Margaret Atwood – The Handmaid’s Tale [ Study Guide ]
[ 1. ] Margaret Atwood – The Handmaid’s Tale
1. Margaret Atwood [ 1939 – ] : Biography
2. The Handmaid’s Tale – Short Summary
3. The Handmaid’s Tale [ about the novel ]
4. The Handmaid’s Tale – Characters’ List
5. The Handmsid’s Tale – Glossary of Terms
6. The Handmaid’s Tale – Major Themes
7. The Handmaid’s Tale – Chapters’ Summaries and Analyses
A. Summary and Analysis of Chapters 1-2.
B. Summary and Analysis of Chapters 3-4.
C. Summary and Analysis of Chapters 5-6.
D. Summary and Analysis of Chapters 7-8.
E. Summary and Analysis of Chapters 9-10.
F. Summary and Analysis of Chapters 11-12.
G. Summary and Analysis of Chapters 13-14.
H. Summary and Analysis of Part 3, Chapters 4-6.
8. The Handmaid’s Tale – About Speculative Fiction
9. The Handmaid’s Tale – Suggested Essay Questions
10. The Handmaid’s Tale – Essays for The Handmaid’s Tale
11. The Handmaid’s Tale – Quiz
12. The Handmaid’s Tale – Quiz Answers
I. Biography of Margaret Atwood (1939- )
Margaret Atwood was born in Ottawa, Ontario. Her father, Carl Edmund Atwood, was a zoologist who engaged in entomological research during most of Atwood's childhood. Her mother, Margaret Dorothy Killiam, was a former dietician and nutritionist. Atwood was the second of three children. When she was sixteen, Atwood began to study at the University of Toronto. She received her B.A. in 1961, her M.A. from Radcliffe (now Harvard) in 1962, and she continued to study at Harvard from 1962-63, and from 1965-67. In 1968, Atwood married Jim Polk, but they divorced in 1973. She married fellow novelist Graeme Gibson soon after. They had a daughter in 1976, and she also helped raise Gibson's two sons from his previous marriage. Atwood has lived in Canada for the majority of her life, but during the 1980s she spent some time in Germany, England, and France. She currently resides in Toronto. Atwood has also held positions as an English lecturer or writer-in-residence at various universities.
Atwood is known both for the quality and the quantity of her writing. She has published novels, shorts stories, poems, and works of literary criticism. As a critic, she is best known for her Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature. This work was published in 1972, at a time when most people didn't think there was such a thing as Canadian Literature. Atwood is credited for drawing heightened attention to Canadian writers, but Atwood suggests that the creation of new presses, many of them run by writers themselves, was one of the most important factors in the sudden proliferation of Canadian writers. Atwood's identity as a Canadian author has always been very important to her, and she achieved tremendous success in spite of the serious handicap presented by her desire to be known as a Canadian writer.
Atwood has repeatedly reinvented herself over the course of her career. She has written science fiction, speculative fiction, historical fiction, and realistic fiction. Science is almost always an important theme in her books, and Atwood agrees that having a father who was a scientist played an important role in her interest in exploring this field. She is quick to point out that despite the negative role science plays in many of her books, she is far from a Luddite. In many interviews, she has emphasized that science is a tool that can be used for remarkable good, but can also be an instrument of evil.
Perhaps Atwood's most famous work is Surfacing (1973), which tells the story of a girl who returns to her childhood home of Quebec to search for her missing father, a botanist who has disappeared in the woods. Other notable works include The Handmaid's Tale, which appeared in 1985, and Cat's Eye, in 1989. The Robber Bride in 1993 was inspired by the story "The Robber Bridegroom" from the Brothers Grimm. Atwood's anti-heroine is a woman named Zenia, a sexual predator who wreaks havoc on the lives of three friends. Alias Grace (1996) was Atwood's first work of historical fiction, inspired by a newspaper article that Atwood read about a woman who had been convicted of murder, but claimed to have no memory of the crime. Atwood won a Booker Prize for The Blind Assassin in 2000, and in 2003 she published Oryx and Crake, one of her most intriguing explorations of the power of science.
Atwood has spoken and written prolifically on the art of writing and on being a writer. Her books often engage with the power of language and the necessity of storytelling and conveying one's point of view through writing or speaking. Atwood is also a feminist writer, and when she first became well known in the 1970s, she was considered not just a role model and groundbreaker for Canadian writers, but for female writers as well. Atwood not only spoke about issues of gender in the world of publishing, she also wrote about many of the issues of concern to feminists from the '70s up to today. Atwood has always commanded a great deal of respect, and one of the explanations for the attention she has received is her insistence on depicting issues of gender, science, power, and truth in all of their complexity. Already considered one of Canada's highest-achieving writers, Atwood will undoubtedly continue to play an important role in Canadian and World Literature throughout her life.
II. Margaret Atwood – The Handmaid’s Tale : Short Summary
The narrator was in an old high school gymnasium. The Aunts patrolled at night, and men with guns guarded her and the other women from the outside. Now she is in another room, a normal bedroom. She wears a red dress, red gloves, and shoes. Her head and most of her face are covered with a stiff, white veil. She goes shopping, taking with her tokens to be exchanged for food. The narrator wishes the other women, the "Marthas", were friendlier, and wonders why the Wife envies her. She remembers arriving in the house and recognizing the Wife from a televised Gospel Service she used to watch as a girl. Next, the narrator walks to meet her partner, passing Nick, the chauffeur, in the yard. She waits on the corner until the other woman, her mirror image, arrives. They walk to the store, saying only proscribed things. Her partner's name, we learn, is Ofglen. They pass through a barrier, showing their passes. The narrator thinks about how much these men must miss women. Around them walk "econowives", Marthas, and other "Handmaids". The narrator remembers what it was like before, when she had a job and money, and walked these streets with Luke. She remembers what each store used to be before. The two women exchange their tokens for food, and see a pregnant Handmaid, Ofwarren, whom the narrator recognizes as Janine, from the re-training center.
After they depart, they are stopped by a Japanese trade delegation that wants to take their picture and ask them questions about their lives. The two women say no to the picture and keep their speech to a minimum. They walk past the Church and the wall. There are six bodies hanging from it today. They are doctors, so none of them are Luke. That night the narrator, whose name is Offred, lies in bed and remembers things from her past. She remembers conversations with Moira when they were in College; going to a book-burning in a park with her mother when she was young; her daughter being taken from her. Another day begins, and this day there are only three bodies on the wall. Offred and Ofglen pass a funeral procession; an econowife is holding a jar containing a baby probably only a few months old. She thinks about Serena Joy, and about how Aunt Lydia had warned them to be careful of the wives. At home, Offred smells baking bed, and the scent reminds her of motherhood. Rita and Cora discuss her bath. As she goes upstairs, Offred sees the Commander standing outside of her room, though he is not supposed to be there. He passes her without speaking.
When Offred first arrived at her current abode, she explored the room and discovered that someone had written nolite te bastardes carborundorum on the floor of the wardrobe. She got Rita to tell her that several Handmaids had been there before her. As Offred sits in her room, she remembers another time when Moira came to her room and dragged her out of it, inviting her to an "underwhore" party. Out the window, she watches Nick and the Commander drive away. Later, she is taken to the doctor for her monthly visit. Once alone in the examining room with her, the Doctor offers to impregnate her, reminding her that the Commander may be too old, or impotent, though it is illegal to say such things. She wants to say yes, but she is too afraid, so she politely declines. That night she bathes, thinking about her daughter. It is hard to eat her dinner that night. She thinks about how the waiting is the hardest part, and the one thing they weren't prepared for. She remembers Moira's arrival at the training center. She falls asleep and dreams, first of Luke, and then of running with her daughter and being caught. She is awakened by Cora, who is knocking on the door; it is time for the Ceremony.
Offred goes into the living room and waits. Rita and Cora enter, closely followed by Nick. Finally Serena Joy comes in and turns on the television. Offred thinks about the day they left, how they were going to show the guards at the border their fake passports and tell them they were having a picnic. The Commander comes in, takes the Bible out of its locked box, and reads the usual prayers. Meanwhile, Offred thinks about sneaking meetings with Moira at the Center, during which Moira told her about her plans to escape. She had been caught, brought back, beaten terribly, and then put back with the other women. They go into the bedroom. Offred lies on the bed, her head on the Wife's lap, her hands in the Wife's hands. Lifting her skirt above her waist, the Commander penetrates her, not looking at her. When it is over Serena Joy tells her to leave, though she is supposed to wait for ten minutes. That night Offred creeps out of her bed and into the living room, intent on stealing something, anything. Instead, she meets Nick. In the dark he kisses her, but a moment later he tells her that the Commander wants to see her in his office tomorrow night.
Offred remembers what her life used to be like, and imagines the different possibilities of what may have happened to Nick. She dreams of her daughter and then her mother. She gets through her morning and eats her breakfast, but then her reveries are interrupted by the Birthmobile siren. She runs down the stairs and gets into the van, which is already occupied by several other Handmaids. The wives get into a separate vehicle, and both parties drive to the house of Commander Warren. Offred remembers the lectures about the declining birthrate. She sees the Doctor's van, knowing he will be called in only if necessary. The wives go upstairs and sit in a circle around Ofwarren. Aunt Elizabeth is there to oversee the birth. Offred remembers how they were shown movies, some violent pornography, others political propaganda. She thinks about how her mother protested for abortion rights. Just before Janine (Ofwarren) begins to push, they place her on the lower seat of the birthing stool, with the Wife above her. Janine gives birth to a baby girl, who seems to be healthy. The wife is placed in the bed and given the clean baby, while Janine is led away. In a few months she will be transferred to another man, to try again, but since she is fertile, she will always be safe from banishment to the Colonies.
At home, in bed, Offred remembers Moira's second escape attempt. This time she was successful - or, at least, Offred assumes so, since has never seen her since. Offred thinks about her story, about how impossible it is to tell the truth, to tell everything. She wonders what it's all about. Later that night, after she's eaten dinner and is supposed to be in bed, she creeps down to the Commander's study. Inside, he invites her to play a game of Scrabble with him. At the end of the night, he asks her to kiss him like she means it. Upstairs once more, Offred thinks about what this change in their relationship means. She is suddenly overcome with hysterical laughter, and stifles it in her cloak. She falls asleep on the floor and doesn't wake until the next morning, when Cora sees her and screams. Cora drops her breakfast tray, scattering the eggs and breaking a glass. They agree to pretend she broke it on the way out. Offred begins to visit the Commander two or three nights a week, whenever Nick signals her by wearing his cap askew. On each visit, the Commander gives her magazines to read, old copies of things like Vogue. On the third night she asks him for hand lotion, and he agrees to get it for her. The next Ceremony is uncomfortable for them both. Offred realizes that she is essentially the Commander's mistress. Strangely, she is happier. Now, she is more to him than just a container.
On one of their shopping walks, Ofglen and Offred look at the wall, which is empty that day. The walk past the Soul Scrolls and watch them for a moment. Shielded by the noise of the scrolls, Ofglen reveals that she is part of a secret network of Handmaids and their supporters, but can't say any more. As they walk home a van (which we learn holds a group called the Eyes) pulls up, and snatches a man next to them on the street. That afternoon, instead of napping, Offred thinks of what Moira would say about her relationship with the Commander. She wonders whether Moira would criticize it, the way she criticized her affair with Luke when he was still married. She remembers the day when the president and the members of Congress were shot and the entire government was taken over, and how no one realized yet what was going on. The changes were slow, and didn't affect her until one day they made a law that women couldn't own property. Then they made a law that women couldn't have jobs. She thinks about how she never asked whether Luke was happier when he was in total control of her. One night in the Commander's office, Offred learns that the Latin written in her closet means "Don't let the bastards grind you down," and that the women who wrote it must have seen it written in this room. The Commander tells her that the woman hung herself because Serena Joy found out about their relationship.
At night, Offred sits by her window. She remembers how Luke had to kill their cat. She thinks about praying in the Center, and tries to pray, asking God to help her. In the morning Offred gets up, waits for a while, and then goes shopping with Ofglen. They look at the bodies on the wall, and Ofglen tells her a bit more about the network, called Mayday. She returns home, and sees that Nick's hat is askew. She passes Serena Joy, who tells her to sit down. Serena Joy tells Offred that she can help her get pregnant, that she will help her use someone else, probably Nick. Offred agrees, and Serena Joy tells her she will try to get a picture of her daughter to show her. Then she gives her a cigarette and tells her she may ask Rita for a match, though she is never supposed to smoke. She gets the match from Rita, but then she hides it in her room instead of using it. She remembers how the Commander the night before had spoken to her about the way things are, about why it was better.
The next day there is a Prayvaganza. Offred and Ofglen walk into the building and kneel on the concrete floor with the other Handmaids. They see Ofwarren enter, and Ofglen tells her that the baby was a "shredder" after all. As they watch the group marriage ceremony - twenty daughters married to twenty newly decorated Angels - Ofglen tells Offred that they know about her visits to the Commander. She asks her to get whatever information she can from him. Offred thinks about their escape attempt. They had almost made it across the border, but Luke had seen a guard pick up the phone and they had fled into the woods. She and the Commander had spoken about love. Serena Joy knocks on her door, and for a moment gives her a picture of her daughter - she is older, taller, dressed in white. It is worse, Offred thinks, to have seen her. That night, the Commander appears drunk. He tells her he's taking her somewhere, and he gives her an old piece of lingerie, now illegal, to wear. She puts it on, paints her face with some old make-up he provides, and covers herself with his wife's cloak, and they depart. He takes her to an old hotel that she used to visit with Luke when she was his mistress. Now it is filled with women dressed in a similar manner to her, and men like the Commander. He explains that it is a private club, only for higher-ups. After a few minutes, Offred sees Moira. They pretend not to recognize each other, but Moira signals Offred to meet her in the bathroom.
In the lounge of the Ladies' room they hug, and then Moira quickly tells Offred about everything that happened to her. When she escaped, she sought refuge with a Quaker couple she knew from her work. They had managed to get her to a house that was part of the Underground Femaleroad, and she had stayed underground for eight or nine months. When they tried to get her across the border, however, she was caught. They punished her, and then they offered her a choice between this place and the Colonies. She chose this. After that night, Offred never sees Moira again. The Commander, having gotten a room key, takes Offred upstairs. In the bathroom she thinks about a great many things, and then joins the Commander on the bed. He wants to sleep with her, and for her to respond, but she doesn't know how to be with him like that. Back at the house, Offred attempts to restore her appearance. At midnight, Serena Joy comes to her room and takes her down to the kitchen. She tells her how to get to Nick's room above the garage. Offred tries to explain what happened, but she doesn't know how to make it clear. After that night, she goes back to Nick as many times as she can. He never turns her away, though it is as dangerous for him as for her. She tells him everything she can think of. Ofglen tries to get Offred to break into the Commander's office to get them information, but she has a hard time feeling like any of that is "real".
There is a Salvaging. The attendants kneel and watch as two Handmaids and one Wife are hung. Offred tries not to look. Their crimes are no longer read out, but it is easy to guess what kinds of things they might have done. After the Salvaging is over, most of the wives and daughters leave, but Aunt Lydia tells the Handmaids to form a circle. It is a Particicution. They lead out a man, and Aunt Lydia tells them that he and another guard violently raped two Handmaids at gunpoint, causing one to lose the baby she was carrying. She blows her whistle and the women leap on him. Ofglen tears to the front, giving him several vicious kicks in the head. When she returns to the horrified Offred, she scornfully explains that he did not rape anyone; he was one of them, and she was merely knocking him unconscious. That afternoon, when Offred goes to the corner to meet Ofglen, another woman is in her place. At first the woman betrays no knowledge of Ofglen, and Offred is a little afraid of her, but just before they part the new Ofglen whispers that she saw the van coming for her, and she hung herself. Though she is devastated, Offred is also relieved, aware that she's safe. As she walks up the steps, she sees Serena Joy standing over her. She shows Offred the lingerie and accuses Offred of betraying her. She orders her upstairs, where Offred sits and waits at the window, holding the lingerie in her hand. She thinks about doing something, fighting back in some way, but feels at peace. She hears the van, and sees two guards get out. Suddenly Nick is at her door. He whispers that they are from Mayday, and she wonders if it's true. The men escort her past Serena Joy and the Commander. Offred steps into the van.
At this point, Offred's narrative ends. The book closes with the transcription of a Symposium on Gileadean Studies written sometime in the distant future. The Chairperson introduces the keynote speaker, who will deliver an address on "Problems of Authentication in The Handmaid's Tale." Professor Pieixoto speaks about how he and a colleague discovered thirty cassette tapes that contained recordings made by one woman. They transcribed them and worked out the probable order, and the result has been named The Handmaid's Tale. He speaks about the possibility that the tapes are fake, but concludes that they are probably real recordings made by a real Handmaid, though they should be careful not to cast a moral judgment on such a different time and place. Finally, he talks about how they worked to authenticate whatever details they could, relying mostly on evidence about the identity of Offred's Commander. They ultimately conclude that Offred's narrative is interesting, but not terribly useful as a historical document.
III. Margaret Atwood – The Handmaid’s Tale : About It
Margaret Atwood's dystopian novel The Handmaid's Tale (1985) reveals the strange new world of Gilead. Once the United States of America, Gilead was formed by a military coup that shot the President and members of Congress, suspended the Constitution, and put a Christian Theocracy in the place of a democratic government. Desperate to deal with a shrinking birth rate caused by pollution, chemical poisoning and decreasing fertility, the government of Gilead creates the Handmaids, women with viable ovaries who are placed in the households of high ranked officials whose wives cannot bear children. Like Rachel and Leah in the Old Testament, these Handmaids are expected to bear their Commanders' children in place of their wives. Caught up in a world of constant surveillance, strict regulation, and extreme punishment, the novel's protagonist, Offred, attempts to get through each day while holding on to the belief that she will someday be reunited with her husband and daughter.
Atwood calls The Handmaid's Tale "speculative fiction", although the novel seems to possess many of the earmarks of true science fiction. Readers must deal with new vocabulary, such as "Pornomarts" and "Prayvaanzas"; there are recognizable categories and participants, but a new organization of power; the new world attempts to alter the relationships of society, but inevitably the relationships reemerge in fundamentally similar ways. Despite these flights of fancy, Atwood emphasizes that she tried to limit the ideas and practices in The Handmaid's Tale to those that have occurred somewhere in the world at some time. For example, she used a great many elements of early American life in Massachusetts. She points out that the Puritans had a theocratic government that was highly intolerant of divisions. Of course, one sees similarities between the costumes of the Handmaids and the traditional clothing of Muslim women in the Middle East. Polygamy has been practiced by numerous cultures throughout the world, and is predominantly found in those with large disparities between the upper and lower classes. In most of these cultures, the first wife has a tremendous amount of power over the other wives, often to the point where she is permitted to take their children and raise them as her own. Military dictatorships have often been characterized by constant surveillance of a society for acts of disloyalty and repeated purges and re-organizations of the government. Atwood has stated in a number of interviews that this novel was a response to many ideas currently in vogue in society, and was merely following those ideas to what seemed to her to be their inevitable conclusions.
One of the ideas that clearly plays a crucial role in The Handmaid's Tale is the importance of understanding and respecting the environment. In Atwood's world, chemicals, pollution, and wars have made much of the country entirely unlivable. Not only has the land itself been destroyed, but human beings have been so damaged by the pollutants and chemicals introduced into the air and water that only one in four babies are born healthy enough to survive for even a short time. Though Gilead still possesses the basic trappings of industrialization - electric lights, flush toilets, cars, etc. - these things have become luxuries. Everyone is deprived of certain foodstuffs that we take for granted, such as fresh fruit and vegetables, fish, and meat. Atwood paints a clear - and at least reasonably realistic - portrait of what life will be like in the future if people continue to ignore the increasingly permanent damage being done to our ecological systems.
Another of the novel's most important themes, and one that re-occurs in many of Atwood's novels, is the exploration of relationships between women. Though the protagonist, Offred, lacks the freedom to actively form new relationships and finds it painful to spend too much time remembering past ones, her relationships with her mother, Moira, Ofglen, and Serena Joy slowly reveal themselves over the course of the novel. What Offred finally shows to the reader is her pattern of understanding herself through her observations of the women around her. Offred cannot think about her relationship with the Commander without thinking about Serena Joy. They are a triangle not just because of the strange nature of their imposed sexual union, but also because of Offred's awareness of their innate similarities and connections. Atwood may be suggesting that whether or not such things are culturally imposed, women in society inevitably feel connected to each other simply because they are women. Offred's subtle reactions to Serena Joy and Ofglen stand in a marked contrast to the Aunts' declarations of female solidarity, and their prediction of a future where women will happily work together to fulfill their different functions. In the world of The Handmaid's Tale the connections between women bear little resemblance to friendship. Even when the women are also friends, their connection goes far beyond their personal relationship. To Offred, Moira is a heroine - perhaps even a role model. Her bravery and willingness to take risks serves as a reminder of what is possible. Similarly, the women grow angry at the Salvaging when they no longer read out the crimes of those to be executed, because those crimes were a reminder of what they, as women, were capable of.
Upon its first publication, The Handmaid's Tale was immediately considered an important novel, largely because of Atwood's clear and precise point of view. Rather than just a story meant for entertainment, The Handmaid's Tale is a scathing examination of gender relations, ecological damage, the dangers of mixing religion and government, and the importance of free speech for retaining a sense of self. Though some elements of the novel have begun to feel dated, the story of an ordinary person attempting to survive a dictatorship remains relevant to American society, and to the global community as a whole.
IV. Margaret Atwood – The Handmaid’s Tale : Character List
The narrator of The Handmaid's Tale, Offred is a Handmaid in the Republic of Gilead, but she can remember the time "before", when she was married to Luke and had a daughter.
Offred's partner for shopping and other "acceptable activities". She is a member of an underground resistance organization, Mayday. When she is caught, she kills herself before she can be taken prisoner. Another woman is sent to replace her, assuming her name and erasing her existence.
Offred's best friend from "before", Moira is active in the feminist movement. Offred and Moira wind up in the same training center, but Moira escapes twice, the second time permanently.
Offred's husband before the inception of the Republic of Gilead. He left and divorced his first wife for Offred, which ultimately allowed the Republic to declare their union illegal, and gave the government the right to take their child.
One of the older, infertile women who agree to watch over and train the Handmaids rather than be sent to a Colony.
6. Aunt Elizabeth
One of the older, infertile women who agree to watch over and train the Handmaids rather than be sent to a Colony. Aunt Elizabeth now presides over births.
7. The Angels
The members of the army of the Republic of Gilead.
Another handmaid who Offred meets at the training center. She embraces the new regime out of fear, but threatens to become unhinged several times over the course of the novel. Eventually, she becomes known as "Ofwarren".
9. Aunt Lydia
The most powerful of the Aunts, Aunt Lydia was in charge of the re-education program, and now presides over some of the Salvagings.
The "Martha" in Offred's placement. She is safe as long as she is physically able to do the cooking and cleaning.
A "Martha" like Rita, but lower-ranked. She is Martha's assistant.
12. Serena Joy
Offred's Commander's wife. She used to be a singer on a television bible show, and later became a public advocate for women's return to the home.
One of the Guardians assigned to Offred's household. His principal responsibilities are taking care of the car and driving members of the household wherever they need to go.
14. The Eyes
The wing of the new government responsible for surveillance, espionage, and the detection of spies, unsuitables, and criminals.
Offred's mother, who is never named. She was active in the earlier feminist movement that secured women the right to have jobs, remain unmarried, and get abortions - all rights that have been taken away under the current regime.
16. Aunt Helena
One of the Aunts who come to the training center only for Testifying. She used to run a Weight Watchers' franchise in Iowa, making her an ideal candidate for Testifying.
One of the women at the training center.
Janine's (or Ofwarren's) baby girl, who later turns out to be an "unbaby".
A woman in the Center with Offred.
One of the women killed at the salvaging.
21. Professor Maryann Crescent Moon
A woman 150 years in the future who studies Caucasian Anthropology and is running the conference where Offred's tapes are being presented.
22. Professor Pieixoto
The keynote speaker at the Twelfth Symposium of the Gileadean Research Association, co-discoverer of Offred's tapes. He speaks about the "Problems of Authentication in Reference to The Handmaid's Tale.
23. Professor Knotly Wade
Co-discoverer of the Offred tapes.
24. Wilfred Limpkin
A sociobiologist present at the Sons of Jacob meetings, who wrote an account of them in cipher in his diary.
25. Frederick R. Waterford
The most likely candidate for Offred's commander.
26. B. Frederick Judd
Another possible candidate for Offred's Commander.
V. Margaret Atwood – The Handmaid’s Tale : Glossary of Terms
An infertile woman who has been given a position of command over other women. She will not be sent to the Colonies or disposed of, and in exchange she must keep the Handmaids in line and assist with official duties such as births, Prayvaganzas, and Salvagings. Most likely the Aunts are "true believers" who had a certain amount of power before the regime.
Ambulance-like vans that pick up wives and Handmaids (separately) to go to the women in labor.
3. Bun-Dle Buggies
Never fully explained, bun-dle buggies seem to be some kind of moving vehicle that either distributes pornography or provides some kind of sexual service. They were outlawed soon after the suspension of the Constitution.
Mostly sites that need to be cleaned up in the wake of war, chemical spills, or other environmental upheavals. Colonies also supposedly include sites of plantations that were growing things like cotton and tobacco. Unwomen, men who tried to help women escape, unrepenting nuns, older women, etc. are sent there to work until they die.
Men who have the position of Commander in the army of Gilead. Only men of this or comparable status are allowed to take a wife and given Handmaids. These men have a great deal of power, but they are also very vulnerable to the loss of that power, for the regime tends to purge itself every few years.
After paper money was disposed of, people began making transactions using a compunumber that was assigned to them.
Men without power or money, but who had legal wives before the Gilead take-over, were allowed to keep their wives, but were not assigned Marthas or Handmaids. Thus, these women are called Econowives, because they must fill the function of all the other "kinds" of women.
A figure from Greek Mythology. Orpheus and Eurydice were passionately in love, but one day Eurydice was bitten by a serpent and died. Orpheus, son of the God of music and poetry, Apollo, went to the King of the Underworld, Hades, and begged for the return of his beloved. Hades' hard heart was touched, and he agreed to return Eurydice, but only if Orpheus could walk out of the underworld without once looking back to make sure Eurydice was with him. After walking for a long time, just as he was about to leave the cave that lead to the underworld, Orpheus looked back. He saw Eurydice just as she was snatched back below the earth.
9. Feels on Wheels
A truck that provided sexual acts for a fee and was outlawed soon after the suspension of the Constitution. The name is a pun on "Meals on Wheels", an organization that provides meals for the elderly and terminally ill.
10. Gender Traitor
A homosexual or lesbian. The punishment for gender traitors is death by hanging.
11. Guardian of the Faith
One of the armies of Gilead, but not as important or powerful as the Angels. The Guardians' jobs range from standing at checkpoints and helping the Wives dig their gardens, to keeping an eye on Commanders and their houses.
A woman with viable ovaries who pre-Gilead was either divorced, married to a man who had been divorced, or (presumably) had reached a certain age without ever marrying. The Handmaids are assigned to a Commander for a period of two years. If they conceive and give birth to a baby (rather than an un-baby), they will continue to serve as Handmaids until their term is up, but they will never be sent to the Colonies. After two years, a Handmaid is moved to a different house. After three houses, if the Handmaid had not had a child, she is sent to the Colonies or "shredded".
Universal identification cards used to move around Gilead. An identipass is necessary to move through a checkpoint.
An old-fashioned term for a woman who is regarded as evil or morally corrupt. It comes from an Old Testament story about a Phoenician Princess named Jezebel who encouraged idolatry.
A woman without viable ovaries who acts as a cook or general servant in the house of a Commander. Most were presumably in similar jobs before the regime.
Characteristic of a system where women or mothers are the head of the family group and the community.
A ceremony during which the Handmaids are encouraged to physically punish an enemy of the regime for alleged crimes against women.
Characteristic of a society in which men are generally the head of the family, community, and social groups.
Stores selling pornography, which were outlawed soon after the suspension of the Constitution.
Public ceremonies segregated by gender. Women's are usually for group marriages, men's for military victories.
21. Rachel and Leah Centers
Centers where women are re-educated to prepare them for being Handmaids.
Public executions, also segregated by gender. Particicutions also take place at women's Salvagings.
23. Save the Women Societies
Societies formed in other countries to try and help the women of Gilead. Probably similar in form and content to anti-slavery societies formed in other countries during the period before the American Civil War.
24. Sectarian Roundups
Government-sponsored purges of people belonging to religious groups other than that supported by the Gilead state.
25. Sons of Jacob Think Tanks
The groups that originally devised the general plan for Gilead, including how they would take over the government and how they would re-order society.
26. Soul Scrolls
Machines that write out prayers. They are automated, so people can call a number and punch in the number of a prayer and their compuaccount number, and purchase prayers that will be written out by the machines.
One of the activities at the Re-education Center. Testifying involves sharing misdeeds such as illicit sexual activities (including rape), abortions, etc. from previous lives while the Aunts lead the other women in a chant condemning the speaker. This activity is supposed to help Handmaids understand why they deserve - and are even lucky - to be in this position.
28. The Republic of Gilead
The name of the new country that stands in the place of what used to be the United States of America.
29. The Wall
The wall that used to circle part of Harvard University's main campus, and has now been converted to a site where bodies from the Salvagings are displayed.
A fetus born with severe abnormalities that do not allow it to survive.
31. Underground Femaleroad
Similar to the Underground Railroad from the abolition era, the Underground Femaleroad is a network of safe houses through which people attempt to smuggle women out of the country, usually into Canada.
A woman without viable ovaries who does not serve any useful purpose for society, and who is either sent to the Colonies or killed.
VI. Margaret Atwood – The Handmaid’s Tale : Major Themes
One of the most important themes of The Handmaid's Tale is the presence and manipulation of power. On the one hand, Gilead is a theocratic dictatorship, so power is imposed entirely from the top. There is no possibility of appeal, no method of legally protecting oneself from the government, and no hope that an outside power will intervene. One of the characteristics of this kind of power is that it is extremely visible. Power imposed from one direction must always be displayed. Unlike a democratic society, where the people consent to be governed and therefore have an interest in maintaining the structures of society, in Gilead, the government must cover the streets and even individual homes with guards and guns. The possibility of surveillance must be constant. The only place that people are free is in their own heads, creating a significant amount of isolation between individuals.
Despite the Gilead regime's success at imposing order, Atwood's characters demonstrate that even if any substantial power is taken from people, they will still find a way to maintain control over themselves and other individuals. Offred manipulates her sexuality in the subtlest ways, aware for the first time of how much power she has simply because she is a woman. Though she has absolutely no ability to follow through on her suggestions, she knows that she is awakening ideas in men's heads, and that she is communicating with the Guardians under the Angels' very noses. Offred learns that Handmaids kill themselves in order to maintain some final sense of power over their bodies and decisions, and indeed, the thought of suicide is always in the back of her mind. Through her relationship to the Commander, Offred gains real power, but she is afraid to test its limits. Ultimately she discovers that her powers over him were useless, as he will do nothing to save her from the wrath of his wife.
The focus of the Gileadean regime is on the control of sex and sexuality. They execute gays and lesbians; they destroy pornography and sexual clothing; they kill abortion doctors; they outlaw divorce and second marriages; and they ritualize bizarre sexual relations that they believe are supported by the Bible. It is unsurprising at the end of the novel to learn that the Gileadean regime eventually destroys itself. In attempting to separate sex from sexuality, the regime demonstrates both its underestimation of and fear of sexuality.
The regime, it appears, is right to fear sexuality, for the extent to which illicit sexual practices undermine the regime quickly becomes clear. The Commander reveals not only that he carried out a series of affairs with his Handmaids, but that there is a more or less "secret" club where higher-ups consort with women solely for sexual purposes. These actions demonstrate that the government cannot expunge illicit sexual acts merely by threatening fearful punishments. In fact, by destroying the privacy of even condoned sexual acts, the government seems to encourage those in power to act out against these regulations. Finally, when Offred takes a series of tremendous risks to continue her affair with Nick, she demonstrates the power of sexual acts. The regime can impose as many punishments as it wants; it can force women to watch other women be hung; it can torture and abuse, but no matter what it does, ordinary women like Offred will continue to risk everything for acts of sexuality inspired by the possibility of love.
3. The Place of the Individual in Society
One of the questions asked by The Handmaid's Tale is whether the needs of society should be allowed to trump the rights of the individual. As the Historical Notes stress, the Gileadean society was facing extreme pressures. Their population was shrinking, and they were going to disappear if severe actions were not taken. The isolation and enlistment of women with viable ovaries is a solution that makes the best use of available resources, but there are at least two serious problems with such methods. Essentially, the Gileadeans are acting under the idea of Utilitarianism: they are attempting to do what they think is best for the greatest number of people.
One of the major problems with this reasoning is that as a theocracy, the Gilead regime's reasoning is not always as coldly logical as it needs to be in order to solve its problems. The Gileadeans decide that fertility is always a problem in the woman, never in the man, as was the case in the Bible. As a result, the regime wastes many fertile handmaids on clearly infertile Commanders. This reasoning drives handmaids to violate the sexual mores of the new society and make use of doctors or other accessible men to get pregnant. In order for the Gileadean society to effectively fix their birth-rate problem, they need to take a more scientific perspective on the issue. Ultimately, the Gileadean leaders place their religious beliefs over the rights of the individual or the survival of the group.
While Atwood is widely viewed as a feminist writer, The Handmaid's Tale presents a complex view of feminism. First of all, Atwood stresses in many interviews that the extreme nature of Gilead is a result of the conservative and feminist viewpoints simultaneously being espoused during the time that she wrote the novel. Moira is the novel's mouthpiece for many of these ideas, and when Offred remembers the arguments they had, she is reiterating many of the ideas that influenced the novel. The most important idea was Moira's belief that living solely with women would solve many of the problems women were currently facing. In many ways, the new social order in Gilead is supposed to provide for a society of women. Most women have very little contact with men. Women are expected to support each other in times of birth, death and sickness. Women teach other women about the new regime. Within a household, women work together to fulfill the different functions of their gender. Of course, the utopian ideal of this community is far from the reality. Atwood seems to be suggesting that one of the flaws in the feminist community is the belief that women automatically feel loyalty towards one another.
Offred's mother serves as a mouthpiece for a different sort of feminism. Offred's mother marched for abortion rights, the banning of pornography, and many other women's issues before the institution of the new regime. When she was young, Offred remembers being embarrassed by her mother's activities. Her mother would lecture her for being ungrateful and complacent about her rights. Only post-Gilead does Offred realize how complacent she truly was. Offred didn't realize that her job or her right to own property could be taken away. She now understands how the lack of rights changes one's perspective.
One of the qualities that make Offred so representative of women in general is that before Gilead, she was the kind of woman who didn't consider herself a feminist. She feared feminism would alienate her from men. She did not like it when her mother argued with Luke, trying to get him to admit that the only reason he cooked was because of feminism. Now Offred understands that feminism only forces women to recognize their natural alienation from men. It is the feminine itself that creates this alienation. This distinction becomes clear when Offred loses her job and is afraid to ask Luke whether he prefers the new order. Atwood explores feminism from several perspectives, and though she clearly considers its flaws, Offred ultimately seems to realize its importance.
5. The Power of Language
One of Atwood's most intricate and well-integrated themes is that of the power of language. The idea of storytelling is woven throughout Offred's tale. She explains that everything is a re-interpretation of something else; nothing is an exact description of the truth. She considers possible themes for her story, pointing out that she has attempted to improve the tone of her story by adding in things like "flowers". She apologizes for the presence of so much violence and pain. As the historical notes point out, Offred's narrative is quite dissimilar from a straightforward historical account. She talks about different things, asks different questions, and provides different answers.
Another interesting use of language is found in the manner in which Offred thinks of words and analyzes them, using them to distract her from her reality and to help her survive. For example, at one point she thinks of the word chair and its many meanings, from a method of execution to the French word for flesh. When she and the Commander play Scrabble, she uses the search for words to distract herself from her fear and confusion.
Of course, one of the major changes to language enacted by the regime is that the use of language has become illicit for women. On the one hand, this lends words and language even more power. On the other hand, it renders the illicit use of language almost sexual. Offred may think so fiercely of words and take such solace in the repetition of memories because doing so helps her to retain her knowledge of language. When the Commander allows Offred to read or plays Scrabble with her, she realizes they are practicing a kind of "kinky" sexual act.
6. Moral Relativism
Through the Historical Notes, Atwood raises the general question of whether it is possible to judge a culture outside of its boundaries. It seems clear that she believes that the answer is "yes". Though Gilead's culture is substantially different from our own, it seems unlikely that the reader does not hold it in judgement. Atwood seems to justify this judgment, for while she teases out Gilead's differences, the narrative also reveals that there are many similarities between cultures, no matter the social or cultural mores that divide them. In other words, the same kinds of relationships and the same kinds of power differentials underlie all societies. Atwood seems to suggest that those similarities are what allow outsiders to make judgments. A greater question is whether Atwood's novel is political: is she alluding to specific cultures that she feels her readers have excused themselves from judging.
7. Gender Conflict
While Atwood asks a great many questions about gender conflict, she does not seem to provide readers with any concrete answers. Offred becomes more and more aware that as a man, Luke is on one side of the new regime, and she is on another, despite the fact that she believes he loves her. The Commander tries to explain to Offred why the new regime is better for men, and essentially admits that in order for it to be better for men, it must be worse for women. One of the most obvious questions is whether these feelings were simply repressed in the old society, or whether they were created by the new one. Would the Commander think the new regime was better if his survival was not bound up with his support of the new regime? Does Luke actually prefer the new way of life? Before he understood the new laws about divorce, how did he feel about the new laws curtailing the activities of women? Offred never asks, so the reader never knows the answers to these important questions.
The overarching question is whether gender conflict exists at all. Is there actually more conflict between men and women than between women and women or men and men? Though there is little discussion of the relationships between men in The Handmaid's Tale, relationships between women are not necessarily superior to those between women and men. Offred finds herself arguing with her mother and Moira about those very things. The different categories of women after the regime change serve only to widen gaps between women. Some wives literally try to stab Handmaids to death, angry about their very existence, while perfectly aware that they can do nothing about it. In general, relationships between men and women are not shown in an even remotely positive light. The exception is the relationship between Offred and Nick: the strength of that relationship lies in Nick's sacrifice of his own safety in order to be with and help Offred. Atwood may be suggesting that all relationships are difficult: those between genders, and those among them.
VII. Margaret Atwood – The Handmaid’s Tale: Chapters’Summaries and Analyses
1. Summary and Analysis of I: Night - II: Shopping
The narrator, as yet unnamed, describes sleeping in an old high school gymnasium that still smells of the men and women who used to inhabit it. She thinks of the games that used to be played there, and the high school dances that were held within its walls. She remembers what it was like to be a girl in a school like this one, and associates it with sexual encounters that were never quite like one had imagined they would be. Now, she sleeps alongside other women in the gym, in army cots with spaces between them. At night, Aunt Elizabeth and Aunt Sara patrol with cattle prods they will use if anyone misbehaves. They do not have guns, because only the guards outside have guns. Those guards are objects of fear, but they also seem like the only possible means of escape. Though it is forbidden, the women learn to communicate, whispering anything they can think of to say late at night, without moving their heads.
Time passes, and the narrator is in a different room. She goes over its contents in her head: a chair, a table, a lamp, a place where a chandelier used to hang, a window that opens part-way, a ragged rug on the floor. She wonders if every room like this is exactly the same. Aunt Lydia said to "think of it as being in the army." There is a bed, which is only for sleeping. The narrator tries not to think too much. She wants to last. She must appreciate what she has. She is alive. A bell rings, and she puts on her red gloves that complete her nun-like gown of blood red. Everything she wears is red, except for the white wings around her face, which block as much of it, and as much of her vision, as possible. She leaves the room, goes downstairs, and goes to the kitchen. Rita, their "Martha", is in the kitchen making bread; her dress is green. She gives the narrator three tokens, with pictures of the things they are to be exchanged for.
The narrator thinks about how much she wishes Rita or Cora, the other Martha, would speak to her. She has heard them talking about her; Cora is more sympathetic, but she heard Rita say that "she wouldn't debase herself like that." She wishes she could stay and talk to Rita and Cora, even though she used to hate that kind of chit-chat. She even wishes to hear the gossip she knows gets passed from house to house, gossip of dead babies and suicides, mostly. But such a thing is not allowed, and they will not risk it. She takes the tokens and goes outside, walking through the Commander's Wife's garden. Many of the Commander's Wives have gardens - gardening gives them something to do. When the Commander's Wife is not gardening, she is often knitting something, supposedly for the troops, but the pattern seems wrong. The narrator envies this woman her knitting, and wonders why this woman seems to envy her in return.
She remembers meeting the Wife for the first time five weeks ago, when she arrived from her last posting. Her other Guardian brought her to the door, and she was surprised when the Wife, rather than the Martha, opened it. The Guardian put down her bag and left. The Wife told her to come inside and then walked away, leaving her to carry her bag. She followed the Wife, as indicated, into the sitting room. She did not sit, and waited as the Wife lit a cigarette. She realized that there must be a black market of some kind, for cigarettes are technically not allowed. The Wife commented that her last placement did not work out, and the narrator told her that this was her third placement. The Wife told her to sit down, just this once.
The narrator thought that there was something familiar about the Wife's face, with its blond hair, plucked eyebrows, and small nose. The Wife told her she wanted to see as little of her as possible. Once again the narrator was disappointed, for she had foolishly hoped that this time the Wife might be kind, might have some sympathy for her situation. The Wife reminded the narrator that her husband was hers, "Till death do us part." The narrator agreed, realizing that she sounded like a pre-programmed doll. The narrator thought about how the Wife was allowed to hit her, though only with her hands, because there was Scriptural precedent for doing so. She remembered where she has seen her before: when she was a little girl, she sometimes watched the "Growing Souls Gospel Hour." One of the singers was a woman called Serena Joy, who could "smile and cry at the same time." This woman, the narrator realized, was Serena Joy.
Now, the narrator walks through the garden and through the gate. She passes one of the Guardians, Nick, who is washing the car. She knows he is of low status because he hasn't been issued a woman. He winks at her, and she wonders why, since it is very dangerous to flirt with her. He might, she fears, be an Eye. At the corner, she waits. She used to be bad at waiting, but Aunt Lydia taught her how. She sees a woman approaching who is dressed like her and carrying a basket. When they meet, they peer at each other until they are certain they are correct in their identification. They greet each other with the proper phrases - "Blessed by the fruit," "May the Lord open" - and walk towards the shops. Handmaids must always move about in twos, supposedly for protection, but really so that they can always be spied upon.
This woman has only been the narrator's partner for two weeks. She does not know what happened to her last one - that is not a question they like to ask. Her name is Ofglen, and so far the narrator cannot tell if she is a "real believer" or not. They speak about the few subjects that are not taboo, commenting on the weather and successes in the war. Ofglen always seems to know things that she does not, and the narrator wonders where she gets her information. They reach the first barrier, and the narrator knows that above them are searchlights and men with machine guns. They show their passes to two men in the green uniforms of the Guardians of the Faith. These two Guardians, the narrator notes, are very young. The narrator remembers hearing that last week two Guardians here accidentally shot a Martha who was fumbling for her pass. They were afraid that she had a bomb.
When one of the Guardians returns the narrator's pass, he tries to look at her face, and she lets him. It is these small acts of defiance that help her make it through each day. For a moment, the narrator imagines coming to him at night, peeling off her clothes. She knows that they must imagine such things, as well, for they never see anything but the Commanders, their blue-gowned Wives, their white-gowned daughters, the occasional Birthmobile, or a black-painted van with a winged eye on the side. Those drive through without stopping, for the Guardians do not have the authority to look inside. She knows that the men are probably too afraid to imagine such things. They must focus on being promoted and eventually, perhaps, being allowed to marry and have a Handmaid of their own. As she walks through the gate and past the men, the narrator sways her skirts a little. She is momentarily ashamed of this use of her power, but then realizes that she is proud of this tiny victory, all the same.
Now outside the Commander's compound, the narrator and Ofglen continue to walk. They pass beautiful old houses where doctors, lawyers, and professors used to live. She remembers when she and Luke walked these same streets, fantasizing about buying one of these houses. As they continue walking, the streets become a bit more crowded: they see Marthas, other Handmaids, and Econowives. The Commanders' wives are always transported from place to place in cars. She remembers the way it used to be, how women thought about things like not running alone at night and never opening the door to a man, even one who said he was a policeman, without first checking. She remembers when she had her own money, her own job. Then, as Aunt Lydia said, she had "freedom to"; now, she has "freedom from."
They pass the store where they order their dresses. It is called "Lilies of the Field", but the sign has no words on it - only the image of a Golden Lily. The government, it seems, decided that even the lettering found on shop signs was too tempting. She remembers that there used to be a movie theater where the shop now stands. They go to another store, Milk and Honey. They wait in line, and she notices that the store has oranges, which are hard to find ever since they lost Central America to the Libertheos. The customers standing at the counter hand over their tokens in exchange for their goods. No one really talks, but the people in the store snatch glances at each other, hoping to see someone they know. The narrator always looks for Moira, though she cannot imagine actually seeing her.
Two women come in, one heavily pregnant. The feeling in the air turns envious and angry. This woman does not need to be out and about; she is merely flaunting her good fortune. The narrator realizes that the woman is Janine from the re-education center, now renamed "Ofwarren". Next, the narrator and Ofglen go into All Flesh to buy meat. As she takes the chicken wrapped in paper, she thinks about how everything used to come in a plastic bag. She didn't like to throw them out, so she kept them all under the kitchen sink even though Luke worried the baby would choke on them. As they leave the store they see a group of Japanese tourists, perhaps a trade delegation. The narrator cannot help staring at them. The women's skirts only reach their knees, and they are wearing high heels and make-up. She remembers that she used to enjoy such freedoms. An interpreter comes up to the narrator and Ofglen and asks if they can take their picture. She looks down and shakes her head, "no". She listens to the interpreter talking to the group, and knows that he's telling them that the women in this country feel violated if their picture is taken. The interpreter asks them if they are happy, and the narrator says they are "very happy." There is nothing else they can say.
On their way home, Ofglen suggests they pass by the church and the narrator - whose name we now know is Offred - agrees. Offred thinks about the scenery that she knows lies beyond her vision, and the fact that the past seems entirely beautiful now, even though she knows that cannot be true. They pass the football stadium, where the men's Salvagings are held, and finally reach the church, as well as the thing they are really here to see: the wall. The wall has been there for hundreds of years, but now hooks have been sunk into it, and today there are six bodies hanging from the hooks - the remnants of a men's Salvaging. Their heads are covered with white cloths, but you can see the outlines of the faces underneath. Their white coats and the drawings of fetuses adorning them signify that the men were abortionists. Offred stares at them, trying to feel nothing, and knowing that she does feel nothing, because Luke was not a doctor and thus cannot be one of the hanging men. She sees the red and thinks of the tulips in Serena Joy's garden, holding on to the fact that there is no relation between the two things, no relation between the colors. She remembers Aunt Lydia telling them that this, too, would one day become ordinary.
The first section of the novel brings the reader into the world of Gilead with little background or explanation. The reader experiences the same sense of dislocation, the same conjunct of the familiar and the utterly foreign, that one can imagine Offred must have felt upon being thrown into this new world. The reader is immersed in the strange images and objects of this world: red dresses, gloves, and shoes, broken up only by white-winged headdresses; tokens for shopping; passes proving one's identity; hanging bodies from "Salvagings". The reader must also adjust to a new jargon that includes odd words such as "Guardians", "Birthmobiles", "Marthas", and "Econowives". Explanations are brief, and must be expanded based on conjecture and assumption. For the reader, as for Offred, the new rules and relationships do not take long to comprehend: though this world is foreign, its building blocks are disconcertingly familiar.
The narrative of the novel is based on this close alignment of the familiar and the foreign. Offred compares the high school gymnasium to a palimpsest, carrying layer upon layer of decades of the feelings and experiences of teenagers, but the comparison holds for Gilead, as well. Everywhere Offred looks, she sees the past layered upon the present. As she walks down the street she remembers looking at the same houses with Luke, imagining that they would someday buy one together. When she looks at a store, she remembers what used to stand in its place. Lilies of the Field, where they now buy their dresses, used to be a movie theater - something that is no longer allowed under the new regime. Though Offred's disjointed memories contrast the present and the past, they also bring them closer together. This world is not thousands of years in the future - towns have not been wiped of the map and replaced with modernistic, futuristic structures. Everything is different, but everything is also instantly recognizable; this is no distant, alien society with no relation to our own.
Offred's tendency to confuse and combine images expresses itself in multiple ways. When Offred looks at the bodies hanging on the wall, she sees the red blood seeping through one white hood, and is reminded of the red tulips growing in Serena Joy's garden. She must struggle to remember that "the red is the same but there is no connection. The tulips are not the tulips of blood, the red smiles are not flowers, neither thing makes a comment on the other." This strange confusion, Offred's attempts to hold onto definitions and visions of the world, introduces the struggle that will dominate the novel. Offred's purpose is simply to survive. Not only must she follow the rules of this new society, give in to its demands, and accept her current function; she must also struggle to retain her clarity of vision. Her words and her choices have been stripped from her, and Offred's only hope for survival is to retain them in her mind, to cling to the language and the memories that link her to the past, even though it is that clinging which creates so much confusion. At this point in the novel, there is no question of escape. There is only the possibility, the hope, of surviving long enough for the world around her to change once more.
The reader's entry into this strange environment is so abrupt, yet so complete, that at first one hesitates to question the underpinnings of this world. The violence and control, the hierarchy of power, is so firmly established that one forgets to ask the questions "how?" and "why?" Offred is clearly completely helpless: she is trapped in a net of spies, soldiers, and informants. Though her Handmaid partner, Ofglen, may be as unhappy and desperate for understanding as she is, it seems likely that they will never discover their possible complicity. The punishments for transgressing are too severe, and the likelihood of being caught far too high, to risk any serious infraction. Just as the severity of this landscape begins to seem utterly implausible, a shift in perspective allows the reader to understand how logical the survival and strength of such a cultural system really is.
When Offred and Ofglen are confronted by the group of Japanese tourists and their translator, Atwood introduces the theme of moral and cultural relativism. A culture can only be judged within the paradigm of its own moral system. As the Japanese tourists stare at the Handmaids, Offred looks at their clothes: they seem foreign to her, an absurdity underscored by her recollection that such attire used to be referred to as "Westernized". Atwood seems to be critiquing the idea of relativism and arguing for the existence of some universal ethical system. The problem with relativism, she suggests, is that it offers outsiders no better method for judging the morality of a system than asking its participants whether they are happy - the technique utilized by these tourists. The problem, of course, is that Offred and Ofglen have no choice but to answer "yes" - they are too afraid of the repercussions of being truthful. Trapped by the rules and norms of their new "culture", they can think of no other possible response.
2. Summary and Analysis of III: Night - IV: Waiting Room
Offred lies in her bed, thinking about the limited freedom that nighttime allows her. She idly thinks about the difference between to "lie" and to "lay", and the ramifications of these differences. She considers what she should imagine. Transported by memory, Offred recalls one night during her college years when she was trying to finish a paper, books scattered around her room, and Moira was trying to get her to go out for a beer. Next, she remembers going to a park with her mother, and then discovering that they were really there because her mother wanted to join some female friends of hers who were making a bonfire of pornographic magazines. Suddenly, without meaning to, Offred remembers waking up to find her daughter gone, and seeing a picture of her with another woman and knowing that she would not be returned. Offred thinks about how much easier her life would be if it were just a story. It's not a story, but at the same time it is - a story she is telling in her head, because she is not allowed to write. She decides she will tell her story only to "you" because "you" is safe, "you" can mean anyone...even if she knows that "you" really means no one.
The weather is beautiful; in the past, Offred thinks, it would have been called "swimsuit weather". Today, only three bodies are on the wall: a priest and two homosexuals. Offred suggests that they leave, wondering why Ofglen is never the first to want to leave. Ofglen comments that "it's a beautiful May day," and Offred starts thinking about how that word used to be a distress signal, from the French m'aidez ("help me"). They pass a funeral procession of several Econowives, one holding a jar. The jar contains a baby, only a few months in the womb - too early to know whether or not it would have been an "unbaby". The Econowives glare at them; they do not like the Handmaids. As Offred enters the yard, Nick greets her, though he is not supposed to talk to her. Offred walks past Serena Joy, thinking about her name and how she used to make speeches about the woman's proper place being the home. Offred doesn't think she necessarily likes the results of such speeches, and considers how much Serena Joy hates her. Aunt Lydia had warned them about the Wives, couching this warning in pious reminders that they should pity these women, for they have failed; they are unable to produce children.
Inside, Offred smells baking bread and is reminded of motherhood, though neither she nor her mother ever baked. She tells Rita that there are oranges for sale. Rita simply grunts, then comments that it's Bath Day. Cora comes in, and they discuss who will be in charge of Offred's bath like she is not there. Offred goes up the stairs to her room. Suddenly, she sees someone in the hall: it is a man, looking into the room where she stays. She realizes it is the Commander. He is not supposed to be there; he is breaking all of the rules. He turns and walks towards her, nodding at her, and then is gone. She wonders what this means. Was he in her room? She realizes that she does feel that the room is hers. It is her waiting room. When she first arrived, she had explored the room very slowly, mostly because she had so little to do. After only a few days, she realized that someone had been there before her. It reminded her of a hotel room, and made her think of the hotel rooms where she and Luke used to meet before he left his wife. She looked everywhere, even under the mattress, careful not to be caught snooping around. She looked long enough to become certain that it would be difficult to kill herself in this room. They had been careful not to leave her with anything that she could use if she wanted to commit suicide. On the third day, though, she found something scratched into the floor of the wardrobe: nolite te bastardes carborundorum. She thought it might be Latin, but wasn't sure. She imagines the woman who wrote this, and it makes her happy. She once asked Rita what the woman had been like, and her bluntness surprised her into honestly. Rita told her only that she "hadn't worked out".
Sometimes, to pass the time, Offred sings songs in her head. These songs are all forbidden now. Occasionally there is music on the television, which Offred can hear from another room, but not often. It is very hot, and the summer dresses have been unpacked. Aunt Lydia told them how much better these dresses were - more appropriate, healthier. Offred remembers Moira coming into her room and telling her that she's throwing an "underwhore party" - everyone is supposed to bring seductive underwear or negligees, and they'll all trade. Moira thought it would be hilarious. Offred thinks about how then such things were normal, but now this is normal. She recalls how gradually things changed; the changes didn't affect them directly, so it was almost as if they weren't happening. Offred hears a car, and goes to sit on the window seat. She looks at the pillow set there, embroidered with the word "Faith". It is the only thing she has to read in this place. She looks down and sees Nick. Then she sees the Commander getting out the car. His hair is a silvery gray. She thinks about how she would like to spit on him, or throw something at him. She remembers Moira once more, how they used to throw paper bags filled with water on boys walking below their window. The car drives away. Offred tries to figure out what she feels for this man, but it is too complicated. It isn't hatred, and it isn't love.
Once a month Offred is taken to the doctor for tests. These are the same tests that she used to get once a year, but "now it's obligatory." This time, Offred goes inside the examination room as usual, takes off all her clothes, and lies behind the screen so that the doctor will never see her face. He comes in and begins to examine her. Suddenly he whispers that he could help her, that no one would ever know, and that it would probably work. She realizes he is offering to impregnate her. He lifts the screen, and she sees his face. She is afraid, because the penalty for such a transgression is death. But there would need to be two witnesses - women cannot testify alone - and the door is locked. She says no, but nicely - hoping to keep the possibility open.
The bathroom next to the bedroom is nice. It is the same as before, except it has no mirror and, of course, no razors. Cora sits outside, to be safe - from what, Offred isn't sure. It is wonderful to be naked, but now Offred is unused to her own body. She cannot imagine wearing a bathing suit. As soon as she is in the tub, Offred remembers what it was like to bathe her daughter. She remembers an incident when her daughter was eleven months old. They were in the supermarket, and a woman tried to take her. The woman, clearly crazy, had sobbed that it was her baby, that the "Lord had given it to her." Now, Offred finds that is harder and harder to remember her daughter; it is as if she died. Offred wonders whether her daughter remembers her. She must be eight now; it has been three years. Cora tells her to hurry up. She washes quickly, unable to avoid seeing the tattoo on her ankle, the mark of her position. Cora brings her supper; the food is always relatively good, healthy and filling. If she does not eat it, Cora is supposed to report her. She forces the food down. Offred wonders how Serena Joy acts at dinner with her husband. Offred takes the pat of butter and wraps it in a piece of napkin, slipping it into her extra pair of shoes. She waits.
Like all novels written in the first person, The Handmaid's Tale offers the reader entry to only a single consciousness. This choice always suggests a certain degree of solitude, but in Offred's case this solitude is even more profound than usual. Offred's exchanges with others are extremely limited, and they are made more so by the sense that Offred is remembering everything from some point in the future. She is never in medius rei, in the middle of things. She also spends an astonishing amount of her time alone, and her attempts to pass that time make up a large portion of the novel. While Offred's loneliness is a reality, it is also a symbolic expression of her position in this society.
Offred is both more and less than other women - she is a vessel. She is "more" because she has the potential to have a child, to increase herself, but she is also "less", because she has no individual function. This duality expresses itself in the way she is treated. On the one hand, the Handmaids are meant to be honored, and Aunt Lydia emphasizes this vision of their role. She tells them she is fighting for them to enter through the front door, because they are not servants. Of course, this comment only makes them aware that others, presumably the Wives, are fighting to have them enter by the back door. Offred is cared for like a precious object - she is guarded while she bathes, kept covered up, inspected, and tested monthly. At the same time, Wives, servants and Econowives look on her with disgust. She knows that Rita, if not Cora, thinks of her as common, even depraved. She cannot be trusted, and her function is simply to obey orders and cause as little trouble as possible.
This section of the novel also introduces the idea of rule breaking. In the beginning of the novel, Offred is intrigued to realize that there must be a black market, and that this house participates in it. Now, even more rules are being broken: the Commander stands by the door to her room, Nick speaks to her, and the Doctor offers to commit a grievously dangerous act to help her conceive. Offred's situation begins to seem ever so slightly different. The reader doesn't get any real information about what Nick or the Commander might want, but the possibility that they want something is there. At this point in the novel, Offred's function - and the reader's - is simply to wait and see.
Indeed, this section is all about waiting, and it is clear that something is going to happen. The essential component of Offred's role hangs over the chapter, waiting to be addressed directly, or at least commented upon. Offred never directly addresses the issue of sex; she only alludes to it. The doctor offers to "help her", telling her that "she's ready" and that she doesn't "have much time left." In some ways, Offred has been trained by this culture to think about sex - this kind of sex - differently. It has been ritualized into a kind of chore, an ordeal that must be undergone. Offred is prepared, but this preparation is passive. She removes herself from the experience, because to think about it would be to acknowledge that she has no choice in the matter. There is no need to think about it. Besides mere submission, her participation is not required.
Fittingly, this chapter also focuses on the idea of motherhood - both Offred's actual status as a mother, and the fact that she hopes to become one once more. As Offred prepares for a sexual encounter with the Commander, her mind is repeatedly drawn back to her own child. Offred's grief and her still-present love contrast with the possibility of conceiving once again. Offred acknowledges that she does want a baby, but this baby bears no comparison to her existing daughter. She wants this baby in the same way that she "wanted" to be a Handmaid: she wants it because she wants to live. Just as Offred has allowed her body to become a vessel, she believes that she is prepared to give a baby as payment for continued life. Once again, the novel flip-flops between the almost-normal and the extraordinarily strange. At one moment Offred seems like a completely ordinary woman trapped in bizarre and terrible circumstances, and at another she has been transformed into something less than a woman, something degraded by her surroundings and her fears.
3. Summary and Analysis of V: Nap - VI: Household
This section begins with Offred simply sitting alone, waiting. She had not been prepared for all this stillness, all of this boredom. She thinks about experiments they used to do on animals, how they would give them something to distract them. She wishes she had something to distract her. She lies down on the floor and begins to do her exercises, tilting her pelvis back. She remembers how at the training center they had rest time every day from three to four. Now she thinks it was practice for all of the waiting. She remembers how Moira showed up, after she'd been there for about three weeks. They couldn't talk for a few days, but finally during a walk they were able to plan a meeting in the washroom. The first time was during Testifying, which Aunt Helena came for specially. That day, Janine was talking about how she was gang raped when she was fourteen and had to get an abortion, and the other women respond as they have learned to, chanting that it was her fault. Despite the surroundings, Offred was extremely happy to see Moira.
Now Offred thinks about her body. She used to see it as an instrument of her will, but now she sees it only as a container protecting a womb. She dreams that she is standing in their first apartment. In the dream, she is trying to find something to wear. Luke stands behind her, but he can't hear her. Then she begins dreaming of running with her daughter, but she can't keep up. They drop to the ground, and Offred prays they will escape, but then she sees that her daughter is being led away through the trees. The bell rings and Cora knocks, waking her. She realizes that she has been crying in her sleep. She goes downstairs into the sitting room and kneels beside the chair where Serena Joy will sit, her assigned place. She waits, thinking about all of the signs of money in this room. She smells Serena Joy's perfume nostalgically; perfume is now a luxury. She thinks about how much she would like to steal something small from this room, to have something for herself. Rita and Cora come in and get to work; both of them have small roles in the Ceremony. Nick comes in and stands too close to Offred. His shoe is touching hers. She tries to move away, but he moves closer.
Serena Joy comes in wearing one of her nicest dresses and turns on the television. Offred looks forward to the Ceremony because only on this night does she get to watch the news. Even though she knows it is probably all fake, it is still something to do, something to learn. The newscaster speaks of beating back the Baptist army, arresting Quakers who were smuggling women into Canada, and resettling the black people in North Dakota, where they are supposed to farm. Finally, Serena Joy turns off the television. As they sit, Offred thinks about her name - the name she is no longer allowed to use. She remembers getting into the car, her daughter in the backseat. She had told her daughter that they were going on a picnic, and had planned to tell the guards on the border that they were just taking a day trip. They had fake passports and fake visas. She remembers being afraid even after they passed the first checkpoint.
The Commander knocks on the door as he is supposed to, but enters before Serena Joy gives him permission. He takes a Bible out of a box. It is locked away so that the women cannot read it. He asks for a drink of water, and someone goes to fetch it. Everyone watches him. Offred thinks about how strange it must be to be a man watched by women all the time, even when he is inside one, looking inside her with his extra eye. He reads the usual stories, including the one about Rachel and Leah, in which Rachel tells her husband to use her maid Bilbah, saying "she shall bear upon my knees, that I may also have children by her." At the Center they heard that story at breakfast, and the Beatitudes at lunch. Offred knew that they had changed the facts in the stories, but she could not prove it.
She remembers meeting Moira in the washroom. Moira told her that she was going to try to escape by faking illness. She said that she knew how to give herself scurvy by not eating vitamin C. Offred told Moira not to do such a thing, but Moira ignored her. She snaps out of her reverie to listen to the Commander, who is continuing with the story. Serena Joy is crying as always. During the silent prayer, she whispers the Latin words written in her closet by the woman she believes was like Moira, though she does not know what they mean. It was at dinner that she had learned that Moira had gone away. Then she saw the ambulance come back. They took Moira into the Science Lab and beat her feet with steel cables until she could not fit them into her shoes. Feet and hands, she understood, were not important parts of a woman's body. Offred remembers what Moira's feet looked like.
The Commander finishes the prayer, and everyone stands up. The Commander, Serena Joy, and Offred go upstairs into the marital bedroom. Offred lies fully clothed on the bed, looking up at the canopy. Serena Joy takes her head in her lap and holds her hands. Her rings cut into Offred's hands - perhaps on purpose. The Commander moves below her skirt. What is happening doesn't fit any definition of sex that Offred can think of. She lies still and wonders, as always, whether she is crazy. This is not fun, even for the Commander; they are all simply doing their duty. She wonders whether the act might be better if he were handsomer. He is, at least, an improvement on the last one. Finally he ejaculates, zippers his pants, and leaves the room. Serena Joy tells her to get out, though Offred is supposed to rest in this position for ten minutes. Offred wonders who this is worse for - her or Serena Joy.
When Offred gets back to her room, she puts on her nightgown, takes the pat of butter from her shoe, and rubs it onto her face. Handmaids are forbidden any beauty products - a decree of the Wives - and this is the best they can do. She lies in bed, unable to sleep, missing Luke. Suddenly, she decides that she wants to steal something. She gets up and creeps downstairs, wondering what she should take. Suddenly she realizes that someone is there, in the room with her: Nick. They stand motionless, until suddenly he kisses her. She begins to reach downward, but it is too dangerous, and they break apart. He tells her he was coming to find her. The Commander wants to see her in his office tomorrow.
In this section of the novel, Atwood begins to dig more deeply into the complex and emotional themes that permeate the story. One of the most important elements of The Handmaid's Tale is the idea of ownership. The women a generation before Offred fought for what they called ownership of their bodies, but they had no idea that this ownership would someday be completely stripped from them. Ironically, the actual loss of ownership has led to the "objectification" of women in a way far more damaging than the pornography and media images that feminists and conservatives were in some ways united in opposing:
[Offred] used to think of [her] body as an instrument, of pleasure, or a means of transportation, or an implement for the accomplishment of [her] will...Now the flesh arranges itself differently. [She's] a cloud, congealed around a central object, the shape of a pear, which is hard and more real than [she is] and glows red within its translucent wrapping.
The world tells her that the most important part of her, the only part of her that matters, is her womb, and she cannot help but believe this to be true.
Offred's internal language reflects her external objectification. She sees herself as a "prize pig", a rat in a cage, and she literally wishes that she were treated as well as those kinds of animals. She wants a "pig ball", or a reward for good behavior. She longs to steal, because possession feels like a kind of power. One might argue that Offred's objectification is not complete - in other words, her sense of self has not been completely destroyed - because she recognizes that possessing a knife or even a fork would give her back some sense of power over her life. However, Offred's resistance of this idea suggests that she is so overwhelmed by the notion of possession that she has given up her ability to possess any kind of power at all.
Offred's desire to articulate her feelings, her need to tell her story even when it is painful, suggests that Offred's use of language is the key to her continued survival. It is important that Offred continue to try to put her experiences into words, because language has become even more powerful in light of the restrictions placed upon it. Signs of language's power are everywhere. The Bible is literally locked up, so that no one but the Commander can have access to it. One wonders whether all men are allowed to possess a Bible, or if only those with a sufficient amount of power can be entrusted with access to the Word that has literally become Law.
Another kind of power arises in this section: the power of transgression. In this world, transgressions have taken on heightened significance, and as the consequences of being caught have grown worse, the desire to commit "crimes" without detection seems equally heightened. When Moira tries to escape from the Center, the law states that she must be punished in order to deter her from future transgressions. Her feet are beaten, ostensibly because they have no use for her feet, but this punishment also carries a symbolic significance. Her body, like Offred's, is no longer a "means of transportation": she cannot just walk off wherever she chooses.
Though the Handmaids' world has been minimized, their opportunities to transgress have decreased in number but increased in potency. When Offred dreams of a knife, she is thinking of killing herself. She does not fantasize about slipping by the guards unseen, but rather about seducing them. The Handmaids are clearly not alone in these changes. The new order attempts to regulate all relationships between men and women, and in doing so has effectively made these relationships entirely about sex. When Offred finds Nick alone in the room, their kiss seems almost inevitable, and Offred clearly desires to have sex with him, though in her past life she was a loving and faithful wife. Offred can see no longer envision a relationship with a man that does not involve sex, whether sanctioned or transgressive.
4. Summary and Analysis of VII: Night - VIII: Birth Day
In bed, Offred lies trembling. She remembers lying in bed with Luke when she was pregnant. She remembers sex, and thinks that she will die if she never experiences it again. Then, however, she remembers that she will not die from lack of sex, but rather from lack of love. Without Luke and her daughter there, it is as if she is not there, either. She thinks about what she believes. She believes that Luke was shot, and that his body is lying in the forest, decaying. She also believes that Luke is a prisoner, and that they are torturing him to find something out, and that he escaped to Canada, and is living under some kind of government in exile. She believes that if this is true, he will contact her. She believes that someday they will all be together again. She believes in all three possibilities at once.
Offred falls asleep and dreams of her daughter, and then of her mother. When she awakens, she gets up and looks out the window. She wonders whether there are "Hope" and "Charity" pillows to match her pillow that reads, "Faith". She dresses. She thinks about all of the different meanings of the word "chair" as she eats her breakfast. She looks at the egg that she is eating, and she thinks about all the things it resembles. She knows that even though she has so little, she makes much of everything. She hears the siren, and her "heart speeds up." Cora calls to her to hurry, and she almost runs down the stairs and out the door. She gets into the red Birthmobile, joining three other women on the benches inside. One of the women tells her that it is Ofwarren who is giving birth. One woman looks very happy, and another is praying. They wonder whether it will be a baby, or an unbaby. There is only a one in four chance that the infant will be healthy.
Offred remembers Aunt Lydia talking about all the things that caused the declining birthrate. Aunt Lydia told them that they were going to fix it. She told them that they needed to become rare, so that they would be valued. They arrive at Ofwarren's house. The Doctor's van is already there, but they aren't allowed in unless it's absolutely necessary. Offred remembers Aunt Lydia talking about how terrible it used to be, when women had babies in cold environments, hooked up to wires, with men in charge. The Blue Birthmobile for the Wives arrives. She knows that Serena Joy has probably been here before. Ofwarren's Commander's Wife probably showed her Handmaid off, like a prize. Offred knew, though, that when Ofwarren left the room, they Wives would all have complained about the Handmaids.
The dining room is filled with food for the Wives. Commander Warren's Wife lies on the floor in a nightgown as if she is about to give birth. Aunt Elizabeth is standing over Ofwarren. The Handmaids sit cross-legged on the rug. Offred remembers Aunt Lydia telling them that it is the hardest for them, for they are the "transitional generation." She remembers how they were shown movies: sometimes old pornography where women were raped, beaten, and murdered, and sometimes the documentaries of "unwomen", as Aunt Lydia called them, wasting their time combating the new regime. Once Offred saw her own mother, protesting for abortion rights. These videos were intended to show them how much better off they are. Offred then remembers her mother telling her that she had her when she was thirty-seven and alone, just because she wanted her so much. She didn't want a husband...she just wanted a baby. Her mother used to come over and argue teasingly with Luke, telling him that men were unnecessary and would soon be disposed of, and Luke would tease her right back. Her mother would become upset, telling Offred that she took for granted all of the things she and other women of her generation fought for. Now, Offred wishes she could have all of those moments back.
In the birthing room it his hot and noisy. The women chant together, telling Janine to breathe. Under the noise, Offred exchanges a few words with another woman; Birth Days provide a rare opportunity to speak secretly to each other. She asks about Moira, but the woman doesn't know her. Janine begins to push, and Offred can feel the pains in her own womb. It is time, and someone goes to fetch the Wife. They lift Janine onto the lower of two seats on the Birthing Stool. The Commander's Wife comes in, and two other Wives help her up to the higher seat. The baby is born. It is a girl, which is a little sad, but they rejoice at her wholeness. Offred remembers her daughter's birth. The Wife is helped into the bed, and the baby, washed and clean, is given to her. Envy radiates from the other Wives as the baby is named "Angela." Janine is crying: she will be allowed to nurse the baby for a few months, and then she will be transferred to try again. However, she will never be sent to the Colonies; she is fertile, and thus safe. They get back in the Birthmobile, exhausted. Offred thinks to herself that they should be grateful for small mercies - this is a women's culture, after all.
Back at the house, the day is over. Offred lies on the bed, exhausted. She feels like she's seeing things. She thinks about Moira. She learned what happened to her by putting together pieces of information gleaned from many sources, but she believes it to be correct. She only found out because Aunt Lydia confided in Janine, hoping to get some information out of her. Moira had managed to jam the toilet, and when the Aunt came in to try and fix it, Moira threatened to hurt her, using a sharp piece of metal she'd wrenched from the toilet. Moira took her weapons, tied her up in the basement, dressed in her clothes, and walked out of the Center. The women were already so beaten down that they found Moira's escape frightening. At the same time, she was their "fantasy": she gave them room to hope. Offred has never heard of Moira's whereabouts since.
Offred thinks about how her story is a reconstruction, and how if she's ever able to set it down, it will be even more of a reconstruction. No story can ever accurately describe the truth. She thinks about what all this is really about. Maybe, she thinks, it's about power, but at the same time, it might be about forgiveness. She recalls how the Commander wanted her to kiss him. After she woke up, Cora brought the dinner tray in and spoke to her happily about the baby, expressing hope that they might soon have one of their own to care for. Offred feels unworthy of this hope. She remembers what she is to do that night, and feels unprepared. At nine she slips down the stairs, knowing that she cannot be caught by Serena Joy. She is in her charge, subject to her mercy. At the same time, she knows that she cannot refuse to see the Commander. Indeed, she wants to see him, because of the merest possibility that it will bring her some power. She knocks, and he tells her to come in.
The Commander's study looks like "normal life." There are books everywhere. She sits down, and he sits with the desk between them. He tells her that he wants her to play Scrabble with him. She wants to laugh, but she also understands why he might want such a thing. He can't do this with his wife, as games of this sort are forbidden. They play Scrabble for a while, and Offred feels that it is a luxury. Offred wins the first game, but lets the Commander win the second. He tells her it's time for her to go home, but before she departs he tells her he wants her to kiss him. She thinks about how she could take a piece of metal from the toilet, and the next time he asks her to kiss him, she could stab him with it. Truthfully, however, she only thinks that in retrospect. In the moment itself, she kisses him. He asks her, smiling "sheepishly," to kiss him "as if [she] meant it."
The word on Offred's pillow is "Faith": the only word that she is allowed to see throughout the tale. Although the Commander and Serena Joy might have left the pillow in her room as an oversight, this word has important connotations for Offred's situation, and for the existence of Gilead as a whole. Gilead has supposedly been created as a country ruled by Faith - the Christian Faith, to be exact. Its citizens are supposed to accept the hardships and difficulties imposed on them because of their Faith in God. However, the very structure of the government suggests the impossibility of accomplishing this kind of submission. Instead, this government relies on surveillance, fear, punishment, and secrecy to accomplish its goals and keep its citizens - especially its women - in line.
At the same time, Offred relies entirely on Faith. On the one hand, Offred makes it through each day by relying on her belief that things cannot stay like this forever, and that somewhere there is a government in exile. She believes that the future will be different, whether or not she survives long enough to see it. Similarly, she holds three different beliefs about the fate of her husband, Luke; her ability to hold all three of these beliefs suggests the endurance of her faith in the possibility of his survival.
Thus far, Atwood has seemed to focus on the manner in which the more conservative and religious elements of society influence the new government. Now, however, Offred acknowledges (though bitterly) the elements of society that women like her mother and Moira (more "liberal" types) cannot deny having desired. As Offred experiences Janine's birth, she dryly acknowledges that there is a women's culture after all. Janine's birth is handled by a mid-wife, and doctors are allowed in only if absolutely necessary. In other words, women's instinctive knowledge about childbirth is given precedence over scientific knowledge. The participation of the other Handmaids and Wives is intended to support the women in their time of need.
Of course, Atwood clarifies that under these circumstances, the community is a travesty. Despite the Aunts' insistence that someday the Wives and the Handmaids will have a close and loving relationship, the division between the two groups is clear, and even violent. The scene of childbirth cements the readers' allegiance with the Handmaids, though Offred herself recognizes the pain and difficulty experienced by the Wives, as well. The question at this point is whether Atwood is criticizing the very idea of a "community of women," or if she is instead criticizing the government's attempt to use that idea in order to appease and silence the women who once valued it. In asking this question, yet another becomes relevant: since Offred is the narrator of her story, does it not ultimately lie in her power to cast the readers' sympathy with one party or another? Does her control of words ultimately shape the readers' verdict on the Gileadean society? Offred "writes":
This is a reconstruction. All of it is a reconstruction. It's a reconstruction now, in my head, as I lie flat on my single bed...When I get out of here, if I'm ever able to set this down, in any form, even in the form of one voice to another, it will be a reconstruction then too, at yet another remove.
When Offred describes the wives behavior behind the back of the Handmaids - the vicious remarks, the coarse insults - she is imagining what she believes to be true, rather than describing anything she has actually witnessed. By admitting her lack of accuracy, Offred might also free the reader to make his or her own judgments about the relative guilt of the parties involved. At the same time, the difficulty of eliciting any real sympathy for the Wives once again returns to the idea of the power that language holds, especially in this world, and the power that Offred actually possesses simply from telling her own, if slanted and inaccurate, version of the story.
5. Summary and Analysis of IX: Night - X: Soul Scrolls
Upstairs, in her room, Offred sits and thinks, trying to "take stock" of her situation. She is no longer just a woman with "viable ovaries"; now her position has changed. If the Commander has desires, as she now knows he does, those desires can be manipulated. She remembers watching a television show about World War II with her mother. The filmmakers had interviewed Hitler's mistress, and she had talked about how she hadn't known anything about the ovens, and how Hitler was a sweet man when he was around her. A few days after the interview, she had killed herself. Offred remembers how nicely the woman had been made-up, how she had tried to look her best. Offred starts to take off her clothes, but suddenly feels laughter bubbling up inside her. She knows she must stifle it, and buries her face in her cloak. She lies on the floor, trying to slow her breathing, and eventually falls asleep right there.
The next morning, she is awoken by Cora's scream and the crash of the dropped breakfast tray. She sits up from her place on the floor, and realizes that Cora thought she was dead. Offred tells Cora that she must have fainted, but then realizes that now Cora thinks she might be pregnant. She tells Cora that she doesn't think that she is, and the two women agree that it must have been the strain of the birth that made her fall asleep on the floor. Cora grumbles about the dropped tray, and Offred suggests that they pretend that she ate the breakfast already. She is happy, because she feels that this shared lie has created a link between them. Several days later, Offred walks by Serena Joy kneeling on a pillow, gardening. She thinks idly about the Commander's Wife, imagining that she is doing penance for some sin, but then realizes that she is really thinking about Serena Joy's shears. The irises bloom, tall and beautiful, and Offred thinks to herself that there is something subversive about spring. Winter, she feels, is easier.
Offred begins visiting the Commander two or three nights a week, going to his rooms whenever Nick wears his cap askew to signal her that her presence is desired. It is understood that they must be very careful not to let Serena Joy catch on. Offred begins to think that his desires are not clear to her because they are not clear to him. The second time she visits the Commander they play Scrabble again, and Offred realizes that it is he who is letting her win. After they finish, he gives her a magazine, Vogue, to read. He seems proud to be showing it to her, since publications of this nature are supposed to have been destroyed. She realizes that he is getting pleasure out of watching her read. She asks him why he doesn't show the magazine to Serena Joy, and he tells her that his Wife wouldn't understand. On the third night, she asks the Commander for some hand lotion, and the next time she visits him, he gives it to her.
The next Ceremony is strained and difficult, and Offred is uncomfortable. At one point the Commander reaches up as if to touch her, but she avoids his hand. Her feelings toward Serena Joy have changed as well. She still hates her, but also feels jealous and guilty. She tries to remind herself that Serena Joy would get rid of her in a second if she could. The next time she is in the Commander's room she tells him to be more careful in the future. He tells her that he finds the Ceremonies impersonal, and she replies sarcastically. Their relationship, it seems, has shifted. Aunt Lydia once told the Handmaids that in the future all women "would live in harmony...There can be bonds of real affection." Offred recognizes that she is no longer just a Handmaid: she is now the Commander's mistress, just as much as she once was Luke's. Sometimes she wonders whether Serena Joy knows. Whatever the truth of their situation might be, she knows that she is happier; she is more than just a vessel to him now.
The next scene begins with Offred and Ofglen walking along the street. It is very hot out, and Offred finds herself thinking about ice cream. She and Ofglen have become used to each other. They reach the Wall, though there is no one hanging from it today. Sometimes Offred imagines seeing Luke on the Wall, though there is no reason he would be there. She tries to imagine him in one of the rooms in one of these buildings. They pass a store known as "Soul Scrolls" (even though this store, like the others, is not marked by a written sign). Inside are "printing machines" which spit out "prayers...ordered by Compuphones...There are five different prayers." Offred tries to remember what this store used to sell - she thinks that it was lingerie, which is now illegal. They look at the machines through the window, but suddenly Offred realizes that Ofglen is looking straight at her reflection. She feels that the air around them has changed. Ofglen asks her if she "think[s] God listens," but Offred tells her that she doesn't. Offred realizes that Ofglen is nothing like she had thought. Ofglen tells her about an underground network, and invites her to join. They start to walk again, and Offred thinks about the possibility that Ofglen may be a spy. Suddenly a van pulls up next to them. Two Eyes jump out and grab a man who is walking by. The Eyes pull him into the van and speed away.
That afternoon, after she arrives back home, Offred is unable to sleep. She sits and looks out the window, thinking about what Moira would say about the Commander. She remembers how Moira disapproved of her affair with Luke, saying she was stealing from another woman. Offred didn't understand why Moira, who was a lesbian, was allowed to steal women from other women, but Moira argued that in her situation the "stealing" was more balanced. They would argue about these things, about whether Moira's desire for a life surrounded only by women was realistic, but their fights always ended with them laughing. Before Luke left his wife, she got a better job, working in a library. Offred thinks about all of the jobs that women used to be allowed to hold. She remembers paper money, which is now obsolete, ever since the switch to Compubanks. She recalls how the new regime shot the president and all of the members of Congress; afterwards, the army declared a state of emergency, placing the blame on Muslim fundamentalists. After the coup, the new regime suspended the Constitution.
At first, the changes didn't seem bad. They shut down the Pornomarts and the Feels on Wheels - developments that appealed to both conservatives and liberals. Then, one day, Offred went to the store and was told that her Compuaccount was no longer working. Later, at the office, she was told that she had been let go along with all of the other women, because the new law dictated that women no longer be allowed to hold such positions. She returned home and waited for Luke, totally unsure of what she should do. Finally she called her mother, and then Moira, who worked for a women's collective. Moira came over and told her about how they had cut off all of the women's Compucards because women were no longer permitted to hold property. Moira, she recalls, didn't seem particularly surprised. Offred then remembers how Luke didn't seem very upset about the new laws, and simply assured her that he would take care of her. There were marches, but not many, because the army would open fire on the participants. Offred then begins thinking about her mother. She remembers her coming home from marches, and how embarrassed she was by her mother's political efforts. Now, she wishes she could take it all back.
Offred hears Nick come out of the house and watches him through her window. She wonders what he gets for his role in the arrangement. She remembers that she never asked Luke whether he was actually happy with the changes that were taking place; she was already too dependent, too afraid.
In the Commander's office, Offred sits looking at the board, wondering what it is that he gets out of this arrangement. He asks her what she wants to read, for this is now their routine. The Commander always watches her while she peruses the reading material that he provides. She suggests that they talk instead, and she asks him questions about himself. He answers her vaguely, saying only that he used to be in "market research." Finally she asks him what the Latin phrase in her bedroom means, hoping that he won't catch on to where she saw it. Though puzzled at first, he finally explains that it is a joke: it means, essentially, "Don't let the bastards grind you down." He shows her one of his old Latin schoolbooks, full of jokes like this one. Now she understands why the woman wrote it. She had been here, in this room with the Commander, as well. Offred asks him what happened to the woman who preceded her, and he tells her that she hung herself on the light fixture because Serena Joy found out about her relationship with the Commander. Offred suggests that he wants her to come here because he "wants [her] life to be bearable to [her]," and he agrees. She tells him that she wants to know "whatever there is to know."
In this section, Atwood underscores the idea that the new regime has intensified the objectification of women by demonstrating that when the Commander actually starts to treat Offred like a "sex object," she begins thinking of herself as more than merely a woman with "viable ovaries." This subtle shift in power suggests that the Gileadean regime's purpose in creating a role for the Handmaids that is distinct from the roles of "concubines" or "second wives" has more to do with power and control than with the Biblical teachings or a desire to honor the Handmaids. At this point it would be difficult for a reader to see The Handmaid's Tale as a criticism of fundamentalist beliefs, or even of the unification of church and state. Though Offred's understanding of the true nature of her situation is limited, the hypocrisy and degeneration underlying the Gileadean regime is painfully clear to the reader.
What is less clear to the reader is whether the Gileadean regime is solely responsible for undermining the relationships between men and women, or whether it simply exposes serious weaknesses that were already present in society. One of the most painful moments in this section of The Handmaid's Tale is Offred's admission that Luke didn't seem to object to the things that were happening to her, and that he might even have preferred the new system. Offred explains that they "never talked about it" because by the time she really understood what was happening, she "couldn't afford to lose [him]." What destroyed the balance of power between men and women? The laws that stripped women of their individuality, or the men's suppressed desire to control - even own - their wives? Offred does not come close to answering this question, but by raising it at all, Atwood prods the reader to examine the idea of "gender equality" in reality as well as in fiction. Even if the regime of Gilead seems extreme, it nevertheless sheds light on the beliefs and desires of the reader, both male and female.
6. Summary and Analysis of XI: Night - XII: Jezebel's
Offred sits at the window, watching as night falls. She sees someone in the garden and wonders whether it is Nick. Her thoughts, she realizes, are becoming confused. She remembers the night before she and Luke left. She had walked through the house. Nick had brought up the cat. They couldn't just leave her, but they couldn't bring her, and they couldn't give her to anyone. Nick said that he would take care of it, and Offred had let him, pretending that she didn't know that "take care of it" actually meant "kill it." She wonders who it was that turned them in. Offred tries to pray, remembering how they were forced to pray in the Center. She asks God to help the others, and says that she'll try to forgive. She tells God that she will try to believe, but that she simply doesn't know how she can keep on living.
Once again Offred wakes up only to remember that she is not at home. She makes an effort to keep track of the days, but now she measures time by the moon rather than the sun. Her body is stiff, as if she is old. She wishes she could have a fight with Luke, a fight over something unimportant. She then sits down to wait for something to do. Later, she and Ofglen go on their walk. There are two bodies on the Wall today. One has a "J" written on it. She knows that the "J" doesn't stand for "Jew", because the Jews had been allowed to flee to Israel. Today, they stop in front of a building called Memorial Hall. She remembers Moira telling her about this building, and about how women used to not be allowed in. Ofglen whispers that this is where the Eyes hold their banquets. She tells Offred that the password for entry is "Mayday". Sometimes the idea of a network seems almost silly to Offred - childish, even.
When she returns home, she notices that Nick's hat is askew - the sign that the Commander wishes to see her alone. She walks through the garden and sees Serena Joy, who tells her to hold her wool while she winds it. Offred thinks about knitting. Serena Joy asks Offred whether anything has happened yet, and Offred tells her "no". Offred tries to imagine herself with a baby, but she cannot. She knows that she would be happy to have it done with, though. Serena Joy tells her that she can help her by arranging for another man to try. She tells Offred that Ofwarren's baby was conceived with a doctor. She tells Offred that she was thinking of asking Nick to try to help her conceive, and Offred realizes just how much Serena Joy wants a baby. Offred agrees to the plan, and in return Serena Joy tells her that she will try to show her a picture of her daughter. Then she gives Offred a cigarette, and tells her to go find herself a match.
Offred goes inside and asks Rita for a match, telling her that Serena Joy said she could have one. Although she protests, Rita eventually gives her one. Rita also offers her an ice cube to suck, and Offred is pleased by the gesture. She tells Rita that the radishes she is carving into roses are pretty. Offred then hurries upstairs, anticipating the cigarette. She wonders if she should save the match instead. She could hide it in the mattress and "burn the house down." She remembers being with the Commander the night before. He had started drinking while she was there. She has learned from Ofglen that he is high up in the chain of command. He tells her that the problem had been with the men and the women. The men hadn't had anything to do anymore; sex was too easy. Now, however, they feel. He tries to get Offred to tell him what she thinks, but she knows better. He tells her that "Better never means better for everyone...It always means worse, for some." Later, Offred lies in bed, wishing it would rain.
The next day, Offred walks to the Prayvaganza with Ofglen. She remembers dandelions; she hasn't seen any in a long time. They turn into a building, and inside they find chairs for the Wives and Daughters. The galleries are for the lower-ranked women who are not obligated to come, but often do. The Handmaids must kneel on the cement floor, where they are cordoned off from the rest with red silk ropes. Ofglen elbows Offred, and she looks up to see Janine enter. Ofglen tells her that the baby was a shredder after all, and that Janine blames herself because she used doctor. Offred wonders how Ofglen found out. She remembers one morning at the Center when Janine didn't get up to dress with the others; she was in some kind of state, and Moira had to slap her to bring her around.
The Commander in charge of the service comes in. He says a few prayers, and then twenty Angels enter the room. Twenty veiled Daughters are brought forward to wed twenty men. Offred wonders if these girls are old enough to remember the time "before"; some of these girls are no more than fourteen. The Commander insists to her that it is better now: now every woman has a purpose, men are kept in line, and mothers are protected. This time, Offred tells him that the new regime overlooked "love", to which he replies calmly that "arranged marriages have always worked out just as well, if not better." At earlier Prayvaganzas they would sometimes have a "nun...recant", although most of them chose the Colonies. The ritual ends, and Ofglen whispers to her. Once again Offred thinks of the Center, and about how Moira had insisted on making crude jokes about Aunt Lydia and the others, believing - rightly - that doing so "helped". Now Ofglen whispers to Offred they know that she is not only seeing the Commander during Ceremonies, and that she should find out anything that she can and pass it on.
Back in her room, Offred remembers the day when she, Luke, and her daughter had tried to leave. They had gotten to the border and presented their fake passports, which claimed, among other things, that Luke had never been divorced. Suddenly, Luke jumped back in the car and took off, telling her that the guard had picked up a phone. They got to the woods, jumped out of the car, and began to run. Offred doesn't want to be thinking about this. She recalls how she and the Commander talked about love, and wonders how they could have taken it for granted before the new regime. She remembers what love was like, and the things that lovers did. There is a knock on the door, but when Offred opens the door it isn't Cora; it is Serena Joy, holding a photo. The photo is of Offred's daughter - she is tall now, and dressed in white. Offred wishes she had not seen the picture, and that night when she eats, she thinks about the knives that they do not bring her.
Offred goes to the Commander's room, and can tell that he's been drinking. He tells her he has a surprise for her, and he gives her a garment made of colored feathers and sequins. She wonders where he got it, since all pieces of lingerie were supposed to have been burned. He tells her she needs to put it on and paint her face, because he's going to take her somewhere. She knows she shouldn't go with him, but wants to nonetheless. She asks him to turn his back, and she dresses herself and puts on some old make-up, realizing that she has almost forgotten how. The Commander gives her Serena Joy's blue cloak and tells her to put it on, and they depart. While they are driven through the streets, Offred wonders how much Nick knows. They pass through the checkpoints without delay, but as they approach their destination the Commander tells Offred to get down on the floor of the car. When they stop, the Commander slips a tag around Offred's wrist and leads her inside.
Their destination is a hotel, one that Offred has been to with Luke. She looks around and sees women everywhere, some wearing outfits like hers, others in bathing suits, and others in exercise costumes. There are even a few cheerleaders. There are also men, all wearing dark uniforms or suits. The Commander shows Offred off to some men, and then they sit down and he tells her about the club. He defends it, explaining, "nature demands variety for men...It's part of the procreational strategy." He says that the hotel is only for officers and trade delegations. As for the women, some were prostitutes before, while others are women who prefer this sort of work to the alternatives. He suggests she have a drink, and she asks for a weak gin and tonic. Suddenly, Offred spots Moira. After a few moments Moira notices Offred, but they both pretend they don't recognize each other. After a few more moments pass, Moira signals her to meet her in the bathroom. Offred excuses herself, trying not to look conspicuous.
She walks into the ladies' room rest area, and after a moment Moira comes out of a stall. She hugs Offred. Offred starts to cry, but Moira tells her to stop. Offred tells Moira how she came to be here, and Moira comments that Offred's Commander "is the pits." Moira tells Offred everything that happened when she left the Center. She headed towards the center of town, and bluffed her way through several checkpoints. She went to a Quaker couple she knew from her previous work, and they helped her, even though they were clearly scared. They moved her to the house of some friends, a house that was "a station on the Underground Femaleroad." At that point, she explained, they were mostly just focusing on people who weren't Christian or who had been divorced, so the Quakers were reasonably safe. Still she was always terrified. After about eight or nine months they tried to get her across the border, but she and the couple she was with were picked up. She refuses to tell Offred what they did to her, saying only that they showed her a movie about the Colonies and told her that she could go to a colony, or do this. She chose this. Offred looks sad, but Moira tries to reassure her, joking that it's like "Butch paradise." After that night, Offred never sees Moira again.
The Commander has secured a room key, and when Offred returns from the bathroom they go upstairs. Their interaction is exactly the same as before. She thinks about something else Moira told her: that she had seen Offred's mother in one of the videos about the Colonies. She thinks about how she can't remember the last time she saw her mother. When things got bad she tried to call her, and finally she and Luke went to her apartment and convinced the Super to let them in. Offred's mother wasn't there, and the apartment had been torn apart, but Luke told her not to call the police. In college, Offred remembers, Moira always talked about how much she liked Offred's mother. Coming back to the present, Offred stares at the ruin of her appearance in the mirror. She washes her hands and goes outside. The Commander is lying on the bed, and she lies down next to him, as she knows she's supposed to. He starts touching her, suggesting it will be a nice change, but she cannot bring herself to respond. She tells herself to fake it, but she doesn't know how.
In this section, Offred's faith and belief in the future seem to be slipping. Her memories are becoming more and more random, and she seems physically weaker. Though Offred knows far more about the weaknesses of the regime and the presence of subversive elements (such as the Mayday network), she seems less certain than ever that she will be able to escape. This section of the novel may be particularly frustrating for the reader. Compared to Moira and now Ofglen, Offred seems unwilling to take any real risks to escape her circumstances. However, Offred's fear reveals a great deal about her character, and fits with what the reader already knows about her.
Before Gilead, Offred was a relatively ordinary woman. She did not particularly care about her political rights: she wanted to fall in love and get married, and was willing to have an affair with a married man and wait for him until he left his wife. At the same time, Offred did enjoy having her own job and her own money. She was not uncaring, merely complacent. In other words, Offred is not a typical heroine. She feels no desire to risk her own life in order to help others, and she's not even sure that she would risk what she has now for the possibility of escape. Atwood clearly intends Offred to be a kind of everywoman - neither a "true believer" nor a potential martyr.
Given Offred's aversion to risk, it is extremely surprising when she accepts Serena Joy's offer to help her get pregnant. On the one hand, this seems incredibly dangerous; on the other hand, their complicity seems natural. She and Serena Joy are at least more equal than she and the Commander, or she and the Doctor. Furthermore, in order for Serena Joy to betray Offred, she would need a male witness or another female witness. Offred's trust, however, does not seem to be based on pragmatism. She makes her decision quickly without considering the risks, as she did with the Doctor. It seems likely that as her affair with the Commander progresses, Offred begins to feel more and more like an ordinary woman, and begins to feel something like a kinship with Serena Joy. As strange as it may seem, Offred feels more like Serena Joy's equal than ever before. Serena Joy has taken a great deal from her, and she will take even more from her (a child) if she can, but now she has also taken something from Serena Joy. The change in their relationship suggests that the government does not really want the Handmaids and the Wives to live in harmony. Creating divisions between them is a very effective way of introducing yet another layer of protection for the regime.
The conversations that Offred begins to have with the Commander offer another crumb of insight into the nature of the regime. He admits that better never means better for everyone - it always means worse for some. While it seems clear that the regime truly believes that drastic measures are necessary to ensure the survival of this population, it does not seem clear that the new rules are actually better for anyone. The only possible answer is that they are better for the Commanders, who, as Offred's Commander tells her, had lost all interest in sex because it was so easy to get. Even so, the Commander himself seems no happier, no more fulfilled or free in his sexual relations, than any man prior to the institution of the new regime.
The Commander, like so many men in the past, needs his sexual pleasure to be illicit and somewhat public. Like a man who brags to his friends about his mistress, it is not enough to just sleep with Offred in his study or in her room - he must show her off to others. He justifies breaking the rules by arguing that nature designed things so that men want more than one partner, but this explanation loses its validity when one considers that nearly all of these women have clearly been sterilized. The sexual behavior of men in the new regime is a far grosser violation of cultural norms than it was pre-Gilead, because it subverts the entire purpose of the regime - the re-population of their culture.
Offred suggests that rather than being about power, the current state of affairs is really about forgiveness - about who can forgive whom. Once again, it seems that the Commanders are at the center of this net, for in order to forgive them, it is first necessary to articulate their crimes, which are so gross, so base, and so selfish that to articulate them would make forgiveness impossible. Offred, however, does not follow through with this thought, either because it is too difficult, or because Atwood herself is not certain what she intends to say. Ultimately, one might interpret Offred's words to mean that it is impossible to remain human and at the same time to believe that other human beings consciously decide to do such evil things. Forgiveness is the only possible course, and it is even better if one can forgive without articulating the reasons behind it.
7. Summary and Analysis of XIII: Night - XIV: Salvaging
The night of Offred and the Commander's excursion to the hotel is very hot. For some reason, the searchlights are out. Offred has put her normal clothes on and attempted to scrape off all traces of her make-up. Serena Joy arrives at her door at midnight, as arranged. Offred follows her through the kitchen, and Serena Joy tells her that she'll wait for her there. Offred moves quickly, afraid. Nick opens the door to his apartment, which is plain and neat. He turns out the lamp, undoes her dress, and offers her a drag of his cigarette. They speak awkwardly at first, but gradually become more comfortable with one another. Finally he hugs her, and then leads her over to the bed. He begins kissing and touching her, and says "No romance, OK?" Offred, however, isn't quite sure how the events transpire. She lies there, thinking about what Serena Joy is thinking, wondering whether she is betraying her husband, and wishing she were "without shame."
Offred wishes this story were about something else, something better. She has tried to put in some nicer things, like flowers. She goes back to Nick as many times as possible. Every time, she expects him to turn her away, but he never does. When they kiss, she keeps her eyes open. They always make love as if it is the last time, so the next time is always a gift. This is the most dangerous thing she could do, but she does not care. She tells him everything: about Moira, about Ofglen. She even tells him her real name. He, however, talks very little.
One day Offred is walking with Ofglen, who is trying to get her to find out information from the Commander by breaking into his study and reading his papers. Offred feels like none of this is real, and thinks about whether she might be pregnant. They are going to a district Salvaging. They file onto the lawn, where a stage has been set up. There are fewer and fewer Salvagings now, because the women are so well-behaved. They take their places in the usual order. This time, the Handmaids have cushions to kneel on, and the weather is good. Offred tries to think about Nick, and not the stage. Two Handmaids and one Wife are going to be salvaged; they have probably been drugged. The officials arrive, and Offred realizes that Aunt Lydia is there. Aunt Lydia gives the usual introductory speech, and then tells them that they will no longer give a detailed account of the crimes of the prisoners, because in the past it has lead to a surge in exactly those kinds of crimes. The crowd reacts angrily, and begins speculating that the Wife is probably there for killing her Handmaid - the only thing that Wives are not allowed to do. Or, they wonder, it could be adultery, or attempted escape. A bag is tied over the woman's head, and a noose is placed around her neck. The woman hangs. Offred doesn't want to see any more, and looks down at the rope.
The three bodies hang there. Aunt Lydia announces the end of the Salvaging, but then she tells the Handmaids they may form a circle. Most of the Wives and Daughters leave, although a few stay behind to watch. Ofglen tugs Offred to the front of the circle. Aunt Lydia reminds them of the rules of a Particicution: they must wait until she blows the whistle. Two Guardians bring out a man who has clearly been beaten. Aunt Lydia tells them that he and another man raped two Handmaids at gunpoint. One of the women was pregnant, and the baby died. Despite herself, Offred feels a surge of bloodlust. Aunt Lydia whistles, and after a moment the man tries to speak, but the women surge forward. Ofglen pushes to the front and kicks the man several times, viciously, in the head. The women tear him apart. Ofglen comes back to Offred, who is horrified. Ofglen whispers that it was a lie; he is part of their network, and she was knocking him unconscious. A few moments later it is over, and the women drift away. Offred feels sick at what happened, at herself. She wants to "go to bed, make love, right now."
Life returns to normal. One afternoon, Offred goes to her usual corner to wait for Ofglen. When the approaching woman reaches Offred, Offred realizes that it's a different woman. Offred doesn't know how she will be able to find out what happened to Ofglen, since they're not supposed to be friends. She asks whether Ofglen was transferred, and the woman replies that she is Ofglen. They shop for a while, and Offred suggests they go to the Wall. There are already women hanging from the wall already. Offred attempts to work the word "Mayday" into the conversation, but does so clumsily, and realizes that she has made a mistake: "She isn't one of us. But she knows." She thinks about the things the regime could do to her. At the corner, as they part, the woman leans in and whispers "She hanged herself...After the Salvaging. She saw the van coming for her. It was better." Offred feels only relief; she, at least, is safe. The danger washes over her, and "for the first time" she feels "their true power." On the top step she sees Serena Joy. She is holding her cloak and the garment worn by Offred. Serena Joy angrily tells her that she trusted her, and Offred knows it is over. She goes to her room, as ordered.
For a brief time, The Handmaid's Tale unexpectedly becomes a love story. Offred's affair with Nick is an odd development largely because it demonstrates several major changes in Offred's character that have gone on almost entirely beneath the surface of the novel. Her actions seem to demonstrate that she has abandoned her belief in the possibility of escape, her faith that Luke might still be alive somewhere, and her prayer that someday the new regime will come to an end. This "letting go" is somewhat tragic, for Offred's belief in the possibility of change seems to be the only thing holding her together as a person, and may be the only thing standing between her and suicide. At the same time, by initiating an affair with Nick, Offred has done a far braver thing than one might expect her to have done: the kindling of love in that hidden room is the greatest possible strike against the regime of Gilead.
Offred's affair with Nick is the third in a series of affairs. Twice, Offred has consciously "stolen" a man from another woman, though with the Commander she did not have much choice in the matter. Nick, however, is stolen from no one. Her actions are illicit in the context of the regime, but romantic in the reader's eyes. Thus, her affair with Nick is a reminder that sex united with love does not belong in the same category as sex in the absence of love. Offred and Nick's relationship clarifies the viewpoint of the novel in that it suggests that sex cannot be regulated by law, because nothing can govern love. The Commander dismisses Offred's suggestion that the regime has forgotten to provide for love, but he does so without a true understanding of love's power. The regime considers love unimportant, but it is clearly love that ultimately holds the power to destroy the regime.
Ironically, it is also a form of love that puts Offred in tremendous danger. When Serena Joy finds the costume Offred wore to Jezebel's, she feels that Offred has betrayed her, despite her understanding of Offred's situation. Earlier in the novel, Offred thinks about how Moira criticized her earlier affair with Luke, even though she wound up marrying him, and wonders what Moira would have thought of her affair with the Commander. Once again, Atwood seems to be pointing to similarities between the world of Gilead and the ordinary world. Did Offred owe anything to Luke's previous wife? Does she owe any kind of allegiance to Serena Joy? Is there any intrinsic solidarity between women that takes precedence over the relationships between women and men?
Another important theme that reasserts itself in this section of the novel is the power of language. Here, Offred directly addresses the fact that she is "constructing" her story:
I wish this story were different...I wish it were about love, or about sudden realizations important to ones life, or even about sunsets, birds, rainstorms, or snow. Maybe it is about those things, in a way; but in the meantime there is so much else getting in the way...I've tries to put some of the good things in as well. Flowers, for instance, because where would we be without them?
The confusion, the lack of a clear thread, is carefully - even artfully - constructed. The story is told as Offred wishes to tell it, rather than in the objective manner that the reader might prefer.
In this section, Offred also articulates more clearly whom the story is intended for. Though she does not directly state Luke's name, she certainly alludes to him when she says, "I am coming to a part you will not like at all, because in it I did not behave well, but I will try nonetheless to leave nothing out." The point of Offred's ramblings, however, is not entirely clear. She says (presumably to Luke), "By telling you anything at all I'm at least believing in you...I believe you into being." Yet it seems possible that Offred tells the story not solely to believe Luke into being, but also to believe herself into being. She betrays Luke not by sleeping with another man, but by telling another man her story, by telling him everything from her real name to, one suspects, the name of her child. Offred offers her story to Nick and to us, the readers, because only through telling it can she "feel that [she is] known."
In order to reveal Offred's desires more clearly to the reader, Atwood provides us with a scene that sharply contrasts with the intimations of love. One of the worst deaths the novel has to offer is Ofglen's death, for she is not even spared the dignity of absence: she is replaced by another woman with the same name, and essentially the same appearance. There is no hole standing where she once was. Ofglen is an example of what happens to the woman whose story has not been told. Though she was braver than Offred, and possibly more deserving of our interest, she ceases to exist as soon as she is dead. We do not know her name, so it is as if she did not exist.
8. Summary and Analysis of XV: Night - Historical Notes
Offred sits in her room and waits, holding "a handful of crumpled stars" in her lap. She should feel terrible about what happened, but she doesn't. She thinks about what she could do. She could set fire to the house. She could try to break the window and escape. She could beg the Commander for help. She could hang herself. She could go to Nick's room. Ultimately, however, she decides that she isn't going to do any of those things.
Night begins to fall, and Offred feels the presence of her "ancestress" behind her, hanging from the chandelier. She imagines her hanging there wearing a costume of feathers and spangles. She hears the black van and, looking out the window, sees two men ring the bell. Nick opens her door, and she is afraid for a moment, but he whispers to her that "it's Mayday." She doesn't believe that the men are, as Nick has intimated, here to save her, but it doesn't matter, and she thinks that it might as well be true. Together, they go down the stairs, passing Serena Joy, then the Commander. The Commander asks the men if they have a warrant, and they reply that they don't need one, since it is a "violation of state secrets." The Commander suddenly looks afraid. Cora is crying. The men lead her to the van, and she climbs "into the darkness within; or else the light." With this, Offred's story comes to an end.
The novel closes with a "partial transcript of the proceedings of the Twelfth Symposium on Gileadean Studies, held as part of the International Historical Association Convention, held at the University of Denay, Nunavit, on June 25, 2195." The Chair, Maryann Crescent Moon, makes a few announcements about the activities at the conference, and then introduces the keynote speaker, Professor Pieixoto, who is going to speak about "Problems of Authentication in Reference to The Handmaid's Tale."
Pieixoto describes how the item was unearthed in the city of Bangor, which prior to the Gileadean regime was in the state of Maine. Inside a metal footlocker, they found about thirty tape cassettes. Most began with a few songs, then contained recordings made by the same person who was singing. He explains that the tapes were not stored in any particular order, so he and Professor Wade had to take some guesses as to the progression of the story when they arranged the tapes. He discusses the possibility of forgery, and comments on the foolishness of making moral judgments about the Gileadeans. He suggests that "we have learned by now that such judgments are of necessity culture-specific. Also, Gileadean society was under a great deal of pressure, demographic and otherwise." He then speaks about the account itself, and the methods that might be used to verify whether or not it is a truthful, valid story written by a real Handmaid.
Pieixoto then describes how they attempted to figure out who had owned the house, a tactic that failed almost immediately. One of the major obstacles was the policy of destroying massive amounts of documents whenever the regime went through one of its many purges. He then explains why it proved nearly impossible to trace the narrator herself. He talks about how Handmaids were created and why, going into detail about the possible explanations for the declining birthrates that afflicted the Gileadeans. He talks about how Biblical precedents were used to justify the choices made by the new government. He also points out that the names used in the narrative were most likely all pseudonyms, which fits with their belief that the tapes were made within the borders of Gilead.
Next, Pieixoto talks about their attempts to trace the identity of the Commander. He describes the two possible candidates that they located, the evidence supporting each theory, and their reasons for favoring a man named Waterford. He also speaks a bit about the Underground Femaleroad and the Mayday operatives. Finally, he laments Offred's failure to provide any real insight into the Gilead regime, commenting on how extraordinarily useful it would have been to have even a twenty page printout from the Commander's computer. He speculates as to what happened to Offred, and why she didn't take the tapes with her if she left. He also suggests that Nick helped Offred escape in order to save himself, commenting that "he could, of course, have assassinated her himself, which might have been the wiser course." He concludes his talk by stating that it is not possible to fully interpret the events of the past in the "light of the present day."
The ending of The Handmaid's Tale is abrupt, and in some ways dissatisfying. Why is the reader left uncertain as to Offred's fate? Why is the reader never told her real name? Why do we learn what happened to the Commander, but not what happened to Nick? One possible explanation for these choices is that Atwood thought that The Handmaid's Tale would have more of an impact if she left it without a clear ending. Atwood has stated her belief that the novel is a vehicle for social change, and useful for furthering human understanding. By forcing us to think about the end of Offred's story through the lens of the Historical Notes, Atwood urges the reader to think about why they feel as they do - even if what they feel is dissatisfied and ambivalent - rather than allowing them to experience a simple, emotional reaction to a powerful story.
The presence and content of the Historical Notes immediately forces the reader to consider the purpose of history with respect to the purpose of stories. The historians are frustrated that Offred's story cannot be fact-checked and verified by independent sources. They are irritated that given her many opportunities, Offred failed to secure some more tangible artifact of the Gileadean government, such as a printout from the Commander's computer. Atwood is subtly satirizing a type of historiography that considers facts more important than narratives - to these historians, information about the government is far more interesting than information about individuals. They look down on Offred's account in the same way that some look down on oral histories, assuming that such subjective tales are far less useful than the written, verifiable opinion of an "expert" or "leader." Though the speaker raises real questions - stating, for example, that the reader obviously cannot know whether Offred is a real person or whether the narrative is "accurate" - this section of the novel serves to spark antagonism in the reader. The question is, of course: to what purpose?
For starters, The Handmaid's Tale presents a slightly biased - yet unquestionably intelligent - case for the importance of storytelling in creating human understanding. Even within the fiction of Gilead, Offred repeatedly stresses that her account is a story. She does not necessarily intend it as a fair or accurate representation of the world she describes; she merely wishes to relate her experiences to someone that she loves and wants to understand what has happened to her. The historians seem willing to listen to Offred's account without attempting to understand her or her experiences. The reader, however, who takes in the story without worrying about its factual validity, cannot help but see things from Offred's perspective. Perhaps the historians have a more accurate picture of life under the Gileadean regime, but the reader seems to have a fuller understanding of the truth of Offred's situation.
The historians' distance stems from their belief in the idea of cultural, or moral, relativism. Pieixoto reminds his audience that they should know better than to judge Gilead by the standards of their own culture. He points out that the Gileadeans created their seemingly barbaric rules to accommodate unique pressures that no longer exist, and that "contemporary" society can thus not fully appreciate their purposes or rationale. Whether or not the reader agrees with this point, it seems likely that approaching The Handmaid's Tale as a fictional account makes one more likely to judge and disagree with the Gileadeans, and more apt to side with Offred. This difference allows us to see first-hand the power of so-called "speculative fiction"; reading a story allows us to examine our judgments and assumptions in a more leisurely and less dangerous manner than when they are tested out on real events and problems.
Atwood's decision to end her novel with the Historical Notes is intended to urge the reader to consider the work's overarching moral and philosophical issues. At the same time, she risks leaving readers deeply unsatisfied if they are unable or unwilling to consider the purposes of such an ending. Throughout the novel, the reader has been caught up in Offred's point of view, and has been granted no access to other characters' consciousnesses. Offred tells her audience what she thinks about Luke, Moira, and the other people who have disappeared from her life. She truly believes in the possibility of multiple "endings" occurring all at the same time. At the end of the novel, it is Offred who disappears for her readers, effectively abandoning them much as she has been abandoned. As the historians point out, she may have been killed, she may have escaped, or she may have escaped only to be recaptured later. Like Offred, the reader has learned to believe in multiple possibilities. It doesn't really matter whether or not Offred escaped. Her words escaped, so she survived. Though no one knows her real name, she is not like Ofglen; she has not been erased from the historical narrative. Whether or not the historians understand the importance of Offred's effort, the reader understands that she has made her story permanent, and has thus, in a way, given herself and her fellow Handmaids immortality.
VIII. Margaret Atwood – The Handmaid’s Tale : About Speculative Fiction
The term "speculative fiction", like most genre names, does not have a clear-cut or universally agreed-upon definition. The term appears to have been coined by Robert A. Heinlein, a popular and respected writer of "hard-core" science fiction (i.e. science fiction that relies on the scientific accuracy of the problems and solutions included in the work). In an essay written in 1948, "On Writing of Speculative Fiction", he explicitly used the term as a substitute for "science fiction." Once the term went into popular use, editors, readers, academics and some writers developed a tendency to think of speculative fiction as an umbrella term covering everything from science fiction and fantasy to magical realism. Under this definition, every novel that is not highly invested in "realism" could be called "speculative fiction." People who embrace this term, e.g. the prolific on-line reviewer of speculative fiction, D.D. Shade, argue that the excessive sub-genres within genres like science fiction and the growing tendency of writers to draw from several sub-genres and genres within their work makes a more general term useful.
At the same time, writers have also used the term to distinguish their work from the very genres the term is supposed to cover. In other words, writers who feel that the literary world looks down upon science fiction and fantasy want to distinguish their work as different from those styles of novels, and consequently prefer the term "speculative fiction." The use of "speculative fiction" to express dissatisfaction with the genre of science fiction was popularized in the 1960s and early 1970s by Judith Merril and other writers and editors in connection with the New Wave movement. It fell into disuse around the mid 1970s, but just as New Wave arts have enjoyed a slight return to popularity in the 2000s, the idea of speculative fiction as distinct from other genres has once again entered the general parlance.
The use of the term "speculative fiction" has been intertwined in a complicated way with issues of women writers of genre fiction. In 1996, the journal Femspec was founded to combat the "collectively perceived lack of attention to science fiction, fantasy, magical realism and supernatural works in feminist journals and audiences; the lack of consistently developed levels of feminism in science fiction criticism; and the inadequacy of magical realist publishing outlets and forums in the United States." In the 1960s and 1970s, women both became much more prolific as writers of science fiction and fantasy, and achieved much higher levels of acceptance amongst their peers, readers, and reviewers. Women began winning the top science fiction writing awards (The Nebula and The Hugo) and much more frequently published under their own names (previously almost all women writing science fiction and fantasy published under pseudonyms or used only the initial of their first name). As these women pushed for more acceptance in the world of science fiction, many also wanted to raise the level of importance of the genre itself. Those who wanted to be perceived as writing a more literary and even more "realistic" type of science fiction often referred to their work as "speculative fiction."
Margaret Atwood is one of these writers, and her use of the term "speculative fiction" generates strong reactions from her own readers as well as from science fiction readers in general. Atwood stresses the idea of speculative fiction is different from science fiction, for she sees science fiction as "filled with Martians and space travel to other planets, and things like that." Atwood seems to view science fiction as inferior to speculative fiction in that science fiction seeks only to entertain, whereas speculative fiction attempts to make the reader rethink his or her own world based on the experiences described the novel. The controversies around both the meaning of the term "speculative fiction" and the importance of science fiction and fantasy novels continue even today. When examining this conflict, it is important to recall that when the novel first began its rise to the top of all literary forms, it was considered merely "cheap entertainment" and went by a different title altogether: the romance novel.
IX. Margaret Atwood – The Handmaid’s Tale : Suggested Essay Questions
1. Throughout The Handmaid's Tale Offred considers the multiple meanings and connotations of specific words. What might Atwood be suggesting about the flexibility or lack of specificity of language? What does this obsession with words convey about Offred's character or situation?
2. How does the Gileadean government use the constant potential of surveillance to keep its citizens in line? Do you think Offred should have taken more risks to better her situation, or was she doing the best she could given the circumstances?
3. In an interview, Atwood said that "This is a book about what happens when certain casually held attitudes about women are taken to their logical conclusions. For example, I explore a number of conservative opinions still held by many - such as a woman's place is in the home. And also certain feminist pronouncements - women prefer the company of other women, for example. Take these beliefs to their logical ends and see what happens."
4. How does the world of Gilead contain elements of extremely conservative, religious beliefs, as well as elements of more liberal, feminist beliefs? Do you think Atwood accomplished her goal?
5. How is The Handmaid's Tale a novel about the writing process? What issues of storytelling does Offred raise in the Tale, and how does she choose to resolve or sidestep those issues?
6. One of the main goals of the Gilead Regime seems to be to control and regulate sex and sexuality. Do you think they succeed? Are sexual relations more ordered and "normalized" under the new regime?
7. When the Doctor suggests that he help Offred conceive, she rejects his offer, even though she knows she is unlikely to be caught. When Serena Joy offers to help her, she says yes almost immediately, despite her serious lack of trust for Serena Joy and the immense amount of power Serena Joy has over her. Why do you think she accepts Serena Joy's offer rather than the Doctor's?
8. The Handmaid's Tale is set in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and most of the buildings and landmarks mentioned throughout the novel are parts of Harvard University. Why might Atwood have chosen a major university as the headquarters of this new regime? In your answer, consider the relationship between knowledge and control.
9. Explain the meaning of "particicution" within The Handmaid's Tale. Did you find the particicution believable? In other words, can you imagine yourself going along with the "rules" if you were placed in a similar situation? Defend your answer with specific examples from the novel, history, and/or your own experiences.
10. Why is the hotel where Moira is kept known as "Jezebel's"? How does this name fit in with the Gileadean's tendency to place the primary responsibility on women for any sexual problems or deviancy?
11. In his keynote speech, Professor Pieixoto tells his audience that "we must be cautious about passing moral judgment upon the Gileadeans" because "we have learned by now that such judgments are of necessity culture-specific." Do you agree? Explain your critique or defense of the Gileadean rule.
X. Margaret Atwood – The Handmaid’s Tale : Essay Topics
1. Social Commentary in Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale
2. The Roles of Women in Kate Chopin's The Awakening and Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale
3. Gilead's Greatest Hits: Volume One
4. Language as a Form of Power In The Handmaid's Tale
5. Are Winston, Julia and Offred eventually made into ‘reluctantly-selfish’ victims of totalitarian regimes or are they innately ‘pragmatically-selfish’ beings? Discuss in relation to The Handmaid’s Tale and 1984,
XI. Margaret Atwood - The Handmaid's Tale : Quiz [ 25 Questions ]
1. The Rachel and Leah re-education center is located in a defunct...
B. high school
D. fitness club
2. What kind of weapons did the Aunts have in order to prevent the women's escape from the re-education center?
A. stun guns
D. electric cattle prods
3. Offred is allowed to leave the house once a day in order to do what?
A. see the church
B. go for a walk
C. go shopping
D. spend time with the other Handmaids
4. In Offred's home, what is time measured in?
A. two of the above three answers
D. lunar cycles
5. On her feet, what does Offred wear?
A. red, flat shoes
B. light house slippers
C. red, heeled shoes
D. black, flat shoes
6. Who wears green in Gilead?
A. the Marthas
B. the Econowives
C. no one
D. the Wives
7. Serena Joy passes the time by doing what?
A. gardening tools
B. gardening and knitting
C. gardening, knitting and singing
8. What door does Offred use to enter the house?
A. she has her own entrance
B. the front door
C. sometimes the front door, and sometimes the back
D. the back door
9. The Biblical justification for the Handmaids comes from which story?
A. the story of Leah
B. the story of Mary and Joseph
C. the story of Isaac
D. the story of Rachel and Bilbah
10. Offred's Handmaid partner is named what?
11. The Guardians can be awarded Wives and Handmaids if...
A. they provide information to the Eyes
B. they are promoted
C. Commanders die
D. they live to be old enough
12. When the women see the pregnant Ofwarren in the store, what do they think she is doing?
A. very brave
B. very lucky
C. showing off
D. taking a risk
13. Offred remembers attending a book burning with her mother where women were burning what?
A. inappropriate literature
B. the Constitution
C. pornographic magazines
D. fashion magazines
14. Bodies on the wall hung with purple placards around their necks signify that the dead have been convicted of what?
A. abuse of their Handmaids
B. gender treachery
15. When testing Offred's knowledge of her underground society, Ofglen says to Offred:
A. "I wish it would always be May."
B. "Do you remember when we celebrated May Day?"
C. "May Day is my birthday."
D. "It's a beautiful May day."
16. Aunt Lydia reminds the Handmaids that they should feel sorry for the Wives because...
A. they are inferior to the Handmaids
B. they have no purpose in this new world
C. they cannot please their husbands
D. they are unable to bear children
17. The only word written in Offred's room is:
18. What man offers to help Offred by impregnating her?
A. one of the Guardians
B. the Doctor
C. one of the other Commanders
19. What does Offred steal from her meals and save for later?
D. a fork
20. Offred thinks that ancient paintings of harems, which were supposed to be erotic, were actually about...
21. What does Offred compare herself to?
A. a plant that is supposed to sprout beautiful flowers
B. a prize pig
C. a caged tiger
D. a horse meant for breeding
22. When Offred exercises by lying on the floor and tilting her pelvic bones back and forth she always hears:
A. Amazing Grace
B. Les Sylphides
C. Aunt Lydia's voice
23. Aunt Helena comes to the re-education center only for...
B. video screenings
24. What was the name of Offred's town "before"?
A. Salem, Massachusetts
B. New Haven, Connecticut
C. Cambridge, Massachusetts
D. Bangor, Maine
25. The smell of this reminds Offred of motherhood:
B. roasting chicken
C. baking bread
D. grass in the summer
XII. Margaret Atwood - The Handmaid's Tale: Quiz Answers