Margaret Atwood is an award-winning Canadian author, poet and essayist. Winner of the Man Booker Prize, Arthur C. Clarke Award, Governor General’s Award as well as Franz Kafka Prize, Atwood explores a variety of themes in her writing such as gender, identity, language as a tool of power and many more. The Handmaid’s Tale is her sixth novel, which she authored in 1985 that for which she won the 1987 Arthur. C. Clarke award in addition to being a finalist for the 1986 Man Booker Prize.


The Handmaid’s Tale is a dystopian fiction that explores the totalitarian theocracy of Gilead that has overthrown the United States’ government and rules the country through patriarchy. Women have now been segregated into subjugating roles that are only in the service of men. One of those is the role of the handmaids, who, due to plunging fertility rates, have been assigned to high-ranking officials as concubines due to their still-functioning reproductive systems. The story is narrated by one such Handmaid – Offred, derived from “of Fred” as handmaids aren’t even allowed to possess their original names and can only be identified through those of their masters. The book has been much discussed and critically upheld as a premonition of the dire political times to come. It has been adapted into a film, a television series and various other forms of media. A sequel to the book titled The Testaments was published recently.

“But who can remember pain, once it’s over? All that remains of it is a shadow, not in the mind even, in the flesh. Pain marks you, but too deep to see. Out of sight, out of mind.”

Atwood’s classic story of patriarchal oppression and systemic misogyny runs parallel to the current political scenario that has been threatening to take away the reproductive rights of women. The elements of power play and the abrupt dismissal of women’s rights make one shift in their seat due to the similarity between those elements and the grim headlines in the international media today.

“Time has not stood still. It has washed over me, washed me away, as if I’m nothing more than a woman of sand, left by a careless child too near the water. I have been obliterated for her. I am only a shadow now, far back behind the glib shiny surface of this photograph. A shadow of a shadow, as dead mothers become. You can see it in her eyes: I am not there.”

The author has beautifully played with the language to put across the complex concept of a woman in captivity who is still grappling with the choices of giving up or holding out hope. The narrative flows between different points of time in the protagonist’s life in order to juxtapose the lives of women prior to and after the patriarchal revolution, which unceremoniously scrapped their rights. The author has skillfully deconstructed and analyzed the mundane and widely accepted forms of language that are still being used to establish their sexist roots.

By doing so, she has further established how real and probably imminent the threat of cessation of women’s rights is with respect to the often-overlooked language of sexist subjugation and the culture that it entails.

Although many critics and reviewers have described the book as science-fiction, the author herself disagrees owing to the absence of technological advancements in the plot or anything that has not already been invented. Instead, the elements of a regressive society are more emphasized than those of a progressive one. The religious revolution that wipes out women’s rights in their entirety, along with the freedom of certain other communities, is characterized by its motto of going back to the older ways of conduct that has been outlined in the Bible.

The plot follows Offred in her day-to-day dealings with an oppressive society that slights her freedom in every respect. A large part of the narrative is Offred reflecting on how her life catapulted in a matter of days, how the signs had always been there, her previous life with a loving husband and young daughter, the precarious choices she makes in course of the plot and a lingering ember of hope that she is too scared to embolden.

“We lived, as usual, by ignoring. Ignoring isn’t the same as ignorance, you have to work at it.”

The author has penned the narrative to be a disjointed set of past, present and Offred’s ramblings about seemingly innocuous things that are vital in their symbolism. The book differs from most dystopian fictions as it does not dump a host of details to establish the futurist setting. This seemed essential so as to establish the regressive elements of this new society as well as not to distract from the brevity of the atrocities that this regression brings.

The only fault that one can attribute to the author is that she has chosen to completely ignore the African-American populace by limiting their struggle to just a few lines. That being said, the main elements of oppression described in the book can be heavily related to the struggles of slavery experienced by the black community in the dark pages of history. As a result, some critics have dismissed the book as a white-feminist dystopia.

Ameya Rating:

The book can be rightly classified as one of the classics of political literature. It stands as a mirror to our society. With rich symbolic language that arrests the reader with its irresistible grief and fervor, a plot that engages as well as the quintessence of the issue in hand, The Handmaid’s Tale merits a 4 stars out of 5. A must read if one wants to truly understand the world and how it treats women or rather how it might treat women given the chance.

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