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In honor of International Women’s Day, let’s journey a couple decades into the future to visit lovely Gilead, a theocratic military dictatorship.
Gilead was established in the United States after a religious revolution, and afterward the rights of women were severely curtailed and their actions monitored. We meet one woman, Offred, who survived the revolution and was indoctrinated as a Handmaid, a young woman with a healthy reproductive system who is forcibly submitted to sexual intercourse with high-ranking members of government, whose wives are too old to become pregnant. In a highly choreographed, ritualistic “ceremony,” the Handmaid lies in front of the older wife while the husband is having sex with her. Offred’s life is reduced, quite literally, to her ability to conceive.
Offred is in service to someone we only know as the Commander. Although their relationship by law is restricted to monthly couplings, he begins a relationship with her, inviting her to his office where they play Scrabble and he gives her books to read. His wife, a former televangelist named Serena Joy, sets her up with Nick, the family chauffeur, in order to boost her chances of becoming pregnant.
Offred’s life outside the Commander’s house is just as restrictive. Women are separated into classes–Wives, Handmaids, Marthas (cooks), Econowives (for lower-ranking men) and Virgins–and interaction among the different classes is heavily regulated.
We learn of Offred’s life before the revolution, when she, her husband and child tried (and failed) to escape to Canada. After she was captured, she was sent to a training camp, overseen by militaristic Aunts–where she met one woman, Moira, who would eventually escape. Between her relationship with Nick and her meeting Moira again in a club while on an errand, Offred learns of a group called the Mayday Resistance who are planning to overthrow Gilead.
Offred becomes pregnant right around the time Serena Joy learns of her relationship with the Commander. Serena reports her to the secret police, called The Eyes, who come for Offred in a black van. Nick, who knows about the pregnancy, assures Offred The Eyes are part of the Resistance. The novel ends when Offred steps into the van.
Obviously, there’s a lot going on here, from a country being run like it exists in The Old Testament (the relationship between the Wives and Handmaids is said to be analogous to the Biblical story of Rachel and her maid Bilhah), the subjugation of an entire gender, and a healthy dose of paranoia to boot.
The miniseries based on the book is on Hulu, but I’m so terrified by the book–WOMEN ARE NOT ALLOWED TO READ IN GILEAD–that I have no interest in watching it. It makes a strong case for religious freedom and against evangelicalism in government, and although I still think this country has a long way to go toward equality, I’m thankful Gilead doesn’t exist.