The book begins describing how the main character, a Handmaid named Offred (read: Of Fred), lives with the Commander and his wife and must perform menial tasks such as going to the market (where the signs are not words but pictures, because women are not allowed to read). Her biggest assignment once a month is to lie with the Commander and hope that she can get pregnant, because if she can not, she will be sent to the Colonies, where women and other outcasts work with meagre portions of food and dangerous surroundings. Also in this society, doctors who perform or used to perform abortions are hunted down and murdered, as well as previous religious leaders and promiscuous homosexuals. Anyone that goes against the grain in this new society is punished. Throughout the book Offred reminisces about the years—when she would play with her daughter, go places with her husband Luke, and could work to earn money—before she became a Handmaid in this deranged society.
This story puts a new spin on everyday life. It makes the reader wary of the future, as "The Handmaid’s Tale" can almost seem like something that has already happened before or foreshadowing for a lifestyle that is imminent. The detail in this book is incredible as well. It can make any reader appreciative for all the small things they have—like the freedom of sexuality, the freedom to protest, and the freedom to gain knowledge.
In addition, a topic frequently brought up in this fictional yet realistic account is sexual relations. Though it may be a squeamish topic for the rather conservative audience, sex is presented as something almost sacred. However, at the same time, sex is no longer something that is allowed for pleasure; instead it is only an instinctive act of reproduction. For this reason (and also for a few curse words and other mature topics like death), I would say this book is not for your little brother or sister in elementary and junior high school.
After finishing this book, I felt satisfied, as though I had just lived another’s life through the account of someone in the past, or someone that sent their horrifying tale back in time. The ending is incredible, as it is presented in the future as historical notes by fictional professors and fans of this tale of a Handmaid in a maniacal republic.“While the initial idea for 'The Handmaid’s Tale' came to me in 1981, I avoided writing it for several years because I was apprehensive about the results—whether I would be able to carry it off as a literary form,” Atwood noted, in ‘A Note to the Reader’. Perhaps it is fortunate she did end up publishing this avant-garde novel until years later. That being said, "The Handmaid’s Tale" is not a dust-collecting addition to the top tier of one’s bookshelf, but rather, something to keep on a nightstand to contemplate over and over again.