The Handmaid’s Tale: let us not be the ones to let it happen

‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ by Margaret Atwood was first published in 1986. I was 22 and in my final year at university. 31 years ago.

Imagining reading this book over thirty years ago.

Imagine reading this book as a 22 year old over thirty years ago.

It left a huge impression on me. Messed with my head.

I’d already cultivated a fascination for dystopian fiction: ‘1984’ and ‘Brave New World’ had already deeply affected me.


Dystopia. The opposite of utopia.


relating to or denoting an imagined place or state in which everything is unpleasant or bad, typically a totalitarian or environmentally degraded one.

I don’t know why the whole idea of how sick and twisted the world could become fascinates me. Perhaps I am sick and twisted at heart. There’s a horror in this view of life, that’s for sure – a pessimism that the way we are heading as a society is not leading us anywhere remotely pleasant.

It’s totalitarianism that freaks me out – being told how to think and what to say and how to behave. And the sense that love is removed: love is too messy and unpredictable and powerful to have any place in this kind of world – the world of ‘Children of Men’ and ‘Divergent’ and ‘Equals’ and ‘Book of Eli’ and ‘Hunger Games’ and ‘Minority Report’ and ‘Matrix’ and ‘The Road’ and ‘The Island’ and ‘District 9’ and ‘Never Let Me Go’ and ‘I am Legend’ …which ones have I missed?

I LOVE the Channel 4 adaptation of ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’: Elizabeth Moss is stunning as Offred. Some are finding it too disturbing and violent and unpleasant, but not me. It is my kind of programme. So clever. So deep. So thought-provoking. And scarily an even more possible vision of a future than it had seemed thirty years ago. We are closer to this reality now than ever before.

From the moment I started watching it, I knew I needed to read the book again. I became obsessed with the idea until I couldn’t contain it any more and headed to Waterstones. I love how in Waterstones, the person serving you engages you in conversation. We talked about the book and the series and other similar books that we’d both read. You don’t get that kind of personal service online. I hadn’t made it out of the Metro Centre before I’d opened the book up and started to read. My daughter had to shout at me to stop me walking out in front of a car.

There must have been a chandelier, once. They’ve removed anything you could tie a rope to.

Perfect. So understated. So evocative. So chilling.

Waste not, want not. I am not being wasted. Why do I want?

OK, I have to stop this. I yearn to share this whole book with you!


Fast forward a week and I have finished the book. Yes, it’s been a busy week, but when you have to read, you have to read. You make time. Snatched moments here and there. It’s a compulsion. You read whilst waiting for the rice to cook; you read waiting outside school for the kids; you have the book with you at every moment just in case there’s an opportunity to lose yourself in it.

I have the advantage that when I’ve read something, even if I’ve loved it, I forget the details pretty much the moment I’ve finished it and put it down. So ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ felt fresh to me. It surprised me. It didn’t go where I was expecting.

I’m not giving anything away, but read it if you haven’t already. It speaks into our society more than you could imagine. Into our lives as women, challenging the very essence of what it is to be a woman in the modern world.

I often find endings disappointing, but this one worked for me. I can see how the producers of the TV show can envisage a second series.

I loved the epilogue: you don’t often hear those words, do you? Entitled ‘Historical notes on ‘A Handmaid’s Tale’, it’s a partial transcript of a talk given at the twelfth symposium on Gileadean studies in 2195. Looking at the origin and veracity of the tale, the speaker proposes suppositions about the identity of the narrator and her Commander, concluding –

As all historians know, the past is a great darkness, and filled with echoes. Voices may reach us from it; but what they say to us is imbued with the obscurity of the matrix out of which they come; and try as we may, we cannot always decipher them precisely int he clearer light of our own day.

Whether we’re glimpsing this chilling tale as the future or as the past, many questions are left unanswered. Maybe that’s why the final line of the whole book is –

Are there any questions?

Yes, there are. I have a lot of questions: questions about our current society and the way it views women and treats women (and the way we view ourselves and allow ourselves to be treated) that I didn’t have before I read this book.

I’m so excited that this book and TV series are capturing the imagination of women of all ages in our world today. I love that actress Emma Watson has hidden 100 copies of this book across Paris for anyone to discover.

I was asleep before. That’s how we let it happen.

The trailer opens with these words: words directed at every single one of us who’s ever looked the other way or not wanted to make a fuss or couldn’t be bothered to fight the system.

It’s time for an awakening.

Let’s not be the ones to let it happen.





  1. Linda Clark June 25, 2017 / 12:34 pm

    I read this book one year ago, our debut new bookclub book. It left a huge impression on me. It divided the group in half; some loved it, some hated it. Even now after a year we argue about it and it is the yardstick used to measure all our books. I enjoyed your post immensely. I find many of my friends are watching the tv series and discuss it, when we meet up. I find it mesmerising and will probably reread the book. Another great post, Helen. Well done xx

  2. Ros Rusted June 28, 2017 / 7:27 pm

    I am enjoying ( if that’s the right word) watching the series but it is very disturbing. I am sure the book would be even more so. One day I will read it!!

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