Book blurb: Offred is a Handmaid in the Republic of Gilead. She may leave the home of the Commander and his wife once a day to walk to food markets whose signs are now pictures instead of words because women are no longer allowed to read. She must lie on her back once a month and pray that the Commander makes her pregnant, because in an age of declining births, Offred and the other Handmaids are valued only if their ovaries are viable. Offred can remember the years before, when she lived and made love with her husband, Luke; when she played with and protected her daughter; when she had a job, money of her own, and access to knowledge. But all of that is gone now…
My take: I re-read The Handmaid’s Tale because it was the May/June selection for the Our Shared Shelf feminist book club (see my discussion questions here)(and more about why I’m reading along with this book club here).
When I read it the first time, about ten years ago, it scared me witless. My daughter was very young then, and there were times when I had to put away the book and look in on her while she was sleeping – just because I could. I would bike to work in freedom and savor that, too, because I could. I had discussions with my husband and my family and soaked up the energy and mutual love and respect, because I could.
The Handmaid’s Tale is, simply put, frightening. Even though the book was written 35 years ago it remains topical. And possible. All too easily possible as we rely more and more on the interwebs.
Re-reading it was still frightening, although less so, because I remembered the why and the how of the creation of the Republic of Gilead, and even more so the parts towards the end that give some perspective (more on that below).
The strength of the book for me lies in the fact that nothing is explained. You are in Offred’s head as she remembers. She clutches those memories to her innermost heart and being, and tries to keep them at bay at the same time, to maintain some kind of working sanity. At first this is quite disorienting, but soon you begin to make sense of the now and of the very near past. What kind of stifling society is Offred a part of? How come a few years ago she was living freely? What happened. And, why does she not fight?
I was able to put it a little more distance between myself and the book’s world this time around. It helps that my daughter is older and a little less dependent on me now. It helps that I had read it before. And, once again (*spoiler alert*), the Notes at the end helped me as well. The truth is, history moves in cycles. There will always be oppression and repression somewhere in the world, just as surely as there will be revolutions and uprisings to counter this, and this gives me hope. Until men can bear children they will feel the need to stifle women, I think.