The Handmaids Tale
By Margaret Atwood
Publisher: Ballantine Books 1985
I have done something different with this one. I have started with the last chapter then jumped back to the first. I have done so because it will explain the book so as to make it more understandable. Once when someone read this book it was usually with an understanding of the nature of what they would read from having it recommended by someone that had read it but as the reading of books has declined with millennials since Facebook and Twitter and such I find many have not even heard of it.
The book is written in diary form by a young woman in a future society after the Western civilization we now know in the US collapsed and was replaced with a theocracy. It represents the thoughts and emotions, in bits and pieces, of this young woman caught in this nightmare that often are references to something a number of pages prior. As in a diary the thoughts are often seemingly disjointed and random but make sense in the overall picture. I have quoted bits and pieces of parts that are interesting thoughts by themselves but would have much more meaning if the book was read and the dots could be connected in the readers mind. It is not the type of book that could be easily condensed and retain its meaning. Much of the society can be overlaid with past theocracies of European history when religion “ran the show”. It could very easily be compared to aspects of historical Judaism and Christianity and could much more easily be compared to present day Islam and their vision for a global world. That was not a politically correct statement but that is a correct, factual and accurate statement.
The theocracy was established when terrorists assassinated the entire government leadership. It was blamed on Muslims but throughout the story you can safely assume it was people in the US government. I find it interesting and prophetic the author used Islam as the boogeyman. At that time Islam had not become the threat it is today. It would have been more keeping with the times it was written, during the cold war, in to make the communists responsible for the attack.
The reason I skipped to the final chapter first is because it is about an historical society meeting of educated historians discussing the diary about 150 years after the theocracy, known as Gilead, collapsed. By reading this first it will make the rest of the report make better sense. It is one of those books that rank beside the futuristic works of H.G. Wells, George Orwell and Ray Bradbury. Dire warnings we seem to be ignoring.
Final section: Historical Notes on THE HANDMAID’S TALE
“Being a partial transcript of the proceedings of the Twelfth Symposium on Gileadean Studies, held as part of the International Historical Association Convention, held at the University of Denay, Nunavit on June 25, 2195.” Page 379
“. . . I wish, as the title of my little chat implies, to consider some of the problems associated with the soi-disant manuscript which is well known to all of you by now, and which goes by the title of The Handmaid’s Tale.
“This item – I hesitate to use the word document – was unearthed on the site of what was once the city of Bangor, in what, at the time prior to the inception of the Gileadean regime, would have been the state of Maine.” Page 381
“. . . . If I may be permitted an editorial aside, allow me to say that in my opinion we must be cautious about passing moral judgment upon the Gileadeans. Surely we have learned by now that such judgments are of necessity culture-specific. Also, Gileadean society was under a good deal of pressure, demographic and otherwise, and was subject to factors from which we ourselves are happily more free. Our job is not to censure but to understand. (Applause). Page 385
“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 nonmarital liaisons adulteress, 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 are 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 birthrates, a phenomena observable not only in Gilead but in most northern Caucasian societies of the time.
“The reasons for this decline are not altogether clear to us. Some of the failure to reproduce can undoubtedly be traced to the widespread availability of birth control of various kinds, including abortion, in the immediate pre-Gilead period. Some infertility, then, was willed, which may account for the differing statistics among Caucasians and non–Caucasians; but the rest was not. Need I remind you that this was the age of the R-strain syphilis and also of the infamous AIDS epidemic, which, once they spread to the population at large, eliminated many young sexually active people from the reproductive pool? Stillbirths, miscarriages, and genetic deformities were widespread in on the increase, and this trend has been linked to the various nuclear-plant accidents, shutdowns, and incidence of sabotage that characterized the period, as well as to leakages from chemical- and biological-warfare stockpiles and toxic-waste disposal sites, of which there were many thousands, both legal and illegal – in some instances these materials were simply dumped into the sewage system – into uncontrolled use of chemical insecticides, herbicides, and other sprays.” Page 385/386
“. . . . they thus replaced the serial polygamy, and in the pre-Gilead period where the older form of simultaneous polygamy practiced both in the early Old Testament times and in the former state of Utah in the nineteenth century. As we know from the study of history, no system can impose itself upon a previous one without incorporating many of the elements to be found in the latter, as witness the pagan elements in medieval Christianity and evolution of the Russian “KGB” from the sorriest secret service that preceded it; . . .” Page 386/387
Here he is speaking of the handmaid author of the manuscript: “she does not see fit to supply us with her original name, and indeed all official records of it would have been destroyed upon her entry into the Rachel and Leah Re-education Center.” see Page 387
“. . . .the President’s Day Massacre, which must have required maximum infiltration of the security system surrounding Congress, and without which the Constitution could never have been suspended. . . . . ” Page 389
“It is Judd who is credited with devising the form, as opposed to the name, of the Particicution ceremony, arguing that was not only a particularly horrifying effective way of ridding yourself of subversive elements but that would also act as a steam valve for the female elements in Gilead. Scapegoats have been notoriously useful throughout history, and it must’ve been most gratifying for these Handmaids, so rigidly controlled and other times, to be able to Karen and part with their bare hands every once in a while. . . . As the architects of Gilead knew, to Institute an effective totalitarian system or indeed any system at all and you must offer some benefits and freedoms, at least to a privileged few, in return for those you remove.” Page 389/390
“. . . . Our document, though in its own way eloquent, is on these subjects mute. We may call Eurydice forth from the world of the dead, but we cannot make her answer; and when we turn to look at her glimpse her only for a moment, before she slips from our grasp and flees. As all historians know, the past is a great darkness, and filled with echoes. Voices may reach us from it; do what they say to us is imbued with the obscurity of the matrix of which they come; and, try as we may, we cannot always decide for them precisely and clearer light of our own day.” Page 394
“No guns though, even they could not be trusted with guns. Guns are for the guards, specially picked from the Angels. The guards weren’t allowed inside the building except when called, and we weren’t allowed out, except for our walks, twice-daily, two by two around the football field, which was enclosed now by a chain-link fence topped with Barb wire. The angel stood outside it with their backs to us. They were objects of fear to us, but of something else as well. If only they would look. If only we could talk to them. Something can be exchanged, we thought, some deal made, some trade-off, we still had our bodies. That was our fantasy.” Page 4
“A chair, a table, a lamp. Above, on the white ceiling, a relief ornament in the shape of a wreath, …… There must have been a chandelier, once. They’ve removed anything you could tie a rope to.
“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?” Page 9
“Think of it as being in the army, said Aunt Lydia.
“A bed. Single mattress medium-hard, covered with a flocked white spread. Nothing takes place in the bed but sleep; or no sleep. I try not to think too much. Like other things now, thought must be rationed. There is a lot that doesn’t bear thinking about. Thinking can hurt your chances, and I intend to last. 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 shatterproof. 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.” Page 10
“In here, said the Commander’s Wife.
“I stood in front of her, hands folded. ‘So’, she said. She had a cigarette, and she put it between her lips and gripped it there while she lit it. Her lips were thin, held that way, with a small vertical lines around them you used to see in the advertisements for lip cosmetics. The lighter was ivory-colored. The cigarettes must have come from the black market, I thought, and this gave me hope. Even now that there is no real money anymore, there’s still a black market. There’s always a black market, there’s always something that can be exchanged. She then was a woman who might bend the rules, but what did I have, to trade?” Page 19
“’Yes ma’am’, I said.
“’Don’t call me ma’am’, she said irritably. ‘You’re not a Martha’.
“I didn’t ask what I was supposed to call her, because I could see that she hoped I would never have the occasion to call her anything at all. I was disappointed. I wanted, then, to turn her into an older sister, a motherly figure, someone who would understand and protect me. The Wife in my posting before this had spent most of her time in her bedroom; the Marthas said she drank. I wanted this one to be different. I wanted to think I would have liked her, in another time and place, and other life. But I can see already that I wouldn’t have liked her, nor she me.” Page 21
“He has a cigarette stuck a corner of his mouth, which shows that he too has something great on the black market.”
“. . . Low status: he hasn’t been issued a woman, not even one.”
“Perhaps he is an Eye [Spy].” Page 24
“. . . We are allowed to go there except in twos. This is supposed to be for our protection, though the notion is absurd: we are well protected already. The truth is that she is my spy, as I am hers. If either of us slips through the net because of something that happens on one of our daily walks, the other will be accountable.” Page 25
“These two are very young: one mustache is still sparse, one face is still blotchy. Their youth is touching, but I know I can’t be deceived by it. The young ones are often the most dangerous, the most fanatical, the jumpiest with their guns. They haven’t yet learned about existence through time. You have to go slowly with them.” Page 27
“If they do think; you can’t tell by looking at them.” Page 29
“. . . there are no children.” Page 31
“. . . some in the striped dresses, red and blue and green and cheat and skimpy, that Mark the women of the poor men. Econowives they are called.” Page 32
“Women were not protected then.
“I remember the rules, rules that were never spelled out but every woman knew: don’t open your door to a stranger, even if he says he is the police. Making slide his ID under the door. Don’t stop on the road to help a motorist pretending to be in trouble. Keep the locks on and keep going. If anyone whistles, don’t turn to look. Don’t go into a laundromat, by yourself, at night.
“I think about laundromats. What I wore to them: shorts, jeans, jogging pants. What I put into them: my own clothes, my own soap, my own money, money I had earned myself. I think about having such control.
“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.” Page 33
“. . . There is a silence. But sometimes it is dangerous not to speak.” Page 39
“. . ., Since evidence from a single woman is no longer admissible;. . . .” Page 44
“Ordinary, said Aunt Lydia, is what you are used to. This may not seem ordinary to you now, but after a time it will. It will become ordinary.” Page 45
“But there were some women burning books, that’s what she said she was really there for. . .
“There were some men, too, among the women, and the books were magazines. They must’ve poured gasoline, because the flames shot high, and then they began dumping the magazines, from boxes, not too many at a time. Some of them were chanting; onlookers gathered.” Page 50
“I would like to believe this is a story I’m telling. I need to believe it. I must believe it. Those who can believe that such stories are only stories have a better chance.
“If it’s a story I’m telling, then I have control over the ending. Then there will be an ending, to the story in real life will come after it. I can pick up where I left off.
“It isn’t a story I’m telling.” Page 52
“My nakedness is strange to me already. My body seems outdated. 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.” Page 82
“I wait, washed, brushed, fed, like a prize pig. Sometime in the eighties they invented pig balls, for pigs who are being fattened in pens. Pig balls were large colored balls; the pigs roll them around with their snouts. The big marketers said it improve their muscle tone; the pigs were curious, they like to have something to think about.
“I read about that in Introduction to Psychology; that, in the chapter on caged rats who give themselves electric shocks for something to do. And the one on the pigeons, trained to peck a button that made grain of corn appear. Three groups of them: the first one got one grain per peck, the second one grain every other peck, the third was random. When the man in charge cut off the grain, the first group gave up quite soon, the second group a little later. The third group never gave up. They’d Peck themselves to death, rather than quit. Who knew what worked?
“I wish I had a pig ball.” Page 90
“I rub the butter over my face, working into the skin of my hands. There’s no longer any hand lotion or face cream, not for us. Such things are considered vanities the region we are containers, it’s only the insides of our bodies that are important. The outside can become hard in wrinkled, for all they care, like the shell of a not.
“To such devices we have descended.” Page 124/125
“He finds it painful to move his hands, painful to move. He doesn’t know what he’s accused of. A problem. There must be something, some accusation. Otherwise why are they keeping him, why isn’t he already dead? You must know something they want to know. I can imagine. I can imagine he hasn’t already said whenever it is. I would.
“. . . I have to believe so. In reduced circumstances you have to believe all kinds of things. I believe in thought transference now, vibrations in the ether, that sort of junk. I never used to.” Pages 133/134
“The things I believe can’t all be true, though one of them must be. But I believe in all of them, all three versions of Luke, at one and the same time. This contradictory way of believing seems to me, right now, the only way can believe anything. Whatever the truth is, I will be ready for it.” Page 135
“Not a hope. I know where I am, and who, and what day it is. These are the tests, and I am sane. Sanity is a valuable possession; I hoard the way people once hoarded money. I say that, so I will have enough, when the time comes.” Page 140
“. . . . What will Ofwarren give birth to? A baby, as we all hope? Or something else, an Unbaby, with a pinhead or a snout like a dog’s, or two bodies, or a hole in its heart or no arms, or webbed hands and feet? There’s no telling. They could tell once, with machines, but now that is outlawed. What would be the point of knowing, anyway? You can have them taken out; whenever it is must be carried to term.
“The chances are one in four, we learned that at the Center. The air got too full, once, of chemicals, rays, radiation, the water swarmed with toxic molecules, all of that takes years to clean up, and meanwhile they creep into your body, camp out in your fatty cells. Who knows, your very flesh may be polluted, dirty as an oily beach, sure death to shorebirds in unborn babies. Maybe a vulture would die of eating you. Maybe you light up in the dark, like an old-fashioned watch. Deathwatch. That’s a kind of beetle, it buries carrion.” Page 143
“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 was 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 151
“But all around the walls there are bookcases. There 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.” Page 177
“It was after the catastrophe, when they shot the president and machine-gunned the Congress and the Army declared a state of emergency. They blamed it on the Islamic fanatics, at the time.
“Keep calm, they said on television. Everything is under control.
“I was stunned. Everyone was, I know that. It was hard to believe. The entire government, gone like that. How did they get in, how did it happen?
“That was when they suspended the Constitution. They said it would be temporary. . . . “ Page 225
“We’ve given them more than we’ve taken away, said the Commander. Think of the trouble they had before. Don’t you remember the singles’ bars, the indignity of high school blind dates? The meat market. Don’t you remember the terrible gap between the ones who could get a man easily and the ones who couldn’t some of them were desperate, they starved themselves thin or pumped their breasts full of silicone, they had their noses cut off. Think of the human misery.
“He waved a hand at his stacks of old magazines. They were always complaining. Problems this, problems that. Remember the ads and the personal columns, Bright attractive woman, thirty-five . . . This way they all get a man, nobody’s left out. And then if they did marry, the husband might just get fed up and take off, disappear, they’d have to go on welfare. Or else you stay around and beat them up. Or if they had a job, the children in day care or left with some brutal ignorant woman, and they’d have to pay for that themselves, out of their wretched little paychecks. Money was the only measure of worth, for everyone, they got no respect his mothers. No wonder they were giving up on the whole business. This way their protected, they can fulfill their biological destinies in peace. With full support and encouragement. Now, tell me. You’re intelligent person, I like to hear what you think. What did we overlook?
“Love, I said.” Pages 283/284
“Dear God, I think, I will do anything you like. Now that you’ve let me off, I’ll obliterate myself, if that’s what you really want; I’ll empty myself, truly, become a chalice. I’ll give up Nick, forget about the others, I’ll stop complaining. I’ll accept my lot. I’ll sacrifice. I’ll repent. I’ll abdicate. I’ll renounce.
“I know this can’t be right but I think it anyway. Everything they taught at the Red Center, everything I resisted, comes flooding in. I don’t want pain. I don’t want to be a dancer, my feet in the air, my head of faceless oblong of white cloth. I don’t want to be a doll hung up on the wall, I don’t want to be a wingless Angel. I want to keep on living, in any form. I resign my body freely, to the uses of others. I am an object.
“I feel, for the first time, their true power.” Page 367/368