To my knowledge, we're not told what year the book takes place in. There are references to the 70's, 80's and perhaps even 90's. In the final wrap-up chapter, it is 2095 and symposiums are looking back on this time period as a cultural study. The book itself, in fact, is studied since it was discovered hidden, on a series of tapes. It would seem, that The Handmaid's Tale, is her diary, left behind for future generations.
From the book jacket:
"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 not 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 an 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...everything has changed."
The story takes place primarily in the Eastern united stated. Giliad is apparently in Maine. The story is a series of personal recollections about the present state of things and Offred's daily life, interspersed with flashbacks of what she remembers of life before...life that is sort of like what we know now. It's really not clear exactly what went wrong and how the current powers that be took over the democracy but women suddenly have no rights. There are references to the numbing out of men, the over availability of sex and the abuses and violence associated with that. There are references to the earth being degraded through ecological abuses.
When I first started this book, which was published in 1985, I had some difficulty getting into the story. It just seemed so far-fetched. But it is oddly compelling, and I finished it rather quickly. It is somewhat reminiscent of George Orwell's novel, 1984. I'll be honest, I haven't read that tome since high school...in the 70's...and I thought it preposterous then.
One of the compelling features about this book is the subtle way that over the course of it's pages, you start to see just HOW such a thing COULD take place. There is reference to the oceans being devoid of life from pollution, the birth rate is low and the human race is in jeopardy due to the long term exposures to chemical waste, and nuclear waste leaks...so infertility is up, and mutant births and miscarriage are the norm. There is mention of electronic, paperless banking, and it is by this means that at some point, all resources owned by women are frozen, given to men, and eventually, the money system is abolished altogether. There are hints that given our current state of the earth, we're not that far off. That becomes compelling and eery.
Unbeknownst to me (like most things are), this book was made into a movie in 1990 starring Natasha Richardson in the role of Offred, with Fay Dunaway as the Commander's wife, Robert Duvall as the Commander, and Aidan Quinn as Nick. The movie is apparently not available on Netflix. I'll have to see it, somehow, although I don't actually want to own it.
Sorry about the sound problems on this movie trailer. It is the only one I could find.