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The Handmaid's Tale: Chapter 41 analysis photo, Offred, June, Nick

The Handmaid’s Tale: Chapter 41 analysis

I WISH THIS story were different. I wish it were more civilized. I wish it showed me in a better light, if not happier, then at least more active, less hesitant, less distracted by trivia. I wish it had more shape. I wish it were about love, or about sudden realizations important to one’s life, or even about sunsets, birds, rainstorms, or snow.
Maybe it is about those things, in a sense; but in the meantime there is so much else getting in the way, so much whispering, so much speculation about others, so much gossip that cannot be verified, so many unsaid words, so much creeping about and secrecy. And there is so much time to be endured, time heavy as fried food or thick fog; and then all at once these red events, like explosions, on streets otherwise decorous and matronly and somnambulant.
I’m sorry there is so much pain in this story. I’m sorry it’s in fragments, like a body caught in crossfire or pulled apart by force. But there is nothing I can do to change it.
I’ve tried to put some of the good things in as well. Flowers, for instance, because where would we be without them?
Nevertheless it hurts me to tell it over, over again. Once was enough: wasn’t once enough for me at the time? But I keep on going with this sad and hungry and sordid, this limping and mutilated story, because after all I want you to hear it, as I will hear yours too if I ever get the chance, if I meet you or if you escape, in the future or in Heaven or in prison or underground, some other place. What they have in common is that they’re not here. By telling you anything at all I’m at least believing in you, I believe you’re there, I believe you into being. Because I’m telling you this story I will your existence. I tell, therefore you are.
So I will go on. So I will myself to go on. I am coming to a part you will not like at all, because in it I did not behave well, but I will try nonetheless
to leave nothing out. After all you’ve been through, you deserve whatever I have left, which is not much but includes the truth.

The Handmaid’s Tale, chapter 41.

This chapter is a turning point for Offred is no longer a victim but an active agent ready to give an extraordinary account of her affair with Nick and the salvaging afterward.

She will try to fulfill her quest or relationships and reciprocity through the experience with Nick and then honesty to her imaginary reader, promising him/her to tell the truth.

Dismemberment and fragmentation

Fragmentation annoys her and weighs heavily on her: she is a trapped mind wandering endlessly in a maze. The plotline constantly jumps about, each paragraph is unrelated to the previous and next one.

Fragmentation positions Offred as a victim of Gilead: the fragmented quality of her writing becomes a graphic representation of Gilead’s influence on the narrator’s psychological balance.

She is also a victim in the process of story-telling for she appears unable to control what she tells. This idea is reinforced by another quote: “it isn’t a story I’m telling”, underlining that her mission is not to make things up and to beautify reality but to render things as they truly are.

Her mission is to get a message across, it has a didactic purpose: “after all I want you to hear it”.

“I’m sorry that it’s in fragments, like a body caught in crossfire and pulled apart by force”

  • there is a parallel between the body and the text
  • the fragmented text represents her own fragmented body

The text becomes less fragmented as she manages to write about her affair with Nick (“write her body”).

Besides, both tale and body are dismembered for both were violated and maimed. The body is often raped by the commander in the same way as Offred’s tale is said to have been raped or maimed by the two professors who have supposedly reorganized it.

Gradually, the narrator evolves from a denunciation of fragmentation to a search for unity and the confirmation that she exists.

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The Handmaid's Tale saison 1 photo

The Handmaid’s Tale: Chapter 5 analysis

A group of people is coming towards us. They’re tourists, from Japan it looks like, a trade delegation perhaps, on a tour of the historic landmarks or out for local colour. They’re diminutive and neatly turned out; each has his or her camera, his or her smile. They look around, bright-eyed, cocking their heads to one side like robins, their very cheerfulness aggressive, and I can’t help staring. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen skirts that short on women. The skirts reach just below the knee and the legs come out from beneath them, nearly naked in their thin stockings, blatant, the high-heeled shoes with their straps attached to the feet like delicate instruments of torture. The women teeter on their spiked feet as if on stilts, but off balance; their backs arch at the waist, thrusting the buttocks out. Their heads are uncovered and their hair too is exposed, in all its darkness and sexuality. They wear lipstick, red, outlining the damp cavities of their mouths, like scrawls on a washroom wall, of the time before.

I stop walking. Ofglen stops beside me and I know that she too cannot take her eyes off these women. 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.

The Japanese tourists come towards us, twittering, and we turn our heads away too late: our faces have been seen.

There’s an interpreter, in the standard blue suit and red-patterned tie, with the winged-eye tie pin. He’s the one who steps forward, out of the group, in front of us, blocking our way. The tourists bunch behind him; one of them raises a camera.

“Excuse me,” he says to both of us, politely enough. “They’re asking if they can take your picture.”

I look down at the sidewalk, shake my head for No. What they must see is the white wings only, a scrap of face, my chin and part of my mouth. Not the eyes. I know better than to look the interpreter in the face. Most of the interpreters are Eyes, or so it’s said.

I also know better than to say Yes. Modesty is invisibility, said Aunt Lydia. Never forget it. To be seen – to be seen – is to be – her voice trembled – penetrated. What you must be, girls, is impenetrable. She called us girls.

Beside me, Ofglen is also silent. She’s tucked her red-gloved hands up into her sleeves, to hide them.

The interpreter turns back to the group, chatters at them in staccato. I know what he’ll be saying, I know the line. He’ll be telling them that the women here have different customs, that to stare at them through the lens of a camera is, for them, an experience of violation.

I’m looking down, at the sidewalk, mesmerized by the women’s feet. One of them is wearing open-toed sandals, the toenails painted pink. I remember the smell of nail polish, the way it wrinkled if you put the second coat on too soon, the satiny brushing of sheer pantyhose against the skin, the way the toes felt, pushed towards the opening in the shoe by the whole weight of the body. The woman with painted toes shifts from one foot to the other. I can feel her shoes, on my own feet. The smell of nail polish has made me hungry.

“Excuse me,” says the interpreter again, to catch our attention. I nod, to show I’ve heard him.

“He asks, are you happy,” says the interpreter. I can imagine it, their curiosity: Are they happy? How can they be happy? I can feel their bright black eyes on us, the way they lean a little forward to catch our answers, the women especially, but the men too: we are secret, forbidden, we excite them.

Ofglen says nothing. There is a silence. But sometimes it’s as dangerous not to speak.

“Yes, we are very happy,” I murmur. I have to say something. What else can I say?

The Handmaid’s Tale, chapter 5.

Introduction

“Gilead is within you” – Offred has absorbed Gilead’s values, yet the assimilation is not complete. She is off-balanced and torn between two sets of values. It is freedom she chooses although she is very reasonable.

The narrator invites the reader to follow her gradual evolution from external focalizer to internal focalizer: she describes but knows the system and therefore is able to criticize it.

The dramatic confrontation of two opposite worlds

Distinct versus indistinct

The focalization is external: she has swallowed the whole of Gilead’s values and viewpoints. As a consequence:

  • tourists are regarded as aliens
  • she has become a stranger to the Japanese tourists
  • there is an opposition between Gilead and the western world

The Japanese tourists are distinct:

  • they have a voice of their own, as well as an interpreter
  • they are allowed to live their own existence

Conversely, Handmaids are indistinct, all similar: “she called us girls”. They are not allowed to have a face and are reduced to symbols and images, there are no human beings any longer. They are also denied a voice: “I nod”, “murmur”.

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The Handmaid's Tale : Chapter 2 analysis photo, Offred in her room

The Handmaid’s Tale: Chapter 2 analysis

A chair, a table, a lamp. Above, on the white ceiling, a relief ornament in the shape of a wreath, and in the centre of it a blank space, plastered over, like the place in a face where the eye has been taken out. There must have been a chandelier, once. They’ve removed anything you could tie a rope to.

A window, two white curtains. Under the window, a window seat with a little cushion. When the window is partly open – it only opens partly – the air can come in and make the curtains move. I can sit in the chair, or on the window seat, hands folded, and watch this. Sunlight comes in through the window too, and falls on the floor, which is made of wood, in narrow strips, highly polished. I can smell the polish. There’s a rug on the floor, oval, of braided rags. 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?

On the wall above the chair, a picture, framed but with no glass: a print of flowers, blue irises, watercolour. Flowers are still allowed. Does each of us have the same print, the same chair, the same white curtains, I wonder? Government issue?

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’s 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 watercolour picture of blue irises, and why the window only opens 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.

So. 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. This is what we are now. The circumstances have been reduced; for those of us who still have circumstances.

But a chair, sunlight, flowers: these are not to be dismissed. I am alive, I live, I breathe, I put my hand out, unfolded, into the sunlight. Where I am is not a prison but a privilege, as Aunt Lydia said, who was in love with either/or.

The bell that measures time is ringing. Time here is measured by bells, as once in nunneries. As in a nunnery too, there are few mirrors.

I get up out of the chair, advance my feet into the sunlight, in their red shoes, flat-heeled to save the spine and not for dancing. The red gloves are lying on the bed. I pick them up, pull them onto my hands, finger by finger. Everything except the wings around my face is red: the colour of blood, which defines us. The skirt is ankle-length, full, gathered to a flat yoke that extends over the breasts, the sleeves are full. The whitewings too are prescribed issue; they are to keep us from seeing, but also from being seen. I never looked good in red, it’s not my colour. I pick up the shopping basket, put it over my arm.

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 centre, dusty pink. Like a path through the forest, like a carpet for royalty, it shows me the way.

The carpet bends and goes down the front staircase and I go with it, one hand on the banister, once a tree, turned in another century, rubbed to a warm gloss. Late Victorian, the house is, a family house, built for a large rich family. There’s a grandfather clock in the hallway, which doles out time, and then the door to the motherly front sitting room, with its flesh tones and hints. A sitting room in which I never sit, but stand or kneel only. At the end of the hallway, above the front door, is a fanlight of coloured glass: flowers, red and blue.

There remains a mirror, on the hall wall. If I turn my head so that the white wings framing my face direct my vision towards it, I can see it as I go down the stairs, round, convex, a pier-glass, like the eye of a fish, and myself in it like a distorted shadow, a parody of something, some fairy-tale figure in a red cloak, descending towards a moment of carelessness that is the same as danger. A Sister, dipped in blood.

At the bottom of the stairs there’s a hat-and-umbrella stand, the bentwood kind, long rounded rungs of wood curving gently up into hooks shaped like the opening fronds of a fern. There are several umbrellas in it: black, for the Commander, blue, for the Commander’s Wife, and the one assigned to me, which is red. I leave the red umbrella where it is, because I know from the window that the day is sunny. I wonder whether or not the Commander’s wife is in the sitting room. She doesn’t always sit. Sometimes I can hear her pacing back and forth, a heavy step and then a light one, and the soft tap of her cane on the dusty-rose carpet.

The Handmaid’s Tale, chapter 2.

Chapter 2 of The Handmaid’s Tale shows a fragmented vision of the room and details the layout of the house. Offred seems to have a very clear awareness although nothing is explicit. However fragmented she is, she is clearsighted about Gilead in very strategic places in the text, in a very subtle way so she would not be accused if she ever happened to be discovered.

This passage is the beginning of the second chapter of The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. Offred, the main character, is alone in a bedroom. First, we will see how she describes her environment. Then, we will focus on how Offred reflects on Gilead and the Handmaids’ behaviour. Finally, we will analyze Offred’s coping with the system.

Strategic story-telling: a narrator that knows but who “intends to last”

The room

Impression of nudity due to the use of noun phrases at the beginning of:

  • paragraph 1: “a chair, a table, a lamp”
  • paragraph 2: “a window, two white curtains”
  • paragraph 3: “a print of flowers, blue irises, watercolour”
  • paragraph 5: “a bed”
  • paragraph 6: “so”.

Paragraphs 1 and 2 could be seen in black and white. Colour only appears in paragraph 3 with “blue irises”.

This scene can be imagined filmed. The camera would follow the different elements of the description that tend to transform the room into a prison cell.

The house (inside)

Description of the way she takes to go from her room to the hallway: “hallway” (upstairs) and “pink carpet”, “staircase”, “the clock”, “the mirror”, “hat-and-umbrella stand”. All of these elements show she lives in a wealthy house.

As Offred describes her environment, she makes some reflections on Gilead. There is a shift from perception to thought.

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George Orwell - A Final Warning photo

George Orwell – A Final Warning

From the 2003 television docudrama: George Orwell – A Life in Pictures.

Allowing for the book, after all, being a parody, something like 1984 could actually happen. This is the direction the world is going in at the present time.

In our world, there will be no emotions except fear, rage, triumph, and self-abasement. The sex instinct will be eradicated. We shall abolish the orgasm. There will be no loyalty except loyalty to the Party.

But always there will be the intoxication of power. Always, at every moment, there will be the thrill of victory, the sensation of trampling on an enemy who’s helpless.

If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face, forever.

The moral to be drawn from this dangerous nightmare situation is a simple one: don’t let it happen. It depends on you.

Analysis of The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood photo

An analysis of The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

Introduction

Margaret Atwood is a Canadian writer born in 1931, who studied literature in Toronto. In the 1960s, she was a graduate specialist in Harvard and then came back to Canada to teach literature. She was a well-known poet with The Edible Woman (1969), Surfacing (1972), Life before man (1979), The Robber Bride (1993).

Margaret Atwood is a very prolific artist, involved in the feminist movement and human rights issues on the international scene. She takes an interest in the narrative form and draws on different literary genres : Gothic romance, fairy tale, spy thriller, science fiction and history. She challenges the limits of traditional genres.

She takes an interest in social and political issues :

  • relations between men and women
  • fundamentalism and excess of puritanism
  • ecological interest
  • strong defense of basic human rights
  • a warning against oppression

She takes side to protest : The Handmaid’s Tale is a protest, a denunciation of the American way of life and imperialism :

In the States, the machinery of government is out of control, it’s too big […], it runs right over your great democratic ideals.

— Margaret Atwood

America is a starting point to denounce politics. The Handmaid’s Tale encourages a wider view and is set in no specific space and time.

Summary

The Handmaid’s Tale is set in  a near future in the USA. A group of the right-wing fundamentalists has assassinated the American President, over-thrown the elected Congress and denied both jobs and education to women.

All this was facilitated by technological progress:

All they needed to do is to push few buttons. We are cut off.

The Handmaid’s Tale, p107.

They established a new republic called Gilead, on patriarchal lines, derived from the Old Testament in the Bible, 17th century American puritanism and the American New Right from the 1980’s. Women became slaves and homosexuals “gender traitors” (p53). Homosexuals, old women and non-white people are sent to the colonies because they are unwanted.

Infertile women (the result of pollution and nuclear plants accidents leading to a rise in birth defects) are sent to the colonies as well.

Fertile women are indoctrinated by the “Rachel and Leah Centre”, also known as the “Red Centre” and parcelled out to “Commanders”. They are called Handmaids and have to bear the children of the elite.

Women are pressed in 1 of 8 categories :

  • Commanders’ wives
  • Widows
  • Aunts
  • Handmaids
  • Marthas
  • Econowives
  • Jezebels
  • Unwomen (sent to the colonies)

Men do not escape characterization either:

  • Commanders
  • Sons of Jacobs
  • The Eyes (of the Lord)
  • The Angels
  • The Guardians of the Faith

Offred is the narrator of her own story. She is the speaking voice of the novel. As a handmaid, Offred’s body is at the service of a Commander, “for reproductive purposes” (p316). She’s a “national resource”.

Yet, she resists the all-powerful patriarchal laws based on the Bible to tell her story of the silenced female servants.

From the opening line, we are presented a survival narrative and a female resistance :

  • survival of love : affair with Nick
  • flashbacks, sudden jumps backwards in time
  • focus on pre-Gilead (pornography, artificial insemination) and the moral decay associated to such a period.

Her discourse of survival revolves around various contemporary issues : religion (fanaticism and excess), feminism (patriarchal control of women’s bodies), ecology (troubles), a critique of the return to traditional values, and the paradoxes of contemporary feminism.

The historical notes make the epilogue. They give another view on Gilead’s regime and make you think. The narrator is Professor Piexoto, and his speech is delivered at the University of Denay, Nunavit, in the year 2195, a long time after Offred’s narrative. We are encouraged to believe Offred’s story.

The two goals of the historical notes are :

  • fill in some of the background information regarding Gilead and tell how Offred’s story is discovered.
  • it never stops to charge us readers, especially on questions of interpretation : it’s a totally different story with prejudiced views of Offred’s story.

As a conclusion, we shouldn’t forget that the whole novel is full of irony. The truth is out there and not in Piexoto’s speech. Truth is never to be found.

We have the power to choose, to take some distance from what we read. All has been set to make the readers think: “are there any questions?” is addressed to the readers. “Context is all” (p202) : it smacks off the puritan ethos/values.

The New Right is represented by Reagan and Bush. It was very powerful and harked back to puritan inheritance. Gilead is an extreme yet satirized version of the ideology. To what extent does Gilead endorse the shackles (values) of Puritanism ?

  • absolute authority over the population by a male elite acting in the name of God.
  • biblical references  to underwrite its choices and attitudes. (“The penalty for rape is death”) :

It’s a way of imposing a new ideology:

  • intolerance towards the others
  • very rigid hierarchy, with categories of people
  • imposed common rules : self-denial, obedience, strict upbringing and education of women.

Women are supposed to be productive : it’s a narrow-minded and puritan attitude. Offred is nameless : she’s “Of Fred” and “offered”.

Offred is the woman on whom puritan values are applied :

  • side of the captors: she analyses the system.
  • side of the prisoners : she tells her own story.

Offred is not simply a witness, she reveals details on an unknown community. She’s challenging the system. She’s faithful to her values and expresses her distress in theocracy (the combination of politics and religion).

Offred is part of Atwood’s life because she expresses her own distress and disgust for the American system.

At the beginning of the novel, there is a dedication “For Mary Webster…” – Mary Webster was a witch, hanged in the 1680’s and also Atwood’s relative – “and Perry Miller”, who was a great scholar in Harvard.

The dedication is a combination of puritanism of the 17th and 20th centuries, which shows that history repeats itself. Gilead is not the first society poisoned with fanaticism (not the first and won’t be the last) – Roumania with Ceaucescu springs to mind but there are heaps of examples.

We have to be careful and avoid a nightmare like Gilead for our own future. Theocracies should not prevail as the price exacted is slavery and all loss of freedoms.

Utopia and Dystopia

Utopia was first defined in Plato’s Republic (-350 BC). Imaginary and fictions and ideals were praised by Thomas More in Utopia (1516). The better society coincides with the discovery of America.

When you imagine a better society, you condemn the ills of your own society. Thomas More dreams of another society, where you demand social and technological improvements.

Utopia is nowhere to be found. I’m not being critical, utopia is nowhere. It’s a creation of my own. The Handmaid’s Tale is not a utopia for Offred but a dystopia, with an imperfect society but maybe she’s describing a utopia with dystopian elements: a negative vision of tyranny, an ecological disaster. She tells about the negative side of the system and the limits of utopias (which are two in the novel: Gilead and the feminist utopia: how sectarian thinking leads to chaos).

Margaret Atwood rejects the “unique thought”. The exploitation and servitude of women make up the dystopia, as well as the denunciation of totalitarianism (p115) and the denunciation of the dangers of propaganda through the manipulation and abuses of language in Gilead: “Aunts” and “Angels” bear a reassuring emotional connotation when they are in fact instruments of oppression. Offred will find indirect ways of denouncing the system put in place in Gilead.

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The Handmaid's Tale saison 2 photo

The Handmaid’s Tale saison 2

La seconde saison de The Handmaid’s Tale a été diffusée sur HBO.

The Handmaid's Tale saison 2 photo

Offred et d’autres servantes sont emmenées au Fenway Park où on leur fait croire qu’elles seront pendues, mais cela s’avère être une ruse pour les effrayer. Pendant une autre punition, Offred est libéré après que Tante Lydia a été informée de sa grossesse.

Quand elle rejette un repas que Tante Lydia lui donne, on lui montre une servante enceinte, Ofwyatt, enchaînée dans une salle de prison en raison de sa tentative de suicide. Offred accepte de manger, et pendant son repas tante Lydia, qui lui avait dit que ses amis seraient punis pour leur désobéissance mais sa grossesse signifierait qu’elle serait exemptée, amène les autres servantes dans la pièce, et une par une, elles ont la main brûlée à la flamme d’une gazinière.

Plus tard, Offred subit un examen de grossesse et reçoit la visite de Fred et Serena, mais après avoir trouvé une clé dans une de ses bottes, elle s’échappe jusqu’à une camionnette garée sous l’hôpital. La fourgonnette la dépose dans une maison sûre à Back Bay, où elle rencontre Nick, tandis que Fred ordonne une traque massive. Nick lui dit de changer de tenue et de se couper les cheveux. Après avoir enlevé sa robe de servante, elle la brûle avant de couper la marque rouge de son oreille.

Dans un flashback, Hannah est admise à l’hôpital pour avoir eu de la fièvre pendant ses cours; June est interrogée par l’un des employés de l’hôpital sur le fait de donner des médicaments à Hannah pour contourner la politique sur la fièvre de l’école, remettant en question l’aptitude de June et Luke en tant que parents. Plus tard, ils arrivent à la maison et découvrent que le Capitole et la Maison Blanche sont attaqués…

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The Handmaid's Tale saison 1 photo

The Handmaid’s Tale saison 1

The Handmaid’s Tale est une série télévisée créée par Bruce Miller, basée sur le roman éponyme de Margaret Atwood, paru en 1985.

The Handmaid's Tale saison 1 photo

Dans un avenir proche, la combinaison de pollutions environnementales et de maladies sexuellement transmissibles a entraîné une baisse dramatique de la fécondité qui a pour conséquence un taux de natalité extrêmement bas.

Les « Fils de Jacob », une secte politico-religieuse protestante de type restaurationniste et aux accents fondamentalistes, en a profité pour prendre le pouvoir, détruisant la Maison-Blanche, la Cour suprême et le Congrès lors d’un coup d’État.

Dans cette version dystopique et totalitaire des États-Unis, la République de Gilead, les dissidents, les homosexuels et les prêtres catholiques sont condamnés à mort par pendaison.

Les relations hommes/femmes obéissent dorénavant à des règles très strictes. Alors que les hommes occupent toutes les positions du pouvoir, les femmes ont été démises de leur statut de citoyennes à part entière.

Elles ne peuvent ni travailler, ni posséder d’argent, ni être propriétaires, ni lire. Elles sont catégorisées selon leur fonction : les Épouses (habillées en bleu/vert) sont les femmes des dirigeants, les Martha (en gris) s’occupent de la maisonnée et les Servantes (en rouge pourpre) sont uniquement dédiées à la reproduction, sous la surveillance rigide des Tantes (en marron).

Les Servantes sont affectées au sein des familles dirigeantes, jusqu’à ce qu’elles mettent au monde les enfants tant désirés.

La série suit le parcours de June, une femme devenue servante sous le nom d’ Offred (car au service du commandant Fred Waterford).