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.
At night, Offred likes to remember her former life. She recalls talking to her college friend, Moira, in her dorm room. She remembers being a child and going to a park with her mother, where they saw a group of women and a few men burning pornographic magazines. Offred has forgotten a large chunk of time, which she thinks might be the fault of an injection or pill the authorities gave her. She remembers waking up somewhere and screaming, demanding to know what they had done with her daughter. The authorities told Offred she was unfit, and her daughter was with those fit to care for her. They showed her a photograph of her child wearing a white dress, holding the hand of a strange woman. As she recounts these events, Offred imagines she is telling her story to someone, telling things that she cannot write down, because writing is forbidden.
Returning from another shopping trip, Ofglen and Offred notice three new bodies on the Wall. One is a Catholic priest and two are Guardians who bear placards around their necks that read “Gender Treachery.” This means they were hanged for committing homosexual acts. After looking at the bodies for a while, Offred tells Ofglen that they should continue walking home. They meet a funeral procession of Econowives, the wives of poorer men. One Econowife carries a small black jar. From the size of the jar, Offred can tell that it contains a dead embryo from an early miscarriage—one that came too early to know whether it was an “Unbaby.” The Econowives do not like the Handmaids. One woman scowls, and another spits at the Handmaids as they pass.
At the corner near the Commander’s home, Ofglen says “Under His Eye,” the orthodox good-bye, hesitating as if she wants to say more but then continuing on her way. When Offred reaches the Commander’s driveway she passes Nick, who breaks the rules by asking her about her walk. She says nothing and goes into the house. She sees Serena Joy out in the garden and recalls how after Serena’s singing career ended, she became a spokesperson for respecting the “sanctity of the home” and for women staying at home instead of working. Serena herself never stayed at home, because she was always out giving speeches. Once, Offred remembers, someone tried to assassinate Serena but killed her secretary instead. Offred wonders if Serena is angry that she can no longer be a public figure, now that what she advocated has come to pass and all women, including her, are confined to the home.
In the kitchen, Rita fusses over the quality of the purchases as she always does. Offred retreats upstairs and notices the Commander standing outside her room. He is not supposed to be there. He nods at her and retreats.
Offred remembers renting hotel rooms and waiting for Luke to meet her, before they were married, when he was cheating on his first wife. She regrets that she did not fully appreciate the freedom to have her own space when she wanted it. Thinking of the problems she and Luke thought they had, she realizes they were truly happy, although they did not know it. She remembers examining her room in the Commander’s house little by little after she first arrived. She saw stains on the mattress, left over from long-ago sex, and she discovered a Latin phrase freshly scratched into the floor of the closet: Nolite te bastardes carborundorum. Offred does not understand Latin. It pleases her to imagine that this message allows her to commune with the woman who wrote it. She pictures this woman as freckly and irreverent, someone like Moira. Later, she asks Rita who stayed in her room before her. Rita tells her to specify which one, implying that there were a number of Handmaids before her. Offred says, guessing, “[t]he lively one . . . with freckles.” Rita asks how Offred knew about her, but she refuses to tell Offred anything about the previous Handmaid beyond a vague statement that she did not work out.
Atwood suggests that those who seek to restrict sexual expression, whether they are feminists or religious conservatives, ultimately share the same goal—the control of sexuality, particularly women’s sexuality. In the flashback to the scene from Offred’s childhood in which women burn pornographic magazines, Atwood shows the similarity between the extremism of the left and the extremism of the right. The people burning magazines are feminists, not religious conservatives like the leaders of Gilead, yet their goal is the same: to crack down on certain kinds of sexual freedom. In other words, the desire for control over sexuality is not unique to the religious totalitarians of Gilead; it also existed in the feminist anti-pornography crusades that preceded the fall of the United States. Gilead actually appropriates some of the rhetoric of women’s liberation in its attempt to control women. Gilead also uses the Aunts and the Aunts’ rhetoric, forcing women to control other women. Again and again in the novel, the voice of Aunt Lydia rings in Offred’s head, insisting that women are better off in Gilead, free from exploitation and violence, than they were in the dangerous freedom of pre-Gilead times.
In Chapter 7, Offred relates some of the details of how she lost her child. This loss is the central wound on Offred’s psyche throughout the novel, and the novel’s great source of emotional power. The loss of her child is so painful to Offred that she can only relate the story in fits and starts; so far the details of what happened have been murky. When telling stories from her past, like the story of her daughter’s disappearance, Offred often seems to draw on a partial or foggy memory. It almost seems as if she is remembering details from hundreds of years ago, when we know these things happened a few years before the narrative. Partly this distance is the product of emotional trauma—thinking of the past is painful for Offred. But in Chapter 7, Offred offers her own explanation for these gaps: she thinks it possible that the authorities gave her a pill or injection that harmed her memory.
Immediately after remembering her daughter, Offred addresses someone she calls “you.” She could be talking to God, Luke, or an imaginary future reader. “I would like to believe this is a story I’m telling,” Offred says. “Those who can believe that such stories are only stories have a better chance . . . A story is a letter. Dear You, I’ll say.” In the act of telling her imagined audience about her life, Offred reduces her life’s horror and makes its oppressive weight endurable. Also, if she can think of her life as a story and herself as the writer, she can think of her life as controllable, fictional, something not terrifying because not real.
We learn in Chapter 8 that Serena used to campaign against women’s rights. This makes her a figure worthy of pity, in a way; she supported the anti-woman principles on which Gilead was founded, but once they were implemented, she found that they affected her as well as other women. She now lives deprived of freedom and saddled with a Handmaid who has sex with her husband. Yet Serena forfeits what pity we might feel for her by her callous, petty behavior toward Offred. Powerless in the world of men, Serena can only take out her frustration on the women under her thumb by making their lives miserable. In many ways, she treats Offred far worse than the Commander does, which suggests that Gilead’s oppressive power structure succeeds not just because men created it, but because women like Serena sustain it.
Nolite te bastardes carborundorum—the Latin phrase scrawled in Offred’s closet by a previous Handmaid—takes on a magical importance for Offred even before she knows what it means. It symbolizes her inner resistance to Gilead’s tyranny and makes her feel like she can communicate with other strong women, like the woman who wrote the message. In Chapter 29 we learn what the phrase means, and its role in sustaining Offred’s resistance comes to seem perfectly appropriate.
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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