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The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood (read in 2015)

Published by marco on

Disclaimer: these are notes I took while reading this book. They include citations I found interesting or enlightening or particularly well-written. In some cases, I’ve pointed out which of these applies to which citation; in others, I have not. Any benefit you gain from reading these notes is purely incidental to the purpose they serve of reminding me what I once read. Please see Wikipedia for a summary if I’ve failed to provide one sufficient for your purposes. If my notes serve to trigger an interest in this book, then I’m happy for you.

The Handmaid’s Tale is the story of a possible future America in which society has taken a rather hard, right turn into a dystopian, quasi-religious patriarchy—much more extreme even than what exists today.[1] In this world, women have no rights whatsoever. Some are used as drudges—Marthas—while others—Aunts—inculcate the new regime to the breeders—Handmaids—and, finally, there are the Wives. Among the men, the Commanders are at the top of the food chain—they are married to Wives—but also have a series of Handmaids. There are other men, high-ranking soldiers—Angels—as well as spies—Eyes.

The prose is poetic, evocative, metaphorical, at-times almost hallucinatory—as if the mists of recollection have twisted certain parts of the remembered past. The ideas and chilling visions are just as likely to happen as they were in the 80s, when the book was written. There are good portions of the American population who would happily view the book as a guide to revolution, to creating a better version of America. At times reminiscent of Orwell’s 1984. Highly recommended.


With such a strict regime in place, there is, of course, the necessity of keeping potential uprisings under control. The following passage is reminiscent of U.S. or Israeli justification for civilian deaths in their respective occupied territories.

“Last week they shot a woman, right about here. She was a Martha. She was fumbling in her robe, for her pass, and they thought she was hunting for a bomb. They thought we was a man in disguise. There have been such incidents.”
Page 30

The following passage depicts the main character’s[2] thoughts about what the seriously under-serviced and over-brainwashed soldiers think when they see women. Instead of gratification, they think of the terror that would be visited on them, with only the carrot of very distantly eventual satisfaction in a dim, barely to-be-hoped-for future.

“But more likely they don’t think in terms of clothing discarded on the lawn. If they think of a kiss, they must then think immediately of the floodlights going on, the rifle shots. They think instead of doing their duty and of promotion to the Angels, and of being allowed possibly to marry, and then, if they are able to gain enough power and live to be old enough, of being allotted a Handmaid of their own.”
Page 32

The Aunts are in charge of indoctrination. Here, Lydia smugly teaches the women that the two freedoms she names are equal: as if a freedom conferred on you by another is any kind of freedom at all.

“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.”
Page 34

This next citation is about doctors who performed abortions—this part rings the truest for parts of America today.

“These men, we’ve been told, are like war criminals. It’s no excuse that what they did was legal at the time: their crimes are retroactive. They have committed atrocities, and must be made into examples, for the rest. Though this is hardly needed. No woman in her right mind, these days, would seek to prevent a birth, should she be so lucky as to conceive.”
Page 43

In this passage, we are offered a glimpse into a past where the patriarchal situation depicted in the book was initiated by revolutions in which the primarily women burned unacceptable books and magazines and other supposedly oppressive materials. Thirty years after the writing of this book and the SJW movement is rushing in this direction, as if thought-suppression has ever amounted to anything good.

“The woman handed me one of the magazines. It had a pretty woman on it, with no clothes on, hanging from the ceiling by a chain wound around her hands. I looked at it with interest. It didn’t frighten me. I thought she was swinging, like Tarzan from a vine, on the TV.

“Don’t let her see it, said my mother. Here, she said to me, toss it in, quick.

“I threw the magazine into the flames. It riffled open in the wind of its burning; big flakes of paper came loose, sailed into the air, still on fire, parts of women’s bodies, turning to black ash, in the air, before my eyes.”

Page 48

The Wife for whom Offred works is named Serena Joy, a former TV star who became a spokesperson for the male “revolution” quite early on. Here her depicted hypocrisy is typical of any politician: good for me but not for thee.

“Her speeches were about the sanctity of the home, about how women should stay home. Serena Joy didn’t do this herself, she made speeches instead, but she presented this failure of hers as a sacrifice she was making for the good of all.

“Around that time, someone tried to shoot her and missed; […] Someone else planted a bomb in her care but it went off too early. Though some people said she’s put the bomb in her own car, for sympathy. (Emphasis added.)”

Page 55

The roots of the patriarchy are deep—coming from today’s society, there isn’t that far to go. The following passages shows “truths” that are indoctrinated into the women by the Aunts in the first case, or by 18th-century painters in the second.

“I almost gasp: he’d said a forbidden word. Sterile. There is no such thing as a sterile man any more, not officially. There are only women who are fruitful and women who are barren, that’s the law.”
Page 70

“I remember walking in art galleries, through the nineteenth century: the obsession they had then with harems. Dozens of paintings of harems, fat women lolling on divans, turbans on their heads or velvet caps, being fanned with peacock tails, a eunuch in the backgrounds standing guard. Studies of sedentary flesh, painted by men who’d never been there. These pictures were supposed to be erotic, and I thought they were, at the time; but I see now what they were really about. They were paintings about suspended animations; about waiting, about objects not in use. They were paintings about boredom.

“But maybe boredom is erotic, when women do it, for men.”

Page 79

This next passage reminded me of the passages about Emmanuel Goldstein in 1984. The stories about smuggling are very similar to those from that book, or even the myriad stories of terrorists sneaking back and forth across the oh-so-porous U.S. border. The Lackawanna Five or the Liberty City Seven come to mind.

“They show us only victories, never defeats. Who wants bad news?

“Possibly [the rebel captive i]s an actor.

“The anchorman comes on now. His manner is kindly, fatherly; he gazes out at us from the screen, looking, with his tan and his white hair and candid eyes, wise wrinkles around them, like everybody’s ideal grandfather. What he’s telling us, his level smile implies, is for our own good. Everything will be all right soon. I promise. There will be peace. You must trust. Your must go to sleep, like good children.

“He tells us what we long to believe. He’s very convincing.

“I struggle against him. He’s like an old movie star, I tell myself, with false teeth and a face job. at the same time I sway towards him, like one hypnotized. If only it were true. If only I could believe.

“Now he’s telling us that an underground espionage ring has been cracked, by a team of Eyes, working with an inside informant. The ring has been smuggling precious national resources over the border into Canada.”

Page 93

In this first paragraph, Atwood twists a common aphorism by subtly adjusting the pronouns. In the next few paragraphs, Aunt Lydia explains how she will help a whole gender forget that it ever had equal rights—and that this will somehow be better for everyone.

“Not every Commander has a Handmaid: some of their Wives have children. From each, says the slogan, according to her ability; to each according to his needs. We recited that, three times, after dessert. It was from the Bible, or so they said. St. Paul again, in Acts.

“You are a transitional generation, said Aunt Lydia. It is the hardest for you. We know the sacrifices you are being expected to make. It is hard when men revile you. For the ones who come after you, it will be easier. They will accept their duties with willing hearts.

“She did not say: Because they will have no memories, of any other way.

“She said: Because they won’t want things they can’t have.”

Page 127

This next segment exhibits Atwood’s lovely writing style, this time describing what it would be like living in such a repressive and seemingly utterly joyless society.

“The willow is in full plumage and is no help, with its insinuating whispers. Rendezvous, it says, terraces; the sibilants run up my spine, a shiver as if in fever. The summer dress rustles against the flesh of my thighs, the grass grows underfoot, at the edges of my eyes there are movements, in the branches; feathers, flittings, grace notes, tree into bird, metamorphosis run wild. Goddesses are possible now and the air suffuses with desire. Even the bricks of the house are softening, becoming tractile; if I leaned against them they’d be warm and yielding. It’s amazing what denial can do. Did the sight of my ankle make him lightheaded, faint, at the checkpoint yesterday, when I dropped my pass and let him pick it up for me? No handkerchief, no fan, I use what’s handy.

“Winter is not so dangerous. I need hardness, cold rigidity; not this heaviness, as if I’m a melon on a stem, this liquid ripeness. (Emphasis added.)”

Page 161–162

And here, further on, we have Selena Joy interacting with Offred. Selena wants a child—badly. She is convinced that her Commander will not be able to impregnate Offred, so she wants her to sleep with Nick, the help. In exchange for taking this risk, she offers to get a picture of the child that was stolen from Offred when she was kidnapped into servitude. This is twisted nearly beyond comprehension: Joy is seemingly unaware of the depravity of the cruel power that she exerts over Offred—she just benefits from it as if it’s her birthright.

She leans forward. “Maybe I could get something for your,” she says. Because I have been good. “Something you want,” she adds, wheedling almost.

“What’s that?” I say. I can’t think of anything I truly want that she’d be likely or able to give me.

“A picture,” she says, as if offering me some juvenile treat, an ice cream, a trip to the zoo. I look up at her again, puzzled.

“Of her,” she says. “Your little girl. But only maybe.”

Page 216

And, finally, the Commander opens up to Offred, literally begging her to put a female stamp of approval on all that men have done for women, in the form of the highly patriarchal society in which the Commander has ended up basically owning Offred. Again, this is bizarre, twisted and hard to wrap your head around. He couches the societal transformation as a necessary rescue for men, because they were suffering so badly in the previous, slightly less-rigid patriarchy.

This passage—as with so many others in this book—could stand alone as a one-page short story.

“You know what [men] were complaining about the most? Inability to feel. Men were turning off on sex, even. They were turning off on marriage.

“Do they feel now? I say.

“Yes, he says, looking at me. They do. He stands up, comes around the desk to the chair where I’m sitting. He puts his hands on my shoulders, from behind. I can’t see him.

“I like to know what you think, his voice says, from behind me.

“I don’t think a lot, I say lightly. What he wants is intimacy, but I can’t give him that.

“There’s hardly any point in my thinking, is there? I say. What I think doesn’t matter.

“Which is the only reason he can tell me things.

“Come now, he says, pressing a little with his hands. I’m interested in your opinion. You’re intelligent enough, you must have an opinion.

“About what? I say.

“What we’ve done, he says. How things have worked out.

“I hold myself very still. I try to empty my mind. I think about the sky, at night, when there’s no moon. I have no opinion, I say.

“He sighs, relaxes his hands, but leaves them on my shoulders. He knows what I think, all right.

“You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs, is what he says. We thought we could do better.

“Better? I say, in a small voice. How can he think this is better?

Better never means better for everyone, he says. It always means worse, for some. (Emphasis added.)”

Page 221–222

The commander continues in this vein, calling on capital-N Nature for justification for the less-fair but super-awesome society of Gilead.

"It means you can’t cheat Nature,“ he says. “Nature demands variety, for men. It stands to reason, it’s part of the procreational strategy. It’s Nature’s plan.” I don’t say anything, so he goes on. “Women know that instinctively. Why did they buy so many different clothes, in the old days? To trick the men into thinking they were several different women. A new one each day.”

He say this as if he believes it, but he says many things that way. Maybe he believes it, maybe he doesn’t, or maybe he does both at the same time. Impossible to tell what he believes.

“So now that we don’t have different clothes,” I say, “you merely have different women.” This is irony, but he doesn’t acknowledge it.

“It solves a lot of problems,” he says, without a twitch. (Emphasis added.)

Page 249

The epilogue is of a discussion in the even-further future, where society has once again regained its senses and Gilead is just a long-past and bizarre blip on the bumpy road to the here-and-now.

“We held out no hope of tracing the narrator herself directly. It was clear from internal evidence that she was among the first wave of women recruited for reproductive purposes and allotted to those who both required such services and could lay claim to them through their position in the elite. The regime created an instant pool of such women by the simple tactic of declaring all second marriages and non-marital liaisons adulterous, arresting the female partners, and, on the grounds that they were morally unfit, confiscating the children they already had, who were adopted by childless couples of the upper echelons who were eager for progeny by any means. (in the middle period, this policy was extended to cover all marriages not contracted within the state church.) Men highly placed in the regime were thus able to pick and choose among women who had demonstrated their reproductive fitness by having produced one or more healthy children, a desirable characteristic in an age of plummeting Caucasian birth rates, a phenomenon observable not only in Gilead but in most northern Caucasian societies of the time.”
Page 316

This clinical summary is much more palatable than the autobiography that preceded it. It is easy to view past massive injustices in this light—Atwood juxtaposes the scientific attitude of the historians to the story that preceded it, in which the horror of having subjugated an entire gender was palpable. Without context, we easily consume stories of unspeakable atrocity in the past. Perhaps that is the only way to do so, and be able to move forward with any hope that we won’t just repeat ourselves.

[1] While some may argue that the U.S. is hardly a religious society, that is just not true. It’s just…well-masked…but there are rules about who is allowed to succeed and who is not. Can you imagine a Jewish or Muslim president? How about an atheist? While some of us can imagine this, there is no way that it could happen in anything approaching the near future. Religion plays a big role in women’s lives—the “debate” about abortion is only a debate in the U.S. and other theocracies—or in the moral strictures about self-control and drug use or the vindictive use of jail as punishment. The list goes on and on. The U.S. is a religious society, through and through, though it masks itself with the sheen of quasi-democracy and lip service to freedom for all.
[2] She is unnamed, except as “Offred”, which is the possessive “of” followed by the name of the Commander to which she’s currently assigned as a broodmare