The Handmaid's Tale

Book review by
Michael Berry, Common Sense Media
The Handmaid's Tale Book Poster Image
Popular with kidsParents recommend
Gripping dystopian novel of religious state against women.

Parents say

age 16+
Based on 7 reviews

Kids say

age 14+
Based on 12 reviews

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The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

The Handmai'd Tale is a highly regarded example of dystopian fiction, a piece of satire specific to its date of origin and still relevant many years later and in many other cultures. Nominated for the Booker Prize and a winner of the Arthur C. Clarke Award, it is frequently required reading in school and is often the target of censorship campaigns. It can serve as a springboard for discussions about religion, law, feminism, and many other topics.

Positive Messages

Like most dystopian novels, The Handmaid's Tale instructs by negative example. Gilead is shown to be a hierarchical, monotheocratic patriarchy. Women have no autonomy, no control over finances, their bodies, or their intellectual pursuits. Author Margaret Atwood is most harsh in her depiction of fundamentalism of any kind, rather than any particular form of religion or government.

Positive Role Models & Representations

The narrator, known as "Offred," has the courage to question her captivity and hope for a day of freedom. Over the course of the novel, she begins to rebel in subtle ways.


The threat of corporal punishiment hangs over all the characters in The Handmaid's Tale. The corpses of dissidents are hung in public as grim reminders of the cost of rebellion. Offred does not witness much violence firsthand, but she learns of handmaids who have committed suicide by hanging. The most violent scene in the novel involves a Salvaging, a public ceremony where the women are whipped into a frenzy and then allowed to beat an accused prisoner to death.


Nonreproductive sex is prohibited in Gilead, punishable by exile or even death. As a handmaid, Offred must participate in the Ceremony, in which she lies between the legs of the Commander's Wife and then has sex with the Commander. (This is the novel's most sexually explicit scene.) Later, Offred spends time at a brothel as a guest of the Commander and even develops a sexual relationship with another character.


Profanity is prohibited in Gilead, but swear words cannot be completely eradicated. "S--t" is used relatively frequently, as both an explitative and as a reference to feces. "Bitch," "tits," "damn" and "goddamn" are employed once or twice each. "F--k" and variations of it are used in the Ceremony scene.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Drinking, recreational drugs, and smoking are all prohibited in Gilead. Offred eventually learns, however, that alcohol and tobacco are available to the most powerful men. Scenes late in the novel are set in a brothel where drinking and smoking occur.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that The Handmaid's Tale is a powerful, potentially disturbing dystopian satire set in a future America where women have been stripped of all their civil rights. It features strong language, emotional and physical violence, and a couple of graphic sex scenes. The corpses of dissidents are hung in public as grim reminders of the cost of rebellion. There is mention of handmaids who have committed suicide by hanging. The most violent scene in the novel involves a public ceremony where women are whipped into a frenzy and then allowed to beat an accused person to death. The novel was adapted for the award-wining television series of the same name that premiered in 2017.

User Reviews

  • Parents say
  • Kids say
Adult Written byMGuillet June 28, 2014

One of the most important dystopian novels ever written

Let me begin by stating that I would not recommend this novel for younger adolescents, due to the rather blunt treatment of sex and violence in its dystopian se... Continue reading
Adult Written bySclose April 15, 2020

Leaves an impression

We are in buffalo ny. My 16 year old son in an ap English course has informed me he is to read this book. I educate my boy at home in many issues. The world is... Continue reading
Kid, 12 years old January 13, 2015

Thoughts on the Dystopia

The Handmaid's Tale is a gripping tale of a dystopian society based on the Old Testament. Thanks to this, this society heavily discriminates against women.... Continue reading
Teen, 16 years old Written byAdaPenrose November 8, 2020

An essential read for older teens

I tried to read this book when I was twelve and ran away screaming. The brutality of the story-line terrified me, not to mention the realism of the actual situ... Continue reading

What's the story?

The narrator of THE HANDMAID'S TALE, known only as "Offred," tells of her life in the monotheocracy of Gilead, in what used to be the United States, sometime in the near future. She is a handmaid, kept to breed with "the Commander" and provide an heir at a time when the human birthrate is dangerously low. As she remembers the years before her captivity and begins to dream of an end to her captivity, Offred develops new relationships with the Commander, his Wife and their driver. But can she trust any of them?

Is it any good?

Details matter to Margaret Atwood, and Offred's tale is related with precision and deep compassion. The Handmaid's Tale is one of the most acclaimed dystopian novels of the 20th century. An uncompromising portrait of a totalitarianism and institutional misogyny, it critiques fundamentalism in all its forms. 

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about why dystopian novels -- like The Handmaid's Tale (1985) and The Hunger Games (2008) -- continue to be such a popular genre.

  • Why do you think author Margaret Atwood appends "Historical Notes" to the main narrative of the novel?

  • Do you think women's rights are in jeopardy today? Where and how?

  • In what ways can religion can shape government -- and vice versa?

Book details

Our editors recommend

For kids who love science fiction and dystopian novels

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