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. Doctors lived here once, lawyers, university professors. There are no lawyers anymore, and the university is closed.
Early in the novel, Offred shares that she lives in the Republic of Gilead, but the capital has superimposed itself upon the former city of Cambridge, Massachusetts. While readers have already learned many disturbing facts about life in Gilead, Offred specifically alludes to the city’s past as a professional, university town. In the juxtaposition of the two societies, Cambridge/Gilead comes to symbolize this stunning transformation, making readers question how such a society as Gilead evolved, particularly in a city with a well-educated population.
The church is a small one, one of the first erected here, hundreds of years ago. It isn’t used anymore, except as a museum. Inside it you can see paintings, of women in long somber dresses, their hair covered by white caps, and of upright men, darkly clothed and unsmiling. Our ancestors. Admission is free.
Offred and Ofglen often walk the long way home so they can pass a church and visit the adjoining cemetery. The church dates back to the early 1600s, but it links the citizens of Gilead with their Puritan ancestors who settled Cambridge. The first English inhabitants of the area were rigid, sexually repressed, and intolerant, much like their descendants. The church thus represents the merging of the past Cambridge and the present Gilead, strengthening the link between these two seemingly disparate societies.
I don’t go to the river anymore, or over bridges. Or on the subway, although there’s a station right there. We’re not allowed on, there are Guardians now, there’s no official reason for us to go down those steps, ride on the trains under the river, into the main city. Why would we want to go from here to there? We would be up to no good and they would know it.
While shopping with Ofglen, Offred reflects on the changes that have taken place in her life and her city. Her insights point to how much the city has shrunk, both physically and metaphorically, since the rise of the new regime. In the past, Cambridge was an engaged city and part of the much larger world of the Boston metropolitan area. Now, however, this space represents little more than a prison from which Offred sees no hope of escape.
There used to be an ice cream store, somewhere in this block. I can’t remember the name. Things can change so quickly, buildings can be torn down or turned into something else, it’s hard to keep them straight in your mind the way they used to be. You could get double scoops, and if you wanted they would put chocolate sprinkles on the top. These had the name of a man. Johnnies? Jackies? I can’t remember.
In her daily life, Offred continues to be inundated by mental images of what the area once was like, but the details are fading. Through this small and unimportant musing on the name of ice cream sprinkles, which is actually the New England term “jimmies,” Atwood shows that Cambridge symbolizes the world that Offred has lost. While Cambridge is not distant enough to be entirely forgotten, the city now exists only in memory, as does the way of life Offred and others once took for granted.
“By this time I’d hit Mass. Ave. and I knew where I was.[”]
When the two meet at Jezebel’s, Moira tells Offred her story. After escaping the Red Center, Moira found her bearings when she reached Massachusetts Avenue. This main road, which starts in Boston and runs through Cambridge and other cities, helps to define the area; in 1775, Paul Revere followed this route to warn the Patriots that the British were coming. Taken together, these elements make the road symbolize liberty and the world beyond Cambridge/Gilead. Indeed, Moira uses the street to navigate to the home of Quakers who smuggle her close to the Canadian border, with its promise of freedom and safety, before she is recaptured.