Audie Award, Fiction, 2013
Margaret Atwood's popular dystopian novel The Handmaid's Tale explores a broad range of issues relating to power, gender and religious politics. Multiple Golden Globe award-winner Claire Danes (Romeo and Juliet, The Hours) gives a stirring performance of this classic in speculative fiction, one of the most powerful and widely read novels of our time.
After a staged terrorist attack kills the President and most of Congress, the government is deposed and taken over by the oppressive and all controlling Republic of Gilead. Offred, now a Handmaid serving in the household of the enigmatic Commander and his bitter wife, can remember a time when she lived with her husband and daughter and had a job, before she lost even her own name. Despite the danger, Offred learns to navigate the intimate secrets of those who control her every move, risking her life in breaking the rules in hopes of ending this oppression.
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©1985 Margaret Atwood (P)2012 Audible, Inc.
“Claire Danes sparkles in this performance…Danes’s Offred is complex, and her flashes of intense strength highlight her vulnerability. This is a consuming listen, thanks to Danes’s emotional subtleties.” (AudioFile)
The chilling thing about The Handmaid's Tale is not the oppressive misogynistic regime of the Republic of Gilead, but how effective it is as a police state and how plausible its operation if not its genesis is. All the small ways in which Gilead dehumanizes and isolates, turns women (men too, but especially women) into empty vessels, tools, nameless, faceless units of biological function. This is a dystopia that is actually scary and horrible because unlike Panem or, for that matter, certain other feminist dystopias written by authors named Sheri S. Tepper or Suzette Haden Elgin, this one requires minimal suspension of disbelief. Gilead is not a lot more extreme than certain Islamic regimes, the FLDS, or North Korea. Could the United States literally turn into the Republic of Gilead? Atwood proposes a massacre of the Executive Branch and Congress as the incitement for the takeover of the government by right-wing theocrats. Things get worse bit by bit, in backstory narrated by the Handmaid of the tale, until we arrive at the police state in which the nameless protagonist finds herself trapped.
Offred ("Of-Fred") never tells us her real name. She remembers the time before Gilead, when life was "normal." She had a husband. a daughter, a job. Now she is a Handmaid, a forced surrogate who, because she is one of the few women in the country who still has viable ovaries (Atwood never really explains what caused this widespread sterility, though it's implied that it's a result of pollution and radiation), is obligated to attempt to become pregnant by one of Gilead's Commanders. This obliges her to live in the Commander's house in a sort of veiled purdah, suffering the resentment of the Commander's wife, who has to participate in the humiliating procreation "ceremony." The way in which the Wives, supposedly free women of much higher status than the Handmaids or the Aunts or the "Marthas," are little better than chattel themselves despite their privileges, is something Atwood draws our attention to without spelling it out or hitting us over the head, but it's how we come to feel sympathy for the Commander's wife, Serena-Joy, former evangelical singer and advocate for a "Godly" society who is now angry, resentful, and bitter now that she's gotten what she supposedly wanted. Serena-Joy is just as oppressed and constrained as the Handmaids, she just has a prettier cage that lets her see sunlight through the bars.
Atwood has taken some flack for claiming at one point that she didn't write science fiction. Although she later backed off from that a bit, after reading The Handmaid's Tale, I can kind of see her point. The Handmaid's Tale is a lot like 1984, a speculative look at how very badly wrong things could go in our society, given a few flips of the historical dial, and the point is not the "alternate history" it creates but what this look at a dystopian society that maybe could be tells us. Is 1984 science fiction? Kind of — Orwell creates a new society, a new language, and mentions a few bits of technology that were futuristic at the time he wrote it. But it would be fair to say that it's not a conventional sci-fi story, at least, and that's also true of The Handmaid's Tale. Atwood isn't making up this fictional off-the-rails version of a future U.S. to do worldbuilding or as a vehicle for a tale about rebellion or resistance. The small bits of resistance in this book consist of a thought, a whispered conversation, a glimpse of a banned magazine, and like 1984, we never know if the supposed resistance is for real. Offred is no rebel; she pines for the old days, she hates her "reduced circumstances" and the reeducation she undergoes at the Rachel and Leah Center, but she is mostly a passive chronicler of her age, a vessel, a Handmaid. Things are done to her; she doesn't do things, though she occasionally fantasizes about doing them.
Atwood writes in descriptive literary prose; Offred's thoughts are poignant, heavy, mournful, occasionally smart-alecky, but mostly you just feel the oppressive claustrophobia, the daily dehumanization and erasure, and how readily a modern 20th century woman with a brash feminist mother can find herself submitting to such wholesale, brutal oppression as the new normal, clinging to memories of her old life while slowly forgetting who she used to be. Her oppression is a hundred small humiliations every day, none really cruel or violent, just things reminding her of her status, all the things she is no longer allowed to do (read, write, show her face to men, use hand lotion, talk to anyone about non-trivial matters). In this environment, the smallest conversation, a meeting of eyes, can become an act of rebellion, and Atwood shows us that repeatedly, how defiant and rebellious can be the simple act of asserting, "I am here, I exist, I am a person."
This was a chilling book precisely because there are no action scenes, there is no grand escape, there is no uprising, and you keep wanting Offred to have some way out, to see some way out for any of the people of Gilead, but there is no cavalry coming to bring down the tyrants, no Katniss Everdeens or District 13 here. It ends, arguably, on a more hopeful note than Orwell's book does, but then we've been told repeatedly by Offred herself that she is an unreliable narrator.
It was much less of a feminist polemic than I expected it to be. Yes, the points about right-wing Christians and their various fetishes were made, and Gilead is definitely a nightmare product of the very worst woman-hating religious extremists, but Atwood shows them slaughtering Catholics and Baptists as zealously as they kill abortionists and homosexuals, and there is relatively little soapboxing on the part of the author. The story says a lot of things about what happens when you take certain ideologies seriously, but it does not serve as a vehicle just to knock down those ideologies and push the author's own dubious ideas like certain other authors who tread the same ground broken by The Handmaid's Tale (I am looking at you, Sheri S. Tepper).
So, this book really does deserve to be read. I didn't even read it as a "cautionary tale," per se - it stands on its own as a work of fiction. The characters stand out as living human beings who talk and think like real human beings, because they are so ordinary, in their extraordinary "reduced circumstances." Is this science fiction? Kinda not really. But it is a very dark Bible-thumping dystopia, by a literary author who writes better dystopias than all those trying-too-hard SF authors.
Claire Danes gives a great performance as Offred, making her sad, introspective, and occasionally hysterical as the mood demands it, though something about her voice occasionally annoyed me in the way it drew me out of the writing and made me focus on the narrator.
Clare Danes gave the Handmade credibility. I believed an intelligent young female might accept the dystopic circumstances of this novel in order to survive and overcome the craziness she faces. When the book was finished I immediately searched for Margaret Atwood's other books and more from Clare Dains.
i buy at least one hundred books a year. of all types. just want a good story with a good reader. not so complicated.
This may be one of my favorite books of all time. Been asking Audible for it for years. I would highly recommend The Handmaid's Tale to everyone who loves books. So well written.
The writing. The writing. The narration. The narration.
I can't find anything else she has read. Would listen to anything that she has though. Just told a friend that she is one of best narrators I have heard.
Probably Of Fred. And I don't really know why. I found her so multidimensional that it would be interesting to ask her questions.
Hard to finish. Kept waiting for something other than physical description after physical description. If not for Claire Danes, I couldnt have finished it. Was so glad by the time it was done. The ending dragged on and on and on.
Audible Member Since 2003
I have long looked for this title on Audible and was very pleased when it finally arrived. The story is told in the first person and Claire Danes performs it perfectly with the voice, I believe, that the author intended when she wrote this story.
The progression of the Tale is gradual and engaging, requiring the reader/listener to gather up bits of of carefully placed images and information to put together the picture of this repressive nation. Imagine the Taliban in control of the US government and one gets an idea of the society described in this story. It is very interesting to me that Ms Atwood wrote this book in 1985, long before the world became acquainted with the Taliban, as some of the images are eerily reminiscent of some of their tactics witnessed on TV after the 9/11 attacks.
The Handmaid's Tale comes to a conclusion and the book wraps up with a brilliant epilogue, answering many questions in a surprising and unique fashion.
Certainly not a happy story nor action-packed, but nonetheless wonderful and captivating. Claire Danes' performance is flawless.
It's amazing how different we all are. A number of reviewers have said this is their favourite book. For me I could only endure 90 minutes. It is boring, slow, describes an unlikely dystopia, and the characters are utterly uninteresting.
Developed characters. Created a mystery or storyline that was even remotely interesting.
It seems OK
None that I could find in 90 minutes
Glad I got it on special!
I don't mind the long commute anymore. Sometimes I even drive around town just to get to place I can stop.
I read this book my senior year in college. It was so disturbing, I had to call a friend at 2am to talk about it. She read it and did the same to me. I took it on a trip to Thailand with a dozen other students and every one of them read it and we had talks about it after each one finished it. It is a thought provoking book that seems far too plausible. I think it should be a must read for every high school or college student.
Since that first read in 1987, I have reread it a dozen times. When I joined Audible I asked for it, several times and was happy when they got it. It continues to be one of the best books I have ever read or listened to. I can't recommend it highly enough!
audio book junkie
Margaret Atwood created a new world. A dark world, a dreary world, a world where the lower class is unbelievably oppressed and the upper-class quietly miserable albeit powerful. I love when books transport your into an imaginary world and The Handmaid's Tale does just that. It's a great 'What if' story; 'What if' women lost all of their rights? 'What if' a small, conservative group of men made all the decisions... 'What if'?
There is an element of dis-satisfaction in the ending of this novel but books don't always need to be neatly wrapped up... sometimes a descriptive moment in time is enough.
Claire Dannes did a wonderful job! I have avoided the A-List because I enjoy the "professionals" that do so well reading Dickens, Tolstoy, Martin, etc. I wasn't sure if the crossover from screen acting would translate into interesting narration. It clearly does.
I loved the story, and the performance made it even more disturbing (in a good way). I highly recommend The Handmaid's Tale.
When looking at dystopian novels, the scariest part is looking at our present and seeing the seeds of it in our current society. The seeds of The Handmaid's Tale are in every fundamental religious home and community. It's in every child that is told to be obedient to God just because and every woman who is subservient to her husband because of scripture. It isn't far from there before woman are baby machines and kept ignorant for their own purity and good.
On top of being eerily believable, the book is beautifully written. It's a classic that easily makes my list of best science fiction books ever written.
Claire Danes was a wonderful choice for narration. While I can't say that I would want her to narrate any other books, I can say that she was absolutely the right choice for this one.
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