The Handmaid’s Tale Book Tour

I first read The Handmaid’s Tale in the mid-1990s, the summer I met the man who would become my husband. Roger was getting ready to teach it to his high school students, but he never got the opportunity. The book was challenged by a parent, and though Roger won the case, the chance to teach it passed.

On first reading, I thought my life path would be: court, marry, procreate, live happily ever after. On second reading — more than a decade and a well-worn map-to-parenthood later — the book struck very different chords.

In the beginning of the book, the Aunts discuss two facets of freedom: “freedom from” and “freedom to”. While the old government’s laws provided both types of freedom, the new government limited women’s freedom to “freedom from”. Do you think that “freedom from” is truly a freedom, or is it just the government’s way of subtly taking away rights?

Definitely the latter. This sentiment is commonly credited to Benjamin Franklin: “Those who would give up Essential Liberty to purchase a little Temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.” For more of my thoughts on the coming dystopia and the prescience of Margaret Atwood, see my post from a few days ago.

One thing that struck me was how easily the Gileadean government robbed women of their economic power and, ultimately, freedom. All it took was a few keystrokes and threats to employers to throw women back into chattel status. Where was the opposition? And what about the men? Even Offred’s partner was unbothered by what was happening. How might the citizens in Offred’s culture have fought against the Gileadians’ plans? Or was the takeover inevitable once it began?

When people value more the “freedom from” than the “freedom to,” taking away freedoms will be as easy as the proverbial taking candy from a baby (which, in reality, is a strange simile, if you’ve ever tried doing so).

Life carries risk. The more we want to shift our risk onto others, the more we are willing to let others control us. We trade freedom for security (or the illusion of security, since risk is still there in some form or another). We’re like that doomed frog that is put in a pot of cool water with the heat turned on: because change happens gradually, we don’t jump out of the pot or yell “stop!” Gradualism takes patience if you’re the perpetrator, and vigilance and courage if you’re the frog.

We in the US hail our Constitution as the protector and guarantor of our rights. But without our awareness and willingness to fight to protect our rights, the Constitution is just an old piece of paper.

The Declaration of Independence says, “That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it…when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government.”

Thomas Jefferson and the Second Continental Congress were so committed to self-governance that they even declared the right/duty to “throw off” a government that’s become despotic! What citizenry in human history has ever been given by its founders permission — even the imperative — to overthrow a wayward government? (And whether Eyes are reading or not, I must point out I am not suggesting the overthrow of anything.)

When was the last time you read the Constitution? Do you think your elected officials have? How can you (and they) safeguard your freedoms if you don’t know what they are?

**stepping down from soap box**

It was at one time hard for me to put myself in the Wife’s shoes, but having dealt with infertility on a more personal sense, I find that I can sympathize with her and her role in this society. If you had to be in this society, how could you cope with your role in it? Would you be a Wife or a Handmaid? Could you sympathize with your counterpart?

Absolutely. I sympathize with both. If I had my choice (which, of course, I wouldn’t in Gilead), I think I’d be a Wife (as the lessor of two horrors). But I would also sympathize with the Handmaids. Both groups were stripped of the power of self-determination.

I know logically that one needs only food, shelter, air and water for survival. But to live without freedom seems so pathetically bleak, for both Blue and Red.


Hop along to another stop on this blog tour by visiting the main list at You can also sign up for the next book on this online book club: The Jane Austen Book Club by Karen Fowler (with author participation!)

24 thoughts on “The Handmaid’s Tale Book Tour”

  1. <>The more we want to shift our risk onto others, the more we are willing to let others control us. <>Bravo. Brilliantly put.

  2. Interesting answers. The author commented that for the Canadians, the question is “Could it happen here?” while for the Americans it’s “When will it happen?”Scary stuff. Looking on from the UK, the whole post 9/11 internment without trial/attacks on abortion clinics etc etc is scary stuff too.

  3. Helen — thank you.Samantha…so right. This is why it’s been difficult to transplant democracy and self-governance in other places — there is a lure to not making one’s own decisions, especially for people who have little experience doing so.But to have freedom and lose it is especially bitter.Paranoid — I have the same fear (about being perceived as a whackjob)!Beruriah — I am curious about what you mean by “foolishly comfy.” Specifically, do you mean your own life was comfy, or the world was in a comfy place in the 1990s?PJ — me too!Loribeth — it would be easier not to know, wouldn’t it? Knowing means we have some responsibility.

  4. I’m like Paranoid, I’m still drafting my answers & was reluctant to go on at too great a length about the parallels I see between the book & current events (particularly as a non-American, I didn’t want to seem too critical). I’m glad to see others share the same views (& express them so eloquently!). The frog analogy is apt!

  5. Very provocative post. Nicely done. I was just about to write about the frog analogy when you raised it yourself! I think too many in society get caught up in their own lives and don’t notice the gradual changes around them — sometimes until it’s too late. Margaret Atwood’s novel seems more in tune with today’s society than ever. I’m hopeful that enough people will realize that we’re on the wrong path and step forward to make sure we get back on the right one. We have it in our power to do so!

  6. I’m glad I’m not the only one lots of parallels between what happened in Gilead and what’s happening here in the US. As I’ve been drafting my answers for the book tour (though mine don’t go up until Wednesday), I was afraid I was starting to sound like a paranoid whackjob, ranting about the liberties our government and certain political parties want desperately to take away. I don’t know whether to be relieved or appalled that I’m not some whackjob (at least, not on this point), it’s just that things really are getting that bad.One of the most maddening refrains I heard in the aftermath of 9/11 (and still today) is that almost any limit on liberty is acceptable if it reduces the risk of another attack. It’s a little scary how quickly people are willing to hand their rights over for some gossamer illusion of safety.

  7. Gosh, great responses. I loved the whole speech from the soapbox. You didn’t need to get down. 😎I hope my post (on Wed) is half as intelligent and eloquent as yours is.

  8. This sentence hit me square in the face: “The more we want to shift our risk onto others, the more we are willing to let others control us.”You hit the nail, darlin.

  9. Nice.I read the book first as a teenager – long before I ever imagined how it would resonate with me personally or how relevant the discussion of “freedom from” would become. Atwood was certainly prescient, but I also remember she wrote the book in the late 70s, early 80s, and that I read it from the foolishly comfy space of the 1990s.

  10. I think it’s tempting be drawn into the “freedom from” model, because it involves less choice, less thinking on the part of an individual. Difficult decisions can be rendered simple, but at a high cost, as in the handmaid’s tale. These women did not have to choose a career, figure out what they were going to eat, or how they were going to get pregnant. But they lost their life in the process.

  11. This was an excellent analysis of the book and of our current sociopolitical climate. I have been meaning to re-read this book with a post-9/11, post-infertility perspective.

  12. Town Criers and Drowned Girl — I think so, too.Deanna — and we continue to do so, with much of our legislation.Dunn Family — I’m glad I wasn’t as annoying as I thought I was up there! I’ll be visiting you tomorrow.Bea — yeah, some choice.

  13. Furrow — I’d love to know what you think when you read it again.MOM!! What a great gift your comment is (even if it cost me 50 bucks!). Hey, unbiased opinions don’t come cheap!You are the best parents anyone could ever ask for. I certainly got lucky [ahem-ty ahem] years ago. XOXO to you!

  14. thanks for your comment on my post! i still do not think that something similar to handmaid’s tale could happen here. however…i do agree that EVERYONE’S liberties are in danger of being limited or lost. if you view handmaid’s tale as a government vs. people argument instead of a women’s right issue, then certainly these things can and are beginning to happen. i don’t think it would ever come down to WOMEN being unable to read or speak, but maybe certain social classes or groups could have more freedoms disrupted as time goes on. and a big difference is that, like paranoid said here in her comment, people now are willing to hand over their rights for some illusion of safety. in gilead they had no choice. and maybe it will come to that. i hope not. i guess i’m just an optimistic creature. i really enjoyed your post. thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  15. Like most of the earlier commenters, I loved your responses. I had a very similar reaction to the book and to Atwood’s prescience. Thanks for getting on your soapbox — no need to have gotten off.

  16. I’m here courtesy of Blogger Bingo, which you probably figured since I’m commenting on a post from two years ago. 🙂

    I read this book for the first time about a year ago and I still characterize it as one of the scariest books I’ve ever read. I think it’s interesting that despite all the innovation and creativity our human society prides ourselves on, our response to stress played out exactly as she predicted. I’ll admit my memories of the details are a little fuzzy, but I do remember that the tipping point in the book was so similar to the reality of 9/11 and our national response that the whole thing gave me chills.

    It’s fascinating to read infertility-tinted discussions of this book. I certainly read it that way myself but didn’t have anyone to discuss it with at the time. I’m looking forward to clicking through some of the other book club members’ posts!

  17. I read this book many years ago, yet it keeps popping up in my life. I think, like you, I may view the story differently upon reading it again. I definitely agree with some of your points. Especially the analogy of the frog. The reason we let so many of or freedoms go is because we are in a pot of water called the USA and no one notices the water heating up. Thanks for reminding me of this book once again.

  18. Reading your blogs is an unbelievable experience for us. In the busyness of life, we often don’t have time to explore anything beyond, “How are you?” It is gratifying to read of your many and varied interests and your very thoughtful response to the world around you. We especially were blown away by this blog and the quotable quote: The more we want to shift our risk onto others, the more we are willing to let others control us. How simple, yet how deep.We are impressed by the many thoughtful responses to this blog. You could start a revolution. You are a phenomenon and I hope you realize how unique and valuable you are to the world. Have a most happy birthday. Looking forward to celebrating with you.Love, Your very unbiased Mom and Dad

  19. “Those who would give up Essential Liberty to purchase a little Temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.”

    oooohh.. if I knew this quote, then I had forgotten it. Thanks for bringing it up. I LOVE its wisdom.

  20. Thanks for bringing me back here, Lori. I don’t think I’d known about the book club (partly because I wasn’t blogging back then), but it makes sense that Mel would have run one. I haven’t read the entire book in a while … but looking at my old journals, especially from my childhood (I started one when I was 9) made me think a lot about those freedoms, and about the kind of adolescence I grew into, and about the person I am today.

    Which, suddenly, I find myself questioning … like I have been cracked wide open.

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