Published 1985; 309 pages
It is the world of the near future, and Offred is a Handmaid in the home of the Commander and his wife. She is allowed out once a day to the food market, she is not permitted to read, and she is hoping the Commander makes her pregnant, because she is only valued if her ovaries are viable. Offred can remember the years before, when she was an independent woman, had a job of her own, a husband and child. But all of that is gone now...everything has changed.
Unfortunately, I wasn't particularly wowed by this book. I found the story to be dull, the writing to be merely all right, and the conclusion too predictable. Atwood didn't seem (to me) to bring anything new to the genre, though this may be because all of the other dystopian fiction I've read came afterward—The Handmaid's Tale came first. Whatever the reason, I found the novel to be lackluster and boring.
However, there were a couple things Atwood did very well here.
The first was in the way she showed the psychological affect the government takeover had on Offred. Atwood's way of showing the reader how the women in the new regime had been brainwashed, how their perceptions of normality were slowly shifting, was very well done. This theme came into play mostly in the early chapters, and wasn't touched on so much toward the end. More follow-through would have been nice, but I like the fact that the author mentioned it at all.
And, of course, the dominant underlying theme of the book, the compare-contrast with the past and present, was superbly interwoven into the plot. Through flashbacks, Atwood shows the reader a world dominated by women, where gender equality has been accomplished, and maybe even the balance of the scales as been tipped in favor of the female. This society is completely opposite from the strict Christian society the Commanders have imposed on the former United States, the society Offred lives in presently.
But the men of new society are hypocrites—they want their women to read, to wear revealing clothes, to smoke and drink, just not all the time. It's better, they say, that a woman remains covered, that her husband is chosen for her, that she not know how to read—that is much more "pure". But men are men, and they still want strip-clubs like in the days before Gilead. It's a gross overstatement of having one's cake and eating it too.
Another thing I liked about this was how Atwood didn't impress upon the reader the fact that in 100 years, the United States will be completely godless. Rather, she took things in the opposite direction, and I must say that Christian extremists are, at this point, far more believable than atheists, just because the majority of Americans still identify as Christian.
Even so, the plot of the novel was still fairly uninteresting. I never got that reader-character connection with Offred, perhaps because I knew within two chapters how things would end: the 'husband' turns out to be not so terrible, the girl falls in love with the handsome young groundskeeper, the handsome young groundskeeper arrangers the girl's escape—having just read Lauren DeStefano's Wither, I found this all to be very redundant.
At this point in time, the dystopian novel is getting a bit tired. The Handmaid's Tale was one of the first, I believe, and it doesn't appear that anything has changed in the twenty years since this novel was written. I didn't mind the book, but it was a bit of a disappointment.
The Handmaid's Tale is on the list of 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die.