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First when beginning I like to think about the book and chapter’s titles. A handmaid is a female servant, –simple enough, and it is her tale, now we must discover what handmaid, for whom, where, what time, etc. The chapters are labeled something different every other time, yet with “Night” as the chapter between each one, and only once with two in between. Something to think about, especially since the first “Night” gives us a description of a current place that she is at and letting us know that her current situation is not what it always has been. There seems to be an ominous feeling, a post nuclear war, an invasion, holocaust, post-something-sinister. We do know from the back cover this:
“Offred is a Handmaid in the Republic of Gilead. She may leave the home of the Commander and his wife once a day to walk to food markets whose signs are now pictures instead of words because women are no longer allowed to read. She must lie on her back once a month and pray that the Commander makes her pregnant, because in an age of declining births, Offred and the other Handmaids are valued only if their ovaries are viable. Offred can remember the years before, when she lived and made lover with her husband, Luke” when she played with and protected her daughter; when she had a job, money of her own, and access to knowledge. But all of that is gone now….”
Just by the description, we know the protagonist’s name is Offred, as in off red. The handmaids have to wear red. Red says a lot, I think of communist Russia, red China, blood red, red badge of courage, etc, but also the off before the red, meaning a lighter red or removed from the red. Yet if I read the name quickly I see offered, as in offering oneself as a sacrifice.
What is clear in Chapter 1 is no human contact is allowed. The women’s cots are placed far apart so they cannot touch or speak to each other.
In chapter two the affect of that lack of touch becomes evident when Offred desires to help Rita, “Or I would help Rita make the bread, sinking my hands into that soft resistant warmth which is so much like flesh. I hunger to touch something, other than cloth or wood. I hunger to commit the act of touch” (Handmaid Tale, 11).
What I found interesting was the milieu for touch for a woman is the kitchen and making food, — the bread. I remember a similar passage in Moby Dick where everyone on board was men.
“Squeeze! squeeze! squeeze! all the morning long; I squeezed that sperm till I myself almost melted into it; I squeezed that sperm till a strange sort of insanity came over me; and I found myself unwittingly squeezing my co-laborers’ hands in it, mistaking their hands for the gentle globules. Such an abounding, affectionate, friendly, loving feeling did this avocation beget; that at last I was continually squeezing their hands, and looking up into their eyes sentimentally; as much as to say,- Oh! my dear fellow beings, why should we longer cherish any social acerbities, or know the slightest ill humor or envy! Come; let us squeeze hands all round; nay, let us all squeeze ourselves into each other; let us squeeze ourselves universally into the very milk and sperm of kindness” (From Chapter 94—Moby Dick).
If anything, the need for human contact is evident at this point.
There is already a pecking order unfolding, the Aunts in the gymnasium, the Marthas (who are they, they seem to thumb their noses at the handmaids, and what choice does one really have to “Go to the Colonies?).”
A clear gender distinction is made when the handmaid remembers her husband’s definition of “fraternize” and compares it to her desired relationship with a Martha (pg.11). Atwood specifically lets us know that there is no such word for “to behave like a sister.” It almost has a subtle accusatory tone to it, like a self defeating premise set up to divide and conquer feel, but I am sure I am thinking too much of it at this time. Nevertheless, I do see how it is a man (Luke) who has taught a woman the definition of fraternize.
What do you think?