The Handmaid’s Tale

Margaret Atwood
Quotes

Harvard University

Quotes Harvard University
To the right, if you could walk along, there’s a street that would take you down towards the river. There’s a boathouse, where they kept the sculls once, and some bridges; trees, green banks, where you could sit and watch the water, and the young men with their naked arms, their oars lifting into the sunlight as they played at winning. On the way to the river are the old dormitories, used for something else now, with their fairy-tale turrets, painted white and gold and blue.

As Offred and Ofglen walk around the business section, Offred thinks about what lies down one of the streets that is now forbidden to them. She recalls the Harvard boathouse and dormitories, using specific words and phrases—“sunlight,” “played at winning,” “fairy-tale turrets”—all of which promote an image of Harvard as a carefree place filled with promise and joy. The fact that these buildings and idyllic surroundings are just out of reach shows that Offred has been cut off from even the simple pleasures of life and emphasizes how barren existence must now feel to her.

The Wall is hundreds of years old too . . . Now the gates have sentries and there are ugly new floodlights mounted on metal posts above it, and barbed wire along the bottom and broken glass set in concrete along the top. No one goes through those gates willingly. The precautions are for those trying to get out . . . Beside the main gateway there are six more bodies hanging, by the necks[.]

What Offred calls “the Wall” is actually the Johnston Gate, the main entrance to Harvard Yard, the oldest part of the campus. The Wall gains symbolic resonance due to how drastically its meaning has changed in the Gilead era. Where Harvard Yard once represented an esteemed, open place of learning, now it houses the deadly headquarters of the secret police. In the pre-Gilead era, young people would dream of entering the gates of Harvard University as students, but now the gate locks people inside where they experience numerous horrors.

The Library is like a temple. There’s a long flight of white steps, leading to the rank of doors. Then, inside, another white staircase going up. To either side of it, on the wall, there are angels. Also there are men fighting, or about to fight, looking clean and noble, not dirty and bloodstained and smelly the way they must have looked . . . They won’t have destroyed that.

As Offred recalls the interior of Harvard’s Widener Library, she focuses on its temple-like appearance and a pair of murals that honor soldiers who died in World War I. Offred muses on how the artist chose to represent the men in an unrealistic way, rendering them clean and pure, almost deifying them. Her thoughts form inherent contrasts: white versus red blood, clean versus dirty, hinting at the opposition of Cambridge and Gilead. Despite the cruelty and death around her, the library remains a holy place and represents hope.

Moira told me once that it [Memorial Hall] used to be where the undergraduates ate, in the earlier days of the university. If a woman went in there, they'd throw buns at her, she said. Why? I said . . . To make her go out, said Moira.

Memorial Hall is another Harvard location that Offred associates with her past, but the building’s resonance derives not from its purpose but from what she remembers about it: male students reacting negatively to the presence of women in their midst. This anecdote makes clear that sexism was rampant during Offred’s college years, helping readers understand how toxic patriarchal fanatics were able to overthrow the U.S. government and serving as a warning to all democratic societies of their frailty.

We file onto the wide lawn in front of what used to be the library. The white steps going up are still the same, the main entrance is unaltered. There’s a wooden stage erected on the lawn, something like the one they used every spring, for Commencement, in the time before. I think of . . . the black gowns the students would put on, and the red ones. But this stage is not the same after all, because of the three wooden posts that stand on it, with the loops of rope.

As the handmaids prepare to watch a Salvaging, Offred recalls how this same space was once used for college graduations. Her language conflates the past and present; some elements remain the same, such as the steps and the entrance, but a means of execution has now been added. Further, Offred recalls the gowns the graduates wore—black for undergrads and red for doctoral students—presaging the black gowns of the executioners and the color red that has come to symbolize handmaids, blood, and violence. This location highlights the incongruity of the appropriation of a place of learning with one of ignorance and violence.