In the more than three decades since the publication of The Handmaid’s Tale in 1985, Margaret Atwood has maintained that it and her other works are more speculative fiction than science fiction: “For me, the science fiction label belongs on books with things in them that we can’t yet do, such as going through a wormhole in space to another universe; and speculative fiction means a work that employs the means already to hand, such as DNA identification and credit cards, and that takes place on Planet Earth,” she wrote in a 2005 editorial in The Guardian. “But,” she allowed, “the terms are fluid. Some use speculative fiction as an umbrella covering science fiction and all its hyphenated forms—science fiction fantasy, and so forth—and others choose the reverse.” Not surprising, considering that Atwood’s dystopian vision of the future won the very first Arthur C. Clarke Award in 1987.
A particular challenge that Atwood gave herself while writing The Handmaid’s Tale, she shared in a 2014 Reddit AMA, was that “I would not put anything into it that had not happened in human history, or for which we did not already have the tools.” To wit, her points of inspiration spanned human history, from dictatorships to the “Quaker-hanging, witch-hunting Puritans” who were her ancestors, as well as Mary Webster, another believed ancestor who survived her hanging. Yes, she wanted to challenge the norm of contemporary dystopian narratives having mostly male protagonists, but really she was challenging everyone who looks at current events elsewhere in the world and says, “It can’t happen here.”
When I first heard of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale—I was in high school, in the early 2000s—I thought it was about a princess’ young lady-in-waiting, who escapes the castle for some reason and has to be hunted down. My partner, in a recent conversation, also took the title to mean that it was set in medieval times, rather than a dystopian future. It’s something about that word, handmaid—it sounds like it belongs in a bygone era. But this practice of looking into the past to construct a new society is part of what makes the Republic of Gilead such a chilling dystopia. And with women’s reproductive rights under even greater attack, The Handmaid’s Tale is, unfortunately, more relevant than ever.
I’ll be rereading the novel in eight parts, as well as discussing its legacy and watching the 1990 film adaptation before reviewing the ten-episode TV series premiering on Hulu April 26. As this is a reread, there will be spoilers throughout (and, by extension, speculation on what will likely appear in the TV series). Today, I’m looking at parts I and II, “Night” and “Shopping.” But first, the book’s three epigraphs:
And when Rachel saw that she bare Jacob no children, Rachel envied her sister; and said unto Jacob, Give me children, or else I die.
And Jacob’s anger was kindled against Rachel; and he said, Am I in God’s stead, who hath withheld from thee the fruit of the womb?
And she said, Behold my maid Bilhah, go in unto her; and she shall bear upon my knees, that I may also have children by her.
But as to myself, having been wearied out for many years with offering vain, idle, visionary thoughts, and at length utterly despairing of success, I fortunately fell upon this proposal…
—Jonathan Swift, A Modest Proposal
In the desert there is no sign that says, Thou shalt not eat stones.
We slept in what had once been the gymnasium.
The first of many Nights in the novel, as Offred alternates between the major action in the even-numbered parts and these brief, private interludes. While most of her nights are spent alone, this first one takes place at the Center, where the Aunts train the Handmaids. It’s early in the process, as the women still retain their real names and memories of the time before their incarceration. Their heads have not yet been filled with only thoughts of Gilead to crowd out everything else; Offred reflects on what the gymnasium had meant to her, to the other women, a decade or more ago in high school, when it was host to basketball games with jumping cheerleaders, and something underneath:
There was old sex in the room and loneliness, and expectation, of something without a shape or name. I remember that yearning, for something that was always about to happen and was never the same as the hands that were on us there and then, in the small of our back, or out back, in the parking lot, or in the television room with the sound turned down and only the pictures flickering over lifting flesh.
Instead of athletes for the girls to cheer on, there are Angels—that is, the soldiers, from whose ranks are pulled the guards who watched over such an important space. But instead of looking to their cheerleaders for encouragement, these men studiously keep their backs to the Handmaids-in-training. Offred and her fellow prisoners yearn for the men to look, not out of girlish whims, but because maybe they could find allies:
If only they would look. If only we could talk to them. Something could be exchanged, we thought, some deal made, some tradeoff, we still had our bodies. That was our fantasy.
Instead, all they have are each other. The aforementioned names are shared at the very end of the passage:
We learned to whisper almost without sound. In the semidarkness we could stretch out our arms, when the Aunts weren’t looking, and touch each other’s hands across space. We learned to lip-read, our heads flat on the beds, turned sideways, watching each other’s mouths. In this way we exchanged names, from bed to bed:
Alma. Janine. Dolores. Moira. June.
First off, the epigraphs. I knew the Genesis reference before I read the book, as Anita Diamant’s The Red Tent—another seminal book of my adolescence—made Rachel and Leah and their sister/handmaids (depending on the interpretation) as real to me as anyone. And while I haven’t read A Modest Proposal, I understand the caricature of “what a great idea!” as the bridge between the first epigraph and the third. But I never gave the Sufi proverb a second thought, and was amused to find one interpretation basically saying “humans know what to avoid.” Yet this academic paper from 1989 delves much deeper into the Sufi mysticism behind the proverb, especially with regards to Offred’s tendency to explore inward to better understand her external surroundings. It’s a fascinating read.
The nighttime scenes in the Center are almost like summer camp: pure young women collected in dormitory-like cabins presided over by an older, wiser female presence; bunk-like cots between which are passed furtive whispers in the dark. That Offred conjures up the images of adolescent sexuality—the temptation arguably more charged than the follow-through—sets the scene early for contemplating these women who are paradoxically the symbols of all that is wanton and sinful, but hidden underneath enough layers that they can be nothing but modest.
Readers have long guessed that Offred’s true name, never revealed, might be June. We meet all of the others mentioned—Alma, Janine, Dolores, and especially Moira—but never come across a June.
Offred narrates a typical day in her life, beginning with her simple room (“A chair, a table, a lamp.”) in the Commander’s household, through town, to the foreboding Wall. Her routine brings her into contact with a number of people in and out of the house:
- Rita and Cora: the Marthas, or domestic servants, dressed in dull green (like hospital scrubs), who keep the household running. Offred spends time with them in the kitchen when she can, listening to their gossip, but for the most part they are wary of her as a Handmaid.
- Serena Joy: the Commander’s Wife, dressed in blue with her own veil for outdoors. While Offred only observes Serena Joy in the garden in this portion, she recalls their first meeting five weeks prior, when she was transferred to this household.
- Nick: a low-status Guardian, tasked with driving and washing the Commander’s car. He takes the risky move of winking at Offred. She wonders if he is an Eye.
- Ofglen: Offred’s shopping companion and “spy”; beneath their banal chatter, each watches the others for signs of dissent.
While Offred has a room in which she sleeps (or doesn’t sleep), she refuses to call it her room. Perhaps because even the details—a framed watercolor of blue irises, the space where the chandelier used to hang—are not personal, and if anything are meant to keep her further imprisoned: With the glass and rope removed, she has no way to attempt suicide and flee this situation. Yet despite noticing these things, she reflects,
I try not to think too much. Like other things now, thought must be rationed. There’s a lot that doesn’t bear thinking about. Thinking can hurt your chances, and I intend to last.
Instead, she observes. The Commander’s Wife is out in the garden, so Offred doesn’t have to worry about running into her in the house unexpectedly. She recalls meeting Serena Joy, a former evangelist television personality, now so old that she’s only vaguely familiar. This is Offred’s third posting—bad luck for her. While Offred had hoped that they could have something of a sisterly relationship, she is disappointed to find that Serena Joy has no such interest in camaraderie.
Offred and Ofglen meet up with the traditional greeting (“Blessed be the fruit”/”May the Lord open”) and leave the Commander’s compound together. They chatter about the war coming along nicely, with the latest group of rebels (Baptists) getting captured. Offred doesn’t really care for Ofglen’s updates, but it’s also the only information about the world outside Gilead that she gets:
Sometimes I wish she would just shut up and let me walk in peace. But I’m ravenous for news, any kind of news; even if it’s false news, it must mean something.
She ponders the faces of the young Guardians who are posted at the entrance to the compound: one still acne-ridden, the other with a sad excuse for a mustache. But before she can feel sympathy for their youth, she remembers how they shot a Martha the prior week, thinking she was a man in disguise with a bomb hidden in her green dress. The mustachioed one tries to get a look at Offred’s face, hidden as it is behind her white blinders. She wonders if they wonder what it would be like if she, this image of temptation to be nonetheless revered for her noble work, were to visit them under the cover of darkness, strip off her red gown, and let them have their way with her. She briefly feels shame for egging them on with a slight sway of her hips as she walks off, but then that shame turns to a sense of power: With dirty magazines and pornography outlawed, all these men have as fantasy fodder are veiled women dressed in the color of blood.
In the heart of Gilead, Offred and Ofglen go shopping. The lettering on the signs over the stores has been scraped off or painted over with mere images of meat, flowers, etc., as women are not allowed to read. Offred remembers walking down these same streets in the pre-Gilead era, with her husband Luke. She remembers the small power of washing her clothes at the laundromat, wearing whatever she wanted, running through the streets in workout gear and running shoes.
She also remembers that women were not protected back then, that they had to be wary of any man who knocked on their door, that now women are revered:
There is more than one kind of freedom, said Aunt Lydia. Freedom to and freedom from. In the days of anarchy, it was freedom to. Now you are being given freedom from. Don’t underrate it.
At Milk and Honey, a pregnant Handmaid comes in just to show off her swollen belly. The other Handmaids whisper among themselves, intensely jealous at her good fortune as she has fulfilled her duties. Offred recognizes her from the Red Center, as Janine, one of Aunt Lydia’s pets. Janine’s smirk says she recognizes her, too.
On the street, a gaggle of Japanese tourists want to take a photo of Offred and Ofglen. They demur, as the translator reminds the group that “the women here have different customs, that to stare at them through the lens of a camera is, for them, an experience of violation.” When one of the tourists asks if they are happy, Ofglen will not respond, but Offred knows that it’s dangerous not to:
“Yes, we are very happy,” I murmur. I have to say something. What else can I say?
Their shopping done, the Handmaids decide to go to the church, but what they really want to see is the Wall. There are six new bodies hanging, probably from the morning: doctors (though scientists are often found on the Wall), wearing placards displaying human fetuses. They performed abortions, in the pre-Gilead era; now, with their formerly legal actions considered retroactive crimes, they are akin to war criminals.
Ofglen cries, looking at the bodies. Offred is strangely relieved because Luke was not a doctor, but she will give nothing away in her reaction. She remembers an especially chilling Aunt Lydia aphorism:
Ordinary, said Aunt Lydia, is what you are used to. This may not seem ordinary to you now, but after a time it will. It will become ordinary.
I had a moment while rereading the first few pages of Part II where I wondered if there would be enough content for the first post. Consider me fooled: It only starts out “normal,” or innocuous enough, before key details begin to sharpen the edges of this dystopian world. By beginning in a bedroom and ending at a Wall on which hang the corpses of abortion doctors, Atwood employs probably a similar strategy to what the founders of Gilead used to change the United States (as we’ll revisit later in the novel): introduce one small thing that’s different, but act as if it’s not a huge change; then build on it, so that the first thing that people accepted naturally begets the second, and so forth; by the time you get to the final thing, it’s built so much on the foundation that came before that it seems, as Aunt Lydia said, ordinary.
Similarly, Offred’s movements begin somewhat on the borders of this world—in her own mind—and then expands out to the heart of Gilead, surrounded by identical-looking Handmaids:
This is the heart of Gilead, where the war cannot intrude except on television. Where the edges are we aren’t sure, they vary, according to the attacks and counterattacks; but this is the center, where nothing moves. The Republic of Gilead, said Aunt Lydia, knows no bounds. Gilead is within you.
Something I never picked up was how early in the process we are at the start of the novel. Offred is only five weeks into her third assignment; we don’t know how long she spent in the first two households. But when she is delivered to the Commander’s home and they don’t know which door to bring her through, she reflects that “[t]hings haven’t settled down, it’s too soon, everyone is unsure about our exact status.” I’m going to keep that in mind reading the rest of the book, especially when it comes to details that made me assume that Gilead had been established for much longer.
One of those being the Japanese tourists, but that could go either way: If Gilead is this alluring new society, it would make sense that foreigners would flock there—especially during a time where the rest of the country is at war—to see these strange creatures and customs for themselves. At any rate, this sequence chills me every time. Not the presence of the tourists, as that has become something of a cliché in fiction. Though, interestingly, some research led me to a 1989 trend piece about Japanese tourism to the West… so I guess the image was still fairly novel at the time of writing the book? Instead, it’s the shock of the Japanese women, with their knee-skirts-and-stockings, uncovered hair, and lipsticked mouths, seeming so much more sexualized than the Handmaids. And the way they ask her “Are you happy?”, the perverse curiosity about this alien culture. She is simultaneously on display like a caged animal at the zoo and interrogated as if she had any choice in the matter.
The corpses on the Wall were another reference I was surprised to find was probably a lot more radical when the novel was published. Unfortunately, violence against abortion providers is all too common in this day and age; so I assumed that the reference to killing doctors who had performed legal abortions in the pre-Gilead era was a nod to real life. But even though the first reported abortion clinic arson took place in 1976, three years after the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision, attempted murders and murders of abortion providers experienced an uptick starting around 1993, when Dr. David Gunn was shot and killed. That makes the image of the corpses, with the placards of fetuses hung around their neck, all the more disturbing.
Another line I caught on this read was Offred’s observations about the Eyes’ dark vans:
The vans are surely more silent than the other cars. When they pass, we avert our eyes. If there are sounds coming from inside, we try not to hear them. Nobody’s heart is perfect.
When the black vans reach a checkpoint, they’re waved through without a pause. The Guardians would not want to take the risk of looking inside, searching, doubting their authority. Whatever they think.
Lots of foreshadowing for the end, right? With the fact that the Eyes can pass through crowds and people’s eyes (ironically) slide away, accepting that they must be on official business.
Aunt Lydia’s line about things becoming ordinary was (if I remember correctly) the first line from the book to make it into trailers for the Hulu adaptation. While it may not be as iconic as nolite te bastardes carborundorum or other quotable lines from the novel, it is one of the most important. We have just spent a day with Offred, ending by staring at the Wall with her, but this is not an event. This is just another day in Gilead. It is this easy to become complacent.
For this reread, Natalie Zutter is using the edition that she picked up for $1 at New York City’s the Strand Book Store in college, and she is looking forward to going over her past highlights and notes with new markings. Follow her on Twitter and Tumblr.