Rereading The Handmaid’s Tale

Rereading The Handmaid’s Tale: Part XV-Historical Notes

It’s our final installment of rereading Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, but the reread itself is not over!

After last week’s confrontation, we spend only one more Night with Offred, as she heads into the darkness. But from that darkness (or is it light?) come echoes—echoes that ripple forward into the future, as we are joined in our examination of the text and its anonymous narrator by a bevy of experts with their own biases and contradictory guesses as to Offred’s fate.

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

 

Part XV: Night

Summary

After Serena Joy sends her to her room, Offred awaits her fate. Despite being disgraced for her late-night Scrabble games and trip to Jezebel’s, she is serene. As the day fades into night, she calmly contemplates the various ways she could kill herself while she’s still alone: hanging from the hook in the cabinet, setting fire to the bed with her one match and breathing in the smoke. She could also beg forgiveness from the Commander, but she doesn’t seem to think he’ll be on her side. She could run to Nick’s room and see if he would let her in this time.

However, she doesn’t move to do any of these things. Fatigue is here, she thinks; it has settled in and immobilized her.

Then comes the black van—the Eyes, the same who grabbed a man off the street before anyone could blink. Offred regrets not trying to take her life, because now it’s too late. But she’s surprised to see Nick at her door. At first she assumes that he betrayed her, but then he says:

“It’s all right. It’s Mayday. Go with them.” He calls me by my real name. Why should this mean anything?

The Eyes could easily know about Mayday and be using it to entrap members of the resistance. But he says to trust him, so she does.

Serena Joy looks incredulous—she wasn’t the one who called the Eyes. And it definitely wasn’t the Commander; when one of the Eyes says that they’re taking Offred for “violation of state secrets,” Fred looks small and weak, his mind swimming with what damning information he could have told Offred. He’s a security risk, now; he could be victim to the purges that have begun occurring among the higher ranks. Nick slipped away before Offred came down the stairs; she has no idea where he is, and as far as the rest of the household knows, he is not connected to the happenings now.

The Handmaid leaves the Commander’s household and steps into the van, with no idea where she’s going:

The van waits in the driveway, its double doors stand open. The two of them, one on either side now, take me by the elbows to help me in. Whether this is my end or a new beginning I have no way of knowing: I have given myself over into the hands of strangers, because it can’t be helped.

And so I step up, into the darkness within; or else the light.

Commentary

I consider these things idly. Each one of them seems the same size as all the others. Not one seems preferable. Fatigue is here, in my body, in my legs and eyes. That is what gets you in the end. Faith is only a word, embroidered.

Whereas the previous installment had Offred giving up emotionally (I resign my body freely, to the uses of others), now she seems to have given up on a physical level. Previously, she had not moved herself to conspire with Ofglen or snoop in the Commander’s office because of the existence she believed she had eked out for herself; now, she won’t stir to action because she sees no point in it, no way of escaping the consequences of her actions.

That numbness seems to have extended to her reaction to the Eyes. It’s not that she’s expecting them, but she also doesn’t question their presence. Perhaps she’s simply in shock, or operating from the same viewpoint which which she accepted Serena Joy’s censure a chapter before: For which of my many sins am I accused? If they needed to peg her for something, they can take their pick.

I wonder, if Offred had screamed or begged forgiveness, the way she pondered, would Serena Joy have been more sympathetic? The arrival of the Eyes clearly threw her in a way that few other occurrences have. But the moment that the Eyes say they’re taking Offred for “violation of state secrets,” she slides back into the cold fury from when she found the sequined outfit: “Bitch. After all he did for you.” No matter that she was just raging against her husband for disobeying some sort of agreement they’d come to (“I told him…”); with the focus returned to Offred, she blames her Handmaid. It’s a reductive relationship, between Wives and Handmaids; the latter take some of the more “special” aspects of the former’s lives and are therefore resented for joining the marital bed, for carrying the Commanders’ babies, for being taken on illicit trips too improper for a Wife. She doesn’t blame Fred for divulging state secrets; she blames Offred for inviting that slip.

Again, my memory of this section seems very different from what I’m rereading. I used to consider the ending (to this part of the narrative, that is) ambiguous, but the signs seem to point to Nick being true to his word.

If we’ve established in the Historical Notes that Offred records her story after leaving the Commander’s household, why does The Handmaid’s Tale (both the novel and the historical text) end with her getting into the van? Was that based on the professors’ organizational choices, or was she only allowed to discuss that part of her life, ending with her departure? I can imagine the Underground Femaleroad wouldn’t want Offred recording any vital identifying information about them.

 

Historical Notes

Summary

Being 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.

Chair: Professor Maryann Crescent Moon, Department of Caucasian Anthropology, University of Denay, Nunavit.

Keynote Speaker: Professor James Darcy Pieixoto, Director, Twentieth- and Twenty-first-Century Archives, Cambridge University, England.

That right there tells you plenty about our sudden new setting: It’s over 200 years after the events of The Handmaid’s Tale, in a future that’s about as foreign to readers as Gilead was. Offred is long gone, but her story lives on in The Handmaid’s Tale, a transcription of the narrative collected on about thirty cassette tapes found in an old foot locker in what used to be Bangor, Maine. At the twelfth symposium of its kind, a group of Gileadean Era experts meet at an academic conference in northern Canada to discuss, among other things, the veracity of the tale.

Professor Pieixoto’s keynote address homes in on this point, as he reminds his audience that the “item” (“I hesitate to use the word document“) is soi-disant, or of questionable authenticity. They could be a forgery, he says, like other fictionalized accounts “wishing to trade no doubt on the sensationalism of such stories,” which have been debunked. Pieixoto also offers an editorial aside that “we must be cautious about passing moral judgment upon the Gileadeans. … Our job is not to censure but to understand.”

Pieixoto’s major sticking point is in decoding Offred’s identity. Unfortunately, records of the time were spotty, owing to Gilead’s tendency to wipe out its own computers and destroy key documents in various internal purges (which had recently begun around the time that Offred was taken away by the Eyes).

Pieixoto’s contextualization of the document fills in some of the worldbuilding: Plummeting birthrates in “northern Caucasian societies”—caused by anything from the AIDS epidemic and a nasty R-strain syphilis to nuclear sabotage to the uncontrolled use of insecticides—gave Gilead the impetus to force women into Handmaid service. Offred was part of the first wave, an “instant pool” created by declaring all second marriages and extramarital affairs adulterous and arresting the women involved, as they were automatically considered “morally unfit.”

Most of the names in Offred’s account appear to be pseudonyms: They couldn’t match anyone to “Luke,” “Moira,” “Nick,” or “Janine.” The use of pseudonyms as protection leads the professors to believe that Offred recorded the tapes while still within Gilead’s borders, for Mayday to use.

However, Pieixoto has hit upon two candidates for Commander Fred, who they assume must have been part of the top-secret Sons of Jacob Think Tanks, which originally hammered out the details of Gilead. Though many of the Sons of Jacob’s documents were destroyed in the mid-period Great Purge—which wiped out a lot of Gilead’s original architects—the diary of sociobiologist Wilfred Limpkin provides enough hints for two theories:

  • Frederick R. Waterford: background in market research; came up with both the designs of the Handmaids’ gowns and the color (from Canadian WWII POW camps); came up with the term Particicution.
  • B. Frederick Judd: suspected of orchestrating the President’s Day Massacre, which led to the Constitution being suspended, based on his knowledge of destabilizing foreign governments, inspired by a CIA pamphlet; the Jewish repatriation—plus dumping a few boats in the Atlantic—was his idea; while Waterford came up with the name for Particicution, Judd devised the format; and he’s credited with the charming quote “Our big mistake was teaching them to read. We won’t do that again.”

The evidence favors Waterford, as his wife Thelma had worked as a televangelist in her pre-Gilead life (to the chagrin of the upper class). Waterford also met his end during one of the purges that came shortly after Offred’s narrative ends, for having “liberal tendencies” and possessing contraband magazines and books. Waterford’s trial was televised (before such trials were made secret) and recorded via satellite in England.

Waterford also harbored a subversive, likely Nick. Pieixoto differentiates between Mayday and the Underground Femaleroad, which had connections but were not the same: “The latter was purely a rescue operation, the former quasi-military.” Nick must have been a double agent, working for the Eyes while in the Commander’s household but allegiant to Mayday above all.

Or is his allegiance to Offred and their potential unborn child? Pieixoto states as fact that Nick engineered Offred’s escape using the Eyes (whether the real ones or in disguise is unclear) and got her out of the compound. Perhaps because his neck could be on the line for having sex with a Handmaid, perhaps because he was in love with her. At any rate, we know how she left the Commander’s household.

It is unclear what happened to Offred after she recorded her narrative for Mayday or another intended recipient. She could have been recaptured, or smuggled into England by the Save the Women societies. But if the latter, why did she never come forward and reveal herself? Perhaps she was afraid of retaliation against Luke or her daughter; or, Pieixoto notes, she might have been one of the Handmaids who has difficulty readjusting to normal life after living under Gilead, and may have lived out her days in seclusion.

Pieixoto concludes his talk with “Are there any questions?”

Commentary

As I’ve said before, I completely glossed over (academic pun) the Historical Notes on my first read, so that by the time it occurred to me to look in the back of the book it was several weeks or months later, and I read them basically in a vacuum. At the time, all I got out of it was worldbuilding and answering some of my pressing questions after Offred pressed stop on the recorder for the last time.

Subsequent reads have revealed even greater layers to Atwood’s addendum, which mocks academia for dismissing this very female narrative—a brilliant commentary that nonetheless gets my blood boiling on Offred’s behalf. Pieixoto’s talk is punctuated by laughter, as he cracks jokes about everything from Offred’s education “insofar as a graduate of any North American college of the time may be said to have been educated” to B. Frederick Judd’s sexual inadequacy.

Mostly, though, Pieixoto has the audacity to critique the narrative of an oppressed woman for not matching certain futuristic academic standards. So it’s not written and he and Professor Knotly Wade had to transcribe it—he completely disregards oral storytelling as a valid form of sharing information, and doesn’t seem to give any consideration to the fact that Offred hadn’t written a word in years and had only just gotten back into reading and spelling.

This is our guesswork. Supposing it to be correct—supposing, that is, that Waterford was indeed the “Commander”—many gaps remain. Some of them could have been filled in by our anonymous author, had she had a different turn of mind. She could have told us much about the inner workings of the Gileadean empire, had she had the instincts of a reporter or a spy. What would we not give, now, for even twenty pages or so of a print-out from Waterford’s private computer! However, we must be grateful for any crumbs the Goddess of History has deigned to vouchsafe us.

Gee, I’m sorry, Professor, that Offred was too busy being watched in her every waking moment to go be Nellie Bly. That her few private moments, the nights, were taken up by either managing her own PTSD and depression or by having to be even more available to the Commander to satisfy his whims. You know what instincts she had? Survival. The fact that she made it out to record her story is a goddamn miracle. Don’t talk to me about “crumbs” from the Goddess of History—Offred gave you an entire loaf of bread, if you only knew how to cut it.

Pieixoto takes exception with Offred’s narrative being mostly domestic, yet completely misses all of the key details she embeds in it. He wanted to know the inner workings? Spend a day in the kitchen with Rita and Cora, then walking through town, then attending a Birth Day and a Salvaging and a Particicution. Does he disregard these vital events, some of which were private just to one social class, because there were no men present?

The Handmaid’s Tale—both Offred’s account and Atwood’s novel—could be a complete text without the Historical Notes. Yes, they provide concrete details and contextualization, but you still get a damn good idea of the “inner workings” of Gilead by the end of the final Night.

Pieixoto’s dismissal is especially galling considering that he stressed the observation that “Gilead was, although undoubtedly patriarchal in form, occasionally matriarchal in content.” Yet he rejects this content because it’s too female? Pieixoto reminds the audience that “[o]ur job is not to censure but to understand,” yet that’s all he seems to be doing with Offred’s account. That said, I’m glad that he also stresses the chilling detail (which came from Judd, via Limpkin) that “the best and most cost-effective way to control women for reproductive and other purposes was through women themselves.” It twists the Biblical story of sisterhood with Rachel, Leah, and their handmaids; giving the Aunts names associated with cake mixes and cosmetics played upon the mentor personas of these products to the generation who grew up into the first class of Handmaids.

But then there’s his odd retrospective on Gilead itself. It’s one thing to practice neutrality when discussing past cultures, but Pieixoto’s caution against passing moral judgment, in this context, makes it sound as if he’s taking sides against Offred and the other women terrorized by this regime. One wonders, had he been alive during the Gileadean Era, would he have said “let’s give it a chance”? Or perhaps we can read Pieixoto’s remarks as intentionally distancing himself from such a disturbing narrative.

I find it a very interesting coincidence that Limpkin’s first name was Wilfred… The Thelma/Serena Joy connection makes it unlikely that Wilfred was Offred’s Commander, but was it really that common of a name at the time? Also, I want to know why he didn’t survive very long! At least he was smart enough to put his diary in a cipher and leave it with his sister-in-law in Calgary.

Like most early Gilead Commanders who were later purged, he considered his position to be above attack.

Seeing as all of the Hulu marketing materials refer to Joseph Fiennes’ character as Fred Waterford, we have our answer as to the Commander’s identity. And now I want to know about what kind of Commanders replaced Fred and his ilk… and how long they ruled before Gilead came to an end.

I never noticed this before, but Pieixoto’s closing remarks about Offred, conjuring up a mythical figure for comparison, make use of the same light/dark duality that she uses in her final address:

We may call Eurydice forth from the world of the dead, but we cannot make her answer; and when we turn to look at her we glimpse her only for a moment, before she slips from our grasp and flees. As all historians know, the past is a great darkness, and filled with echoes. Voices may reach us from it; but what they say to us is imbued with the obscurity of the matrix out of which they come; and, try as we may, we cannot always decipher them precisely in the clearer light of our own day.

It’s encouraging to see, in contrast to all of the “Of[men]” Handmaids, that the names mentioned in the Historical Notes speak to a wide diversity of people. The Handmaid’s Tale focuses so much on Gilead (formerly known as Boston/Cambridge) that it’s hard to remember that it was just one insular community. A powerful one, and not the only one of its kind, but its influence was turned more inward than outward. The rest of the world went on spinning, and either consumed Gilead as tourists or infiltrated it as saviors. And now it’s just a blemish on the history books.

To aid in discussion, I recommend checking out CliffsNotes‘ and LitCharts‘ analyses—they pulled lots of fascinating things out of the text, including Offred’s choice of camouflage cassette tapes.

The conference mentions an Outdoor Period-Costume Sing-Song—are we talking Handmaid cosplay? Because that is both amusing and horrifying, and actually ties in well to the next post in the reread…

 

The reread is taking a week off and will return April 13 to discuss the novel’s legacy, and then to do a rewatch of the 1990 film adaptation!

Natalie Zutter still has so many questions. Find her on Twitter and Tumblr.

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