It is the near future, and the United States no longer exists. The country is now the Republic of Gilead, and the democratically elected government has been overthrown and replaced with a totalitarian theocracy. First Amendment freedoms no longer exist, and anyone considered “undesirable” is banished to the outskirts of civilization, where they are certain to die within a few years—if the leadership of Gilead doesn’t execute them first.

One of Gilead’s most prominent characteristics is its subjugation of women, and that is the focus of The Handmaid’s Tale. Offred, the story’s narrator, was once a woman with a husband, a daughter, and a job in a library. Now, she is separated from everyone she cares about and is no longer allowed to use her real name, have her own money, or even read. In the strict, highly stratified society of Gilead, Offred is a Handmaid, one of a class of women whose sole purpose is to have babies for the Commanders of the Faithful and their wives. Once every month, Offred is subjected to “The Ceremony” that she must hope will result in a pregnancy; every month that she does not get pregnant brings her another month closer to life being over, literally and figuratively. In between these ceremonies, Offred copes with a world where women cannot pursue knowledge, where sex is no longer about pleasure or love, and where spies and secret police may overhear anything a person says. Like the other Handmaids, Offred is no longer an individual, but a piece of property deemed interchangeable with any other woman of her rank.

The Handmaid’s Tale is not a fun read (which you probably already concluded from that plot introduction), but it is riveting and terrifyingly relevant. Atwood’s prose is beautiful and descriptive, but never flowery. There is a sparse, dispassionate quality to it that makes Offred’s world seem all the more frightening and full of despair. Atwood writes in the voice of a miserable woman unable to express her misery openly or do anything to change it.

Even though it was published in 1985, The Handmaid’s Tale feels very timely now. It serves as a grim reminder that the progress made for women’s rights over the last century cannot and must not be taken for granted; the same is true for the freedoms of speech and religion guaranteed in the U.S. Constitution. The dystopia in this novel is not an outrageous speculation that could never happen; it is what reality might look like if some of the more extreme views in our society were able to take hold and become the law of the land. For women especially, it is an important cautionary tale. In her earlier life in the United States, Offred was often indifferent to or even uncomfortable with the feminist activism of her mother, and she took her freedoms as a given, a guarantee that would always be there. Now, in Gilead, her body and mind are no longer her own to control, and she remains complacent because she fears retaliation, both against herself and against her lost family. She misses that former life, even the most mundane and unpleasant things about it; she had never taken the time to appreciate them before. At the same time, however, it is suggested that some of the more extreme feminist attitudes of the pre-Gilead era may have helped the religious right gain a foothold and to manipulate women into thinking that theocratic rule would protect them and improve their lives. Nevertheless, Atwood’s main criticism is of the right-wing extremists who took away women’s rights, and her warning is that the freedoms women have gained must continue to be appreciated and fought for every single day.

Brilliant and engrossing as it is, this is definitely a depressing novel. What makes it so disheartening is that it is not a story of democracy triumphing over totalitarianism or feminism overcoming patriarchy. Instead, it is a story that demonstrates how people become complacent under an oppressive regime and questions whether resistance would be at all successful. Danger and uncertainty are constants, especially for Handmaids like Offred, making her reluctant to join the small group of risk-takers who hope to take Gilead down.

The sharp social critique and beautifully haunting prose of The Handmaid’s Tale make it a modern classic and one of the most important novels of our time. Its harsh message and unhappy tone make it difficult to stomach sometimes, but I consider it essential reading for young women like myself—and maybe even for everyone else. It is a novel of a world we do not want but could possibly see, and a reminder that we must embrace our freedoms and fight back when anyone tries to take them away.