Denver Science Fiction & Fantasy Book Club

Handmaid's Tale paperback The Handmaid's Tale (1985)
A New York Times bestseller

This is a mainstream science fiction novel
A tale of a near-future dystopia

Fawcett Crest paperback - 395 pages (left)
Fawcett Columbine trade paperback - 311 pages (right)
Handmaid's Tale trade pb

The Handmaid's Tale is the nightmarish, near future story of a woman's personal tragedy.  Offred the Handmaid loses everything, including her child and her name, when a right-wing, patriarchal, fundamentalist Christian group takes power in New England.  In the Republic of Gilead societal roles are clearly defined, and women are made subservient.  It's a time of declining births and the narrator -- the fertile, red-clad Handmaid Offred -- is assigned to a Commander and his wife to bear them a child.
From the back cover of the Fawcett paperback:
       Offred is a Handmaid in the Republic of Gilead.  She may leave the home of the Commander and his wife once a day to walk to food markets whose signs are now pictures instead of words because women are no longer allowed to read.  She must lie on her back once a month and pray that the Commander makes her pregnant, because in an age of declining births, Offred and the other Handmaids are valued only if their ovaries are viable.
       Offred can remember the years before, when she lived and made love with her husband Luke; when she played with and protected her daughter; when she had a job, money of her own, and access to knowledge.  But all of that is gone now...everything has changed.

How we each rated this book
Dan 8 Amy 6 stack of books 10   Wow! Don't miss it
8-9  Highly recommended
7    Recommended
5-6  Mild recommendation
3-4  Take your chances
1-2  Below average; skip it
0    Get out the flamethrower!
U    Unfinishable or unreadable
-    Skipped or no rating given
Cheri 10 Barb 9
Aaron 7 Cynthia 6
Lars 9 Jackie 7
Kerry 9    

Aaron's Commentary  Margaret Atwood - The Handmaid's Tale

Whatever problems I may have with Atwood's writing style, I certainly have to give her credit for a powerful premise. Her future society is dismal as can be, yet disturbingly believable.  I think the society is believable in part because Atwood gives a plausible mechanism for the creation of such a sexist society, the pressures resulting from rampant infertility (although I wish Atwood had dealt with this more in the text and dropped the lame "historical notes").  It also helps that most of the atrocities occur offstage - as in the present day, the worst aspects of society are hidden from view.  I appreciated that everyone has it bad in Atwood's future world, not just the handmaids or even just the women.  The implications of the setting of The Handmaid's Tale were interesting enough to carry me through what struck me as tedious, self-indulgent prose.  I found Atwood's constant attempts to be clever (sometimes successfully), rather than simply to tell a story, annoying and oppressive.  This is sadly typical of a respected mainstream writer.  In the field of "literary" mainstream fiction, it seems to be considered passé to actually try to tell an engaging story.  Another reason why the quality of writing within the SF genre is often much higher, in my humble and deeply biased opinion, than in anything to be found among the shelves of respectable novels.

What do you think? Your comments are welcome. Please send them to
(In addition, Aaron has reviewed Margaret Atwood's books The Blind Assassin , Oryx and Crake , and The Penelopiad)

The Handmaid's Tale (1990) - the movie
The movie starred Natasha Richardson, Faye Dunaway, Aidan Quinn, Elizabeth McGovern, Victoria Tennant, and Robert Duvall. It was directed by Volker Schlöndorff. 108 minutes.

Margaret Atwood (1939-     ) is a Canadian poet and novelist. She has written a least twenty-five books but The Handmaid's Tale, which won the Governor General's Award in Canada and The first Arthur C. Clarke Award, was her only major work of science fiction until her most recent novel, Oryx and Crake (2003).

Some other books by Margaret Atwood:
Alias Grace (1996) a novel set about 150 years ago based on a historical murder by a young woman. Cat's Eye (1989) a novel about a Canadian artist reflecting on her life and work. The Robber Bride (1993) which is a book about woman as villains. Surfacing (1973) about a woman who goes in search of her missing father. Bluebeard's Egg and Other Stories (1984) a collection of short stories.

The Blind Assassin (2000), winner of the Booker prize, is a tale of two sisters set mainly in the 1930s and 1940s.

The Penelopiad (2005) is an alternative view myth based on The Odyssey focusing on Odysseus' wife Penelope.

Aaron's book review of Atwood's The Blind Assassin on Fantastic Reviews
Aaron's book review of Atwood's Oryx and Crake on Fantastic Reviews
Aaron's book review of Atwood's The Penelopiad (and Weight by Winterson) on Fantastic Reviews
Study Guide to Margaret Atwood: The Handmaid's Tale
O.W. Toad - Margaret Atwood Reference Site
Interview with Margaret Atwood on The Handmaid's Tale
Margaret Atwood - Wikipedia
SparkNotes: The Handmaid's Tale
Book-A-Minute: The Handmaid's Tale - ultra-condensed review

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This page was last updated October 20, 2008