Dances would have been held there; the music lingered, a palimpsest of unheard sound, style upon style, an undercurrent of drums, a forlorn wail, garlands made of tissue-paper flowers, cardboard devils, a revolving ball of mirrors, powdering the dancers with a snow of light.
A palimpsest is a manuscript in which the original writing has been wiped away in some manner and that has then been reused for a piece of new writing. Atwood uses this word in reference to the society over which Gilead has superimposed itself. As traces of the original work may remain, the word palimpsest, deliberately chosen, symbolizes that Gilead has created itself on the back of what once was the United States. Readers are alerted to be aware of other places the earlier society can be glimpsed and encouraged to compare the two.
The football stadium is that way too, where they hold the Men’s Salvagings. As well as the football games. They still have those.
In this palimpsest, the former purpose of the football stadium at Harvard University is not wholly eclipsed; games are still held there, but the stadium is also used for Salvagings, which is just a euphemistic word for executions. The football stadium implicitly points to the everyday horror that shapes the society of Gilead, while underscoring the painful truth that nothing is what it seems to be in Gilead.
It’s her second baby, she had another child, once, I know that from the Center, when she used to cry about it at night, like the rest of us only more noisily. So she ought to be able to remember this, what it’s like, what’s coming. But who can remember pain, once it’s over? All that remains of it is a shadow, not in the mind even, in the flesh. Pain marks you, but too deep to see. Out of sight, out of mind.
During Janine’s labor, Offred’s comments turn the woman herself into a palimpsest. Unlike Offred, who continually seeks out echoes of the past, Janine seems oblivious to her own history as a woman who has given birth. Janine thus represents a willful ignorance of the past and the lessons that have been learned from it. The conflation of Janine with a palimpsest—something that no longer exists—foreshadows Janine’s eventual downfall.
“It’s like walking into the past,” says the Commander. His voice sounds pleased, delighted even. “Don’t you think?”
One night the Commander takes Offred to Jezebel’s, a secret brothel, which functions as a palimpsest. Not only does Jezebel’s represent an actual attempt to recreate the past, it relies upon the exploitation and hypersexualization of women, both issues that Gilead claims to abhor. As such, Jezebel’s itself and the reaction of the Commander—the stand-in for Gilead’s ruling class—symbolize the utter hypocrisy of its core. The very principles that Gilead claims to support are exposed here as fraudulent and rotten.
“That isn’t a term I remember. I’m surprised you do. You ought to make an effort . . .” She pauses. “To clear your mind of such . . .” She pauses again. “Echoes.”
Offred tests the new Ofglen by alluding to the password of the resistance group, Mayday. Ofglen’s response, quoted here, is a palimpsest that symbolizes a complete acquiescence to Gileadean principles and ways of life. Even though the new Ofglen has awareness of Mayday, she chooses to have no involvement and instead views people in this movement as relics from a past long gone. Ofglen uses her answer to make her loyalties clear to Offred.