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Publisher's Summary

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. 

Cover Art by Fred Marcellino. Used with permission of Pippin Properties, Inc. 

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©1985 Margaret Atwood (P)2012 Audible, Inc.

Critic Reviews

“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)

Featured Article: 19 Empowering Listens We Love for Women's Equality Day


The 19th Amendment was ratified in 1920. A little more than 50 years later, in 1973, the US Congress designated August 26th Women’s Equality Day. We proudly honor this year’s Women's Equality Day with 19 titles by or about amazing, diverse women. This list reflects fierce determination, victories big and bigger, and a lot of heart and soul. From riveting fiction to autobiography in song, there’s a listen that will surely get your vote.

What listeners say about The Handmaid's Tale

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Ridiculously stupid & gloomy

I guess I just didn't get it. Premise made no sense. Yes, most post-apocalyptic stories are farfetched, but this book was just dumb. Men just want sex and women are always the victim. Can we please find something new to be outraged about?

50 people found this helpful

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Why do people like this

Would you consider the audio edition of The Handmaid's Tale to be better than the print version? Yes because I would have lost interest if I read this myself. I only finished it because I listen while I work.

What could Margaret Atwood have done to make this a more enjoyable book for you?
Very unrealistic story. I can remember things from my childhood. This was an adult that was married with a child at one time, how could an adult forget so much of who they are - doesn't make sense. This author seemed to be riding the coattails of 1984. Just a stupid story with a victim woman, no hero, no intelligence, just ridiculous.

What does Claire Danes bring to the story that you wouldn’t experience if you just read the book?
A voice.

If you were to make a film of this book, what would the tag line be?
A woman who can't remember anything about her past and walks around with a basket and wears a stupid hat because men love to have sex with women in big white hats who carry baskets.

Any additional comments?
I have only listened to the audio version, did not read the book. If I had read the book, I probably would have lost interest as the story was just too far out there and ridiculous. Why the good reviews?

45 people found this helpful

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“Are there any questions?”

Holy patriarchal Christian dystopia! After killing Congress and the President, suspending the Constitution, and taking over bank accounts and the media, etc., in the mid-1980s a group of Christian fundamentalists founded the Republic of Gilead in the USA, applying a skewed interpretation of the Bible so as to deprive people of the freedom to do what they want so as to give them freedom from crime and violence. And to put women in their place. Atop the hierarchy are elite middle-aged men, Commanders of the Faithful. Angels of the Apocalypse (soldiers) fight wars on the borders of the state, while Eyes (secret police) hunt heretics like Quakers and Catholics. Then there are Guardians, chauffeurs and police and so on. Below all them are women, trapped in Gilead and confined to specific functions and colors: Commander’s Wives in blue (married in mass arranged weddings), Aunts in brown (sadistic and smarmy trainers), Marthas in green (cooks and servants), and then Handmaids in red (surrogate mothers). At the bottom are the Econowives of the poor, women who fulfill all functions at once. Romantic love is verboten, and sex is for procreation. The 4th of July is no longer observed, while Labor Day celebrates giving birth. The Children of Ham are relocated to reservations, while Jews convert or emigrate to Israel. Whales and wild fish are extinct. Generic prayers ordered by Wives on “Compuphones” are printed on paper (“Soul Scrolls”) and then recycled before anyone can read them. Do they reach God?


The Handmaids have a nigh impossible duty: to get pregnant by the Commanders whose Wives are “barren.” (Of course, men are never sterile!) Furthermore, due to pollution, only one in four babies is viable. If the Handmaids fail in three different households, they are sent as “unwomen” to “colonies,” there to perform toxic waste cleanup. No artificial insemination in Gilead—everything is done “naturally” as inspired by a passage in Genesis, the aggrieved Wives lying face up on the bottom, the compliant Handmaids lying face down on the Wives, and the dutiful Commanders working away from atop the pile. About the only Handmaids to get pregnant do so illicitly via the doctors who give them monthly examinations or the Guards who work in their households. Handmaids are forbidden to read or write. They have tattooed ID numbers. They are loathed by Wives, conditioned by Aunts, resented by Marthas, patronized by Commanders, and ogled by Guards.


The narrator of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) is a 33-year old Handmaid who’s called Offred (Commander Fred’s possession) and who never tells us her pre-Gilead name. Offred recounts entering a new Commander’s house across the river from Boston to get pregnant by him. This is her last chance to succeed. Into her present tense account—occurring in the first years of Gilead—she weaves past tense memories, including some from before Gilead (of her feisty feminist mother, her vibrant best friend from university Moira, and her rather generic husband Luke), and some from after Gilead (of the authorities separating her from her work, husband, and daughter and training her to be a Handmaid). Whether or not such a warped Christian fascist state could happen in the USA, Offred’s present and past narratives make a compelling picture of post- and pre-Gilead life.


This is largely because Offred is observant, intelligent, sensitive, and creative. She has a poetic turn of mind and phrase, an eye and an ear for the vivid detail and the impressive metaphor, like “Hatred fills my mouth like spit” and “His skin unwholesomely tender, like the skin under a scab.” She likes to explore the different meanings of words like compose, story, and job: “I wait, for the household to assemble. Household: that is what we are. The Commander is the head of the household. The house is what he holds. To have and to hold, till death do us part. The hold of a ship. Hollow.” Offred has a motivation to tell her story in the present tense. She wants to keep Moira and Luke alive, changing “was” to “is” when she slips up, and she is trying to remain absolutely aware in her present to avoid losing herself in her past, when she could live and love more freely. She is telling us her story to make us (“you”) real. “I tell, therefore you are.”


The literary quality of Offred’s narration highlights the waste that Gilead makes of women like her but also that the USA made of women like her (her pre-Gilead work was transferring physical books to disks), which then makes us think about such things in our own society now. Indeed, Atwood doesn’t gloss over the gender inequalities and dangers for girls and women before the advent of her dystopia. Although Offred was freer and happier in the old days (our days), America before the Republic of Gilead was no utopia for women, who were often victims of male condescension, pornography, and violence.


Offred’s tale is followed by “Historical Notes” taken in 2195 at a Symposium of the Gileadian Research Association, when the Republic of Gilead is a quaint historical field for scholars, like a professor who speaks about problems of authentication with The Handmaid’s Tale manuscript. The world 200 years later has survived Gilead, and fish are back, and male and female scholars seem equal, but the professor makes sexist jokes denigrating women, tells his audience not to censure but understand Gilead, and is after all a man interpreting a woman’s words and life and determining their authenticity. Will there ever be true equality between the sexes?


Offred is no action-movie heroine. She says at one point, “It’s truly amazing what people can get used to.” At another, “I am a wimp.” She is honest: “It didn’t happen that way either. I’m not sure how it happened; not exactly. All I can hope for is a reconstruction: the way love feels is always only approximate.” Despite (or because of?) all that, the novel is suspenseful because of the dangers of her daily life in Gilead. At any moment anyone can betray or destroy her. Readers who like dystopia stories in which protagonists bring down totalitarian states ala The Hunger Games may not enjoy Atwood’s novel, which is closer to bleak dystopias like 1984 (though perhaps Atwood’s ambiguity makes her novel more hopeful than Orwell’s). Her novel is moving and provocative, ending “Are there any questions?”


Reading the audiobook, Claire Danes sounds like Offred recording her own words on tapes.

14 people found this helpful

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  • Em
  • 11-30-12

My Top Pick for 2012

Full disclosure: The Handmaid's Tale is my favorite book. It is my number one all-time pick among books, having topped my list since I first read it five years ago. So perhaps I came to this audiobook somewhat biased, but in a sense I think my love of the work set me up to be a harsher critic of the audio production. But listening to it served as a total reminder of why it is so incredible.

Last month, when we ran a little editorial feature about the books we were grateful for, I wrote about The Handmaid's Tale. It makes me grateful for a lot of reasons: I'm grateful to live in this society, in this time period. I'm grateful that my daughter won't know the kind of oppression so wrenchingly depicted by Margaret Atwood (who is for the record a total genius). And I'm grateful for how totally humbling this book is. No other work of literature is such a complete reminder that we are all just fragments, or moments in time, and we're all destined to become - if we're so lucky - mere historical footnotes. The framed narrative Atwood uses (and I won't elaborate so as not to spoil) really drives this point home.

I was worried that no narrator could live up to my expectations given my belief in the importance of this book. But Claire Danes is just vivid. She doesn't act, and she doesn't need to. She recounts. She breathes out the tale as if she is living it. Resigned, beaten down, traveling through hell by putting one step ahead of the other. I was utterly convinced by her performance and have not been able to shut up about it since. Everyone on my team is going to listen to this before I'm through, and I hope everyone who reads this review will too!

307 people found this helpful

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A heartwrenching story read absolutely brilliantly

This book is a speculative fiction classic. The rise of the Gilead society seems all too plausible in today's political climate, and Offred's story is painful in its intensity.

I often find myself disappointed by the narrators of audiobooks, but not so with this one. Claire Danes does an incredible job reading, listening to her is like being inside Offred's head, and she manages to inject pathos into the story without ever distracting the listener from the true star: the words.

Readings this good of stories this potent are the reason audiobooks exist. If I could give it ten stars I would.

192 people found this helpful

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Not So Far-Fetched -- Still Chilling

Because this has been re-released as an *Audible A-List Collection,* a selection chosen by Clare Danes for narration, I'll begin with the narration. This is one of the rare cases where a straight reading, sans the voice characterizations and the nuances one would think an actor would use, earns top scores from me. Ms. Danes reads the story with strength and conviction, wisely chosing to let the words of an outstanding poet/author give voice to the characters in this cautionary tale. The feel of this book is dark and dispassionate, a story about a violent new world where feelings and thoughts are prohibited, yet it is at the same time visceral, strong with emotion, because of Atwood's writing skills, her ironic wit, and superb story-telling abilities -- matched perfectly with Danes' talents.

I was introduced to this book in college. 1985, a women's rights to her body (i.e. abortion) was a hot topic, feminism was getting its first *report card,* and The Handmaid's Tale was either being showered with awards and praise, or being pulled from library shelves and crossed off reading lists -- a scene straight out of Farenheit 451, another *dystopian* novel where we see that repression of any kind has a price. (Atwood didn't think her work was sci-fi and argued that this was not science fiction, but rather speculative fiction.) In '85 I thought this was chilling and very futuristic.

Dystopian? Future? Speculative? ... The world is struggling from the effects (or more accurately the consequences of) of pollution, chemicals, GMO's, and radiation; our government has been extinguished, world-wide war rages, religious conflicts a large part of the cause; disease and sterility are prevalent, conception and healthy live births atypical; many species have vanished, food is scarce and rationed along with water. The Republic of Gilead (a country established within the borders of the former USA) is a violent male dominated theocracy where women have no power, young women are owned for breeding purposes, sex is a disturbing biblical ritual, the Eyes watch constantly for heretics and dissenters (routinely put to death and openly displayed). ...*Dystopian* along the lines of Clockwork Orange,1984, (Stepford Wives?), but more like good *speculation* now in 2012, where burkas, honor killings, or young girls being married off to old coots in polygamist sects are weekly headlines.

The ending of this book is troublesome for those that want a destination, or a wrap-up, as it leaves the reader unsure--left to decide between hope and complete despair. Atwood is a master at interrogating society and having the reader then try to explain it. Definitely one you will think about. Ageless and still chilling in 2012; a wonderfully distrubing tale made even better by Danes' insightful dead-on interpretation. (Fantastic to have this as a selection--great choice Audible.)

250 people found this helpful

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A Surprie of a story

This was on my 100 books to read in my lifetime and I didn't know what to expect with the story. It is an interesting tale about an alternate society. I was surprised how good the book was, but the reading was wonderful. Claire Danes did an exceptional narration and it is one I would listen to again.

29 people found this helpful

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Not Your Tween’s Dystopia

There are some books that you can go back to multiple times, and continue to get something new out of with each read, or listen. The Handmaid's Tale certainly falls into this category. The impact of the story changes in contrast to the current cultural and political climate but it remains current. The fact that the world Atwood creates is far closer to “reality” makes this story that much more disturbing than the many popular and more fantastical dystopias currently targeted to the Young Adult audience.

For me, it’s been years since I first read The Handmaid’s Tale and listening to Claire Danes narrate was the perfect way to re-visit the story. She captures the almost somber mood perfectly. Clearly, she has a love of the book along with the talent to provide a killer performance. If you are looking to experience, or re-experience, a classic modern day “dystopia” as envisioned by a truly unique author, listening to this new rendition is your perfect opportunity.

86 people found this helpful

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If I could give the narrator more than 5 stars...

This was my first Audible "A-list" title, and I was not disappointed. Claire Danes was the perfect choice for this book.

What used to be the United States is now Gilead, a monotheistic regime where women are protected from "too much choice." Like our real-world foremothers of a few hundred years ago, the women of Gilead cannot earn money, own property, or vote. They have few lifestyle options: governess, domestic, prostitute, mother. Females with "viable ovaries" are drafted as "Handmaids," surrogate mothers for sterile women of the elite class.

For Offred, the Handmaid of the title, life is a chorus of "not allowed." No reading, for women may not read. No fraternization, no conversation, no acknowledgement, no unauthorized possessions like hand lotion. Only fear and loneliness remain as Offred spends her days in a grim little room from which anything she could use to kill herself has been removed.

Through it all she's starving for human interaction, yet terrified that she'll look in the wrong direction, say a wrong word, and be transferred to the ominous Colonies with the other "UnWomen." Claire Danes reads matter-of-factly, her emotions understated as if she really is Offred, who must hide all longing and pain to stay alive.

While there are plenty of great narrators to choose from among Audible titles, it's very infrequent that the performance makes the book this much better. The story is as chilling as it was when the book was published, but Danes' reading brings out the suffering, the confusion, the "how-did-I-get-to-this-awful-place" feelings in a way that didn't come out of the printed text.

This definitely goes on the A-list. Recommended for any woman, any mother, anyone at all.

84 people found this helpful

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Amazing

Would you consider the audio edition of The Handmaid's Tale to be better than the print version?

I haven't read the print version of this book, but Clare Danes's interpretation captivated me on so many levels. In her hands, I enjoyed this book probably more than I would have had I read it myself. I would absolutely recommend this audio book to fans of the print book.

What other book might you compare The Handmaid's Tale to and why?

I hesitate to say this, but I would compare it to the Hunger Games. The writing is far better in this book and it's a different style altogether, but the dark tone is the same, and the premises for both books is similar. I would say this book would suit those who might want a more literary version of The Hunger Games.

What does Claire Danes bring to the story that you wouldn’t experience if you just read the book?

It was so interesting to listen to the story as if Clare Danes was speaking to me as Offred. I believed her so much, it was almost creepy! I'm also finding it's hard to move on to other audio books because Clare Danes was such an exceptional narrator.

If you could take any character from The Handmaid's Tale out to dinner, who would it be and why?

I would take Offred. I want to know what happened to her.

Any additional comments?

I can't stop thinking about this book, and I've actually started listening to it for a second time. It's one of those stories that stays with you.

24 people found this helpful