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The Handmaid's Tale cover The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

Published by Anchor Books

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood is a near-future dystopia in which some portion of the religious right has taken over the US government and replaced it with a rigid theocracy, the Republic of Gilead.

The first-person narrator is a Handmaid, a woman who has been given to one of the Commanders, the top leaders of the Republic to be a surrogate mother (the Biblical rationalization is the story of how Rachel and Leah gave their handmaids to Jacob as concubines when they could not themselves produce enough sons). Her name has been taken from her and she is known only as Offred, a possessive that identifies her in terms of her Commander.

Yet there is some vital spark within her that refuses to be crushed, and she slowly makes contact with the underground. At the end she is spirited away and waiting in a safe house. We never know whether she was rescued or if she was captured and punished. There is a brief epilog feigning to be the report of a group of scholars regarding the account, which was supposedly recorded on a set of tapes while "Offred" was waiting in the safehouse.

What is truly frightening is the hints of a devil's bargain between the religious right and the feminist anti-pornography activists. In the indoctrination centers where Handmaids are trained, there are lengthy lectures about the Bad Old Days which focus on the filth of pornography and rape and other sexual ills, and how everything is so much better now that strict rules have been made against those things. In order to get freedom from fear of all those bad things, they have lost their freedom to have genuine self-directed lives.

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This review posted September 8, 2000

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