by Margaret Atwood
First sentence: “We slept in what had once been the gymnasium.”
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I read this book in my early 20s, sometime soon after I finished college. I remember thinking that this was a Great Warning; plausible enough to become true, and thus making it that much more powerful to me. I was moved to anger by the treatment of women as objects, and considered this one of the Best Books I’ve Ever Read.
This time around — 15 years later — I am still moved by it, but in a completely different way. The basic plot, for those who are unfamiliar with this dystopian classic, is that the U.S. falls apart after an attack which kills the president and Congress. The country is put into a state of emergency, which evolves into this warped religious state. Offred, our main character, is a handmaid: a woman whose sole purpose in life is to have babies for the Commanders. She is told that it is her religious duty to do so; the Wives and Marthas (the maids and cooks) tolerate her presence because her “duty” is so important. Offred — we never learn her real name — longs for her former life: the one where she had a job, money, husband, child. And it’s all she can do to put one foot in front of the other in her life.
I found this all monstrous. I’m thinking of it in a different light — I could very easily be Offred — and it’s monstrous what Attwood has dreamt up. Not only for the handmaids, but for the wives and commanders, too. (Maybe those books on polygamy are influencing my reading of this, too, because there are definite parallels there.) And I was depressed by it. I don’t think we — as a country — would ever head that way (though there was this one passage that struck me because of its similarities to 9/11 and the Patriot Act), but it’s depressing that there is that awful potential in people to control other people in that way. There are also Taliban similarities, as well — something which wasn’t even on the radar when I read this the first time around — that saddened me.
I can’t imagine — more like, don’t want to imagine — a world where women are treated as nothing more than the sum of their bodies, where men get excused for their behavior because of their position, where women hate and loathe each other because of their roles. Wait… that, too much, describes what our world is like now. Without the religious framework, without the robes, without the martial law, there are elements of this world around us.
And that really depresses me.