The Handmaid’s Tale (1986)

Houghton Mifflin, 1986

“I want everything back, the way it was. But there is no point to it, this wanting.”

So says the narrator, whom we know as Offred. But that’s not her real name.

And it doesn’t feel to her that this is her real life, what she’s doing now.

That’s all back then. Back the way it was. And now is something else, something other.

“Every night when I go to bed I think, In the morning I will wake up in my own house and things will be back the way they were.”

Margaret Atwood’s novel was thought timely when it was published, now it’s called prescient. And it’s truly eerie that, reading it 25 years later can be as profound a reading experience as the first time.

This is actually my fourth reading of it. But, even so, I had managed to forget the final segment of the book. I remembered what it meant to me, what is whispered to me of the story’s resolution, but I didn’t remember the delivery. And it’s just so well done.

“Pain marks you, but too deep to see.”

“Waiting is also a place; it is wherever you wait. For me it’s this room. I am a blank, here, between parentheses. Between other people.”

“A rat in a maze is free to go anywhere, as long as it stays inside the maze.”

“This idea hangs between us, almost visible, almost palpable: heavy, formless, dark; collusion of a sort, betrayal of a sort. She does want that baby.”

(Oh, that character’s role was even more fascinating to me on this reading; I think I’d largely overlooked her before, focussing on Offred instead.)

“All I can hope for is a reconstruction: the way love feels is always only approximate.”

People use words like ‘bleak’, ‘disturbing’ and ‘sad’ when they talk about this novel. And I use those words too. (Yes, there’s a ‘but’ there: later.)

Even though it’s not clear for a long time (until the end of the book, actually, but the process begins at about the half-way mark) what has happened, it’s clear that it’s not a good thing for Offred.

“Better never means better for everyone, he says. It always means worse, for some.”

Is it better for him? That’s something to think about. While you’re trying to piece it all together, to bridge the gap between “back” and “the way it was” and now when it’s “worse, for some”.

“There’s no longer any hand lotion or face cream, not for us. Such things are considered vanities. We are containers, it’s only the insides of our bodies that are important. The outside can become hard and wrinkled, for all they care, like the shell of a nut. This was a decree of the Wives, this absence of hand lotion. They don’t want us to look attractive. For them, things are bad enough as it is.”

This is how the reader learns. At first solely by talk of what no longer is. And, so, there is no longer hand cream.

“I rub the butter over my face, work it into the skin of my hands.” She has concealed it inside her shoe, kept it until it is dark and she is alone.

And the reader learns by talk of what remains. And, so, there is butter.

“As long as we do this, butter our skin to keep it soft, we can believe that we will some day get out, that we will be touched again, in love or desire. We have ceremonies of our own, private ones.”

And, also, the reader learns by what is not talked about, what’s left out. And, so, there are other ceremonies, not-private ceremonies, public ceremonies. All of this is pieced together gradually.

All the while with a nagging awareness.

This. Is. Not. Good.

“Buttered, I lie on my single bed, flat, like a piece of toast. I can’t sleep. In the semidark I stare up at the blind plaster eye in the middle of the ceiling, which stares back down at me, even though it can’t see. There’s no breeze, my white curtains are like gauze bandages, hanging limp, glimmering in the aura cast by the search-light that illuminates this house at night, or is there a moon?”

All the while with stark prose and the occasional slap-you-up-the-side-of-the-head image like that buttered, toasted woman (which should have been such a comforting image, right?).

Those bandage curtains and the unlikelihood that light cast is from anything other than a search-light. It’s just horrifying. Even though this was a re-read, I couldn’t read it before I went to sleep.

But there is more. “But I can’t believe it; hope is rising in me, like sap in a tree. Blood in a wound. We have made an opening.”

And that’s from the middle of the novel. And you’ve had no choice but to keep reading, but now you want to.

And, have you?



  1. Laura December 14, 2011 at 5:46 am - Reply

    I’ve only read this once, but I can see where its themes would be enduring. I definitely intend to re-read from time to time.

    • Buried In Print December 20, 2011 at 3:56 pm - Reply

      I’m already planning more re-reads of Margaret Atwood’s novels. I’ve re-read a few already and always been impressed. But this one really does seem to demand re-reading right now, with the political turmoil — and curtailing of freedom(s) — in these times.

  2. Amy December 12, 2011 at 9:03 pm - Reply

    Wow, powerful post! Really enjoyed this book when I read it and you really make me want to read it again.

  3. Vasilly December 12, 2011 at 12:20 pm - Reply

    I still haven’t! If you’ve read this book four times already, I know it’s powerful.

    • Buried In Print December 20, 2011 at 3:53 pm - Reply

      Y’know…I just keep expecting it to “date”. But it doesn’t. Which, yes, does make it all-the-more powerful. ::sigh::

  4. Kate December 12, 2011 at 7:44 am - Reply

    This is one of my favourite books of all time that I have re-read multiple times too. I love the ambiguity of the ending; and yes, I agree that it is un-put-down-able!

    • Buried In Print December 20, 2011 at 3:52 pm - Reply

      I really didn’t remember it being such a page-turner before, but it was a pleasant surprise; I ended up reading the first 100 pages on my way to a reading and back, just zipping along.

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