Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 857

Although The Handmaid's Tale achieved great popular success when it was published—weeks on the best seller lists, its adaptation as a major motion picture—its reception by critics has been wildly uneven. Critics generally have been positive about the book, but for many different reasons.

These reasons have been so diverse...

(The entire section contains 857 words.)

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Although The Handmaid's Tale achieved great popular success when it was published—weeks on the best seller lists, its adaptation as a major motion picture—its reception by critics has been wildly uneven. Critics generally have been positive about the book, but for many different reasons.

These reasons have been so diverse that it seems at times that reviewers were reviewing different books. Such wide disagreement is testimony to Atwood's strength as a novelist: it shows that no reviewer could dismiss The Handmaid's Tale lightly, that they gave the book, its subject matter, and its implications serious attention. It takes a novel with few obvious flaws and so much social relevance to bring out so many different approaches.

In general, reviewers divided their attentions toward either the book's political success or its success as a piece of literature, although there is vast disagreement about whether it works in either of these areas.

Critic Joyce Maynard, who reviewed the book for Mademoiselle soon after its publication m 1986, expressed her amazement and admiration for the way that Atwood put together a complete fictional world, with "not only the basic rules and structures by which Gilead operates, but a thousand small, odd, harrowing particulars too." Maynard started reading the book at ten o'clock at night and could not stop reading until she had finished the last page, after daybreak, because she was captivated by the "incredible and moving story."

In contrast, Robert Linkous was one of the very few reviewers completely unmoved by the novel: "Offred's monotonous manner of expression just drones and drones," he wrote in San Francisco Review of Books.

Brad Hooper, writing for Booklist, contrasted the book's social aims with its narrative achievement, noting that "the book is simply too obvious (in its moral agenda) to support its fictional context." Often, this debate about whether the book's thinly-veiled criticism of contemporary politics is justified by Atwood's story-telling ability has been shifted, slightly, to an analysis of how The Handmaid's Tale compares to similar dystopian novels, such as 1984 and Brave New World, which also sound the alarm against coming political calamity.

In his review for Newsweek in 1986, Peter Prescott wrote that The Handmaid's Tale was better than those other books because Atwood was a more talented novelist. "Unlike those English gentlemen, she can create a nuanced character," he wrote in a review entitled "No Balm In This Gilead." "The dystopia she imagined may be more limited than theirs, but it's fully horrifying—and achieved without recourse to special effects."

Famed author Barbara Ehrenreich, however, saw the book as being insufficiently realized, both as a novel and as a work of political speculation. "As a dystopia, this is a thinly textured one," she wrote in The New Republic, directly contrasting Prescott's and Maynard's views. She pointed out improbabilities in the Atwood's imaginary Gilead, such as the fact that outlawing printed matter would be unlikely if they have cars and computers that would need operating manuals, and she faults the novel's protagonist for lacking character, calling her "a sappy stand-in for (1984's) Winston Smith," and Gilead "a coloring-book version of (1984's) Oceana." As a sign of the narrator's vagueness and inappropriateness for telling the tale, Ehrenreich points to the fact that, given a chance to obtain forbidden information from the Commander, Offred comes up with nothing better than a weak request for "whatever there is to know ... what's going on."

It is an indicator of the distance between critical perspectives that Joyce Johnson's review in The Washington Post cited the same quote, but she interprets it as "a classic demand for something valuable and forbidden."

Even those reviewers who were unimpressed with Atwood's storytelling skills found enough in the issues the book raised to make it worth reading. Although Ehrenreich thought The Handmaid's Tale was not as good as other dystopia novels, she did express great interest in the often overlooked phenomenon that Atwood brings attention to: the similarity between religious fundamentalism and cultural feminism. She says that the book is fascinating and worth reading, despite its literary weaknesses, because of the extra dimension it adds to its mirror of our times. "We are being warned, in this tale, not only about the theocratic ambitions of the religious right, but about the repressive tendency of feminism in general," she wrote. She went on to cite evidence in the harsh treatment of pornography and the group beating of rapists as signs that Gilead is not too far from a hard-line feminist's ideal.

If this warning was what made the book worthwhile for Ehrenreich, it was not enough to keep Mary McCarthy, the novelist, engaged in the story McCarthy called the book "very readable" in The New York Times Review of Books, but she went on to explain that she could not take its scary version of the future very seriously because, even though she herself was suspicious almost to the point of being paranoid about small things like credit cards being "instruments of social control," she could not see the far right of the political spectrum rising up violently to overthrow the government, which is, of course, the novel's central premise.

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