The Handmaid’s Tale. Read it now.

Handmaid's Tale
“I avoid looking down at my body, not so much because it’s shameful or immodest but because I don’t want to see it. I don’t want to look at something that determines me so completely.”  – The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

I belong to an amazing book club of ten women, and we just finished reading and discussing The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. It was my first exposure to this iconic dystopian novel about the theocratic Republic of Gilead (formerly the United States), where fertile women have been enslaved for purposes of reproduction due to dramatically declining birth rates.

Atwood has said that every aspect of extreme female oppression depicted in the novel has actually happened. The ghosts of New England puritanism and witch hunts haunt The Handmaid’s Tale: the novel takes place in Cambridge near a university (Harvard) that has been shut down. There are also strains of American slavery, the Bible, and the Third Reich, among other periods.

NOW is the perfect time to read The Handmaid’s Tale if you haven’t already. It has been getting a lot of attention because of the new Hulu series starring Elizabeth Moss and, of course, because of the unsettling political era unfolding in the U.S. As Emily Nussbaum in The New Yorker put it, “Our President is a Playboy-brash predator; his Vice-President is pure Gilead.”

I decided to simultaneously watch the unfolding Hulu series, which added interesting contrasts and depths to my reading and viewing experiences.

I quote Emily Nussbaum below because I think our book club would agree that reading Handmaid inspired us to reflect on how it was for women in the Reagan era when the book was published. (We range in age from 40s to 60s.) I was thirty when The Handmaid’s Tale came out in 1985. I’d just moved out of New York City, where I’d watched the Trump Tower go up on Fifth Avenue directly across the street from my office. In fact, the book publisher I worked for moved to a humbler downtown neighborhood once Trump’s golden tower was in place and the rent became unaffordable.

“…for many readers of my generation, “The Handmaid’s Tale” is also a time machine back to the Reagan era, a mightily perverse period for sexual politics. Just a decade earlier, a woman could be denied a credit card without a man to co-sign, and yet, by 1985, when the novel was written, the media was declaring that feminism was over, dunzo, defunct—no longer necessary, now that women wore sneakers to jobs at law firms. At the same time, sexual danger was a national obsession, seen from two opposing angles, each claiming to protect women. On the right, there was the anti-abortion New Christian Right—led by figures like Phyllis Schlafly and the televangelist Tammy Faye Bakker—intent on restoring traditional marriage. On the left, there was the anti-porn movement….It was a peculiar era in which to be a teen-age girl, equally prudish and decadent: the era of Trump Tower and cocaine, AIDS and “Just Say No.” Emily Nussbaum, The New Yorker

While I read and watched The Handmaid’s Tale, I’d been working on a scene in my memoir that takes place in New York City in 1978.  I’d been trying to remember how I’d seen myself in the context of the times at twenty-three, but my memories were delivering up a great deal of ambivalence and little clarity. I knew I’d felt grateful for the second-wave feminists and the 1960s cultural pioneers and that I’d thought that women’s liberation had done its work. Yet carving out a career wasn’t proving to be easy; mostly I’d blamed myself for that. Reading Nussbaum’s essay helped me flesh out my scene and my thoughts by reminding me that the late seventies already heralded a backlash: Phyllis Schafly and Ronald Reagan were just around the corner.

Atwood’s book, of course, shows us that history can move in cycles. Freedoms won can be lost.

Nussbaum points out in her essay that the Hulu show has to keep going season after season, while the novel is a self-contained work. Because of this, the spirit of the TV show eventually departs from the claustrophobic bleakness of the book. Offred’s quest on television becomes escape and reunification with her daughter and lover. (Offred is a handmaid forced to have sex with her married Commander; should she become pregnant, the baby will be turned over to the Commander and his barren wife.) The TV series becomes more like a thriller, while in the book there seem to be few ways the women can work toward liberation. The TV show is more hopeful, but be warned that it is graphic and violent. I think both the book and the series are excellent, but I don’t know how long I will watch the series. Season after season, a series can lose power and focus. It could eventually pale next to Atwood’s book, which reads like a bomb going off.

Have you read The Handmaid’s Tale or are you watching the Hulu series? What do you think?

“How easy it is to invent a humanity, for anyone.”


(On the heels of The Handmaid’s Tale, I happened to find out about a new documentary series on Netflix, “The Keepers.” My husband and I watched all seven episodes in two nights.“The Keepers” depicts a real-life dystopia for young women who attended a Catholic school in Baltimore beginning in the 1960s, the life-long ramifications of untold secrets, and the confounding process of recovering memories. Well-crafted documentaries remind me how truth can be stranger than fiction. It’s got me thinking about how story and dramatization, no matter what the medium or genre, can so powerfully reveal truths about the human spirit. It’s not easy to depict such depth of character in documentary. I’m still thinking about the good women–and the handful of good men–in “The Keepers.”)


22 thoughts on “The Handmaid’s Tale. Read it now.”

  1. I have not read this yet but by coincidence I’m reading The Heart Goes Last – another dystopian novel by Atwood. I find it oddly disjointed and difficult to connect with, even though I love dystopian novels.

  2. I haven’t read The Handmaid’s Tale. From your description I might like the TV show better – there’s enough real life bleakness to deal with as it is, I prefer something with at least a hint of hope. I watched the first three episodes of The Keepers – it’s very well done, but also very upsetting. The evil of the predatory priests is hard to comprehend.

    1. Justin, it’s turning out I don’t like the series as much as the book but yes, because it has to remain open ended, the rebellion and hope is an element that inspires. If you watch it I’ll be curious to hear what you think. I found The Keepers astounding, but I don’t watch a lot of these crime docus, and I get the feeling that there are many good ones like them. And that we’d all be astounded at how justice has not been served in so many cases. But I find The Keepers so upsetting it’s hard to take in – and not just the priests but the police and others brought into the abuse…..horrifying.

  3. I’ve read The Handmaid’s Tale and it is a terrifying book. I have not watched the TV series. I think I will, at least the first season, but I haven’t managed to work up the courage yet. Thanks for the tip on Keepers, I will check it out. Have you seen Good Girls Revolt? It’s an Amazon series about the women who worked at Time Magazine in the 60s suing them because they weren’t allowed to have by-lines even when they did all the research and wrote all or most of an article.

    1. No, Stefanie, I haven’t watched that one. I’d heard about the case. It’s so absurd. Thanks for the tip on that. I think probably I won’t keep watching the HT series after the first season, but I’ll be curious to see what you think about it.

  4. grazie Valory

    ________________________________ Da: Books Can Save A Life Inviato: martedì 23 maggio 2017 19:35 A: Oggetto: [New post] The Handmaid’s Tale. Read it now.

    Valorie Grace Hallinan posted: ” I belong to an amazing book club of ten women, and we just finished reading and discussing The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. It was my first exposure to this iconic dystopian novel about the theocratic Republic of Gilead (formerly the Unit”

  5. I know I will never read it.
    But I also know that Handmaid’s Tale is an important work.
    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on it, both here in your writing and in our conversations.

  6. We don’t have Hulu here in Australia but I’m sure the series will pop up somewhere, so I’ll definitely watch out for it. I often used to ask my students to read the Handmaid’s Tale when I was teaching feminism in the olden days. I agree that the scenario is not really wildly improbable these days (sadly).

      1. We subscribed to Netflix so that we could watch the Crown, but now we’re a bit hooked. At least the stay at home hubby is…

  7. I have yet to read the book. It’s been recommended so many times that I feel slightly ashamed of not having read it yet. I don’t watch much TV, so I will probably skip the Hulu series, but if I ever feel the urge to watch something, I will look for The Keepers.

  8. VAL: i will add this to my reading list ; Thanks !
    Actually i want to THANK YOU for recommending all these Great books .
    I just finished ” The Stranger in the Woods ” ….. Wow , undoubtedly a Read that will stay in my mind asking relevant questions for a long time ….. I appreciate your suggestions as sometimes i get lost in the liobrary & “can’t find anything to read ” isn’t that a sad story ? !! Thanks again for your recommendations ,
    Bonnie Y

  9. I’ll add it to my to read list. If your book club enjoys reading memoirs, check out Lights Out: A Cuban Memoir of Betrayal and Survival.

  10. I reread Handmaid’s a couple of years ago and was amazed at how relevant it seemed, so I was thrilled to hear about the series, then went through that “it can’t be that good” phase and got all worried, but it really IS all that good, isn’t it? I’ve only seen the first two (as part of Bravo’s free weekend) but I am going to end up a Hulu subscriber (if only I can figure out how to wrangle that from north of the border) just to follow along! Also, thanks for the nudge in the direction of “The Keepers”…I was thinking of giving it a try but reluctant to begin something new (as my viewing list as almost as long as my reading list).

    1. We subscribed to Hulu so we could see The Handmaid’s Tale! Don’t know if we’ll keep our subscription, but the series is good. I think The Keepers is really astounding, let me know if you watch it.

  11. I would love to re-read The Handmaid’s Tale sometime. A book club setting would be the perfect way to do it. I might try to convince my book club that we should read it.
    I’m glad to hear you’re enjoying the series… I’ve been wondering about it. I hope to watch it, and will also keep The Keepers in mind – I’ve never heard of that one!

    1. Naomi, I think you’d have a great book club read if you did Handmaid’s Tale. The series is good, but does really begin to depart from the book….so that the flavor is beginning to be different altogether. The imagery is stunning, I have to say, though really harsh, too.

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