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Is it healthy to have an obsession with such a depressing dystopian novel? I guess it’s no more depressing than the political news of today. What is this morbid fascination with disturbing alternate futures that attracts us? Well, in the case of The Handmaid’s Tale, it is definitely the succinct, intricate weaving of narrative and subtle reflections of the real world’s problems. Too many dystopian works these days are written as polemics and agendas, or are cliché and uninspired. But The Handmaid’s Tale is a classic work of literature that builds its plot around one singular character, knowing only what she’s told of the world she lives in, whether it’s word-of-mouth, propaganda, or both. Because if you did live a life like Offred’s, in which the act of reading anything is a crime, you would only have your wits and memories at hand.
This is going to be a page-by-page analysis with no bias from adaptations. While brilliant, the Hulu TV adaptation has reshaped the lore of the original novel to suit a modern portrayal of The Handmaid’s Tale, which can be confusing to understanding the original story. Controversially, I think the film was the most faithful adaptation, but not the best produced. Without a doubt, the TV series is my favorite show and I am greatly anticipating the third season premiere in 2019.
Without further ado, grab your own copy or E-reader, and let’s begin.
The foreword to the novel proper is three quotations. The first can be considered the tagline for the book, especially, “Give me children or I die.” The whole concept of Handmaids is taken from this Biblical structure, also the proper name for “The Red Center,” which is officially, “The Rachel and Leah Re-education Center.” Also, note the Biblical character Jacob, which lends the name for the “Sons of Jacob,” the extremist Christian organization who would stage the initial military coup, toppling the American government and turning it into the Republic of Gilead.
The second quotation is from Jonathan Swift's A Modern Proposal, a satire submitted during an overpopulation crisis, which is the opposite of the problem the world of The Handmaid’s Tale is happening. Swift sardonically suggests that they can kill two birds with one stone—both the overpopulation and food shortage problem—by eating the unwanted children. This piece is entirely black comedy as a commentary on anti-abortion and the stigma associated with it, as also highlighted in this section:
“There is likewise another great advantage in my scheme, that it will
prevent those voluntary abortions, and that horrid practice of women
murdering their bastard children, alas, too frequent among us, sacrificing
the poor innocent babes, I doubt, more to avoid the expense than the
shame, which would move tears and pity in the most savage and inhuman
This quotation’s inclusion in the foreword of the novel displays an antithesis of The Handmaid’s Tale motifs (infertility vs. too much fertility), showing that even in a world overabundant with babies and children, anti-abortion and anti-contraception laws would be still inhumane.
The final quotation isn’t as abstract as you might think it is. It speaks to common sense. Of course, you shouldn’t eat stones in the desert; no telling what that could do your teeth or digestive system! But the point is that there wouldn’t be a sign to tell you otherwise, it’s hardwired into your sense of logic. Just like there are no signs that say, “Thou shall not imprison and rape women,” that should be common sense. This is tragically also a commentary in real-life culture—the argument that people shouldn’t have to be told not to rape.
More often than not, novels are dedicated to personal friends of the author. But in this foreword, the dedication is more than mere shout-outs to inspirational friends. Margaret Atwood dedicates the novel to Mary Webster and Perry Miller, who have both had influences on the subject matter of The Handmaid’s Tale. The author has stated that she believes Mary Webster is possibly an ancestor of hers. Mary Webster was accused of being a witch in Puritan times and her accusers attempted to hang her, but she survived and lived on another 14 years. (source)
Perry Miller was a Harvard professor and authority on American Puritanism. Since much of Atwood’s novel has integrated aspects of Puritan rituals and clothing, we can assume that Puritan culture greatly influenced her ideas for the fictional Republic of Gilead and its caste system. (source)
Pt. I: Chapter 1
The beginning paragraph is a brief summary of the decades that have past, indicating that the gymnasium is in an aged but repurposed school building. From the articles of clothing mentioned (“felt-skirted… later in miniskirts, then pants, then in one earring, spiky green hair”), I can hazard a guess at the novel being based in the 80s or early 90s. The timeline will be much more important later.
In passive voice, Atwood paints a picture of times gone by, when there were school dances—homecomings and proms, specifically, so this was a high school building. The protagonist waxes nostalgic over those days, when people had high expectations of sex, but were let down from the actual experience… such is life.
“We yearned for the future. How did we learn it, that talent for insatiability?” She reminisces of times where she had hope for her future, then juxtaposes by lifting off the veil of time, showing her reality. She’s in an army cot among other women in the same army cot while two “Aunts” are patrolling with electric cattle-prods. Eesh, hell of a transition, that!
The Aunts are the supervisors of these women. You can’t help but notice the metaphor in hindsight of them having cattle-prods—they and other officials of Gilead do treat their charges like cattle. Next, the protagonist considers the guards and mentions the “Angels.” The irony of Angels having guns isn’t lost on the reader. The protagonist highlights the desperation of the supervised and captive women here: “They were objects of fear to us, but of something else as well… Something could be exchanged… some deal made, some tradeoff, we still had our bodies.”
The women still practice some control by whispering their names to each other. It’s rumored that the protagonist’s real name is June, as indicated by the list of names at the bottom. Since all the names show up later in the novel except June, it’s presumed to be her real name. In the TV adaptation it is, but Atwood herself said it wasn’t her intention for her real name to be June, but encouraged her fans to call her June if they wished.
Pt. II: Chapter 2
Wait, that was an awfully short first part, wasn’t it? Well, without spoiling the rest of the novel (because the novel being sectioned into parts does have a purpose), keep in mind that the protagonist isn’t exactly allowed to keep a consistent journal. She can’t even read or write without the threat of her fingers being chopped off. Also, it’s a sectioning off of the main narrative and her intermissions of memories. In the parts named Night, she’s more retrospective and analytical than continuing the main plot, but each memory and musing is important to the story and her characterization.
Starting Chapter 2, we’re already smacked in the face with suicidal ideation; specifically, how the chandelier has been removed because it could be used as a means to hang oneself. This could serve as a warning. But think about it, the entirety of Gilead’s operation is a warning. From Offred’s perspective, she’s just making observations of her prison.
Offred muses about her room and the decorative things in it. One particular description of the braided rugs is all too thematic of the lore…” archaic, made by women in their spare time, from things that have no further use. A return to traditional values. Waste not want not. I am not being wasted. Why do I want?” In Gilead, women have been repurposed like craft materials. They are now doing their “traditional” role, according to Gilead’s skewed Biblical doctrine (i.e. housekeeping, childrearing, homemaking), so they are no longer “wasting their time” with careers, promiscuity and intellectual pursuits.
Offred wanders if this room, its layout, the pictures on the wall are government-issued, meaning that the government would require this setup for Handmaids in all households. It’s a way to tell the reader that this is not just a weird cult, it’s a large body of totalitarianism, a mass curtailing of human rights. Offred remembers Aunt Lydia’s instruction (brainwashing is a better term for it), comparing Handmaids’ roles to being in the army. Except the majority of Handmaids hate Gilead and don’t want to defend it. Aunt Lydia is patronizing at the best of times, speaking to the Handmaids like petulant children. I believe that she might have been a principal of an all girls school or something similar, but no backstory is officially given.
“Like other things, thought must be rationed.” It’s hard not to miss the possible Orwellian 1984 allusions, particularly its coined word, “thought-crime.” Atwood mentions 1984 as an inspiration for The Handmaid's Tale, though she desired to write a dystopian novel from a feminine perspective. While Winston Smith's tale was entrancingly horrifying in its narrative, the plot was political and broad-spectrum, examining the effects of a totalitarian world on the surface. The Handmaid's Tale is more personal because while totalitarian, she hasn't been stripped of her humanity. It's up to the reader to decide whether this was intentional or she managed to fight her Big Brother's attempts to brainwash her.
Offred compares her room to a guest room and rooming house for pregnant women in times of old. She muses over the things she’s been given, that it isn’t a traditional prison. She remembers Aunt Lydia saying it “is not a prison but a privilege”. But let’s be frank here – it could a luxurious suite with Egyptian cotton bedsheets, suede chaise lounges, and birds of paradise paintings framed with diamonds and gold trim, but she’s still a prisoner within her own mind and her body is not her own.
She hears a bell and notes that time is measured in bells “as once in nunneries”. Such is an apt analogy since the Handmaid uniform is like a nun’s habit, complete with white-winged headdress. The outfit is almost all red which, according to Atwood, represents fertility, menstruation, and childbirth. It's also considered to be associated with sex and promiscuity, a la The Scarlet Letter. The white wings serve to constrict their view of the world and to prevent wandering eyes. In a way, Gilead has eliminated sexual harassment; or at least, publicized sexual harassment (i.e. whistling, catcalling, hitting on, groping). They are still harassed by their Commanders, Wives, and Aunts, but in Gilead, the irony is paved over with hypocrisy and propaganda.
Offred is adamant to correct herself when she refers to the room as hers. This is not her home, it is her prison, her gulag in which she’s expected to work for her keep. She doesn’t want to allow herself to become complacent, because that’s how this mess all started. She leaves out of the room, remarking on the furnishings and embellishments of the house, how its aged and was once for large families. Offred notes that the sitting room is “motherly,” ironic since the owners have no children. The color motif strikes again in a glass mural of red and blue, representing Handmaid and Wife respectively. Offred walks past a mirror and notes that her reflection is fairy-tale almost, and this brings Red Riding Hood into mind. “A Sister, dipped in blood.” This shows that she doesn’t identify her own reflection as herself, possibly representing a loss of identity, which is overall true given her status.
The color themes continue, demonstrating that this is a society divided into castes. She notes the umbrella stand with black (Commander), blue (Wife), and red (Handmaid) umbrellas. I’ve touched on the purpose of red for the Handmaids earlier, so let’s go over the other colors. Wives wear blue to symbolize the Virgin Mary. It’s a much more subdued color than red, signifying the Handmaids importance. Red and blue are also primary colors and mixed together make purple, a color that was once associated with aristocrats and royalty, meaning that Wives having a Handmaid grants them greater social status. The Commander’s color is black, a color of authority and darkness. Notably, black isn’t considered a color, it’s a shade, so it could be representative of how they distinguish themselves above the other castes as the ruling class.
Marthas are domestic servants that clean and cook for the household. Their caste name is taken from the Bible, Martha was the sister of Mary of Bethany, who admonished her sister for just sitting on the floor listening to Jesus while she served food and took care of domestic hospitalities. It’s oddly fitting since Rita thinks Offred as a lazy slut that doesn’t have to work hard as she does. Marthas wear green and wear veils when they leave the house. Not much can be found in study guides online, so I’ll have to hazard a guess on the significance of the color green. Green is the color of grass and of land, also of plants and trees. So it could be a representation of returning to roots, of “traditional values” as Offred said before. Green also signifies wealth, meaning that households with Marthas signify affluence.
Offred has succumbed to listening outside doors for news, even if it’s mere gossip. She eavesdrops on Rita and Cora’s conversation about Offred. Rita implies that she wouldn’t “debase herself like that.” It’s notable here that the help thinks Offred had a choice in becoming a Handmaid, and later Offred will imply that this was her choice. But I personally don’t believe that deciding between sexual servitude and an agonizing death is in the spirit of “choice.” Handmaids, after all, have been stripped of their choice. But this only highlights that not even household maids know the true extent of Gilead’s depravity. This shows that indoctrination doesn’t just happen to the Handmaids, it’s a nationwide propaganda. It is unknown how the Marthas were exactly commissioned to become domestic servants, possibly they were part of the movement pre-Gilead (“Sons of Jacob”) and believe they are performing a civic obligation.
This scene also brings to light the toxicity of Gilead and how it pits women against one another. With the Aunts, they had considerable power over the Handmaids, armed with cattle prods and able to beckon a guard at will to subdue rebellion. However, the Handmaids and Marthas can be considered equals in a sense, but the stigma of Handmaids is that they are unclean, adulterous women turned servile and therefore contaminated by sin. It’s not unheard of today in our culture. Evangelical women turn their noses down at promiscuity and join in with misogyny. For instance, there are women defending Brett Kavanaugh in the wake of his rape accusation.
Cora and Rita illuminate other aspects of Gileadean inhumanity, particularly the Colonies, essentially toxic gulags in which “Unwomen” are sent to work themselves to death shoveling radioactive sludge. Unwomen is the term for a woman that has proven herself unworthy of Gilead “mercy.” According to Offred, some choose to go to the Colonies over becoming a Handmaid. It seems the Colonies are for those who broke Gilead laws after integrating. They are for the women that live past their primes as Marthas, Handmaids that fail to conceive after three postings, dissidents of the regime (if they aren’t Salvaged), non-whites, and any other infraction that Gilead deemed ungodly. Hanging offenses seem to be preserved for direct enemies of the state, namely other religious sects and non-Gileadean Christianity, homosexuals, particularly volatile dissidents, and abortion doctors. The justice system in Gilead is inconsistent at best because it’s basically state-sanctioned genocide.
Cora mentions having gotten her tubes tied, which is a bold admission considering the regime’s murderous attitudes toward self-sterilization and contraception. Offred mentions that she wishes she could stay in the kitchen regardless of Rita’s silent convictions toward her. She’s lonely and wishes she had anyone to talk to, some semblance of a social life. She fantasies over having mundane discussions of pains and aches over coffee, something she misses from her pre-Gilead life. “How I used to despise such talk. Now I long for it. At least it was talk. An exchange, of sorts.” Shows that even conversations are seen as suspicious and therefore discouraged.
Next, we get a brief glance of things Rita and Cora have heard happening in other households. From stillborn babies to discussions of poisonings. No, Gilead is certainly not the picturesque familial fantasy they claim it to be. Offred wants to help Rita make bread, to feel the dough on her hands. Her loneliness has made her desperate for affection, even synthetic versions of flesh. She would ask Rita, but the Marthas would be too afraid to allow a breach of assigned duties.
She breaks from her reality, tangentially pondering the meaning of fraternize. She recalls her husband telling her the definition and reflects that there was no accompanying phrase for women, so he invents one, sororize. This tells that Gilead is not a place for friends, not obvious ones anyway. She returns to the present to take tokens from Rita, for groceries. Women are not allowed money or to read in this society, so labels are replaced with pictures. Rita remarks that she wants fresh eggs this time, a none-too-subtle allusion at Offred’s purpose as a baby factory.