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by Donna Huber For the A to Z Challenge, I discussed different book genres/categories. Each day, I gave a few details about the genre/catego...

November 4, 2018

The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood #GreatReadPBS

by Donna Huber

The voting may be over for The Great American Read, but we are still discussing books from the list. My post-apocalyptic book club chose to read The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood for its November meeting (all the library book clubs chose books from the list and thanks to a grant the library was able to purchase the books for the members). I volunteered to lead the discussion. Below is the guide I created and some of my thoughts on the book.

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Some Background Information

The Handmaid's Tale
Gilead - the name of three people and two geographic locations in the Bible. It may mean Hill of Testimony or maybe rocky region. It is in present-day Jordan.

In the book, Gilead’s practice of handmaids is based on Genesis 30:1 - 3. Rachel gives Jacob her maidservant Bilhah to be his wife since she was unable to have children (though she does eventually bear him a child). Though, if you keep reading Leah, Rachel’s sister and also wife of Jacob, gives her maidservant Zilpah to Jacob when she no longer seems able to bear children (though Leah does conceive again).

Atwood specifically set out to write speculative fiction, as opposed to science fiction. She incorporated several historical events into her story. For example,

  • By the 1980s, birth rates were declining due to the increased availability of birth control and women delaying pregnancy/deciding not to have children. Under communist rule in Romania, birth control was outlawed and monthly pregnancy checks were mandated (Decree 770) due to declining birth rates in the 1950s and 60s. Prior to 1967, Romania had one of the most liberal abortion policies in Europe.
  • The Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978 was enacted to halt the practice of forcibly removing (in essence kidnapping) Native American children from their homes and placing them with white families. In some cases, the Bureau of Indian Affairs paid states to remove the children and place them with non-Indian families and religious groups. 

Check out 17 Moments in History that Inspired The Handmaid's Tale for more real-life events. For more discussion on the book and how women in some parts of the world are living in situations similar to The Handmaid's Tale, check out Amnesty International's book guide.

The working titled was Offred. Later, Atwood changed it to The Handmaid’s Tale to pay homage to the Canterbury Tales but also as a reference to fairytales and folktales.

The American Library Association lists The Handmaid’s Tale as the 37th most-challenged book in American schools, due to its perceived negative portrayal of organized religion.

My Thoughts

While I did not read it in high school, I do remember it being on our reading list in American Literature. In that class, we each had to select a book and do an hour presentation on it. I don't think the book was mandatory reading but I think someone did chose it for their presentation as I was familiar with the title.

I thought the story was interesting and I can see why it made the list of Great American Reads. It kind of reminded me of reading The Diary of Anne Frank with its personal insight and tangential nature.

I found it to be an easily accessible read even though there are a few SAT words thrown in that you don't see used every day.

There are also some quite lyrical passages:

"Then we had the irises, rising beautiful and cool on their tall stalks, like blown glass, like pastel water momentarily frozen in a splash, light blue, light mauve, and the darker ones, velvet and purple, black cat's ears in the sun, indigo shadow, and the bleeding hearts, so female in shape it was a surprise they'd not long since been rooted out. There is something subversive about this garden of Serena's, a sense of buried things bursting upwards, wordlessly, into the light, as if to point, to say: Whatever is silenced will clamor to be heard, though silently. A Tennyson garden, heavy with scent, languid; tge return of the word swoon. Light pours down upon it fro the sun, true, but also heat rises, from the flowers themselves, you can feel it: like holding your hand an inch above an arm, a shoulder. It breathes, in the warmth, breathing itself in. To walk through t these days, of peonies, of pinks an carnations, makes my head swim." p. 153

My only real complaint is the ending. I'm not a fan of abrupt endings. I like to know what happened to the characters after I have invested so much time with them. The Historical Notes at the end is somewhat of an epilogue, but I think it is too vague to be satisfying.

Interesting Quotes

Ignoring isn't the same as ignorance, you have to work at it. pg. 56

We were the people who were not in the papers. We lived in the blank white spaces at the edges of print. It gave us more freedom. We lived in the gaps between the stories. pg. 57

Which of us is it worst for, her or me? pg. 95

Maybe none of this is about control. Maybe it isn't about who can own whom, who can do what to whom and get away with it, even as far as death. Maybe it isn't about who can sit and who has to kneel or stand or lie down, legs spread apart. Maybe it's about who can do what to whom and be forgiven for it. pg. 135

Sometimes, however, Serena Joy is out, visiting another Commander's Wife, a sick one; that's the only place she could conceivably go, by herself, in the evenings." pg. 154 (I thought this was an ironic contrast to the Take Back the Night march that was mentioned earlier.)

A rat in a maze is free to go anywhere, as long as it stays inside the maze. pg. 165

Better never means better for everyone...It always means worse, for some. pg. 211

Discussion Questions

These are the questions I came up with to help jump-start our book club discussion. We started by going around and everyone shared some of their initial thoughts/feelings about the book. We didn't go through the questions verbatim, but we did touch on most of the topics represented by the questions.

  1. What is your overall opinion of The Handmaid’s Tale? Thoughts on it being included as a favorite American Read? It finished The Great American Read vote at #34, are you surprised?
  2. Before the Introduction, there are 3 epitaphs: Genesis 30:1-3; a quote from A Modest Proposal, a satirical essay published in 1729 by Jonathan Swift; and a Sufi proverb. How do they relate to the story?
  3. (a) As a work of speculative fiction, how realistic is the story as a possible future outcome for the US? It can be argued that parts of the world are already living a similar Handmaid’s Tale. (b) Atwood did not want to include any technology that was not already in existence. Now reading it 30+ years after its original publication, does the lack of technology affect your view of the story as a realistic possibility?
  4. It seems like the change in society happened overnight (the execution of the president and Congress, the suspension of the constitution), but did it really? Were there small changes that were mostly ignored that allowed the more drastic changes?
  5. The Handmaids are referred to by the husband’s name, of Glen, of Warren, etc. Is it just coincidence that Atwood called the main character Offred? If pronounced like off red as it is in the show, it is close to offered. In what ways is she a possession, an offering?
  6. At the end of chapter 16 (the ceremony), Offred wonders, “Which of us is it worst for, her or me?” The Commander remarks that “Better never means better for everyone...It always means worse, for some.” Is the society better, in part or in whole? Is anyone truly happy with this societal scheme?
  7. How reliable of a narrator do you think Offred is as she herself admits her story is a reconstruction (chapter23)?
  8. Aunt Lydia, Janine, Moira and Offred’s mother represent more than themselves. What are their roles in the story? What does each symbolize?
  9. It is often mentioned that someone could be a true believer. A true believer of what? The regime? The Biblical mandates? That this is really a better way of life?
  10. What do you think of how Offred’s story ends? Would you have preferred to know what happened to her or is the speculation of the historical notes enough?

TV vs. Book

I checked out the DVDs for the first season of the Hulu series, the only season my library system has. My hold came in quicker than I thought it would so I actually watched it before I read the book. We didn't discuss the show as most had not seen it. There were a couple of remarks at the end about some key differences. I prepared a few questions in case we did want to discuss the show.
  1. Do you feel the television series is being faithful to the spirit of the book, if not the letter?
  2. In the show, Serena’s backstory has her being a major proponent of traditional values and traditional roles for women. Does this change in backstory change how you view the character of the show and the character in the book?
  3. Offred in the show is more rebellious than the one in the book. Which one do you prefer? What about the changes to the other characters’ storylines?

My Thoughts on Season 1

There are a number of differences between the book and show as there is with any adaptation. But the first season at least was faithful to the spirit of the book. I'm not sure about the following seasons given the way the first season ended.

In the show, I felt Serena had a much stronger role politically than implied in the book. In the book, it was more like she was a motivational speaker. I think I felt sorrier for her in the show than in the book.

Also, I liked Offred in the show more than the book. I like strong female characters so I favored the more rebellious version. Maybe because I'm a "make the best of a situation" type of person, I like for characters to fight back, rebel against the status quo. In other words, the opposite of me. With only seeing the first season, I think I kind of prefer the show. I don't want to give anything away for those who haven't watched the show so I won't say much more.

Have you read this book? What are your thoughts on it? How would you have answered any of the questions above?

Buy The Handmaid's Tale at Amazon

Donna Huber is an avid reader and natural encourager. She is the founder of Girl Who Reads and the author of how-to marketing book Secrets to a Successful Blog Tour.

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  1. I know this is a favorite among many, but I just couldn't get into it. Maybe I wasn't in the right kind of mood at the time. After reading the above I may watch the show instead of picking up the book once again. Thank you Donna.

    1. If I read it in high school I don't think I would have enjoyed it at all. I had more of an appreciation for the story now.

  2. I read The Handmaid’s Tale for the first time in my early 20s. I loved it. I haven’t seen the show. I don’t have Hulu, but I’m tempted to get it just so I can watch this one show. :)

    Aj @ Read All The Things!

    1. I don't have Hulu either so I checked the DVDs out from the library. I think season 2 and 3 goes beyond the book and I'm not sure how much imput Atwood had in the script.

  3. I'm reading this right now. I never read it in school either. I am really enjoying this because I think her writing is exceptionally beautiful.