Classic Book Review: The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

I’ve spent the past few years reading (okay, mostly listening to audiobooks) through a long list of classic science fiction novels (more on that at the end of the year), but I’ve put off reading Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale almost to the end of that list because I didn’t think I would like it very much. With my limited knowledge of the subject matter, it really didn’t sound like it would be up my alley. But I finally read it, and I have to say, it’s a lot better than I expected.

(Note that I haven’t seen the Hulu series. This review is only about the book.)

Before I read The Handmaid’s Tale, I had the impression that it was anti-Christian propaganda. Granted, the people shouting this the loudest are all to my political right, so you might want to take that with a grain of salt. But as a Christian, when you hear that the book is about a dystopian, theocratic state that claims to quote the Bible, but engages in extremely un-Christian practices like keeping concubines (though they deny that’s what the Handmaids are), you kind of have to wonder.

But having read it, I am confident in saying The Handmaid’s Tale is not anti-Christian. It becomes abundantly clear early on in the story that Gilead, the dictatorship that has overthrown the U.S. government, is not genuinely Christian, as Atwood herself has said in the past, and is opposed to all mainstream Christians, even conservative ones like Baptists. Moreover, Atwood, though an agnostic, herself, praises the values of Christianity as Jesus taught it, and she has specifically said that her book is not meant to be anti-religious. Instead, it’s a statement (and a thought experiment) about totalitarianism, just like most of the other dystopias. And you don’t have to take my word for it; my Catholic readers may be interested in this review written by a friar who comes to the same conclusion. And it’s a pretty good book, too.

My rating: 4 out of 5.

If you aren’t familiar, The Handmaid’s Tale is set in an alternate then-future, probably around 2005, in which the United States has been overthrown by a brutal, dictatorial movement called the Sons of Jacob, who establish the nation of Gilead. Gilead claims to be a Christian nation, but practices Old Testament Biblical law, in which “heresy” (like being a mainstream Christian), adultery, homosexuality, and more are punishable by death. A catastrophic drop in fertility has made it impossible for many people to have children, so fertile women are rounded up and forced to serve as Handmaids—sex slaves/surrogate mothers for the rich and powerful. (They base this practice on the Biblical story of Jacob and his wives.)

Gilead does not look like any sect of Christianity you’re likely to see today. (Again, the concubines are kind of a dead giveaway.) In fact, pretty early on, you hear about the State rooting out and destroying a group of rebels. Who were these rebels? Baptists. Not just other Christians, but conservative Christians (or at least, that’s the stereotype). I think this is a big deal. Jerry Falwell, the founder of Moral Majority and probably the face of the Christian Right at the time Atwood wrote the book was a Southern Baptist preacher—someone who would have been hanged in Gilead.

The Sons of Jacob, also make up new Bible passages to support their version of Christianity. (Women are forbidden from reading, so there’s no one to say otherwise.) In addition to the story of Jacob, the Commander quotes the Communist Manifesto of all things as a Bible verse to justify the Handmaid’s “Ceremony.” Revelation 22:18 has something to say about that.

Another charge, or praise, depending which side you’re on, laid at the feet of The Handmaid’s Tale is the way it is held up as the quintessential example of feminist science fiction (technically speculative fiction), and more politically, it has recently gained new interest among opponents of the Trump Administration. I’ll leave comparing and contrasting Gilead with Trump’s America to others. What I think is more interesting is that Atwood herself has said the book was neither meant to be feminist nor political! No, not in such absolute terms; it’s certainly not anti-feminist, but Gilead is not male chauvinism. Atwood wrote in detail how she meant Gilead to be a place where the powerful of both sexes oppress everyone else, just like every other dictatorship out there.

Nor did she write The Handmaid’s Tale in response to Reaganism or the Christian Right, despite both being prominent in America at the time. (In fact Atwood is Canadian, and she wrote most of the book while living in West Berlin.) Instead, she drew inspiration from repressive regimes from all over the world, past and present, from the theocratic Puritans of New England to the Ayatollahs of Iran.

As I said before, The Handmaid’s Tale was a thought experiment: how could a dictatorship (of any kind) come about in the United States? And Atwood gives us her answer: it would exploit the repressive (or potentially repressive) elements that were already present in society—the conservative, theocratic strain that descends from the Puritans (who were no friends to religious freedom). In other words, it would come carrying the Cross—or rather the Stone Tablets, as it would find the heavier-handed Old Testament to be more useful. The regime would not be Christian in any meaningful way, but it would use Christianity to justify its actions. This is Gilead.

All in all, I can certainly recommend The Handmaid’s Tale. If you’re listening to pop culture—on either side of the political aisle—it’s probably not what you think it is. It’s actually a very cleverly constructed and cinematically written narrative that was meant to be far more universal than the issues usually associated with it. I will give a warning to parents and younger readers: it does have some sexual content (not as much as you might think), but it’s not there to be titillating—quite the opposite. The whole point is how uncomfortable, mechanical, and un-arousing it is. But with this caveat, it’s definitely worth the read.

I do have one other criticism that I didn’t mention above, and that is that I think reading The Handmaid’s Tale as a cautionary tale in the same way that you would, say, Nineteen Eighty-Four, is really taking it too far. But that’s a complicated issue that will need its own post.

About Alex R. Howe

I'm a full-time astrophysicist and a part-time science fiction writer.
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