Study Guide

The Handmaid's Tale Love

By Margaret Atwood

Love

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.

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