The Handmaid’s Tale

Margaret Atwood

I had a memory of reading this book, but it’s possible I just picked up enough about it through cultural references over the years to convince myself that I had. Or maybe my powers of recall are failing, because I didn’t notice any of the things that are drastically different in the TV show version when I watched it; those realizations only happened when I started reading the book afterward. It could be possible that an earlier reading happened long before I started writing about the books I read (in 2003). Recently I randomly read back to what I wrote about A Book of Common Prayer only five years ago, and I had entirely forgotten the discussion of Didion’s use of the word paregorina that I linked to at the end. But I would think something in this book would have jarred my memory.

In any case, is it even necessary to in any way synopsize a book like this? It seems impossible to imagine I would forget very much about it now. For any possible future forgetfulness, I’ll link to Margaret Atwood’s 2017 essay for The New York Times, published just before the launch of the Hulu show, in which she recalls how the book came about and what it means now in the age of Trump. Some very interesting context is that she was in West Germany when she was writing the book in 1984, and she writes about how that experience informed her story:

I experienced the wariness, the feeling of being spied on, the silences, the changes of subject, the oblique ways in which people might convey information, and these had an influence on what I was writing. So did the repurposed buildings. “This used to belong to . . . but then they disappeared.” I heard such stories many times.

For the most part, the changes made for TV make a lot of sense — most specifically changing the ages of the Commander and Serena Joy to heighten the dramatic potential. And the further back story of all the characters made it possible to build beyond one season. I’m curious why the Econowives, in their striped outfits, weren’t fully present in the show. It seems like an interesting detail to choose to pare down. As much as I am a “books first” kind of person (except this time, apparently), I think the TV series has evolved immeasurably beyond the book and made the world of Gilead richer — and more disturbing in its realism.

I mostly wanted to read The Handmaid’s Tale so I could read The Testaments and be sure I hadn’t missed anything. I’m very curious to see if the show influenced the sequel. We now know The Handmaid’s Tale will end soon, as the The Testaments has also been optioned for a TV version, and the two shows won’t run concurrently.