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. (1.5-6)
Trapped as they are in the new society of Gilead, the narrator and her peers are forbidden from speaking or even using their real names. Despite that, they find ways to subvert these rules and convey their names, so that they manage at least to preserve this important part of their identities. Fun fact: if you're looking closely, there might be a clue to the narrator's name here. Check out "Character Clues" for more.
This woman has been my partner for two weeks. I don't know what happened to the one before. On a certain day she simply wasn't there anymore, and this one was there in her place. It isn't the sort of thing you ask questions about, because the answers are not usually answers you want to know. Anyway there wouldn't be an answer. (4.18)
This situation, in which one Ofglen is replaced by another, points to the problem of the disconnect between names and people in this society. These women's personalities almost literally don't matter, because they're just replacing each other in spaces where other Handmaids were or are supposed to be.
When I'm naked I lie down on the examining table, on the sheet of chilly crackling disposable paper. I pull the second sheet, the cloth one, up over my body. At neck level there's another sheet, suspended from the ceiling. It intersects me so the doctor will never see my face. He deals with a torso only. (11.6)
Here the narrator's body and mind are divided by a sheet that separates her physical body, the site of potential pregnancy, and her head, where her intellectual self resides. While the narrator is treated as a body that's separate from her self much of the time, here that separation is literalized.
I wait. I compose myself. My self is a thing I must now compose, as one composes a speech. What I must present is a made thing, not something born. (12.25)
The narrator almost seems like she's been split into two parts: within this new Handmaid, "Offred," the narrator works to present a version of her self that is "a thing" she "compose[s]." She can't behave naturally or impulsively; she has to constantly play a role.
My name isn't Offred, I have another name, which nobody uses now because it's forbidden. I tell myself it doesn't matter, your name is like your telephone number, useful only to others; but what I tell myself is wrong, it does matter. (14.37)
Here the narrator tries to distance herself from the new name society has given her. She attempts, unsuccessfully, to convince herself that her name is separate from her identity. Getting to use her "real name" is important: it "does matter." When people are kept from using their real names, they become lesser versions of themselves and start to lose hold of their individuality and uniqueness.
And if I talk to him I'll say something wrong, give something away. I can feel it coming, a betrayal of myself. I don't want him to know too much. (29.16)
It seems here like even the simplest exchanges can reveal portions of identity. The narrator worries that through her conversation she will "give" herself "away," or "betray" what little she has left. While she desires to be known and recognized for herself again, she also has to acknowledge the danger inherent in that kind of action. So much for trying to be yourself.
Falling in love. [...] It was the central thing; it was the way you understood yourself; if it never happened to you, not ever, you would be like a mutant, a creature from outer space. Everyone knew that. (35.13)
While in Gilead it's dangerous to try to remain yourself in any form, in the time before that people believed that "falling in love" was a crucial part of forming one's identity. Now that seems like a luxury that Handmaids living in this new reality can't afford.
I have been obliterated for her. I am only a shadow now, far back behind the glib shiny surface of this photograph. A shadow of a shadow, as dead mothers become. You can see it in her eyes: I am not there. (35.35)
The narrator was robbed of her identity as a mother when her child was taken away, but that didn't mean she didn't feel like a mother anymore. This is a second theft of her maternal identity, when she realizes her daughter no longer remembers her. This makes her feel like she doesn't even exist.
I tell him my real name, and feel that therefore I am known. I act like a dunce. I should know better. I make of him an idol, a cardboard cutout. (41.19)
Here the narrator explicitly connects the power of her "real name" with being known and understood. This calls on the fairy tale trope of a name-giving power, like how Rumpelstiltskin's name is the answer to his riddle. And in fact, admission of the narrator's name to Nick does give him power over her.
"I am Ofglen," the woman says. Word perfect. And of course she is, the new one, and Ofglen, wherever she is, is no longer Ofglen. I never did know her real name. That is how you can get lost, in a sea of names. It wouldn't be easy to find her, now. (44.15)
You know how Descartes said, "I think, therefore I am"? Well, all this new woman has to do is say, "I am Ofglen" and she is—simple as that. This transfer of identities echoes the one at the beginning of the book, when the Ofglen the narrator knew replaced another, initial Ofglen. Similarly, the narrator may be called Offred now, but there was another Offred before her and may be another one to follow.
Anyways, they're doing it for us all, said Cora, or so they say. If I hadn't of got my tubes tied, it could have been me, say I was ten years younger. It's not that bad. It's not what you'd call hard work. (1.20)
Cora's comment reveals a problem built into this new society, which is the lack of respect between Marthas and Handmaids, and the idea that the Handmaids have it easy. But the pressure to have a child by men the Handmaids don't love, only to be torn apart from that child after it's born, certainly seems like hard work, both emotionally and mentally.
The Commander's Wife directs, pointing with her stick. Many of the Wives have such gardens, it's something for them to order and maintain and care for.
I once had a garden. I can remember the smell of the turned earth, the plump shapes of bulbs held in the hands, fullness, the dry rustle of seeds through the fingers. (3.2-3)
The garden works as a metaphor and substitute here for childrearing. The narrator "once had a garden," just as she once had a child. She was able to care for both of them, and both of them represented her "fullness" and maternal nature. But while the narrator cared for her own garden—and by extension, her child—the Commander's Wife does not. She "directs" someone else to take care of it, just as she directs the Handmaid to produce a child for her.
One of them is vastly pregnant [...] There is a shifting in the room, a murmur, an escape of breath; despite ourselves we turn our heads, blatantly, to see better; our fingers itch to touch her. She's a magic presence to us, an object of envy and desire, we covet her. She's a flag on a hilltop, showing us what can still be done: we too can be saved. (5.18)
Imagine a world in which pregnancy has become so rare and celebrated that a woman who accomplishes it becomes a "magic presence." For the Handmaids in particular, this pregnant woman represents not only the future of the human race, but the idea that "[they] too can be saved." Becoming pregnant is the one thing they can do to rescue themselves from death.
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, that's the law.
"Lots of women do it," he goes on. "You want a baby, don't you?"
"Yes," I say. It's true, and I don't ask why, because I know. Give me children, or else I die. There's more than one meaning to it. (11.18-20)
Aside from the whole problem of putting all the blame for sterility on women, there's an even more troubling idea here. "Give me children, or else I die" doesn't just mean the childless mother will suffer from grief and anguish. Death is literal here: if a Handmaid doesn't get pregnant and provide the Republic with at least one child, she's a goner.
It's a Saturday morning in September. I'm wearing my shining name. The little girl who is now dead sits in the back seat, with her two best dolls, her stuffed rabbit, mangy with age and love. I know all the details. They are sentimental details but I can't help that. I can't think about the rabbit too much though, I can't start to cry, here on the Chinese rug. (14.38)
Here the narrator displaces her grief about her daughter onto the "stuffed rabbit, mangy with age and love." Just the thought of the rabbit, a stand-in for her daughter, is enough to choke her up.
Aunt Elizabeth, holding the baby, looks up at us and smiles. We smile too, we are one smile, tears run down our cheeks, we are so happy.
Our happiness is part memory. What I remember is Luke, with me in the hospital, standing beside my head, holding my hand, in the green gown and white mask they gave him. Oh, he said, oh Jesus, breath coming out in wonder. (21.24-25)
Here the narrator celebrates something it seems like she'll never have again. Even though she and the other women "are so happy," that happiness doesn't have the "breath coming out in wonder" that Luke had when they made a baby together, out of love. As magical as this new life is, no more babies are being created out of loving unions.
You were a wanted child, God knows, she would say at other moments. [...] She would say this a little regretfully, as though I hadn't turned out entirely as she'd expected. No mother is ever, completely, a child's idea of what a mother should be, and I suppose it works the other way around as well. (28.102)
While everyone else in the book is focused on producing more children, here the narrator thinks back to what it was like to be a child herself. She imagines what it would have been like to continue growing as a mother, a future she'll never know.
She'd like me pregnant though, over and done with and out of the way, no more humiliating sweaty tangles, no more flesh triangles under her starry canopy of silver flowers. (31.46)
A successful pregnancy for a Handmaid means a release, not just for her but for the household she serves. In a moment of businesslike empathy, the narrator understands that Serena Joy would be relieved if she got pregnant and they could stop having Ceremonies. But these "tangles" are "humiliating" and "sweaty" for the narrator, too.
But she exists, in her white dress. She grows and lives. Isn't that a good thing? A blessing? (35.36)
The narrator wonders here whether she's better off knowing that her daughter is still alive. On the one hand, she's fed and clothed and won't end up like the narrator. Yet she may as well be dead as far as she is concerned. The girl lives, but she's not her daughter anymore.
I put his hand on my belly. It's happened, I say. I feel it has. A couple of weeks and I'll be certain.
This I know is wishful thinking.
He'll love you to death, he says. So will she.
But it's yours, I say. It will be yours, really. I want it to be. (41.29-32)
So is this pregnancy "certain" or "wishful thinking"? Is the narrator really pregnant, or does she just want to be? These questions never get answered, and even if the baby is Nick's, he wouldn't get to be the father any more than she can be the mother.
As for my husband, she said, he's just that. My husband. I want that to be perfectly clear. Till death do us part. It's final. (3.36)
Here Serena Joy relies on a quotation from the marriage ceremony to remind the narrator of how little she should be able to enter into this standing relationship with the Commander. She asserts what power she has by emphasizing her status as the Commander's Wife.
Low status: he hasn't been issued a woman, not even one. He doesn't rate: some defect, lack of connections. But he acts as if he doesn't know this, or care. (4.6)
This society takes arranged marriages to a whole new level. The government decides how much action men get, if any. The fact that Nick doesn't seem to "care" about his lack of a female partner strikes the narrator as suspicious.
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. (8.27)
Significantly, "Wives" is capitalized while "husbands" is not. Husbands have other jobs, but a Wife is a wife and a wife only. Marriage grants her a certain honorific status.
In the afternoons, when Luke was still in flight from his wife, when I was still imaginary for him. Before we were married and I solidified. I would always get there first.
I was nervous. How was I to know he loved me? It might be just an affair. Why did we ever say just? Though at that time men and women tried each other on, casually, like suits, rejecting whatever did not fit. (9.7-8)
The different kinds of relationships between men and women are contrasted here. Gilead is a first marriage-only world. An initial marriage is permanent, and there are no givebacks. At the other end of the spectrum is the time before, when "men and women tried each other on, casually." But it seems like for the narrator and Luke, marriage is what makes her "solidified," what makes her real.
To be asked to play Scrabble, instead, as if we were an old married couple, or two children, seemed kinky in the extreme, a violation in its own way. As a request it was opaque. (25.40)
The "violation" for the narrator here isn't a request for "kinky" sex or something that's otherwise outside her comfort zone. It's acting like "an old married couple" that freaks her out and makes her uncomfortable—partly because she can't figure out what the Commander wants out of it.
She disapproved of Luke, back then. Not of Luke but of the fact that he was married. She said I was poaching, on another woman's ground. I said Luke wasn't a fish or a piece of dirt either, he was a human being and could make his own decisions. She said I was rationalizing. I said I was in love. (28.3)
Whose side should we be on here, Moira's or the narrator's? Since the novel is in the first person, and the narrator is in the position of the "other woman," we tend to sympathize with her. But even though they disagree on this point, and try to take different paths, both end up in the Women's Center and at Jezebel's, so their old differences don't seem to matter in this new world.
Absurd, but that's what I want. An argument, about who should put the dishes in the dishwasher, whose turn it is to sort the laundry, clean the toilet; something daily and unimportant in the big scheme of things. We could even have a fight about that, about unimportant, important. (31.6)
The narrator craves the normalcy that was a fundamental part of her marriage, something she took for granted. Fighting about even the simplest, most trivial thing would be a privilege now.
"Behind my back," she says. "You could have left me something." Does she love him, after all? She raises her cane. I think she is going to hit me, but she doesn't. (44.17)
Serena Joy's logic is hypocritical here. She's angry with the narrator for betraying her by spending time with the Commander, but she forced the narrator to betray the Commander with Nick. Her anger here may not be justifiable, but it is human.
The regime created an instant pool of such women by the simple tactic of declaring all second marriages and nonmarital 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. (Historical Notes.25)
Here, one of the professors explains what happened to marriages during the Republic of Gilead era, clarifying the reason the narrator was selected to become a Handmaid. Ironically, one of the biblical passages cited to support the use of Handmaids being pulled from "adulterous" relationships—the story of Rachel and Leah—clearly is about a bigamous marriage.
Aunt Lydia said it was best not to speak unless they asked you a direct question. Try to think of it from their point of view she said, her hands clasped and wrung together, her nervous pleading smile. It isn't easy for them. (3.18)
The attempted indoctrination of the Handmaids is so complete that they're forced not only to give up all of their own rights but encouraged to feel pity for the people abusing those rights. That's passivity in the extreme; Aunt Lydia is encouraging them to be doormats.
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 isn't the same as ignorance, you have to work at it. (10.24-25)
This quote implies an active passivity, if that makes sense. The narrator and other characters in her position have to "work at" being passive, or at "ignoring" their situations. They have to deliberately refuse to rebel.
I lie, lapped by the water, beside an open drawer that does not exist, and think about a girl who did not die when she was five; who still does exist, I hope, though not for me. Do I exist for her? Am I a picture somewhere, in the dark at the back of her mind? (12.13)
The narrator's mental passivity is echoed by her physical passivity here as she "lie[s], lapped by the water" in her bath. Her mind wanders even though her body cannot.
These pictures [of nineteenth-century harems] 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 animation; about waiting, about objects not in use. They were paintings about boredom.
But maybe boredom is erotic, when women do it, for men. (13.1-2)
The narrator is in a state of "suspended animation," just like the women in the paintings. If they were "about objects not in use," she too is an object, and not only is she not being used, she's being kept from using the very parts of herself that made her a person rather than an object.
I do not say making love, because this is not what he's doing. Copulating too would be inaccurate, because it would imply two people and only one is involved. Nor does rape cover it: nothing is going on here that I haven't signed up for. There wasn't a lot of choice but there was some, and this is what I chose. (16.7)
The narrator is describing a sex scene for which three people are present but "only one is involved." In fact, she has no choice but to use a vulgar word to describe the sex taking place because all other descriptors include an element that isn't present here.
Maybe none of this is about control. Maybe it isn't really about who can own whom, who can do what to whom and get away with it, even as far as death. Maybe it isn't about who can sit and who has to kneel or stand or lie down, legs spread open. Maybe it's about who can do what to whom and be forgiven for it. Never tell me it amounts to the same thing. (23.4)
Here the narrator separates the issues of forgiveness and control, digressing about whether the real question in all of this is who can command forgiveness while participating in the terrible things society has endorsed. Of course, it is mostly academic for her, as she has very little power herself.
To him I'm no longer merely a usable body. To him I'm not just a boat with no cargo, a chalice with no wine in it, an oven—to be crude—minus the bun. To him I am not merely empty. (27.23)
The narrator's base level of self-respect has really sunk in this demeaning position. Since everyone views her as "merely empty," when a man sees her as anything more, she can't help feeling something for him—even if the way he sees her brings another host of problems.
"It's a risk," I say. 'More than that." It's my life on the line; but that's where it will be sooner or later, one way or another, whether I do or don't. We both know this. (31.69)
The narrator is in danger no matter what she does. Even if she's passive, "sooner or later" push will come to shove and she'll find her life in jeopardy. So this is an argument for acting, to some extent, rather than being completely passive. Sure, it's more dangerous, but danger is always relative.
She is frightening me now, because what I hear in her voice is indifference, a lack of volition. Have they really done it to her then, taken away something—what?—that used to be so central to her? And how can I expect her to go on, with my idea of her courage, live it through, act it out, when I myself do not? (38.62)
One of the things that scares the narrator most is the change in Moira. Once rebellious, she now seems passive, speaking with "indifference" and "a lack of volition." This whole time, it seems, the narrator has been able not to act because she believed in Moira's potential for action.
I want to turn, run to him, throw my arms around him. This would be foolish. There is nothing he can do to help. He too would drown.
I walk to the back door, into the kitchen, set down my basket, go upstairs. I am orderly and calm. (44.19-20)
No matter how much the narrator might want to flee when the Eyes come for her, to do so would condemn Nick as well as herself. He would not be able to help her; she would only pull him down with her. To cope, she does what she always does: retreats into a passive space and zones out.
Or I would help Rita make the bread, sinking my hands into that soft resistant warmth which is so much like flesh. I hunger to touch something, other than cloth or wood. I hunger to commit the act of touch. (2.25)
The narrator transmutes her "hunger" for something edible, bread, to what would really nourish her: touch, and, correspondingly, love. She wants to touch and be touched, to remind herself of her body and of the feelings that can develop from that sort of tactile sensation.
She could get one of those [bags] over her head, he'd say. You know how kids like to play. She never would, I'd say. She's too old. (Or too smart, or too lucky.) But I would feel a chill of fear, and then guilt for having been so careless. It was true, I took too much for granted; I trusted fate, back then. (5.30)
Before the Republic of Gilead, the narrator and Luke had the luxury of small worries. They could express their concerns about their daughter, which implied their love for her. They didn't have to worry about their love. In hindsight, they were naïve and didn't realize how lucky there were.
What I feel towards them is blankness. What I feel is that I must not feel. What I feel is partly relief, because none of these men is Luke. Luke wasn't a doctor. Isn't. (6.25)
The narrator's complex feelings here stem mostly from the relief she feels that there's no conclusive proof that the man she loves died that day. This specific relief overshadows other feelings, such as revulsion, perhaps. In the next sentence, though, she catches herself referring to Luke in the past tense rather than the present.
The stains on the mattress. Like dried flower petals. Not recent. Old love; there's no other kind of love in this room now.
When I saw that, the evidence left by two people, of love or something like it, desire at least, at least touch, between two people now perhaps old or dead, I covered the bed again and lay down on it. (9.12-13)
This sign of love (or at least sex) depresses the narrator and she has to lie down. She does so on the bed where other people's love was expressed but where she will never experience it. Indeed, at this point she questions whether she'll ever know love again.
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. (10.38)
Here the narrator defines how she feels about the Commander in terms of what her feelings are not. They are not "love"; they are "more complicated" than that. She may feel guilty because she doesn't hate the Commander, but nor does he come close to inspiring love in her.
The message will say that I must have patience: sooner or later he will get me out, we will find her. [...] What has happened to me, what's happening to me now, won't make any difference to him, he loves me anyway, he knows it isn't my fault. The message will say that also. It's this message, which may never arrive, that keeps me alive. I believe in the message. (18.18)
As the narrator waits for this "message" that will prove Luke's love for her, she proves her own love by waiting and "believ[ing]." This imagined sign will make everything OK; it will restore her family and celebrate their love. The sign is what "keeps [her] alive." In a house without love, she still imagines it coming back for her.
Something to fill the time, at night, instead of sitting alone in my room. It's something else to think about. I don't love the Commander or anything like it, but he's of interest to me, he occupies space, he is more than a shadow. (26.22)
Sometimes it seems like there isn't room for love in a place like Gilead anymore. Again, the narrator protests she doesn't love the Commander. But earlier she defined her feelings for him in terms of an absence of hatred. Now it's because he "occupies space." He is something to think about. Yet her interest is still just faint praise.
So Luke: what I want to ask you now, what I need to know is, Was I right? Because we never talked about it. By the time I could have done that, I was afraid to. I couldn't afford to lose you. (28.118)
In a rare moment of real bitterness, the narrator questions her relationship with Luke, wondering how the social changes altered what was between them, and whether he had been complicit at all when her rights were removed. She wonders what this did to their love, even though it's a question that's too late to answer now.
What did we overlook?
Love, I said.
Love? said the Commander. What kind of love?
Falling in love, I said. The Commander looked at me with his candid boy's eyes. (34.9-12)
The narrator reminds the Commander that they live in a society without love. For her the capacity for love is a huge part of how you form an identity and make a life. This is something that doesn't matter to the Commander, which emphasizes the great divide between them. Yet another reason she could never feel love for him.
I still can't believe it's her. I touch her arm again. Then I begin to cry.
"Don't do that," she says. "Your eyes'll run. Anyway there isn't time." (38.18-20)
The narrator finally gets to touch and feel emotion with a person she loves from her past: her dear friend Moira. We're reminded of the love that exists between friends, not just couples, and the different ways families can be constructed and love experienced. This kind of love has all but disappeared from the narrator's life now.
This is the kind of touch they like: folk art, archaic, made by women, in their spare time, from things that have no further use. A return to traditional values. Waste not want not. I am not being wasted. Why do I want? (2.2)
The narrator compares herself and the other Handmaids to "folk art, archaic," using the proverb "waste not, want not." These women and art are both decorative and pointless, leftovers that have been used up. Feeling both useless and used up, the narrator plays on the word "want," reminding herself why she isn't the same as a useless art object.
There are other women with baskets, some in red, some in the dull green of the Marthas, some in the striped dresses, red and blue and green and cheap and skimp, that mark the women of the poorer men. Econowives, they're called. These women are not divided into functions. They have to do everything; if they can. (5.5)
Here the narrator describes the roles of women in this society. All but the Econowives are "divided into functions," as shown by their dresses. The women are basically color-coded: blue Wives, red Handmaids, green Marthas. Their individuality is completely stripped away.
My nakedness is strange to me already. [...] Did I really wear bathing suits, at the beach? I did, without thought, among men, without caring that my legs, my arms, my thighs and back were on display, could be seen. Shameful, immodest. I avoid looking down at my body, not so much because it's shameful or immodest but because I don't want to see it. I don't want to look at something that determines me so completely. (12.4)
Nude, the narrator tries to disassociate herself from her body and what it represents. She "do[es]n't want to look at something that determines [her] so completely." She is more than her body. The narrator passively, silently rejects the determination society has made about her based on her form and fertility.
I want Luke here so badly. I want to be held and told my name. I want to be valued, in ways that I am not; I want to be more than valuable. I repeat my former name, remind myself of what I once could do, how others saw me. (17.11)
The narrator misses other elements of being a woman and a person. For her, being held, named, and valued in the ways she used to be—as a person, not a uterus—are part of being a woman.
Can I be blamed for wanting a real body, to put my arms around? Without it I too am disembodied. [...] I can stroke myself, under the dry white sheets, in the dark, but I too am dry and white, hard, granular; it's like running my hand over a plateful of dried rice; it's like snow. [...] I am like a room where things once happened and now nothing does, except the pollen of the weeds that grow up outside the window, blowing in as dust across the floor. (18.6)
Here the narrator feels dispassionate and alienated from her body. Even when she tries to touch herself, she doesn't feel anything; she just thinks of herself as an empty room.
Mother, I think. Wherever you may be. Can you hear me? You wanted a women's culture. Well, now there is one. It isn't what you meant, but it exists. Be thankful for small mercies. (21.34)
In an ironic moment of anti-feminism, a "women's culture" does exist, but it isn't one any reasonable feminist (male or female) would have wanted. It's a terrible realization of a different kind of imagined equality.
I said there was more than one way of living with your head in the sand and that if Moira thought she could create Utopia by shutting herself up in a women-only enclave she was sadly mistaken. Men were not just going to go away, I said. You couldn't just ignore them. (28.7)
A "women-only enclave" is not "Utopia" and neither is Gilead. Although women have a different quality of life in Gilead that could be said to include occasional improvements, they are definitely not in Utopia.
"Yes," I say. What I feel is not one simple thing. Certainly I am not dismayed by these women, not shocked by them. I recognize them as truants. The official creed denies them, denies their very existence, yet here they are. That is at least something. (37.10)
Here are women doing something they should not—existing. Are they any more or less womanly or feminine than the Handmaids? It seems they're better off in some ways and worse off in others. They're reduced to their sexuality just as Handmaids are reduced to their fertility.
"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. (37.26)
In brief, Gilead happened, at least indirectly, as a way of controlling women who had too many choices. Men took them all away, but then they got bored because the women didn't seem individually interesting any more. Now they treat women like they're interchangeable. In a weird way, this is representative of the narrator's observation about casual dating, when "men and women tried each other on, casually, like suits, rejecting whatever did not fit" (9.7-8).
Judd [...] was of the opinion from the outset that the best and most cost-effective way to control women for reproductive and other purposes was through women themselves. For this there were many historical precedents; in fact, no empire imposed by force or otherwise has ever been without this feature [...]." (Historical Notes.36)
This passage makes Gilead seem even slimier by revealing how some women colluded to make life worse for the rest, while explaining how this process has "historical precedents" and is an established way of controlling an unruly population.
Apart from these details, this could be a college guest room, for the less distinguished visitors; or a room in a rooming house, of former times, for ladies in reduced circumstances. That is what we are now. The circumstances have been reduced; for those of us who still have circumstances. (2.5)
This is a house, not a home. The room is not individualized or welcoming. Any Handmaid could live there, and more than one has. While on one hand the privilege of a single room can be seen as one of the few things left to Handmaids, it also denies them companionship and conversation.
The door of the room—not my room, I refuse to say my—is not locked. In fact it doesn't shut properly. I go out into the polished hallway, which has a runner down the center, dusty pink. Like a path through the forest, like a carpet for royalty, it shows me the way. (2.9)
The narrator emphasizes how she uses language to retain a small amount of control over her situation. She may not be able to decide much else about her life, but she can control her possessive pronouns. In this case, she refuses to think of the room she's been assigned as hers.
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. (8.21)
Hypocritically, Serena Joy advocated for women to "stay home" while having a career herself. The narrator later comments on how Serena Joy gets hers when she's forced to stay home all day during the Gileadean regime.
The kitchen smells of yeast, a nostalgic smell. It reminds me of other kitchens, kitchens that were mine. It smells of mothers; although my own mother did not make bread. It smells of me, in former times, when I was a mother.
This is a treacherous smell, and I know I must shut it out. (8.30-31)
The narrator has to "shut out" the good and homey smells of yeast and bread-making because they remind her, terribly, of when she was a mother herself.
But all around the walls there are bookcases. They're filled with books. Books and books and books, right out in plain view, no locks, no boxes. No wonder we can't come in here. It's an oasis of the forbidden. I try not to stare. (23.25)
The idea of all these books being locked away and "forbidden" is, of course, a nightmare for Shmoop. Can you imagine being prohibited from reading? No wonder the narrator is blown away by this "oasis of the forbidden"; this has to be the most exciting, dangerous room in the house.
My room, then. There has to be some space, finally, that I claim as mine, even in this time.
I'm waiting, in my room, which right now is a waiting room. When I go to bed it's a bedroom. (9.1-2)
Finally the narrator concedes that the room she spends so much time in is hers. She does so grudgingly, saying, "there has to be some space [...] that I claim as mine." The idea of having personal space seems to become necessary to hold onto her sanity. The room, despite its limitations, is almost magical in its ability to transform itself into "a waiting room" when the narrator waits, versus a "bedroom" when she sleeps.
So the hotels, with Luke, didn't mean only love or even only sex to me. They also meant time off from the cockroaches, the dripping sink, the linoleum that was peeling off the floor in patches, even from my own attempts to brighten things up by sticking posters on the wall and hanging prisms in the windows. (28.4)
Being with Luke made the narrator feel at home in the hotels they went to. Even though hotels are temporary places of residence, they functioned as escapes from the narrator's dreary house. Ironically, the narrator would probably kill to be back in her old dump after a few days at the Commander's.
I wandered through the house, from room to room. I remember touching things, not even that consciously, just placing my fingers on them; things like the toaster, the sugar bowl, the ashtray in the living room. (28.65)
In her shock at losing her job and her money—in short, all her rights—the narrator "wander[s] through the house" and touches random objects. Notice here, significantly, that it's no longer "her house," it's "the house." Already her ownership seems to be slipping away.
The night before we left the house, that last time, I was walking through the rooms. Nothing was packed up, because we weren't taking much with us and we couldn't afford even then to give the least appearance of leaving. So I was just walking through, here and there, looking at things, at the arrangement we had made together, for our life. I had some idea that I would be able to remember, afterwards, what it had looked like. (30.8)
This house isn't just home for Luke and the narrator. It symbolizes "the arrangement [they] had made together, for [their] life." The house represents the way they envisioned their life being, and now they have to leave its security behind as they move into an unknown future.
I breathe in the soap smell, the disinfectant smell, and stand in the white bathroom, listening to the distant sounds of water running, toilets being flushed. In a strange way I feel comforted, at home. There is something reassuring about the toilets. Everybody shits, as Moira would say. (39.5)
Again, in a hotel the narrator "feel[s] comforted, at home." Except she's in a hotel that's been repurposed as a brothel, and she's arrived there with someone she doesn't love. Despite this, something about the soap and the toilets gives her a feeling of "home" that nothing else in Gilead can provide.
I know why there is no glass, in front of the watercolor picture of blue irises, and why the window opens only partly and why the glass in it is shatter-proof. It isn't running away they're afraid of. We wouldn't get far. It's those other escapes, the ones you can open in yourself, given a cutting edge. (2.4)
The narrator reminds us that there are different kinds of freedom, which the people in the Commander's house know about. She's not just forbidden from jumping out of the window or running out the door—they've actually removed all possibility of suicide.
We used to talk about buying a house like one of these, an old big house, fixing it up. We would have a garden, swings for the children. We would have children. Although we knew it wasn't too likely we could ever afford it, it was something to talk about, a game for Sundays. Such freedom now seems almost weightless. (5.4)
The freedom that the narrator and Luke used to take for granted is practically ridiculous now. Their fantasies are common enough: buy a house, raise a family, make a life. But these banal things are impossible now. The narrator says it "seems almost weightless": it's intangible, imaginary.
Now we walk along the same street, in red pairs, and no man shouts obscenities at us, speaks to us, touches us. No one whistles.
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. (5.10-11)
Despite all that the women have lost, Aunt Lydia and Gilead argue that they are free now. They have "freedom from" things like sexist catcalls and potential abuse from strangers. They would argue that the women of Gilead should be grateful for such freedoms rather than mourning the other freedoms they've lost.
We are fascinated, but also repelled. They seem undressed. It has taken so little time to change our minds, about things like this.
Then I think: I used to dress like that. That was freedom.
Westernized, they used to call it. (5.33-35)
The hits just keep coming as the narrator is continually reminded of the freedoms she has lost. Here, confronted with a group of Japanese tourists, she remembers that the way she "used to dress" wasn't just about personal style; it also represented freedom. Being forced to wear the Handmaid uniform represents all the autonomy she's lost.
As long as we do this, butter our skin to keep it soft, we can believe that we will some day get out, that we will be touched again, in love or desire. We have ceremonies of our own, private ones. (17.6)
Another kind of freedom or potential to escape exists here too. By stealing butter and using it as a pathetic sort of lotion, the narrator and the other Handmaids "can believe that [they] will some day get out." Here the potential of freedom lies within an ordinary household staple.
Moira had power now, she'd been set loose, she'd set herself loose. She was now a loose woman.
I think we found this frightening.
Moira was like an elevator with open sides. She made us dizzy. Already we were losing the taste for freedom, already we were finding these walls secure. In the upper reaches of the atmosphere you'd come apart, you'd vaporize, there would be no pressure holding you together. (22.45-47)
This shows how successful the Center is at brainwashing women and teaching them to believe in this new regime. It hasn't taken long for the women there to "los[e] the taste for freedom" and "find […] these walls secure." So while once Moira would have been seen as a motivating force—a fantasy of an escape made good—the women in the Center are already retreating from their old notions of freedom and rights.
It occurs to me that she may be a spy, a plant, set to trap me; such is the soil in which we grow. But I can't believe it; hope is rising in me, like sap in a tree. Blood in a wound. We have made an opening. (27.46)
The narrator's desire for freedom and escape is so profound that it makes her careless. Although Ofglen "may be a spy," the narrator can't keep herself from confiding in her. Ofglen has reminded her of her capacity for hope.
It's strange to remember how we used to think, as if everything were available to us, as if there were no contingencies, no boundaries; as if we were free to shape and reshape forever the ever—expanding perimeters of our lives. I was like that too, I did that too. (35.22)
The narrator feels so separate from her life before, when freedom and autonomy were rights, not privileges. Now she recognizes them as the precious things they were, almost marveling at how little they were appreciated when people had them, and how they seem worlds away from the life she has now.
Yet there's an enticement in this thing, it carries with it the childish allure of dressing up. And it would be so flaunting, such a sneer at the Aunts, so sinful, so free. Freedom, like everything else, is relative. (36.18)
Given her limits, the narrator has to find freedom where she can. As she says, "it's relative." Here, she's "dressing up" not to recover her own identity but to temporarily reject her status as Handmaid and to "sneer at the Aunts." It's a false freedom, though. It can't last, and ultimately it doesn't get her anywhere.
The fact is that I no longer want to leave, escape, cross the border to freedom. I want to be here, with Nick, where I can get at him. (41.37)
Probably the worst thing about Nick is the way he makes the narrator complacent, lessening her desire to "escape, cross the border to freedom." Being with him, although it's dangerous and can't last, makes her life palatable. But even finding love and desire after a long drought shouldn't stop her from wanting to get out of a place like that.
This 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. (7.34-36)
Usually when we're reading a piece of literature, we suspend our disbelief about how that story got to us. In other words, we don't think about how the narrator or character we're learning about got his or her story onto paper. The narrator makes that impossible here by addressing an implied reader. She seems to be telling the story both to herself and to this "someone else" to stave off loneliness.
I am trying not to tell stories, or at any rate not this one. (9.2)
There's a slippage here between fiction and reality. The narrator says she doesn't want to "tell stories," as in falsehoods or lies, but then she adds "not this one." So how much of her story is true?
I sit in the chair and think about the word chair. It can also mean the leader of a meeting. It can also mean a mode of execution. It is the first syllable in charity. It is the French word for flesh. None of these facts has any connection with the others.
These are the kinds of litanies I use, to compose myself. (19.8-9)
The narrator is often thinking about words and their meanings, origins, uses, etc. Even though she's not allowed to read anymore, the narrator clings to words like lifejackets, using them "to compose [her]self." The words and their various meanings remind her of who she is.
When I get out of here, if I'm ever able to set this down, in any form, even in the form of one voice to another, it will be a reconstruction then too, at yet another remove. It's impossible to say a thing exactly the way it was, because what you say can never be exact, you always have to leave something out. (23.3)
Here the narrator provides an excuse for why her story isn't always the absolute truth or "exactly the way it was." She's already creating a "reconstruction" by telling this story, so if she wrote it later it would just be another one. Her statement "if I'm ever able to set this down" is tricky in light of the book's ending, which says that everything we just read has been transcribed from an audiotape. So is what we're reading what's already "set down"? Or did the narrator write it elsewhere, later? Should this be proof of her escape or that she didn't make it?
In fact I don't think about anything of the kind. I put it in only afterwards. Maybe I should have thought about that, at the time, but I didn't. As I said, this is a reconstruction. (23.57)
Here, the narrator undermines the "truthiness" of her narrative. She tells us she did something and then takes it back: "I don't think about anything of the kind. I put it in only afterwards." This admission also takes us out of the present moment of the narrative, making it seem less real and immediate.
This is what she says, whispers, more or less. I can't remember exactly, because I had no way of writing it down. I've filled it out for her as much as I can: we didn't have much time so she just gave the outlines. [...] I've tried to make it sound as much like her as I can. It's a way of keeping her alive. (38.37)
The narrator explains why she tells this part of Moira's story in Moira's voice, rather than in the third person, as she told others' stories earlier in the book. She says this is "a way of keeping [Moira] alive" and of helping her imagine Moira is with her again.
Here is what I'd like to tell. I'd like to tell a story about how Moira escaped, for good this time. Or if I couldn't tell that, I'd like to say she blew up Jezebel's, with fifty Commanders inside it. I'd like her to end with something daring and spectacular, some outrage, something that would befit her. But as far as I know that didn't happen. I don't know how she ended, or even if she did, because I never saw her again. (38.69)
The narrator is using imagination as wish fulfillment here. As she tells her audience this story, she invents "something daring and spectacular" that "befit[s]" her best friend. Then, sadly, she has to return to the more prosaic reality: she doesn't know what happened to Moira, and neither do we.
I wish this story were different. I wish it were more civilized. I wish it showed me in a better light [...] I wish it had more shape. I wish it were about love [...] (41.1)
In contrast to the moments in the text when the narrator seems unreliable, here she reinforces her reliability by stating what the story isn't and lamenting what it is. She treats it as a real fact that can't be altered—in contrast to moments where she calls it a "reconstruction" (23.57). Because she does so, it seems like she doesn't have the power to change it.
I've only been to one of these before, two years ago. Women's Salvagings are not frequent. There is less need for them. These days we are so well behaved.
I don't want to be telling this story. (42.6-7)
Even though the narrator doesn't "want to be telling this story," she is. Why? Why is this such an essential element of the story that's unfolding? Maybe this episode is like medicine, included for our own good. Maybe it's included because it's such an essential part of what comes after. Maybe the narrator doesn't want to talk about it because of her fear that she might be Salvaged one day.
I have seen the kicking feet and the two in black who now seize hold of them and drag downward with all their weight. I don't want to see it anymore. I look at the grass instead. I describe the rope. (42.27)
Even though the executions aren't something the narrator "want[s] to see [...] anymore," she still includes them in her story by describing a previous one. It's as though even though she doesn't want to watch what happens, she can't escape it. She still has to go to the Salvaging, and because she has to go, we have to read about it too.