Margaret Atwood published her The Handmaid’s Tale book in the 1980s and it immediately became a bestseller.
It has a dystopian plot where a powerful organization enforces dictatorial politics and oppressive laws on the subjects of the Republic of Gilead. For more books written by Atwood, check out our selection of the best Margaret Atwood books including this one.
The Handmaid’s Tale Book Series
While in a constant state of war with outside enemies, inside Gilead life was far from relaxed. It was organized on a tiered system and inhabitants were forced into roles according to status.
Gilead was running out of natural resources, experiencing plagues, and worst of all, there was extensive infertility. So, the leaders distorted Biblical readings and imposed a religious fundamentalist strategy on society to promote reproduction.
Fertile women were compelled to reproduce children for Commanders whose wives were unable to conceive. These women were called the Handmaids and were specially trained to be submissive and servile, fully prepared for pregnancy. They were forced to wear special uniforms and accept a name that indicated which Commander they were in service to.
Each month they were to sleep with the Commander. If they become pregnant and delivered a baby, they had to give it to the Commander and his wife. Their reward was that they were saved from being sent to the Colonies where “unwomen” performed forced labor on toxic dumps.
The story is narrated by one of the Handmaids called Offred. She tells of how she was only allowed to leave the home of her Commander and his wife once a day. The purpose was to walk to the food market.
She could remember her past when she had a husband, Luke, and a daughter whom she loved. She used to have a job, earn her own money and she had been educated. In Gilead, women are not even allowed to read.
Reviews of The Handmaid’s Tale book series use dramatic exclamations such as, “It changed my life” and it has received many five star reviews. One must wonder why this book has such a powerful effect on readers?
The horrific portrayal of a future where women are forced to be Handmaids has a chillingly familiar feel to it. It reminds us of our recent past and terrifies us of the possibility of it becoming a reality in our modern world. For a woman, the dystopian plot is credible.
Atwood chooses her words carefully and keeps the reader entranced. Surprisingly, there is some humor in the story but mostly there is a feeling of revulsion mixed and incredulity. But it is fascinating all the same.
A Stark Warning
We also have to take it as a warning of how easily our world could change if anyone in power, be they male or female, chooses to use it to further their abhorrent ends. This book has a moral as well as a political message for today.
Before the Republic of Gilead was established, Offred was a regular woman in every sense of the word. She misses two things from her previous life: the freedom to talk and she longs to feel the wonder of human touch – both of which are forbidden for the Handmaids. During the harsh training to become submissive Handmaids, Offred, and the other women secretly whispered and held hands when the Aunts are not looking.
She understood the hierarchy and took note of those with power, like the Commander, and those who were powerless and in low positions (the Marthas). This knowledge/insight is her protection against those who could cause her trouble.
Her love of words, their meanings, and manipulations show her academic characteristics and she puts this ability to good use when playing Scrabble, a forbidden activity, with the Commander. While The Handmaid’s Tale features on the list of top feminist books, it is a book for all who are concerned about injustice and inequality in the world.
The Testaments is the second book in the Handmaid’s Tale series of books written by Margaret Atwood. The story opens fifteen years after the end of the first book and has one important thread – Baby Nicole.
Offred was the mother of Nicole (sired by her lover) and became the “child” of Waterford and his wife. The baby had been smuggled into Canada and disappeared after that.
What Had Become of Gilead?
With the help of the “Underground Femaleroad”, many handmaids had escaped to freedom and the Republic of Gilead had felt the loss of their contribution. Finding baby Nicole had become an obsession so that she could be returned to her rightful place in Gilead.
The story is told by three women. Aunt Lydia, who is furtively recording her memoirs. The second is a young woman called Agnes. She is being “groomed” to marry a commander. Daisy is the third character. She is a spirited teenager who lives with two people she assumes are her parents, but the relationship has never felt right to her. Her parents run a thrift store in Canada.
The first part of The Testaments is the revelation of how these three women are connected, and their links to Gilead. With her usual wit and sparkle, Atwood has achieved another best- selling feminist book that challenges the reader to reflect on how much current world events and leaders are mirrored in Gilead.
Reviews of the Testaments
Fans of The Handmaid’s Tale have been disappointed, in the main, by the second book in the series. It lacks a subtext and the layers of intrigue that readers so enjoyed in the first book. Perhaps it is because the book is based on the memories of the characters, so there is very little left to the reader’s imagination.
It is always difficult to follow in the footsteps of greatness, and The Testaments book is not in the same league as The Handmaid’s Tale. You can learn more about other amazing books by Atwood in our MaddAddam book series review.