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The Handmaid's Tale

by Margaret Atwood

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Student Question

What do the narrator's observations in Chapter 2 of The Handmaid's Tale suggest about the society? What evidence in Chapter 3 indicates a recent revolution? How might the epigraphs relate to the novel's message?

Quick answer:

In The Handmaid’s Tale, the narrator Offred is a woman who has been stripped of her identity by a theocratic society, and is forced to submit to their orders in order to survive. Her life consists of performing as a “handmaid” for the society, and she waits each month for her period as if it were an execution. In this chapter we see how she lives in this strange world. Chapter I: The narration begins with Offred describing how she used to live in what she calls “the time before.” She remembers when she was surrounded by other people, how there were stores and places where one could buy things.

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Margaret Atwood's novel The Handmaid's Tale centers on a theocratic dystopia in what was formerly New England. Its main character, the narrator Offred, is a "handmaid," or a woman who is able to give birth and who is therefore forced to do so in order to produce children for the upper classes. As such, she is effectively a prisoner. When, in Chapter II, Offred describes a room consisting of "a chair, a table, a lamp," the sparse room she depicts is, accordingly, akin to a cell, and the comment that "they've removed anything you could tie a rope to" gives us some indication as to the state of mind of those who might be confined to it. In prison cells, rooms are often altered to prevent prisoners committing suicide by hanging; in the same way, this room has been altered so that those living in it cannot hang themselves. This tells us something significant about how people feel about living under these conditions—if this precaution has been taken, it may be because suicides by hanging have already happened.

Because of the nature of the society and its restrictions, "nothing takes place in the bed but sleep, or no sleep"—that is, the bed is not intended for sexual entanglements, but nor are the minds of the handmaids often easy enough to encourage good sleep. In Chapter I, we see how they whisper to each other in the dark, repeating their original names which have been stripped from them. This comment about the beds foreshadows what we will later learn about reproductive freedoms and behavior in this society, as do the Marthas' "private conversations," in which they allude to the ways in which women have performed backstreet abortions. "Stillborn," or "stabbed with a knitting needle," or "toilet cleaner," are some of the things they mention, suggesting that legal abortion has long since been done away with.

We know that the society as it is has not been long established. In the first chapter, we get hints of this from the description of the gymnasium, in which the handmaids are sleeping, the blankets that still say "U.S.," and the lingering smell of sweat. In Chapter III, Offred says that she "once had a garden," suggesting that her status has not always been, in her lifetime, as it is now. We also know that things "haven't settled down, it's too soon, everyone is unsure about their exact status." This indicates to us that the society we see depicted here is still in its infancy: those living within it have not yet come to accept it, just as Offred will not accept that her room is "my room." She remembers what came before.

The epigraphs to the novel all give us some indication of what is really going on in the society we are seeing. The "handmaids" are named after Rachel's handmaid, Bilhah, who, in the Bible, produced a son for Jacob—Bilhah was Jacob's concubine. Meanwhile, Swift's famous satire suggests that the children of the poor should be sold to the rich. Both of these epigraphs then clearly refer to the social order in which women are forced to produce children, against their will, for the upper classes. The Sufi proverb is less straightforward, but it seems to refer to the fact that the "desert" of this dystopian society has left people with nothing but those things which nobody had ever thought they would want—and yet, in their desperation and drive to survive, they may yet be able to make something out of "stones." All of these epigraphs offer us some insight into the story to follow.

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