Book Review: Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale

Well now, a lot of people will have read this one and many of those who haven’t will have heard of it. Some will be pretending to have read it. It’s a book with that kind of fame.

Margaret Atwood is a very, very good writer. There are passages of description that are truly poetic (thank God stripped down writing didn’t get to them). The story concerns a totalitarian dystopia created in the USA and Atwood is clever and subtle in describing how the system works and what it does to people. It’s a male-dominated system in which women are reduced to child-bearers and the organisers of child-bearing (although she has very little to say about what then happens to the children, so it’s not clear to me whether some of them have a wider mothering role). It’s been categorised, like Atwood, as feminist, and so it is, but only by a broad and liberal interpretation of the term. Men are victims of the system too.

One problem for me was that I found the opening passages incredibly depressing and there wasn’t much to relieve the gloom. As the story unfolded, the main character’s partial rebellion and the view of how the reality of the system differed from its public face made me less depressed, but don’t look for a happy ending. In fact the ending is extremely close to that of that other description of an almost powerless cog in a totalitarian system rebelling, George Orwell’s “1984”. That made me think back and realise the plot and organisation of the book also resemble 1984. I wonder if Atwood acknowledged any influence. She’s a much better fiction writer than Orwell, though, whose writing is often awkward.


Another useful comparison is with Suzy McKee Chalmas’ “Holdfast” series, another feminist science fiction creation of a masculine repressive dystopia in the USA. Her society is much more extreme in its degradation of women, so that it only works because the action is set very distant from our present time. She doesn’t have to say much about how people fell from A to B, though what she says is credible. Atwood’s creation, though, is young. The main character is in her early thirties and was a young adult when the change happened. That sets the author a much harder task of making things credible and I don’t think she entirely succeeds. For example, the U.S. system of government we know was functioning much as we know it (she mentions an environmental disaster involving nuclear power stations and the San Andreas Fault, but if that happened before the change, it doesn’t seem to have led to chaos or much change in the young woman’s life). Then the President is assassinated and the entire Congress killed, purportedly by Muslim terrorists. the army then takes over, or some kind of secret movement with a lot of support in the army.

I can’t buy this. The sudden removal of the entire Federal tier of U.S. government would leave a whole lot of functioning state governments with their own paramilitary resources and some of them would be perfectly capable of operating as independent countries. In a country as diverse and disorderly as the U.S., I don’t believe the coup could be that easy. Not all the armed forces would go along with it, for a start. Something like this would need a lot of preparation which could not all be in secret, a growth of sympathetic political movements and media comment for example. Admittedly the main character doesn’t seem to have been at all politically aware before the change, but surely even she would spot some trends. It would be more credible if set well in the future – when the society we know would have changed more – but the technology Atwood describes is pretty much that of when she wrote the story, so it’s current society that is overthrown.

OK, that’s the reaction of someone politically active and with a History degree. Once the monstrous regime is in place, though, its awful effectiveness is very convincingly described.

Well worth reading – but read something happier next!