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The Handmaid’s Tale

Margaret Atwood

Important Quotations Explained

Chapters 45–46 & Historical Notes on The Handmaid’s Tale

Key Facts

1.
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.

This quotation is from the end of Chapter 6. Offred and Ofglen are standing by the Wall, looking at the bodies of people who have been hanged by Gilead. The sight horrifies Offred, but she strains to push aside her repugnance and substitute an emotional “blankness.” As she represses her natural revulsion, she remembers Aunt Lydia’s words about how life in Gilead will “become ordinary.” Aunt Lydia’s statement reflects the power of a totalitarian state like Gilead to transform a natural human response such as revulsion at an execution into “blankness,” to transform horror into normalcy. Aunt Lydia’s words suggest that Gilead succeeds not by making people believe that its ways are right, but by making people forget what a different world could be like. Torture and tyranny become accepted because they are “what you are used to.”

2.
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, and real life will come after it. I can pick up where I left off.

This quotation, from the end of Chapter 7, reflects the connection between Offred’s story, her readers, her lost family, and her inner state. These words suggest that Offred is not recounting events from afar, looking back on an earlier period in her life. Rather, she is describing the horror of Gilead as she experiences it from day to day. For Offred, the act of telling her story becomes a rebellion against her society. Gilead seeks to silence women, but Offred speaks out, even if it is only to an imaginary reader, to Luke, or to God. Gilead denies women control over their own lives, but Offred’s creation of a story gives her, as she puts it, “control over the ending.” Most important, Offred’s creation of a narrative gives her hope for the future, a sense that “there will be an ending . . . and real life will come after it.” She can hope that someone will hear her story, or that she will tell it to Luke someday. Offred has found the only avenue of rebellion available in her totalitarian society: she denies Gilead control over her inner life.

3.
I used to think of my body as an instrument, of pleasure, or a means of transportation, or an implement for the accomplishment of my will . . . Now the flesh arranges itself differently. I’m a cloud, congealed around a central object, the shape of a pear, which is hard and more real than I am and glows red within its translucent wrapping.

This passage is from Chapter 13, when Offred sits in the bath, naked, and contrasts the way she used to think about her body to the way she thinks about it now. Before, her body was an instrument, an extension of her self; now, her self no longer matters, and her body is only important because of its “central object,” her womb, which can bear a child. Offred’s musings show that she has internalized Gilead’s attitude toward women, which treats them not as individuals but as objects important only for the children that they can bear. Women’s wombs are a “national resource,” the state insists, using language that dehumanizes women and reduces them to, as Offred puts it, “a cloud, congealed around a central object, which is hard and more real than I am.”

4.
He was not a monster, to her. Probably he had some endearing trait: he whistled, offkey, in the shower, he had a yen for truffles, he called his dog Liebchen and made it sit up for little pieces of raw steak. How easy it is to invent a humanity, for anyone at all. What an available temptation.

In this quotation, from Chapter 24, Offred remembers a documentary that she watched about a woman who was the mistress of a Nazi death camp guard. She recalls how the woman insisted that her lover was not a “monster,” and she compares that woman’s situation to her own, as she spends her evenings with the Commander and comes to almost like him. The Commander seems like a good person: he is kind, friendly, genial, and even courtly to Offred. Yet he is also the agent of her oppression—both directly, as her Commander, and indirectly, through his role in constructing the oppressive edifice of Gileadean society. Like the concentration camp guard, he is “not a monster, to her”; yet he is still a monster. Offred suggests that it is “easy,” when you know an evil person on a personal level, to “invent a humanity” for them. It is a “temptation,” she says, meaning that no one wants to believe that someone they know is a monster. But in the case of the Commander, that temptation must be resisted. He may be kind and gentle, but he still bears responsibility for the evil of Gilead.

5.
The problem wasn’t only with the women, he says. The main problem was with the men. There was nothing for them anymore . . . I’m not talking about sex, he says. That was part of it, the sex was too easy . . . You know what they were complaining about the most? Inability to feel. Men were turning off on sex, even. They were turning off on marriage. Do they feel now? I say. Yes, he says, looking at me. They do.

This quotation, from the end of Chapter 32, recounts the Commander’s attempt to explain to Offred the reasons behind the foundation of Gilead. His comments are ambiguous, perhaps deliberately so, but they are the closest thing to a justification for the horror of Gilead that any character offers. He suggests that feminism and the sexual revolution left men without a purpose in life. With their former roles as women’s protectors taken away, and with women suddenly behaving as equals, men were set adrift. At the same time, changing sexual mores meant that sex became so easy to obtain that it lost meaning, creating what the Commander calls an “inability to feel.” By making themselves soldiers, providers, and caretakers of society again, men have meaning restored to their lives. This sounds almost noble, except that in order to give meaning to men’s lives, both men and women have lost all freedom. The benefits of the new world are not worth the cost in human misery.

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Cigarettes

by sidlaecarg, October 15, 2013

Offred's thoughts about cigarettes in her new life and the memory of smoking them in her old provides another symbol for control of women's bodies and choices in the Gilead regime. She is a former smoker, but her cigarettes are taken away from her along with many other freedoms when she becomes a handmaid. Offred can no longer smoke because this might harm any children she has yet to bear, though she still yearns for another cigarette whenever she sees one. Offred yearns for the freedoms her old life had to offer. Gilead's removal of cigaret... Read more

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