First published in 1985; my edition Vintage 1996 ISBN 9780099740919

Memorable quotes

Page 23. It's good to have small goals that can be easily attained.
Page 49. Tell, rather than write, because I have nothing to write with and writing is in any case forbidden. But if it's a story, even in my head, I must be telling it to someone.You don't tell a story only to yourself. There's always someone else. Even when there is no one.

Critique

I found this story to be flawed in many ways. The transformation of contemporary America to a theocratic society was too swift and too easy in this bland dystopian novel. The prose style is very fluid, and it contains many interesting quotable passages (see above). However, in broad terms, the book is quite dull and kind of a slog. The premise lacks distinction. It might have been invented by a marketing hack whose statistical surveys tell her a book made of equal parts Nineteen Eighty-Four and The Stepford Wives will be a bestseller in 1985.

We are told that there were some nuclear power plant disasters, a decline in the birth rate due to disease or irradiation, and a military coup which brought down the federal government. That these events would be sufficient to enable rapid drastic shifts in American social structures - regulation of sexual practices, loss of reproductive rights, no education, no entertainment, no work other than one specific job (cook, maid, reproductive surrogate, prostitute) - is ridiculous. Women, presumably half the population in this story as they are in reality, are supposed to have been enslaved in the span of a decade.

The handmaid herself is already broken at the beginning. She tells us how her freedom was taken away piece by piece. Her accounts were siezed, and her mother disappeared. She and her husband tried to escape with their daughter but the attempt failed. Her child was taken from her and she was sent to a prison for training women to be reproductive surrogates. At which point in this story would you try to escape again or fight back? With the one exception of her first and last attempt, the handmaid is compliant, implausibly so.

The setting is very close to present-day reality with only minimal changes: a generic town on a river near the Eastern seaboard, mundane in the extreme. It is for all intents and purposes our reality, only with nearly all stimulating artifacts erased or locked up in the Commander's study. Men, too, are subject to new rigid rules. All of the male characters belong to the military or state police organizations (if there is a distinction) and have very narrowly defined freedoms.

The handmaid's memoir contains bits and pieces of the background story of how the revolution was achieved. It seems as if the author set out to describe a horribly oppressive yet familiar life and then had to cook up an explanation for how everything got to be horrible in the first place. Could our liberal Western society really twist itself into this awkward shape? Would no other country intervene?1 (As if to fill that plot hole like a shallow grave, the narrator mentions in passing that similar transformations were happening in other countries and a treaty was in place which prohibited international interference.) There is even an afterward, almost literally an afterthought, an academic lecture from over 100 years after the memoir was recorded, where we gain a few more historical facts. Other memoirs are mentioned to have survived from this period. Why didn't we get to read any of them? Why not put some of this expository lecture at the front of book?

Suggestions

As a novel, there is much room for improvement. I recommend cutting it down to the size of a novella or short story, or rework it to include other women's memoirs and more of the academic lecture. The time period is too close to present day; shift these events much farther into the future and make the transformation to theocracy much more gradual, on a more plausible timescale.


1 Certainly throughout history genocides have been committed and large groups have been imprisoned. However in the particular case the victims are the entire female population, and it is the nation's own people rather than a conquering invader, and the victims are forced back into society in new rigid roles. Has this ever been done, let alone been permanently successful?