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...
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