Handmaid’s Tale Summary: Why So Much Noise About This Interesting Book?

The Handmaid’s Tale is a fiction book by Margaret Atwood. It won some awards, such as the Author C. Clarke Award and the Governor General’s Literary Award for English-language fiction. An adaptation is already on HBO. This post features the summary of The Handmaid’s Tale and some important lessons from the book.

You have probably heard how good and talented Margaret Atwood is, and this blogger hereby affirms that. (Not that it makes any difference, by the way).

What’s The Noise About? The Handmaid’s Tale Book Summary:

Imagine a world where religious ideas are taken to the extreme. In this world, women are being treated, housed, and controlled. They are made to breed and do other ridiculous things. Now, put a woman named Offred into it. Let her tell us what happens day to day.

The author, Margaret Atwood, brings closer the things society has subjected women to over time.

The Handmaid’s Tale setting is called the Republic of Gilead, a dystopian version of the present-day United States Of America. The religious powers have taken over and forced women into a kind of seclusion to do things considered preserved. First, they are trained in a place called the Red Center (or Leah and Rachel Center, named after the biblical reference to the same names, Leah and Rachel). For example, they force women to wear long clothes and cover them up, and some men (called ‘commanders’) mate with the women for breeding. These women are grouped, and their treatments are designed according to their age and fertility. It’s a bizarre situation where only those called ‘fertile women’ get the ‘privilege’ of being tamed. The women who can’t produce offspring are taken away, and no one knows the exact kind of death they get.

So, it’s absurd to think of these things or read about them. Gilead doesn’t treat women as equals or even humans.

And that’s why the book is controversial.

Margaret Atwood said most of the things in the book had happened before. So, they aren’t entirely made up. The book combines all things or mistreatments women have experienced in society (now and present) into a book.

How Does It Feel Reading the Book

When I started reading the book, it was like sitting with a female friend who has been through a lot. Her face is emotionless. Someone who has gotten used to pain over time. She’s talking about her past; the details are hard and painful to imagine for any woman, yet she says it like it’s some regular event.

I read it. It felt like a diary, like someone telling me everything that was happening around them, both dull and meaningful.

I get why people can be angry. It’s fiction, yet there is so much truth in there.

Can a society like this happen in the future?

Erm, let me think about that. You will find my answer in the body of the post.

8 Observations From Handmaid’s Tale Book About Tyranny and Society

The book was a little tough to get started. It makes everything look ordinary, but this is part of its magic.

So often, when people tell us about their reality, many of us tend to see it as dull. And that’s sad.

Back to the topic, these are 10 Lessons from the Handmaid’s Tale.

1. It’s Hard To Read Or Listen To Tales of Misery

I searched the internet for the summary to get started with the book. Then, once I knew what the book was about, I read a few pages daily. It gets to a point where you can’t put it down.

If you read some of The Handmaid’s Tale Summary you find online, they call it “misery porn.”

Oh, God. It was hard to start reading this book. Sometimes, I got tired and asked myself how this writer kept writing it. The writing was great, and the sentences were fine. Why is she using such talent to describe miseries upon pains upon tragedies? Yet, nothing joyous was happening in the book. Nothing makes you say, wow, I’m excited this is happening.

It’s a boring thought process of a lady who lives a designed or routine life.

But this ‘boringness’ was an essential part of the book. Remember the last time someone wanted to tell you about their misery? Did you listen, or did you avoid them from then on? And that’s the point. We are so used to many things that we overlook when people tell us they need help. Their story might seem like ‘misery porn.’

After reading the book, which was challenging because of the things going on in it, next, I tried to watch the movie, but I couldn’t. It’s like subjecting myself to another torture of seeing miseries in 3Ds.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s a good story. It’s just the continuous troubles the characters are going through, the pains that do not end even in the end.

2. When Things Get Tough, You’ll Remember Good Past Times as a Coping Mechanism

A woman narrates this story to the readers, but she doesn’t have her freedom anymore.

Have you been in the same shoes even temporarily, like when you travel or go somewhere? You remember the touch of a loved one. Their eyes, how they light up when they see you. You try to hold on until you meet them again. This is what the author is painting for us.

“I’m dreaming that I am awake.
I dream that I get out of bed and walk across the room, not this room, and go out the door, not this door. I’m at home, one of my homes, and she’s running to meet me, in her small green nightgown with the sunflower on the front, her feet bare, and I pick her up and feel her arms and legs go around me and I begin to cry, because I know then that I’m not awake. I’m back in this bed, trying to wake up, and I wake up and sit on the edge of the bed, and my mother comes in with a tray and asks me if I’m feeling better. When I was sick, as a child, she had to stay home from work. But I’m not awake this time either.”

The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood

Sadly, there is no hope that her past will be like it has always been. Everything is gone. So, she’s holding onto the good times and ‘hope.’

“Not a hope. I know where I am, and who, and what day it is. These are the tests, and I am sane. Sanity is a valuable possession; I hoard it the way people once hoarded money. I save it, so I will have enough when the time comes.”

According to the book, this narrator was part of the resistance to the concept of Gilead, which is not an easy thing to define. A lot of things are termed as part of the resistance, and it’s like a set of rules to tame everybody.

3. Humans Adapt to Situations. New Habits Are Formed Out of Force.

Look at the first few paragraphs of the book. You can tell things are not as they used to be.

“We slept in what had once been the gymnasium. The floor was of varnished wood, with stripes and circles painted on it, for the games that were formerly played there; the hoops for the basketball nets were still in place, though the nets were gone….

There was old sex in the room and loneliness, and expectation, of something without a shape or name. I remember that yearning, for something that was always about to happen and was never the same as the hands that were on us there and then, in the small of the back, or out back, in the parking lot, or in the television room with the sound turned down and only the pictures flickering over lifting flesh.

We yearned for the future. How did we learn it, that talent for insatiability? It was in the air; and it was still in the air, an afterthought, as we tried to sleep, in the army cots that had been set up in rows, with spaces between so we could not talk. We had flannelette sheets, like children’s, and army-issue blankets, old ones that still said u.s. We folded our clothes neatly and laid them on the stools at the ends of the beds. The lights were turned down but not out. Aunt Sara and Aunt Elizabeth patrolled; they had electric cattle prods slung on thongs from their leather belts.”

The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood

4. Captors Will Show Kindness to Captives to Feel Good About Themselves

A captor might help a captive, but it’s an attempt to justify their morality or feel good about the troubled thoughts that come with watching evil happen.

Zadie Smith says it better when she says, “for you need courage not only to commit bloody chaos but also to sit by and watch it happen.”

If captors are truly good people, they will not partake in evil in the first place. Helping a select few doesn’t change the fact that evil persists because they play a part in it.

In the book, there is a commander who likes our main character. He invites her to play Scrabble in his office. His kindness has a purpose, though. It’s the interest a grown man has in a mature woman. It’s against her will. She doesn’t want to live in this ‘new order,’ but this man has taken an interest in her. She hates it at first but sometimes enjoys it.

This is what happens when hope fails, and absurdities last for too long.

This is how the character describes it:

I’m sitting in the Commander’s office, across from him at his desk, in the client position, as if I’m a bank customer negotiating a hefty loan. But apart from my placement in the room, little of that formality remains between us. I no longer sit stiff-necked, straight-backed, feet regimented side by side on the floor, eyes at the salute. Instead my body’s lax, cosy even. My red shoes are off, my legs tucked up underneath me on the chair, surrounded by a buttress of red skirt, true, but tucked nonetheless, as at a campfire, of earlier and more picnic days. If there were a fire in the fireplace, its light would be twinkling on the polished surfaces, glimmering warmly on flesh. I add the firelight in.

The HandMaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood

5. Bringing Things Together Doesn’t Usually Form a Community

Yes, you can bring things together, and they may agree on specific ideas, but it doesn’t make them a community. They could be just people tolerating each other as obligations rather than mutual respect.

“For them, one and one and one and one don’t make four.”
What do they make? I said, expecting five or three.
Just one and one and one and one, he said.”

The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood

6. Hiding Reality From a Child Is Hard

“When we get to the border we’ll pretend we’re just going over on a day trip; the fake visas are for a day. Before that I’ll give her a sleeping pill so she’ll be asleep when we cross.

That way she won’t betray us. You can’t expect a child to lie convincingly.
And I don’t want her to feel frightened, to feel the fear that is now tightening my muscles, tensing my spine, pulling me so taut that I’m certain I would break if touched. Every stoplight is an ordeal. We’ll spend the night at a motel, or, better, sleeping in the car on a sideroad so there will be no suspicious questions. We’ll cross in the morning, drive over the bridge, easily, just like driving to the supermarket.”

In this scene, Offred is running away with a little girl. She can’t describe what’s going on with the girl. The horror story is too much to tell, yet they do not know what will become of their future.

7. For Tyranny to Be Effective, a Large Number of People Has to Be Complicit

In this ‘new order,’ people are given duties. These people make the system effective — even though they are enslaved people or victims, too. It’s like being the leader of enslaved people who reports others to the master.

The power hierarchies include Commanders, Wives, Marthas, Econowives, Aunts, Guardians, Angels, Jezebels, and Unwomen. Then, there was the secret police. I think the wives are the worst because they always forget they are captives, too.

Look at the description of the commander’s wife, Serena Joy.

She’s looking at the tulips. Her cane is beside her, on the grass. Her profile is towards me, I can see that in the quick sideways look I take at her as I go past. It wouldn’t do to stare. It’s no longer a flawless cut-paper profile, her face is sinking in upon itself, and I think of those towns built on underground rivers, where houses and whole streets disappear overnight, into sudden quagmires, or coal towns collapsing into the mines beneath them. Something like this must have happened to her, once she saw the true shape of things to come.
She doesn’t turn her head. She doesn’t acknowledge my presence in any way, although she knows I’m there. I can tell she knows, it’s like a smell, her knowledge; something gone sour, like old milk.
It’s not the husbands you have to watch out for, said Aunt Lydia, it’s the Wives. You should always try to imagine what they must be feeling.

The Handmaid’s Tale, Margarte Atwood

One of my favorite characters in the book is Offred’s friend, Moira. She doesn’t conform, yet she knows when to put her head down to avoid being punished or losing her life. Eventually, she escapes by stealing the identity of an ‘aunt.’

8. Fear Is A Necessary Part of Tyranny.

This Fear Needs a Symbol or Signs That Will Remind People to Obey the Order

People are rebellious. We like to explore or do things freely and hate it when anyone tries to impose difficulties on us.

Therefore, disobedient citizens are executed or punished to make people comply with the ‘new order’ in Gilead. An excellent example of the symbol of fear is the bodies hung on the walls of Gilead.

The three bodies hang there, even with the white sacks over their heads looking curiously stretched, like chickens strung up by the necks in a meatshop window; like birds with their wings clipped, like flightless birds, wrecked angels. It’s hard to take your eyes off them. Beneath the hems of the dresses the feet dangle, two pairs of red shoes, one pair of blue. If it weren’t for the ropes and the sacks it could be a kind of dance, a ballet, caught by flash-camera: mid-air. They look arranged. They look like showbiz. It must have been Aunt Lydia who put the blue one in the middle.

The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood

When you finish reading the book, you’ll see a final chapter titled Historical Notes. It’s 2095. Here we read about one Professor Pieixoto, who gave a speech about a certain book called The Handmaid’s Tales. This book was published based on the discovery of Offred’s Cassette tapes. The recordings were used in writing the book. In other words, and technically, all along, we (the reader) have been reading this said book.

Maybe It’s Extreme (Or Maybe Not)

While writing this Handmaid’s Tale summary, I came to terms with some of the questions I had when reading the book.

The first point in this post reminds me why it’s so hard to read at first. The book combines all those things women have faced all around the world and puts them in one country — the Republic of Gilead.

Another lesson from The Handmaid’s Tale is that society can be like this. If you think otherwise, I suggest you listen to the world news a little more.

Flannery O’Connor is another author who writes in a simple but profound style like Atwood. You can read my review of her story, Everything That Rises Must Converge.

Further readings:

5 Lessons From Private Experience by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.