Literature in the present, she longs to touch

Literature Circles: ENG3UO Dystopian Fiction

Culminating

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The Handmaid’s Tale

Role # 1: Summarize/questioner/Contextualizer

Summary

After her encounter with Nick, Offred recalls being in bed with Luke. In the memory,
she is pregnant and can feel the baby kicking. Back in the present, she longs
to touch another person and to be touched. Next she describes three possible
fates for Luke: he is dead, he is in prison, or he has successfully escaped.
The idea that Luke may have escaped takes hold of her imagination, and she
envisions receiving a secret message from him and escaping together. She knows
that these three endings to Luke’s story cannot all be true, but for her,
somehow, they are: “This contradictory way of believing seems to me, right
now, the only way I can believe anything.”

Offred
begins, “I’m dreaming that I am awake.” In this dream, Offred’s
daughter runs to meet her, but as she picks up her child, she realizes it is a
dream. She wakes from this dream into another dream in which her mother brings
her something to eat on a tray. Then she truly awakens. Her breakfast is
interrupted by the siren of a red Birthmobile. Ofwarren is about to have her
baby. Offred and the other Handmaids ride in the Birthmobile to attend the
birth. She wonders whether it will be a baby or an Unbaby—a baby with severe
deformities who will be quickly killed. Toxic pollution has caused a loss of
fertility for many people and a 25 percent chance of having a baby with
terrible birth defects for those who are not completely sterile. The
Birthmobile arrives at the home of Ofwarren, and the Handmaids leave. Doctors
wait outside the house, as they are only allowed to enter in cases of
emergency. A separate blue Birthmobile arrives, bringing the wives to the
birth.

Both
Wives and Handmaids gather for the birth. Ofwarren is in labor in a birthing
room. The Handmaids and Aunts gather around Ofwarren, preparing for the
birthing ritual. The Wives gather around Warren’s Wife. Ofwarren’s Commander is
absent. Offred recalls
lessons from the Red Center.
In this memory, Aunt Lydia shows them films of women being raped and beaten,
explaining that the Handmaids must make sacrifices so that those who come after
them will have an easier time. She also shows them films of the so-called
Unwomen. In one of these films, Offred sees her own mother holding a banner in
a feminist protest march. She remembers her mother as a strong woman, a woman
who fought for women’s rights, and she misses her even though they frequently
disagreed over politics. Offred also recalls the disappearance of Moira,
who did not report to breakfast one morning.

As Janine (Ofwarren) labors, the Handmaids
chant. The room is hot and loud. Offred asks one
of the other Handmaids whether she knows anything of Moira. On
Birth Days, the Handmaids take advantage of the chaos to exchange information.
As Janine nears the time for delivery, she is led to the two-seated Birthing
Stool, and the lights are shut off. Warren’s Wife sits behind Janine on the
stool. Janine gives birth to a girl, and the baby is washed and given to the
Wife, who names her Angela. Janine will nurse the baby for a short time before
Janine is reassigned to a new family. This successful birth means that Janine
will avoid being sent to the Colonies. The scene causes Offred to remember the
birth of her own daughter and the happiness she felt at that time. She also
recalls her own mother and the goal of her feminist group to create a
“women’s culture.” The Handmaids get back into the Birthmobile and
return to their homes.

 

Offred arrives back at
the house and goes to her room, too tired to sleep. She begins to describe a
memory of driving late into the night. Then she suddenly decides to narrate
instead the story of what happens to Moira, which she has pieced
together from various accounts. While at the Red Center, Moira causes a
toilet to overflow and calls for Aunt Elizabeth. When Aunt Elizabeth comes,
Moira threatens to stab her, steals her clothing, ties her up in the furnace
room, and escapes dressed as an Aunt. After the escape, Aunt Elizabeth asks
Janine to spy on the other women. The women at the Red Center are both
frightened and excited by the idea that Moira has escaped, and nothing more is
heard of her.

Offred muses
once again on the nature of narrative: “This is a reconstruction,”
she begins. She recognizes that all stories, including hers, are shaped by the
details the narrator chooses to include or leave out. She tells us that the
Commander asks her to kiss him and notes that there is, of course, more to that
story. When Cora brings Offred dinner after a nap, they have a short
conversation about Ofwarren’s baby girl. Then Offred resumes the story of going
to her secret meeting with the Commander. After the Birth, she makes an illegal
visit to the Commander’s office at his request. The visit is dangerous for
Offred. If she gets caught, she will be in trouble; if she refuses to obey the
Commander, she will be in trouble. The room is full of books, and he invites
her to sit and play Scrabble. She relishes the opportunity to spell words.
Before she leaves, he asks her to kiss him, and she complies. He says,
“Not like that … As if you meant it.” She fantasizes about
fashioning a weapon and then killing the Commander at the next meeting, but
then she admits that this fantasy is part of the reconstruction only; she did
not have this thought at the time of the incident.

 

Offred returns
to her room. She does not undress, as the red costume helps her focus on her
thoughts. She refers to herself as Offred and gives readers some rare defining
physical details: her hair color and height. She also knows this new
development with the Commander is a turning point, whether an escape or a trap,
and she must figure out a way to make use of it as she tries to sort out her
present identity. She remembers watching a documentary about World War II with
her mother. The documentary features an interview with the mistress of a man in
charge of a Nazi concentration camp. In the interview, the woman says that her
lover is not a monster. Then the woman commits suicide a few days after the
interview. Offred begins to laugh and crawls into the cupboard with her hands
over her mouth to stifle it. She sees the words Nolite te bastardes carborundorum and traces them
with her finger.

 

Offred,
who falls asleep on the floor, is wakened by Cora’s scream and the sound of the
breakfast tray crashing to the floor. Cora suspects that Offred is dead. The
two unify for a moment as they discuss a possible baby and decide not to tell
anyone about the lost breakfast.

Time passes via the flowers and other plants
that grow near the Commander’s home: tulips, irises, bleeding hearts, peonies,
a willow tree, and green grass. Offred describes the ongoing arrangement she
makes with the Commander: She visits him secretly a few times a week based on
clues from Nick about
when to go, and they play Scrabble. Unable to give voice to his desires, the
Commander gives her small gifts, such as the chance to read a Vogue magazine or a bottle of hand lotion. He
complains that he and Serena
Joy have grown apart.

 

Offred finds that the
next Ceremony is awkward because of her arrangement with the Commander. She is
self-conscious and has conflicting emotions toward Serena Joy. She notes
that she is now the Commander’s mistress, a word choice that hearkens back to
the film about the Nazi leader and his lover. Although Offred’s and the
Commander’s social roles remain the same, the circumstances are very different.
She says that the arrangement makes her slightly happier now because being more
than just an object of fertility makes her feel as if she is more than nothing.

 

It is now full summer, and Offred walks
with Ofglen to do the shopping. They are able to purchase fish, although it is
not usually available and many types are becoming extinct. Offred recalls
bringing her daughter to an ice cream shop that is gone now. The women walk
past the Wall, where no bodies hang. Offred is disappointed because she is not
able to check for Luke’s corpse. Offred remembers when the buildings on the
other side of the Wall, including a now forbidden grand library, were part of
the university.

They pass a store called Soul Scrolls.
Inside, machines print out and then read aloud the prayers of those who are
able to pay for them. Watching the machines at work, the two secretly agree
that God does not listen to these machine-read prayers. Ofglen hints that she
is part of some kind of resistance group. Suddenly, the black van of the Eyes arrives;
two men get out and grab an ordinary-looking man who is walking down the
street. Offred is relieved that she is not the target.

 

Offred sits
in her room, looking out the window and feeling the summer breeze. She thinks
of talking with Moira,
who disapproved of her affair with Luke. She remembers having a job. This train
of thought reveals the birth of Gilead. The president and members of Congress
were assassinated, and their deaths were blamed on Islamic terrorists. To counter
this threat, the army took over, the Constitution was suspended, roadblocks
were set up, and new identity cards were required. Then laws were passed that
did not allow women to have their own money or jobs. Offred realized that the
men with guns who forced her evacuation from her workplace were not part of the
regular army but some other group. She speculated that the shift from paper to
electronic money laid the foundation for such an easy takeover. These
developments introduced an awkward dimension into Offred’s relationship with
Luke, as he told her not to worry because he would take care of her; she
wondered whether he enjoyed having this power over her. In the present, she
sees Nick out
the window; he is wearing his hat askew, a sign that she is summoned to the
Commander. She wonders what Nick thinks of the arrangement and what he gets out
of his role in it.

 

Offred meets with the
Commander, and she asks him about the meaning of the Latin phrase in her room.
He reveals that it is actually a fake Latin phrase he and his friends made up
when they were in school. It is supposed to mean, “Don’t let the bastards
grind you down.” He shows her the phrase written in one of his old
textbooks. She realizes that the previous occupant of her room must have had a
similar arrangement with the Commander. He tells her that the last Handmaid
hanged herself after Serena Joy became
aware of her secret relationship with the Commander. She understands the
Commander’s motivation: he wants Offred’s life to be bearable because he feels
bad about the suicide. Offred realizes that this situation gives her some power
over the Commander.

 

Offred looks
out the window at the night. She sees Nick, toward
whom she feels an attraction on which she cannot act. She feels conflicted
about her attraction to Nick because she does not know Luke’s fate. She
remembers that on the night before they made their escape attempt, Luke killed
their cat. They could not take it with them or leave it to advertise their
absence. She knows now that the cat’s death was meaningless, because they were
caught anyway. She wonders who betrayed the family by turning them in. She has
a hard time remembering the faces of those she has lost and feels guilty. With
these thoughts in mind, she prays to God. However, unlike the prayers in
the Red Center,
where the women ask to be made empty and then filled with babies, Offred prays
for assistance, forgiveness, and the strength to keep living. God is silent.

 

As Offred eats
breakfast and gets ready for her shopping walk, she longs to have an argument
with Luke over something unimportant, such as housework. During their walk,
Ofglen and Offred visit the Wall, where one body is marked with a
“J,” for Jew, Offred suspects. All Jews have been forced to leave the
country, but Offred is not convinced that they left alive. Ofglen shares the
password for the secret resistance group: Mayday. When Offred
returns from her walk, she gets a signal from the Commander via Nick. As
Offred passes by Serena
Joy, she asks Offred whether she is pregnant yet. She is
not. Serena Joy suggests that perhaps the Commander cannot father a child and
offers to help Offred secretly have sex with Nick in hopes of conceiving a
child. Offred agrees because she realizes the danger no matter her answer. As a
kind of reward, Serena Joy offers to let her see a photograph of her daughter,
gives her a cigarette, and tells her to get a match from Rita.

 

Context

Margaret
Atwood was born in Ottawa, Ontario, on November 18, 1939. She published her
first book of poetry in 1961 while attending the University of Toronto. She
later received degrees from both Radcliffe College and Harvard University, and
pursued a career in teaching at the university level. Her first novel, The Edible Woman, was published
in 1969 to wide acclaim. Atwood continued teaching as her literary career
blossomed. She has lectured widely and has served as a writer-in–residence at
colleges ranging from the University of Toronto to Macquarie University in
Australia.

Atwood
wrote The Handmaid’s Tale in West
Berlin and Alabama in the mid-1980s. The novel, published in 1986, quickly
became a best-seller. The
Handmaid’s Tale falls squarely within the twentieth-century
tradition of anti-utopian, or “dystopian” novels, exemplified by classics like
Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and
George Orwell’s 1984. Novels
in this genre present imagined worlds and societies that are not ideals, but
instead are terrifying or restrictive. Atwood’s novel offers a strongly
feminist vision of dystopia. She wrote it shortly after the elections of Ronald
Reagan in the United States and Margaret Thatcher in Great Britain, during a
period of conservative revival in the West partly fueled by a strong,
well-organized movement of religious conservatives who criticized what they
perceived as the excesses of the “sexual revolution” of the 1960s and 1970s.
The growing power of this “religious right” heightened feminist fears that the
gains women had made in previous decades would be reversed.

In The Handmaid’s Tale, Atwood
explores the consequences of a reversal of women’s rights. In the novel’s
nightmare world of Gilead, a group of conservative religious extremists has
taken power and turned the sexual revolution on its head. Feminists argued for
liberation from traditional gender roles, but Gilead is a society founded on a
“return to traditional values” and gender roles, and on the subjugation of
women by men. What feminists considered the great triumphs of the 1970s—namely,
widespread access to contraception, the legalization of abortion, and the
increasing political influence of female voters—have all been undone. Women in
Gilead are not only forbidden to vote, they are forbidden to read or write.
Atwood’s novel also paints a picture of a world undone by pollution and
infertility, reflecting 1980s fears about declining birthrates, the dangers of
nuclear power, and -environmental degradation.

Some
of the novel’s concerns seem dated today, and its implicit condemnation of the
political goals of America’s religious conservatives has been criticized as
unfair and overly paranoid. Nonetheless, The
Handmaid’s Tale remains one of the most powerful recent portrayals
of a totalitarian society, and one of the few dystopian novels to examine in
detail the intersection of politics and sexuality. The novel’s exploration of
the controversial politics of reproduction seems likely to guarantee Atwood’s
novel a readership well into the twenty-first century.

 

Questions

 

1)       Do you think that the Handmaid has
become friends with the Commander?

2)       In chapter 19, the idea of an egg is
focussed on in great detail, though it adds nothing to the immediate plot. Why?

3)       Since they play no real role in the birth process, why do the
Wives and Handmaids all attend the birth of Ofwarren’s/Janine’s child?

 

 

 

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