, state control would be minimal, and all we would have to do was go shopping and smile a lot, and wallow in pleasures, popping a pill or two when depression set in.

But with 9/11, all that changed. Now it appears we face the prospect of two contradictory dystopias at once - open markets, closed minds - because state surveillance is back again with a vengeance.

posted by latkes at 7:17 PM on March 12 [4 favorites]


Funny story about this book: a friend read it for the first time recently and she liked it okay but felt like it ended abruptly and on a cliff hanger. And I was like, "No, it really doesn't. You don't know for SURE what happened, but you know she got out, because the tapes of her story got out." And she accused me of making that up. And it turns out, she didn't read the last chapter because she thought it was a discussion section added for book clubs. AHAHAHAHAHA. And then she was like, "BRB, GOTTA READ THE ENDING" and how I laughed.

Your friend isn't the only one! It was only recently that I realized the last chapter was actually the ending of the book, not an appendix with notes. Oops.
posted by SisterHavana at 8:34 PM on March 12 [2 favorites]


Well, actually, the fact that the tapes were found (in iirc some safehouse on the way to freedom) years or decades after the fall of Gilead, does of course not mean Offred got away.

But the important thing is that her story, herstory did survive, that at least one of those made nameless and voiceless by Gilead could make her voice heard.
posted by MartinWisse at 6:33 AM on March 15 [5 favorites]


Did folks see this great action At the Texas legislature this week?
posted by latkes at 12:52 PM on March 22 [6 favorites]


I read this book once in my late teens, and it frightened me so much that I haven't read any of Atwood's other books since. Which I'll admit is ridiculous, but there you go.

I avoided this book, and Atwood in general, because so many people told me that I'd love it that I got perversely stubborn about avoiding it. Now she's one of my favorite authors (just reread The Handmaid's Tale last week!), and it's a good reminder to me that my stubbornness is often totally ridiculous.

As others have said, I was amazed, in a disheartening way, at how contemporary the novel feels right now. The academic-conference section is also very much sticking with me, with the academic "Remember not to judge people; it was a different time" tone coming right after so much horror and misery.
posted by lazuli at 2:53 PM on March 25 [2 favorites]


palindromic had an excellent observation on the academic conference section [my bold]:

"Roughly 200 years after the events in the rest of the novel, we find a male academic questioning the importance, sophistication, and veracity of Offred's account and dismissing the seriousness of Gilead since it lasted for 'only' 100 years....The epilogue suggests a society where a woman's expertise with respect to her own life is secondary to some man's expertise on her life, irrespective of the gulf of time and experience that separates them. A society that dismisses women's voices and sufferings is one that nurtures another Gilead in its bosom."
posted by MonkeyToes at 6:30 AM on April 2 [4 favorites]


she liked it okay but felt like it ended abruptly and on a cliff hanger. And I was like, "No, it really doesn't. You don't know for SURE what happened, but you know she got out, because the tapes of her story got out."

Having read a couple of Atwood's other books, I think the uncertain ending is one she uses often and likes a lot for the sense of dread. Like, if we knew what happened to Offred, neat and tidy, the story would be closed. We wouldn't have to think about it anymore. If she got out and got her daughter - because it wouldn't be an end until we knew what happened there - we would breathe a sigh of relief and forget it. If her daughter died, we would be sad but forget it. But not knowing - maintaining, as Offred does with Luke - three separate stories of what could have happened - that lets the horror linger. We're not quite free of it.
posted by corb at 10:41 AM on April 4 [4 favorites]


Here's a tiny thing that has always bugged me because I could never figure it out. During the scene at the Red Center when Janine is, like, disassociating and gives her waitress greeting and Moira slaps her back to sense, Moira says, "Snap out of it, Janine, [] And don't use that word."

What word does she mean? Her own name? I've puzzled over this for literally years.
posted by Aquifer at 8:52 AM on April 27


I don't know! That's a good catch. The words Janine says are, "Hello, my name's Janine. I'm your wait-person for this morning. Can I get you some coffee to begin with?"

I wouldn't think it would be Janine, because Moira repeats it. Maybe wait-person, implying gender-neutral and thus feminism? Maybe coffee, if she meant the Gileads to be Mormons? It's a really good question.
posted by corb at 9:56 AM on April 27


Maybe "My"? Because it implies a self, and ownership.
posted by MonkeyToes at 10:09 AM on April 27


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