Why 'The Handmaid’s Tale' Is A Must Read

A deeper look into the infamous novel by Atwood, and why it really is the literary masterpiece people say it is.
the handmaid's tale is a must read
image source: ellecanada

It’s no secret that Margaret Atwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale is somewhat of a literary masterpiece; the 1985 novel is still widely spoken about and recognised today.

It is on many A-Level English specifications, as well as having a hit television show based on it. Further, a highly-anticipated sequel to the novel was released in 2019, entitled The Testaments. The handmaid’s costumes are somewhat iconic, universally recognised, and are often used in protests surrounding female rights and equality.

With all this in mind, the question must be asked, why all the hype? Why is this novel so powerful, and how is it still relevant today?

Well, here are some reasons why the handmaid's tale is a must-read.

1. The Representation of Women and Exploration of Feminism

representation of women and exploration of feminism in the Handmaid's tale
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Under The Republic of Gilead, the fictional dystopic world Atwood has created, women are redefined and forced into a life of subjugation to a patriarchal society. The reflections of women assigned by the government, such as the Handmaids, Econowives, and Aunts are representations of a woman’s previous sins.

An example of one of the sins portrayed is infidelity; the act of being unfaithful to a partner. In the text, women are completely stripped of their human rights and their voice is completely stifled. They are most notably oppressed of their reproductive rights; the ability to read and write is also removed.

The deprivation of rights suffered by women is extremely dehumanising, as they are unable to live their lives and record their history. This representation of women is shocking to readers, as it shows us what could happen to women, or anyone, under a strict government regime.

The feminist notes intertwined throughout the novel are extremely powerful pieces of writing and are responsible for many women’s feminist ideals.

2. Historical Relevance of the Novel

historical relevance of Handmaid's tale
image source: insider

Another reason as to why this novel is a must-read is because everything within the novel has happened in the past, somewhere in history.

This is the single aspect of Atwood’s novel that I find probably the most intriguing. Whilst the novel is a work of dystopic fiction, none of the key elements are figments of Atwood’s imagination, it all happened in real life, at some point during history. Atwood herself once quoted:

“One of my rules was that I would not put any events into the book that had not already happened… nor any technology not already available. No imaginary gizmos, no imaginary laws, no imaginary atrocities. God is in the details, they say. So is the Devil.”

Here are some examples of historical events within the novel of how aspects related to the Holocaust, a key historical event:

One aspect of the novel which relates to the Holocaust is the mistreatment of women, which relates to the Nazi’s mistreatment of Jews during World War Two.

Just as Jews who were deemed unfit to work were sent to concentration camps and were killed, women who were deemed infertile in Gilead were sent to the Colonies, labelled as “un-women” and sentenced to certain death clearing radioactive, toxic waste.

Another example of relations between The Handmaid’s Tale and the Holocaust is the removal of identity. Within Atwood’s novel, handmaids lose their name, and they become the property of their Commander, the man she must have sex with and then fall pregnant with his child.

The protagonist of the novel, Offred, is called as such because she is the property ‘of’ her Commander, ‘Fred’; she literally is his property, as are all the handmaids to their respective Commanders.

They have no individuality, no names, and their bodies and faces are always kept hidden and concealed. Similarly, Jews in the Holocaust have stripped of their identities also, lost their clothes, and were tattooed with a number, and that was what they were known as.

3. Relevance to Contemporary Society

Furthermore, another reason as to why the novel is a must-read is because it is still relevant today. One example showing the relevance of Atwood’s novel in modern society is the rate of sales in key moments in recent history.

For example, when Donald Trump came into power in 2016, over 30 years after the novel was written, sales of The Handmaid’s Tale skyrocketed. Atwood’s publicist stated that “since the election, it's been 200 percent increase in sales.”

4. The Popularity of the TV Show

The Testiments tv show
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Further, there is also a TV show currently running on Hulu, this program has currently produced 4 seasons and a fifth is on the way, even though the plot directly following the book has now been completed.

The hit show accompanied by the sequel to the novel entitled The Testaments which was released in 2019 both serve to demonstrate how the novel is still relevant today.

The soon to be 5 seasons of the show exhibit how the concept is worthwhile pursuing, if it was not then the show would not still be running.

The fact that the show is streamed on multiple platforms (Hulu and Channel 4) further reinforces the popularity of the show, because multiple TV platforms are streaming the show meaning it is watched by people globally, not just in one country, as Channel 4 is a British platform and Hulu is American.

This is demonstrating that the show has generated global interest and made a global impact.  

5. Atwood’s Admirable Fearlessness in Writing

margaret atwood is a fearless writer
image source: independent

There is no fear in exploring the difficult, stigmatized, or taboo political issues throughout the course of the novel.

 Atwood is no stranger to tackling difficult issues and was not afraid to discuss them within The Handmaid’s Tale. So much so, it was “Banned and challenged for profanity and for ‘vulgarity and sexual overtones.’” 

Personally, I admire Atwood for her bravery in exploring these issues, bringing attention and awareness to concepts such as infertility or totalitarianism, which do deserve to be spoken about.

6. The powerful novel inspired Political Protests

The influence of her exploration of these issues within the novel has gone on to symbolise very key political movements. For example, see Figure 1, of a protest against Trump, with whom the women compare Trump’s perception of women to be equal to Gilead’s perception of them.

handmaids tale inspired political protests
image source: vanityfair

7. The Novel is a Symbol of Overcoming Adversity

There are many iconic and famous quotes within the novel, one of which is a brilliant symbol representing overcoming adversity. It reads “nolite te bastardes carborundorum” which translates to “don’t let the bastards grind you down”. This is a great philosophy to apply to live, and one that massively resonates with me!

Especially as a teenager in school, I faced some adversity, and at the time I was really affected by people’s responses to who I was. But now, after having truly understood Atwood’s message in this one simple phrase, I realise that the adversity I faced was not my fault, so I should not let the ignorance or arrogance of others affect how I see myself.

When I look in the mirror, I no longer see a broken or damaged individual, I see someone who is empowered by the adversity she has faced, and that I will not “let the bastards grind [me] down”. In a novel that explores challenging and distressing themes, that are not upbeat or ending happily, Atwood still includes this affirmation, and I admire her for preaching resilience and bravery in this novel.

8. Offred is a Survivor and Someone we Can All Aspire to be Like in Some Form

Offred is a survivor and an inspiration

This is not dissimilar to the point made above, but I love how Atwood not only uses a phrase (“nolite te bastardes carborundorum”) to symbolise resilience, she also uses a character: Offred.

I admire the character’s bravery throughout the novel, Offred endured so much through the course of the book, and it took me stepping back and looking at the novel as a whole to realise that she is a symbol of bravery.

Many of the handmaids end up dead or become mentally unstable, Offred has a mental breakdown at one point but for the most part, keeps herself together very well. In essence, merely surviving to the end of the novel is in itself an achievement.

Personally, I aspire to be like Offred because of this. She endures so many hardships within the novel and faces so many challenges that I think she is somewhat of a heroine. She faces adversity, heartache, and abuse, but she makes it through. I aspire to possess the resilient and brave qualities that Offred does.

It’s very well written with wonderful wordplay and exploration of meanings

This is far less political than the other points on this list, however still one that I feel is worth mentioning.

This novel drove me to tears in parts, some bits made me feel uncomfortable, and in other sections, I could not put it down. The messages and meanings within the novel would not be half as powerful as they are to readers if the novel was not well written.

However, Atwood’s attention to detail accompanied by her skill make for an exceptionally well-written novel that is full of meaning and space for exploration.  I was fully immersed in the novel whilst reading it, I found it so well written, it is a novel that I am sure I won’t ever forget reading.

Studying for a degree in English; working as a tutor and as a writer. Charity founder and lover of literature.

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