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

Welcome back to Autostraddle’s book club, where we pick a book and read it together and then talk about it. This month, due to its terrifying relevance and to keep up with the discussion of the Hulu series, we’re reading Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.

puppy posing with the handmaid's tale

I don’t need to tell you that The Handmaid’s Tale is everywhere (but the following is your internet reading guide just in case). It’s crushingly relevant. It’s been at the top of bestseller lists since the election. It acts as a warning to conservative women. If you grew up in a fundamentalist cult, it feels very familiar. People are evoking it at protests and a symbol of resistance in contemporary America, but it’s important to remember that it’s an extremely marginalizing one. “Patriarchy is the logic of a system.”

As literature, The Handmaid’s Tale pays attention and investigates power and how it is wielded, while most literature right now prefers to look away from power and toward the self (forgetting that the self cannot escape power). It uses language to subvert and take control of meaning. But it “ignores the historical realities of an American dystopia founded on anti-Black violence.” It is only one vision of American catastrophe. Regardless, “Atwood is a buoyant doomsayer.” Here she is writing on what her novel means today and on watching her dystopia come to pass. And here she is stating what should be obvious: actions have consequences.

The Handmaid’s Tale has been adapted a few times over the years. No one remembers the 1990 movie. The new audiobook features contemporary updates from Atwood, including a warning on trading “liberty” for “safety.” Arguably, the most pressing adaptation is not the television show but one “of another text, one that is even closer to my heart: the life that I am living right this second.” Finally, in her discussion of the Hulu series, Riese writes: “I don’t think we’re at risk of becoming Gilead, or that lesbians are at the top of Trump’s chopping block, but sometimes a story feels real not because of its facts but because of its emotional truth. It was so close, too real, impossible, familiar, not enough, and everything, all at once.”


Discussion Questions:

When reading The Handmaid’s Tale, approximately how many times did the icy chill of recognition wash over you?

When reading The Handmaid’s Tale, approximately how many times did you check Twitter or the internet or the news or your carrier pigeons and discover something you were reading about had started to come to pass?

When reading The Handmaid’s Tale, approximately how many times did you have to stop reading The Handmaid’s Tale, get up, go and set it gently, carefully, in another room, and take a hot shower, face turned up under the stream, while weeping messily for a future that already seems lost?

Which part(s)?

What line kept getting stuck in your head, if any?

How long did it take before you could finish reading it?

Do you identify The Handmaid’s Tale most as feminist dystopia, historical realism, or waking nightmare?

Did reading The Handmaid’s Tale make you want to go have sex or masturbate or otherwise claim agency over your own body and sexuality in a way, as countless high school English departments have feared, or make you want to go do whatever the opposite of sex is?

To what degree do you think The Handmaid’s Tale can function as a symbol of or shorthand for contemporary reistance (like in the Texas abortion protests)? To what degree does its erasures and marginalizations prevent it from being effective in that way?

Do you think some folks are drawn to it as a symbol because it’s old enough to be readily available and probably already read, because it’s old enough to make its resonances seem all the more chilling, because it’s shallow enough and plausible enough to seem real, because it speaks to emotional truths, because contemporary literature looks more at the self than at the world and this is old enough to look at the world?

The Handmaid’s Tale was first published in the 1980s, and — whether or not it is feminist — is arguably rooted in at least some second-wave feminism. Does considering it in that context change your reading of it at all?

Did the framing device of the conference impact your reading of the narrative? Does seeing Offred as a narrator remembering and retelling a story instead of living it live, as we are given to believe for most of the novel, affect her credibility? What about in the context of academic dudes interpreting and translating and mediating her words?

Do you think you’ll ever sleep again?


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Carolyn Yates is the NSFW Editor and Literary Editor for Autostraddle.com. Her writing has appeared in Bitch, Nylon, Refinery29, The Toast, Xtra!, Jezebel, and elsewhere. She recently moved to Los Angeles from Montreal. Find her on twitter.

Carolyn has written 771 articles for us.

10 Comments

  1. I’m really interested to reread the Handmaid’s Tale. I first read it as a young women in the late 1990s, as the internet was transforming the world, and at that point some of its baggage from the 1980s jolted me out of the story–most obviously the idea that Gilead’s religious right was brought to power in part by anti-porn feminists.

    For better or for worse, the internet transformed porn, and at that point antiporn feminism was hard to imagine, and even harder to believe as in alliance with the right. Now that the online porn industry has evolved, and we have a lot of hard data showing that both women and men who watch a lot of it tend to believe rape myths (like “rape victims are almost always lying”), and that sex-positive feminism itself has been strongly critiqued for its racism, bias against asexuals, and tendency to be co-opted by capitalism, I feel like the conversation is a lot more nuanced, and the alliance Atwood proposes is even more unbelievable, but I appreciate her point historically.

    I also am curious about how the focus on religious-based misogyny plays in the age of Trump. In the 90s the Religious Right felt powerful and scary; but now 1) secularism is growing by leaps and bounds and 2) by and large it was secular conservatives, or conservatives with only nominal ties to faith, who catapulted Trump to power.

    The fact is that secularism is growing for people of all political stripes in this country, and that seems to have helped Trump a lot; it’s tied not just to increased acceptance of LGBT folks, but also much stronger feelings of xenophobia, Islamaphobia, and anti-immigrant attitudes:
    https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2017/04/breaking-faith/517785/.

    So part of me wonders if the Handmaid’s Tale, by talking about patriarchal oppression in a very religious context, feels like a safe way to talk about oppression, and lets a lot of people who support Trump and his sexually-assaulting ways scapegoat a community that is losing power, without dealing with the uglier realities of racism, classism, and the fact that many of the people who got us into this mess were on the left when I first read the book in the 1990s.

  2. That New Republic article (HT as a warning to conservative women) is fantastic. (I did not know Atwood has a cameo in the show!)

    One of the biggest things about Margaret Atwood, of course, is that she’s much more interested in how women oppress other women than she is in how men oppress women. It’s a major theme in almost all her books, most of which center on a more apparently “empowered” woman mistreating her mousier heroine (by stealing her man or whatever). Sometimes that tips the balance too far toward antifeminism for me to take, but it works SO WELL, and is so much more effective, in the Handmaid’s Tale. I think it’s because in HT you can clearly see the connections between that intra-woman misogyny and the larger patriarchal power structure.

    I’m getting more and more excited to re-read this book, and then get my hands on the show!

    • I see no reason not to examine the ways that low-status people use to gain a tiny bit of status by stepping on others of their status, and how the bosses set up the system so that women waste their energies fighting other women and not the men.

  3. I wanted to thank the person who recommended the audio book read by Clare Danes.
    It’s an entirely different experience, listening to a book, savoring every word and it only augments the deep appreciation I have of Margaret Atwood.
    Her language is severely sensual, from heavy, humid nights to bursting tulips and it, even more than the book itself is a plea for life, for desire, for sex, in an austere environment.
    I’m one to usually breeze through books, but I haven’t this time. I’ve listened to one chapter at a time.
    At sunrise during long train rides through dawn and dusk.
    Walks home through rainy nights.
    And it was then that the details made me stop and pause, flushed a bitter taste into my mouth.
    The Islamic attack that led to the government shutdown.
    The body in the bath, that she despised for defining her so.
    It’s true that this book is too close to reality for comfort, too near a future we all fear and are halfway to, unwillingly.
    But it is, most of all a call to arms.
    Each other’s.
    For to touch, to desire, to consume and be consumed with flesh and passion and all sentiments illogical means life and breath and most of all: Resistance.

  4. I just read this for my A Level English class. It’s so interesting (/terrifying) to draw up the similarities between Gilead and the current world

    It’s a great reading book for college – I don’t think I’ve ever had so many conversations about feminism with my classmates, haha

    Actually our English syllabus is pretty great in general as our poetry focus is on Carol Ann Duffy – can’t say I’ve ever had to research the history of lgbtq+ rights for a class before – and we’ve also had to research Sylvia Beach and Adrienne Monnier as part of a unit on Paris.
    Also our new head teacher is gay and according to my friend who’s a host on the river boat, he threw a fabulous surprise party for his partner on thd boat last week. My college is very gay & it’s brilliant.
    (That was such a tangent sorry lol)

  5. I read this book in the early 90’s. It’s one of those books that has stuck with me. I found it terrifying because of the strongly patriarchal society we already lived in. I was more afraid of that than 1984. I was a teenager in the 80’s so the cold war sort of ruled my life. I was heavy into politics and history. It’s interesting that the countries behind the iron curtain was portrayed as this dystopian society while there has always been this willful ignorance about child brides, polygamy, sex slaves, rape, incest, sexual harassment, forced prostitution, and the systemic marginalizing of women in this country. Progress tends to move slowly but to look back at the time I read this book and compare it to now it seems like we are at the very least at a standstill.

  6. I re-read it last weekend. I can’t quite wrap my head fully around it yet to contribute here. But the “Look out […] Here it comes” line has really stuck with me. Mostly because I have been sending variations of that to my friends since November.

    As far as if I can ever sleep again, I think ep 3 is affecting me much more at the moment.

  7. I think Samira Wiley was a good, good choice. Her acting somehow makes everything seem so commercial, so much like a meat market. I feel like a casting doe-eyed white actress would lend the show more to pity than anything, play into the Atwood tropes I don’t like so much.

    That said, there’s so much to love about the characters. Offred and Moira in particular really stuck with me. They’re written as suppressed, but also not as the pure-hearted little sweeties who just don’t like that big mean regime very much, no thank you sir. They’re not the Poor Pitiful Foreign Women Who Need Saving that you see portrayed in documentaries, you know? They’re full people, and not cut down to single qualities or sugarcoated to further Atwood’s point. They’re not angels, not whores, just women.

  8. A few years ago I was at a strip mall and walked upon an anti-choice man screaming on top of a soap box. A woman walked by and yelled “I am not an incubator!”. Recently, preparing for the series, I read A Handmaid’s Tale. It was terrifying. I’ve heard people say it’s ridiculous to even suggest this could happen in real life, but it’s hard not to be scared when life is constantly echoing the world in the novel.

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