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The Handmaid's Tale
The Handmaid's Tale
MGM Television
Culture > Entertainment

The Handmaid’s Tale Review

The opinions expressed in this article are the writer’s own and do not reflect the views of Her Campus.
This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at VCU chapter.

“The Handmaid’s Tale,” written by Canadian author Margaret Atwood, has long been praised for being an effective political satire on patriarchal standards and a cautionary tale of today’s treatment of women. The book was written in 1985 and is estimated to be set in the first few decades of the 21st century, where the Republic of Gilead, a totalitarian, theological state, has usurped the United States.

Overall, despite the praise it has received, I thought the book was a bit lackluster. With limited world-building, the Republic felt beyond abstract, and it was hard to understand its stance and reasoning behind many regulations. Although sometimes holding back on details about the setting can be useful, this book had such little detail that I feel resulted in many missed opportunities for more meaningful events and richer dialogue. An overarching outline of the laws and government structure of the Republic would have been helpful, and then it would have made more sense to slowly fill in this world in greater detail as the story progressed. Perhaps the goal of this was to show that the women of Gilead, such as the main character Offred, were just as blindsided as the reader, but some context would have been helpful. 

Another issue I had with the story was that, at times, it was hard to empathize with Offred and other characters. Readers were given little information on how the transition from her past to her current life took place, and I felt as though I missed some of the most pivotal moments of her character arc. Because of this, it was difficult to see how her development as a character came about. Although the author did give us some of this insight through flashbacks, I would have liked more internal reflection from Offred’s character as she described these flashbacks. 

One of the biggest motifs of the book was the phrase “nolite te bastardes carborundorum,” loosely translated from broken Latin to English in the story to mean, “do not let the bastards grind you down.” This is a motto that Offred finds scratched into a corner of her solitary confinement room and she takes it on as a motivational phrase during her imprisonment in the Commander’s house. However, the phrase is only mentioned nine times and does not develop a strong personal connection. 

The phrase has a lot of potential to have become a rallying cry or a symbol of resistance against the Commander with whom she had an illicit relationship in exchange for the possibility of freedom. It could have also been kept to herself, as it was in the book, but been developed further to represent the quiet resistance of simply surviving in a country like Gilead. The book, however, seemed to accomplish neither possibility and instead the phrase became a loose part of Offred’s story. 

Rather than being an outward critique or dire warning on today’s patriarchal society as many praise it to be, the most interesting theme “The Handmaid’s Tale” explored was the possibility of free will in a restricted society. It reminded me of a popular phrase used today, “ask not what you can do for misogyny, but what misogyny can do for you.” In the few male figures she interacted with within this book, from the Commander to Nick, Offred took advantage of the opportunities they could offer her in gaining freedom. Rather than being a book about breaking out of patriarchal standards, I found the story to be most telling of how to make use of and take advantage of those same standards to survive. 

Despite this, the book’s ending makes it clear that while survival can in and of itself be a political act, merely surviving will never be enough. In the end, Offred is faced with the choice of freedom with a big risk of death or continuing a relatively secure survival. Ultimately, Offred chooses freedom (readers are led to believe she would have been fine if this decision led to death before freedom).

Regardless of the reservations I have about Atwood’s storytelling style, I will continue on with the series and read “The Testaments.” Set decades after “The Handmaid’s Tale,” the sequel follows the perspectives of three different characters. I’m interested to see how Atwood’s writing style changes, if at all, and how the Republic of Gilead has progressed.

Tanya Kurnootala is a junior at VCU majoring in biology. She enjoys writing about issues that enrich the female perspective, with a focus on politics and women's health.