We yearned for the future. How did we learn it, that talent for insatiability? It was in the air; and it was still in the air, an afterthought, as we tried to sleep, in the army cots that had been set up in rows, with spaces between so we could not talk. We had flannelette sheets, like children’s, and army-issue blankets, old ones that still said U.S. We folded our clothes neatly and laid them on the stools at the ends of our beds. Aunt Sara and Aunt Elizabeth patrolled; they had electric cattle prods slung on thongs from their leather belts.
In this passage early in the novel, the narrator (whose name we later learn is Offred) presents the stark contrast of hope and curiosity, or yearning toward an unknown possibility that surely must be better than the bleak, threatening, utilitarian place in which she and the other handmaids find themselves. The army-issued cots and blankets tell of a battle that has happened or is happening. The subtle aside that the “old” blankets “still said U.S.” reveals that Gilead has been victorious and supplanted the United States. The women sleeping in the well-organized cots—set up at such a remove from one another to prevent them speaking to one another—have been there long enough to know to fold their clothes neatly, lest their jailers, the Aunts, have cause to unsling the cattle prods from their belts.
A chair, a table, a lamp. Above, on the white ceiling, a relief ornament in the shape of a wreath, and in the center 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. . .
When the window is partly open—it only opens partly—the air can come in and make the curtains move. . . . 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.
This passage describes the puritanical simplicity of Offred’s room inside the Commander’s house. The barest minimum of furnishings and many limitations prevent anything untoward from happening to the woman who lives in it. The room is essentially a prison cell, with no lock upon its door, because privacy is not something handmaids are afforded. Offred draws attention to both the removals, like the chandelier, which has left a blank space she likens to a missing eye, and to the prescribed nature of the non-essential addition of the rug, which reinforces one of the tenets of Gilead’s society: women should be productive. Women’s productive purpose and industry form the backbone of Gilead, even as men determine how each woman can best serve Gilead’s goals.
The lawns are tidy, the facades are gracious, in good repair; they’re like the beautiful pictures they used to print in the magazines about homes and gardens and interior decoration. There is the same absence of people, the same air of being asleep. The street is almost like a museum, or a street in a model town constructed to show the way people used to live. As in those pictures, those museums, those model towns, there are no children.
This is the heart of Gilead, where the war cannot intrude except on television. Where the edges are we aren’t sure, they vary, according to the attacks and counterattacks; but this is the center, where nothing moves. The Republic of Gilead, said Aunt Lydia, knows no bounds. Gilead is within you.
This passage describes the external perfection of the “heart of Gilead,” which belies the corruption at its center. Offred likens the empty, perfect neighborhood to magazine photos, museum dioramas, or model towns, observing the oppressive vacancy of the streets. There are no people here and notably no children play on the tidy lawns, which creates an unnatural quiet. Here in the heart of Gilead, “the war cannot intrude.” While she cannot know how big Gilead has literally become—how much territory in what was once the United States it now occupies—Offred does know that here, in the center, all of the changes its emergence has brought about seem permanent. Offred’s observations are often punctuated by select tidbits of her reeducation, as here, with Aunt Lydia’s remark that Gilead is “within.”
We go up the stairs, single file, being careful not to step on the trailing hems of each other’s dresses. To the left, the double doors to the dining room are folded back, and inside I can see the long table, covered with a white cloth and spread with a buffet: ham, cheese, oranges – they have oranges! – and fresh-baked breads and cakes. As for us, we’ll get milk and sandwiches, on a tray, later. . . . They’re gathered in the sitting room on the other side of the stairway now, cheering on the Commander’s Wife, the Wife of Warren. A small thin woman, she lies on the floor, in a white cotton nightgown, her graying hair spreading like mildew over the rug; they massage her tiny belly, just as if she’s really about to give birth herself.
This passage describes the set-up for the Birth Day that Offred attends for Ofwarren, who Offred knew as Janine in the re-education center. The description is reminiscent of contemporary baby showers or baptism celebrations and historical birthings attended by midwives and the women of the community. Offred observes the richness of their fare, and contrasts it to the milk and sandwiches provided to the handmaids. The narrator describes the ritual tableau of the Commander’s Wife playacting labor while the other Wives fill the roles of faux midwives. Meanwhile, the handmaids are closeted upstairs with Ofwarren, chanting her through the early stages of labor. While Ofwarren is the one laboring, the Commander’s Wife will be praised as though the birth were her own accomplishment.
What is on the other side looks like normal life. I should say: what is on the other side looks like normal life. There is a desk, of course, with a Computalk on it, and a black leather chair behind it. There’s a potted plant on the desk, a pen-holder set, papers. There’s an oriental rug on the floor, and a fireplace without a fire in it. There’s a small sofa, covered in brown plush, a television set, an end table, a couple of chairs.
But all around the walls there are bookcases. They’re 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.
When Offred first enters the Commander’s study, she is assailed by all the trappings of life before the rise of Gilead. Commonplace objects take on an allure and exoticism because they are so far outside of her current existence. She notes the Commander’s access to information and communication, via the computer and the television, but it is the shelves of unrepentant books, which are strictly forbidden to the handmaids, that draw most of her attention because they show the hypocrisy of those in power over those whom they have subjugated. She rightly labels the Commander’s study an “oasis of the forbidden.” Not only are the objects inside forbidden, but the Commander breaks a law by inviting her to his study, Nick breaks a law by conveying his request, and Offred transgresses the law by heeding the request— although she really could not have refused it.
Not a dandelion in sight here, the lawns are picked clean. I long for one, just one, rubbishy and insolently random and hard to get rid of and perennially yellow as the sun. Cheerful and plebeian, shining for all alike.
In this passage, Offred observes the clinical neatness of the lawns in Gilead, in which not even a single dandelion can grow, as she and Ofglen, and the other handmaids, make their way to the Prayvaganza. Offred longs for a dandelion to break up the false perfection of the perfectly manicured lawns, in much the same way she revels in her memories of Moira and her escape, desperate for some tangible proof that nature is working against the forces of Gilead.