Read A F*cking Book Club: The Handmaid’s Tale

Welcome to Autostraddle’s book club, where we pick a book and all read it together and then talk about it. This month, due to its crushing relevance, we’re reading The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood.

collage of the handmaid's tale covers

The Handmaid’s Tale is a 1980s nightmare feminist dystopia where white men are in power, reproductive capabilities have slowed, women are forbidden to own property and ranked based on fertility and compliance, queer people are executed, and Offred, the protagonist, is one of a class of women who function as womb outsourcing for Commanders’ wives.

(It’s also a 10-episode series on Hulu coming April 26, featuring Elisabeth Moss and Samira Wiley.)

In the New York Times, Atwood writes on what her novel means today:

“Back in 1984, the main premise seemed — even to me — fairly outrageous. Would I be able to persuade readers that the United States had suffered a coup that had transformed an erstwhile liberal democracy into a literal-minded theocratic dictatorship?”

With the US turning into Gilead, the answer is “yes.” (Here’s Atwood at Lit Hub on watching her dystopia come true.) And part of that regime, like any repressive regime, is the control of women and childbirth.

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

The novel incorporates book burning, public executions, slut shaming, slavery, forced reproduction, concentration camps and essentialism, for starters. It’s an exploration of state control of women’s bodies. And it’s also an exploration of language: its evolution, its threat, its potential for resistance.

Atwood writes that “Offred records her story as best she can; then she hides it, trusting that it may be discovered later, by someone who is free to understand it and share it. This is an act of hope: Every recorded story implies a future reader.” And she concludes:

“In the wake of the recent American election, fears and anxieties proliferate. Basic civil liberties are seen as endangered, along with many of the rights for women won over the past decades, and indeed the past centuries. In this divisive climate, in which hate for many groups seems on the rise and scorn for democratic institutions is being expressed by extremists of all stripes, it is a certainty that someone, somewhere — many, I would guess — are writing down what is happening as they themselves are experiencing it. Or they will remember, and record later, if they can.

Will their messages be suppressed and hidden? Will they be found, centuries later, in an old house, behind a wall?

Let us hope it doesn’t come to that.”

Get The Handmaid’s Tale from your local bookstore, get it from Amazon, borrow it from your library or your Canadian friend who has the copy she read in high school, and we’ll meet back here in a month to talk all about it.


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Carolyn Yates is the NSFW Editor and Literary Editor for Autostraddle.com. Her writing has appeared in Bitch, Nylon, The Toast, Xtra!, Jezebel, and elsewhere. She recently moved to Los Angeles from Montreal. Find her on twitter.

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32 Comments

  1. 4

    I started to read this (finally) recently but had to stop, as it ,as it made it hard for me to sleep at night. I think if I had read it earlier I would have been able to distance myself from the dystopic vision more, but right now? It’s so upsetting to know that there are people who really think that a place like Gilead is an ideal worth striving for. And those people have a lot of power in America right now. It’s hard to focus on hope for the future with that idea looming over me.
    I really want to read this book, it is well written and important to think about, but it is also hard. Anyone else stuck in the same place?

    • 3

      Yeah, I considered reading it recently but decided not to. There’s a chance that the realism might be therapeutic, thought-provoking, or helpful, but I didn’t want to risk it being panic inducing. I need more escapism in my book reading right now.

    • 3

      Yes. I read it decades ago and I’ve thought about it quite a bit these past few months but I’m not going to re-read it. I’m definitely team escapist reading right now.

    • 2

      I had that same experience and spent a lot of time weighing whether it was important to me to finish it. It’s pretty short so i decided it was worth it. I set up a reading party with my friend who shares analysis and has read it before and she kindly let me stop to process when i needed to/ after i finished. Then, i had my sweetie come cuddle me while we watched the great british bake off. Still didn’t sleep great that night, but didn’t have the nightmares, so that helped.

  2. 3

    I literally finish reading The Handmaid’s Tale for the first time last week. I seem to have somehow missed it in high school even though I’m Canadian (I read Cat’s Eye as my requisite Margaret Atwood novel in high school, which was wonderful and I would highly recommend it as well) and because of all the reasons you mentioned, I definitely felt like it was time. WHOOOO BOY. I have a lot to talk about!

  3. 2

    After finishing White Tears by Hari Kunzru (highly recommend!!!) on Sunday, I picked up The Handmaid’s Tale to re-read (4th time or so I think?) in preparation for the Hulu series. I’m looking forward to reading it w/ a bunch of you!! <3

  4. 4

    I read this book about 20 years ago and remember thinking that it sounded horrible and thank god or whoever or whatever you believe in that this shit wouldn’t go down here. Now, just fuck.

  5. 5

    YES this is one of my favorite books of all time, ever. i read it in high school and wrote a whole big paper about how it’s reacting to reagan and the christian right that i was very proud of.
    when i read it i also thought i was straight, though, so i wonder if i’ll find new things in it now knowing i’m gay.

  6. 5

    I read The Handmaid’s Tale when I was in high school. It gave me nightmares. I am now an English teacher. One of my colleagues recommended that we assign it for summer reading. She clearly saw the terror on my face and let me off the hook. I’m not sure I will be able to watch the series.

  7. 6

    Literally stayed up like 2 hours later than I should have last night to finish this book. But I feel like I should probably read it again, because I think I was so eager to see what was going to happen that I missed a lot of stuff. I realized I was being deeply affected by the book last week when I walked past a middle aged white guy at my job and felt this like deep hatred and disgust! Had to remind myself I wasn’t in Gilead (yet)

    Can’t wait for the series. Of course Samira Wiley is Moira <3

  8. 3

    This was the best book I read in my high school English classes — and I went to Catholic school! I couldn’t believe it was required reading for us, given how it’s literally a dystopian theocracy, but my school was run by an arguably pretty feminist order of nuns, comparatively speaking. I’ve got to do a reread soon, but I’m worried that now it’s too close to reality and it’ll be Too Much To Handle.

  9. 2

    I wasn’t that impressed by Handmaid’s Tale. I read “Native Tongue” by Suzette Elgin right afterward, which is a more constructive and interesting take on basically the same premise, even if it’s a little more humorous and a little more second-wave separatist.

    I read HT after having been out for a while, so I identified with the lesbian best friend most, and, uh (SUPER TRIGGERING SPOILER ALERT) she gets raped to death. I can’t shake the feeling that I would’ve liked it more if I was identifying properly with the straight heroine.

  10. 2

    I’m re-reading this. I read it years ago, and while I know that things were not *great* even a short amount of years ago, reading it today is so much more alarming. I spend half the time reading it wondering how it all got so bad? And then wondering if it really *is* this bad, or if it just *feels* like it is. And that’s why I’m only a couple chapters in.

  11. 3

    i’m glad i’ve already read this book. when i saw there was going to be a series i was really interested in it until the election results rendered it a bit too close for comfort. it’s a fantastic story, but it’s best read when you can imagine it as science fiction and not imminent future.

    make sure you have cookies or something good to give yourself for each chapter you make it through! there is (currently) still good in the world (like cookies)!

  12. 1

    This sounds great! I read it a few years ago, but I don’t seem to retain a lot over time. I have a copy I. The house because​ my daughter is reading it for lit class. Only the smart kids get to read it in our high school.

  13. 0

    Rereading it. Hm. I have mixed feelings about it. I like the narrative & characterisation & it is way too close to modern times. But I can’t turn off my ‘writer brain’ and I prefer atwoods writing style in some of her others. Doesn’t help that the last book I read was really well written so I keep comparing. (I just find dense descriptions hard)

    Anyone else feel like ivanka trump is an econowife? ‘All’ things to one man.

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