The Handmaid’s Tale

The Handmaid’s Tale


Offred is a Handmaid living in what once was America and is now known as The Republic of Gilead. She has only one function: to breed.

Those in charge expect them to give themselves over to the new regime and to forget their former lives but Offred is finding it hard and finds solace in small rebellions.

She desperately seeks someone to share in her views but who can she trust?

Our Review

I feel like any review of this book is going to say things that have been said a million times before so for this review I am going to try something a little different. I will be partially treating this as a review, but I will also be treating it a bit like a study guide. This will contain some spoilers so if you don’t want any don’t read it!

The Handmaid’s Tale is my favourite book which is surprising when you consider that I first read it whilst I was studying it for my A level English Literature class. Normally this would have killed any love I may have had for it, but I couldn’t get enough.

When it came to the exam, we were not allowed to have the book with us but it hardly mattered because by this time I had read The Handmaid’s Tale so many times that I could recite large parts of it off by heart. I ended up getting the highest mark in my year for the exam (something which differed from my usual middle of the road results.)

Seventeen years later and I still love The Handmaid’s Tale as much as I did back then. I have read many other works by Margaret Atwood since then, but this remains my favourite. I own a first edition (albeit without the dust jacket) and I own four other copies of it in various guises.

The Handmaid’s Tale is a book I get something different from each time I read it and I hope you enjoy it as much as me.

Offred’s time at the Rachel and Leah Centre.

Given to the reader in dribs and drabs throughout the book.

They slept in the old gym.

“There was old sex in the room and loneliness, and expectation of something, without a shape or name. I remember that yearning, for something that was always about to happen and was never the same as the hands that were on us then in the small of the back, in the parking lot, or in the television room with the sound turned down and only the pictures flickering over lifting flesh.” – Nostalgia

The first time we find out the US doesn’t exist as it once did – “army-issue blankets, old-ones that still said US.”

The Centre was guarded and surrounded by a chain link fence.

“Ordinary, said Aunt Lydia, is what you are used to. This may not seem ordinary to you no, but after a time it will. It will become ordinary.”

Hope and Rebellion

There is a reflective and retrospective aspect to Offred’s telling. This provides some hope that she has escaped.

Offred and the others within the tale had their little rebellions and ways of keeping hope alive. The quotes in this section reflect that hope and the different ways in which they keep it alive.

“The Angels stood outside with their backs to us. They were objects of fear to us, but something else as well. If only they would look. If only we could talk to them. Something could be exchanged, we thought, some deal made, some trade-off. We still had our bodies. That was our fantasy.”

“There it was, in tiny writing, quite fresh it seemed, scratched with a pin or maybe just a fingernail, in the corner where the darkest shadow fell: Nolite bastardes carborundorum.

I didn’t know what it meant, or even what language it was in. I thought it might be in Latin, but I didn’t know any Latin, still, it was a message, and it was in writing, forbidden by that very fact, and it hadn’t yet been discarded. Except by me, for whom it was intended for whoever came next.”

“This contradictory way of believing seems to me, right now, the only way I can believe anything. Whatever the truth is, I will be ready for it.

This is also a belief of mine. This also may be untrue.

One of the gravestones in the cemetery near the earliest church has an anchor on it and an hourglass, and the words: In Hope.

In Hope. Why did they put that above a dead person? Was it the corpse hoping, or those still alive?

Does Luke hope?”  - is Like still alive?

“This is a reconstruction…If I ever get out of here –

Let’s stop there. I intend to get out of here. It can’t last forever. Others have thought such things, in bad times before this, and they were always right, they did get out one way or another, and it didn’t last forever. Although for them it may have lasted all the forever they had.

When I get out of here, if I’m ever able to set this down, in any form, even in the form of one voice to another, it will be a reconstruction then too, at yet another remove. It’s impossible to say a thing exactly the way it was, because what you say can never be exact, you always have to leave something out, there are too many parts, sides, crosscurrents, nuances; too many gestures, which could mean this or that, too many shapes which can never be fully described, too many flavours, in the air or on the tongue, half-colours, too many.”

“And so I step up, into the darkness within; or else the light.”

Life in Gilead

“This is the kind of touch they like; Folk art, archaic, made by women, in their spare time, from things that have no further use. A return to traditional values. Waste not want not. I am not being wasted. Why do I want?”

They have tokens for food.

Women (other than the Aunts) aren’t allowed to read so all the shops have signs to signify what they sell.

Hello is no longer a standard greeting instead they must say “Blessed be the fruit” and the reply “May the Lord open.”

The Handmaids have to travel in twos and are accountable for one another’s actions.

“This woman has been my partner for two weeks. I don’t know what happened to the one before. On a certain day she simply wasn’t there anymore, and this one was in her place. It isn’t the sort of thing you ask questions about, because the answers are not usually answers you want to know. Anyway there wouldn’t be an answer.”

“One of them is vastly pregnant; her belly under her loose garment, swells triumphantly. There is a shifting in the room, a murmur, an escape of breath, despite ourselves we turn our heads, blatantly, to see better; our fingers itch to touch her. She is a magic presence to us, an object of envy and desire, we covet her. She’s a flag on a hilltop showing us what can still be done: we too can be saved.”

The Wall – “The Hooks look like appliances for the armless. Or steel question marks, upside-down and sideways.” – who are they? Is it someone they know?

Doctors “These men, we’ve been told, are like war criminals. It’s no excuse that what they did was legal at the time: their crimes are retroactive. They have committed atrocities, and must be made into examples, for the rest. Though this is hardly needed. No woman in her right mind, these days, would seek to prevent a birth, should she be so lucky as to conceive.”

Bodies on the wall – “What I feel towards them is blackness. What I feel is that I must not feel. What I feel is partly relief, because none of these men is Luke. Luke wasn’t a doctor. Isn’t.”

“I would like to believe this is a story I’m telling. I need to believe it. I must believe it. Those who can believe such stories are only stories have a better chance.

If it is a story I’m telling, then I have control over the ending. Then there will be an ending, to the story, and real life will come after it. I can pick up where I left off.

It isn’t a story I’m telling.”

Writing is forbidden.

Doctor – “Most of those old guys can’t make it anymore,” he says. “Or they’re sterile.”

I almost gasp: he’s said a forbidden word: sterile. There is no such thing as a sterile man anymore, not officially. There are only women who are barren, that’s the law.”

“We are two-legged wombs, that’s all: sacred vessels, ambulatory chalices.”

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

“Freedom, like everything else, is relative.”


Offred’s relationship to other characters

Serena Joy

Derisive – I wonder whether or not the Commander’s wife is in the sitting room. She doesn’t always sit. Sometimes I can hear her pacing back and forth, a heavy step and then a light one, and the soft tap of her cane on the dusty-rose carpet.”  

“I envy the Commander’s wife her knitting. It’s good to have small goals that can be easily attained.

What does she envy me?

She doesn’t speak to me, unless she can’t avoid it. I am a reproach to her, and a necessity.” – obvious what she is envious of is Offred’s ability to conceive.


“She thinks I am catching, like a disease or any form of bad luck. Once, though I heard Rita say to Cora that she wouldn’t debase herself like that.

Nobody is asking you, Cora said. Anyway, what could you do, supposing?

Go to the Colonies, Rita said. They have the choice.

With the Unwomen, and starve to death and lord knows what all? Said Cora. Catch you.”

“The Commander sighs, takes out a pair of reading glasses from his inside jacket pocket, gold rims, slips them on. Now he looks like a shoemaker in an old fairytale book. Is there no end to his disguises of benevolence?”

“For him, I must remember, I am only a whim.”


Luke and her daughter

“She could get one of those over her head, he’d say. You know how kids live to play. She never would I’d say. She’s too old. (Or too smart, or too lucky.) But I would feel a chill of fear, and then guilt for having being so careless. It was true, I took too much for granted.”

“She comes back to me at different ages. This is how I know she’s not really a ghost she would be the same age always.”

“She fades, I can’t keep her here with me, she’s gone now. Maybe I do think of her as a ghost, the ghost of a dead girl, a little girl who died when she was five.”


First description of him. Rebel

“He’s wearing the uniform of the Guardians but his cap is tilted at a jaunty angle and his sleeves are rolled to the elbow…He lives here, in the household, over the garage. Low status: he hasn’t been issued a woman, not even one. He doesn’t rate: some defect, lack of connections. But he acts as if he doesn’t know this or can. He’s too casual, he’s not servile enough.”

Can he be trusted?

“Smells fishy, they used to say; or, I smell a rat. Misfit as odour. Despite myself, I think of how he might smell. Not fish or decaying rat: tanned skin, moist in the sun, filmed with smoke. I sigh inhaling.”

After he sees her looking and winks

“He’s just taken a risk, but for what? What if I report him?

Perhaps, he was merely being friendly. Perhaps he saw the look on my face and mistook it for something else. Really what I wanted was the cigarette.

Perhaps it was a test, to see what I would do.

Perhaps he is an Eye.”

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

And then I thought afterwards: this is a betrayal. Not the thing itself but my own response. If I knew for certain he was dead, would that make a difference?

I would like to be without shame.

I would like to be shameless. I would like to be ignorant. Then I would not know how ignorant I was.”


Life before Gilead

“Women were not protected then.

I remember the rules, rules that were never spelled out but every woman knew; don’t open your front door to a stranger, even if he says he is the police. Make him slide his ID under the door. Don’t stop on the road to help a motorist pretending to be in trouble. Keep the locks on and keep going. If anyone whistles, don’t turn to look. Don’t go into a laundromat, by yourself, at night…

Now we walk along the same street, in red pairs, and no man shouts obscenities at us, speaks to us, touches us. No one whistles. There is more than one kind of freedom, said Aunt Lydia. Freedom to and freedom from. In the days of Anarchy, it was freedom to. Now you are being given Freedom from. Don’t underrate it.”

“Nothing changes instantaneously: in a gradually heating bathtub you’d be boiled to death before you knew it.”

“That was when they suspended the constitution. They said it would be temporary. There wasn’t even rioting in the streets. People stayed home at night, watching television. Looking for some direction. There wasn’t even an enemy you could put your finger on.”


Historical Notes – life after Gildead

Symposium of Gileadean Studies held at University of Denay, Nunavit  - Deny None of it – it could happen

“Are there any questions?” – myriad of questions

The Historical Notes mean a lot more to me after reading The Testaments


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