The Handmaid’s Tale

by: Margaret Atwood

Chapters 7–9

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.