Rereading The Handmaid’s Tale

Rereading The Handmaid’s Tale: Parts III-IV

Now that we’ve been introduced to the Republic of Gilead… how do you survive? Just as Offred explores her room (her room) in sections, so do we begin to fill in the edges of her life as a Handmaid: witnessing a funeral for an Econowife’s child even as the Econowives look down on their red-smocked rivals; the daily walks and monthly doctor’s visit both threaded with whispers of sedition; and a surprise, as the Commander seems to be poking around her room. She would like to believe the story she is telling, but will continue to speak it regardless of whether she does or not.

The index to the Handmaid’s Tale reread can be found here! Remember that because this is a reread, there will be spoilers for the rest of the book, as well as speculation about the TV series.

 

III: Night

Summary

While the first Night was a remembrance of the nights passed in the Red Center, this time Offred is talking about the present. Though it’s interesting to note that she’s not actually very present: She keeps trying to divert her own attention to different memories—of Moira, trying to get her to blow off her studies and go partying instead; of burning books with her mother and her mother’s friends, as a child more interested in feeding the ducks at the pond than in some political statement; of her daughter, taken from her because she was “unfit.”

Like any of us struggling to sleep when counting sheep won’t cut it, Offred’s thoughts move increasingly outward, to the point where she contemplates her own existence as if it’s some bizarre fictional experience not actually happening to her:

I would like to believe this is a story I’m telling. I need to believe it. I must believe it. Those who can believe that such stories are only stories have a better chance.

If it’s a story I’m telling, then I have control over the ending. Then there will be an ending, to the story, and real life will come after it. I can pick up where I left off.

It isn’t a story I’m telling.

It’s also a story I’m telling, in my head, as I go along.

Tell, rather than write, because I have nothing to write with and writing is in any case forbidden. But if it’s a story, even in my head, I must be telling it to someone. You don’t tell a story only to yourself. There’s always someone else.

Even when there is no one.

A story is like a letter. Dear You, I’ll say. Just you, without a name. Attaching a name attaches you to the world of fact, which is riskier, more hazardous: who knows what the chances are out there, of survival, yours? I will say you, you, like an old love song. You can mean more than one.

You can mean thousands.

I’m not in any immediate danger, I’ll say to you.

I’ll pretend you can hear me.

But it’s no good, because I know you can’t.

Commentary

This is our first allusion to the overall structure of the narrative—which is revealed, in the Historical Notes at the end, to be an oral document—and our first indication that Offred may have an audience in mind. Or not, she’s quick to add; it’s a very contradictory, circular train of thought. But I’m less interested in her possible hedging than in the subtext of her nighttime thoughts, so let’s focus on those.

With writing and reading forbidden—perhaps because they represent permanent records?—the value of the spoken word is naturally heightened: Offred listens in on Rita and Cora’s gossip, and talks to Ofglen, even when she doesn’t want to; she sings “Amazing Grace” aloud later in this section, to have something to say. Speech is a way of announcing oneself, of marking one’s place in time. Long before Gilead, before the written word was adopted, our ancestors passed down history through oral tradition; this reflects Offred’s verbal recordings of her thoughts and experiences as a Handmaid.

I always read Offred’s recordings as her own personal act of defiance and protest, with the haphazard disorganization of the cassette tapes implying that she never actually believed that they would make it to an audience. However, her line “You can mean thousands” makes it sound as if she knows that “she’ll” someday be speaking to an audience—an auditorium, even. It’s the same sort of sly reference slipped in like her mentioning her real name (if we’re going by the June theory) offhandedly in I: Night.

Her memories of Moira and her mother are very deliberate contrasts. You have the conservative mother, who I imagine as the stereotype of a 1950s housewife: repressed but given new energy by the task of burning dirty magazines—”good riddance to bad rubbish” and all that. She brings her daughter along but allows her to choose if she wants to participate. The most striking line, of course, is when Offred gets a peek at the magazine cover and her mother snaps, “Don’t let her see it”: she must destroy it without fully understanding what she sees (and isn’t afraid of, she remembers) rather than understanding what it represents.

Then you have Moira, the enlightened feminist with eccentric fashion sense, who writes academic papers about the “trendy” topic of date rape and throws “underwhore” (like Tupperware, but with underwear) parties. (Another interesting contextualization, like the Japanese tourists and anti-abortion violence in Parts I-II: According to Wikipedia, the concept of date rape didn’t begin to really enter the lexicon or be taken seriously until the early 1980s, which would fit with Offred calling it “trendy.”) Where Offred’s mother would sooner burn a Playboy than flip through it, Moira literally brings “unmentionables” into direct conversation.

This is also our first glimpse of Offred’s daughter, through her broken memories of seeing her for the first time since she is taken from her. That is, she sees a photo of her daughter, her immediate reaction to which is to say “You’ve killed her.” And in a way they have—they have taken her out of one context and dropped her into another, by giving her to a family more “fit” for her. We later find out that “unfit” refers to Offred’s status as an adulterer (for tempting Luke away from his wife) and the child born out of what Gilead would consider wedlock, although it also behooved them to cut all ties between Offred, a fertile woman whose womb is needed, and her former life. The image of her daughter “wearing a dress I’d never seen, white and down to the ground,” has always chilled me, I think because it brings to mind wedding dresses and child brides—which might be what I thought had befallen her before I knew her actual age and that she had been given to a family without a child.

Offred concludes her nighttime thoughts with “I’ll pretend you can hear me. But it’s no good, because I know you can’t.” It’s unclear if this is her trying to ground her hope, to remind herself that there is no one to hear her calling out for help. But then you wonder, what’s the point of recording all this? And why address it specifically to “you” instead of just relaying her life as “I”?

I wonder if The Handmaid’s Tale the oral document ever gets released as a cultural artifact for mass consumption.

 

IV: Waiting Room

Summary

Offred and Ofglen continue their daily walks to the Wall; this time, the corpses include a priest (dressed in a symbolic cassock) and two Guardians wearing purple placards around their necks, caught together in Gender Treachery. Ofglen comments on what a lovely “May day” it is—which is technically correct, as it’s almost June (!), but Offred also remembers a conversation with Luke about how Mayday was a distress signal (from the French m’aidez), meaning Help me.

Today, their walk brings them past a funeral: A bereaved Econowife wearing a black veil carries the remains of her pregnancy in a small black jar. It was probably only two or three months, Offred surmises, not old enough to be an Unbaby (a fetus with abnormalities so severe that it would not survive past birth). The Econowives avoid or even spit at the Handmaids; they do not like them.

At the Commander’s house, Nick tries to start up a conversation with Offred, but she’s not supposed to respond. Even though flesh is weak, she remembers Aunt Lydia saying, it is her responsibility not to encourage men like Nick. Instead, she observes Serena Joy, sitting in the garden. That’s not even her real name, Offred muses; she used to be known as Pam, when she was first a singer and then a speech-giver, exhorting other women to honor the sanctity of the home and pointing out her own sacrifice in going out to make these speeches instead of being a dutiful homemaker. But how the tides have turned:

She doesn’t make speeches anymore. She has become speechless. She stays in her home, but it doesn’t seem to agree with her. How furious she must be, now that she’s been taken at her word.

Going upstairs, Offred is shocked to find the Commander standing outside of her room—or perhaps he had been inside? He simply nods and steps around her when she approaches, but this is significant:

Something has been shown to me, but what is it? Like the flag of an unknown country, seen for an instant above the curve of a hill. It could mean attack, it could mean parley, it could mean the edge of something, a territory. The signals animals give one another: lowered blue eyelids, ears laid back, raised hackles. A flash of bared teeth, what in the hell does he think he’s doing? Nobody else has seen him. I hope. Was he invading? Was he in my room?

I called it mine.

Then immediately justifies to herself:

My room, then. There has to be some space, finally, that I claim as mine, even in this time.

The odd encounter makes Offred recall her first exploration of her new room, when she was posted here just a few months prior. Or, knowing what we do about Offred’s tapes being out of order when they’re discovered, this chapter might just be from earlier in the narrative. At any rate, she splits the room into sections in order to stretch out the newness, all the while remembering the emotional significance of hotel rooms during her affair with Luke: the decadence of them, how they were a sphere wholly separate from either of their normal lives, how she would arrive before Luke and wait for him, how he was a condensed person in this very particular space.

While glass or chandelier cord that she could use to end her life have been removed, there are a few small pieces of temptation left in her room, in the form of words. There’s the FAITH pillow in her window seat—which on the one hand seems like the kind of possession she would be encouraged to have, but on the other hand is seditious by the very nature of the word hand-stitched on it—and then there are the words she’s not supposed to see, scratched into the floor of the cupboard with a pin or a fingernail: Nolite te bastardes carborundorum.

I didn’t know what it meant, or even what language it was in. I thought it might be Latin, but I didn’t know any Latin. Still, it was a message, and it was in writing, forbidden by that very fact, and it hadn’t yet been discovered. Except by me, for whom it was intended. It was intended for whoever came next.

She discovers that it was left by one of her predecessors, who didn’t make it for the entire obligatory two-year posting. But when Offred tries to prod Rita for more information, all she gets is “What you don’t know won’t hurt you.”

At her monthly checkup, the doctor offers that “I could help you” by impregnating her: “They’ll never know it isn’t his.” Even as Offred acknowledges that yes, she wants a baby, she is scandalized by the doctor’s frank talk:

“Most of those old guys can’t make it anymore,” he says. “Or they’re sterile.”

I almost gasp: he’s said a forbidden word. Sterile. There is no such thing as a sterile man anymore, not officially. There are only women who are fruitful and women who are barren, and that’s the law.

She turns him down, but politely: “I must leave the impression that I’m not offended, that I’m open to suggestion.”

Back at the house, the next part of what we now realize are preparations for the Ceremony occurs: Cora helps Offred bathe, though she at least sits by the door to give her some privacy while still making sure she doesn’t drown herself. In the bath, Offred remembers her daughter, and particularly how a stranger once stole her out of the cart at the supermarket: “I thought it was an isolated incident, at the time.” Her daughter would be eight now; she was five when she was taken from Offred.

Offred eats dinner, alone in her room, while she can hear the Commander and Serena Joy doing the same downstairs. She hides away her pat of butter (we later learn to use as moisturizer, as she is not afforded such luxuries). Then she waits for the Ceremony to begin:

I wait. I compose myself. Myself is a thing I must now compose, as one composes a speech. What I must present is a made thing, not something born.

Commentary

There are multiple “waiting rooms” in this part: the doctor’s office, of course, though the more charged one is Offred’s room, a liminal space between two states—leaving the house, waiting for the Marthas to bring her food or accompany her to her bath, her holding space before she is summoned for the Ceremony.

Next week’s installment will get into the Ceremony itself and how painful it is for both Offred and Serena Joy, but Atwood lays groundwork for the latter in this part. Offred remembers her and Luke’s very different reactions to Serena Joy back when she was Pam:

We thought she was funny. Or Luke thought she was funny. I only pretended to think so. Really she was a little frightening. She was in earnest.

Just like the young men with the guns that she remembers not to write off in Parts I-II, it’s the earnestness that makes someone the greatest danger.

Although, judging from her observations of Serena Joy in the garden, this Wife has lost some of that earnestness now that she has been confined to the same role she exhorted other women to take on. You have to wonder how much of an influence, if any, women like Serena Joy had in the establishment of Gilead. Surely they could not have taken into account the effects of the environment on fertility; Bible verses aside, it’s rare for a wife to so selflessly say, “Yes, take my handmaid in place of me.” That’s why Offred keeps remembering Aunt Lydia’s pleas for the Handmaids in training to empathize with the Wives:

It’s not the husbands you have to watch out for, said Aunt Lydia, it’s the Wives. You should always try to imagine what they must be feeling. Of course they will resent you. It is only natural. Try to feel for them. […] You must realize that they are defeated women.

I don’t think Offred is necessarily being cruel in remarking on how Serena Joy used to be pretty; rather, I think she is trying to put herself in her blue shoes and contemplate how it must feel to lose youth and fertility, two of the factors that make Handmaids so desirable in this new world order. I’m also very interested in the Hulu adaptation’s interpretation of Serena Joy, played by the much younger Yvonne Strahovski. Showrunner Bruce Miller explained that “[i]t bumped me that Serena Joy was beyond childbearing years, because it felt like they weren’t in direct competition, that Offred wasn’t taking a role that Serena Joy wanted for herself. I thought it was a more interesting dynamic for the long term, as opposed to in the novel—a dynamic that could play out over time.”

It was very clever for Offred to misremember the lyrics to “Amazing Grace” as was bound, but now am free instead of was blind, but now I see. Something I’ve been marking in my book, though forgot to bring up last week, is the prevalence of eye imagery: from the actual Eyes painted on walls and the one tattooed on Offred’s foot (“a passport in reverse”) to Offred observing herself in a mirror that is like a warped eye. You would think that Gilead would encourage the “blind”/”see” dichotomy instead of “bound”/”free,” though perhaps that’s part of Aunt Lydia’s “freedom to”/”freedom from” adage.

In addition to the crazy woman who snatched her daughter, Offred remembers other incidents that only in hindsight make sense as a whole:

Is that how we lived, then? But we lived as usual. Everyone does, most of the time. Whatever is going on is as usual. Even this is as usual, now.

We lived, as usual, by ignoring. Ignoring it’s the same as ignorance, you have to work at it.

Nothing changes instantaneously: in a gradually heating bathtub you’d be boiled to death before you knew it. There were stories in the newspapers, of course, corpses in ditches or the woods, bludgeoned to death or mutilated, interfered with, as they used to say, but they were about other women, and the men who did such things were other men. None of them were the men we knew. The newspaper stories were like dreams to us, bad dreams dreamt by others. How awful, we would say, and they were, but they were awful without being believable. They were too melodramatic, they had a dimension that was not the dimension of our lives.

We were the people who were not in the papers. We lived in the blank white spaces at the edge of print. It gave us more freedom.

We lived in the gaps between the stories.

Offred, Luke, Moira, and their friends lived in the margins, but also in a bubble. They didn’t seem themselves in the people depicted in the newspapers (back when newspapers still existed), so they couldn’t imagine it happening to them.

I haven’t talked much about the Commander yet, mostly because we’ve gotten only glimpses of him. That will change with next week and the Ceremony, but I’ll end on this odd bit of self-reflection from Offred, watching him:

I ought to feel hatred for this man. I know I ought to feel it, but it isn’t what I do feel. What I feel is more complicated than that. I don’t know what to call it. It isn’t love.

I’ve never understood this ambivalence, though I’m hoping that this reread will help me unpack it. Is it Stockholm syndrome? Some twisted sympathy? An odd sense of companionship, or the understanding that he is her protector so she must regard him with some sort of attraction, if only to stay alive? The doctor offered her “a way out, a salvation,” but the Commander seems to be her key to survival.

Natalie Zutter will pretend you can hear her, and certainly hopes you’ll join the discussion if you do. Follow her on Twitter and Tumblr.

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