Study Guide

The Handmaid's Tale The Home

By Margaret Atwood

The Home

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 s***s, 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.

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