Fish Eyes and Aunts — Distortion of the Feminine in “The Handmaid’s Tale”

©July 26, 2015 Mary Crockford

Much has been written throughout the body literate on the subject of totalitarianism and the plight of women living under theocratic regimes. Both the fiction and non-fiction genres are replete with real and symbolic examples of religions and ideologies of state which relegate their female members to secondary and subservient roles, often enabled by tacit cooperation and even complicity of factions of the community. In Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Offred, a fertile woman, is conscripted into the reproductive wing of the military-industrial complex to produce children for the Republic of Gilead’s elite. Gilead’s central government is one in which tools of both mental and physical manipulation are enlisted to keep in place “restrictive ideological parameters” and “perceptual restraints” that produce the “radically altered perceptive states” necessary to prevent autonomous female thought and behavior (Sententia Para 2-3). Offred’s recorded story, examined through a hybrid psychoanalytic and feminist lens, reveals a woman’s quest for a unified self as she confronts and to various degrees resists the “machinations of institutional, ideological, and linguistic apparatuses” in which Gileadan women’s “real bodies are enmeshed”. These apparatuses are designed to aggressively assert and defend the interests of the male-dominated social order at the expense of the women, by denying them individual freedom to “think and act with limited interference” (Sententia Para 1).

Offred’s story begins with a series of wakeful musings as she lies on a repurposed military cot in the Red Center, a refurbished gymnasium which now serves as an incubator where reproductively capable women are conditioned and groomed as “gestational carriers” for Commanders’ wives left barren due to environmental radiation and pollution. Her observations of the center are the first indication the reader has that Offred is a woman possessing sharp powers of observation and analysis that present a quandary for an individual whose fate appears sealed by forces beyond her control. Physical features of the gymnasium demonstrate some of the more subtle ways in which the regime controls not only how much of the outside world the Handmaids can see, but reminds them constantly of the consequences of stepping beyond authoritarian boundaries in order to see more. Offred’s memories contain dreamlike recollections of pre-regime life in which youthful expression through dance, music and sexual exploration take on a sacred and primal aura in contrast to her present conditions of confinement:

I thought I could smell, faintly like an after-image, the pungent scent of sweat

…the sweet taint of chewing gum and perfume from the watching girls…the

music lingered, a palimpsest of unheard sound, style upon style, an undercurrent

of drums…”

There was old sex in the room and loneliness, and expectation, of something

without a shape or name. I remember that yearning, for something that was

always about to happen and was never the same as the hands that were on us…”

(Atwood 3)

Offred’s memories reveal the cognitive dissonance that haunts her waking and sleeping moments, as the untenable marriage of memory and current circumstances demand she try to forge a workable identity. As part of the Handmaids’ “education,” they are shown violent films from the purge, which assault their senses with images of misogyny, objectification and violence. The sound is left off so they won’t inadvertently encounter subversive feminist ideas. Women are raped, dismembered and murdered voicelessly on the screen, even while the Handmaids are told they are “pearls” and thus promised “freedom from” such treatment at the hands of men, who they are told are “sex machines” (140). According to Bouson, the images to which the women are subjected “disclose the diseased underside of patriarchal culture,” and reinforce through terror the dangers of romantic attachment based on the notion that men’s “killing male rage…mutilates, dismembers, and destroys” (141). The Red Center functions as an ironic hybrid nunnery and brothel, designed to at once cloister and protect the “purity” of the Handmaids, whilst training them for their participation in what is essentially legalized adultery. To this end, men and women are strictly separated. “Angels,” armed government guards, may not enter the Center, but cruelly pious, brown-robed Aunts are equally omnipresent “symbols of fear” that patrol the inner sanctum of Offred’s barbed-wired prison (4) . These Aunts, armed with highly phallic cattle prods “slung on thongs from their leather belts,” represent a negotiated measure of masculine authority in which they are instruments of swift, aggressive – and highly sexually charged – punishment. But even these Aunts, as women, are also judged to be inherently unstable and potentially disobedient, thus they are afforded only this controlled amount of power and can “not be trusted with guns” (4).

By couching the Handmaids’ sexual conscription as sacrifice, the first requirement of the successful male-dominated hierarchy is fulfilled, that of influencing and eventually policing women’s perceptions of themselves. All forms of sensory gratification are prohibited, from “seeing” or being seen to smoking cigarettes, which are only available on the black market. Flowers are allowed as decorations in the gymnasium, but floral prints are framed without glass to prevent women who succumb to the despair of their plight from slitting their wrists or necks with the broken shards. The Handmaids must sit or stand submissively, with hands folded and only speaking when asked a direct question by a superior. In silencing the women of Gilead, the patriarchy prevents dissemination of information and ideas, exerting psychological control by coopting language. The Aunts are complicit in the victimization of the Handmaids by employing the militarized language of the regime. Offred is told by one of the Aunts to think of her austere atmosphere and forced conformity and enslavement as “being in the army” (7). Not unlike Gilead’s doomed Unwomen, who are “literally stripped of their gender-identity” (Porfert 2) for failing to breed successfully, the Handmaids constantly encounter misogyny as well as subtle and overt feminine discrimination. Even the Commanders’ Wives exert a virtually wordless, scornful distance from the Handmaids, whom they view with a mixture of resentment and envy for their ability to bear children. By stoking shame and resentment between the women’s separate social and “career” strata, the more powerful females of Gilead become co-conspirators who treat members of their own gender “in a psychologically-damaging manner ” and “turn women against themselves” (Porfert 3). Thus these teachers and mistresses of the Handmaids become tools themselves in wielding methods designed to “deconstruct the very notion of the whole female self,” acting in concert with the regime’s systematic “oppression of female sexuality” (Hermes 6) and producing “semi-brainwashed sexual slaves” (Porfert 3).

A prevalent motif in The Handmaid’s Tale is that of mirrors. In “Reflections in Contemporary Feminist Literature,” Hermes posits that the mirrors Offred encounters serve to “destabilize the notion of an integral self.” She cites Jacques Lacan’s concept of the “mirror stage” of human development, and compares Offred’s initial reaction to mirrors as that of an infant’s “realization of self-consciousness” when first encountering its own reflection (Hermes 1). Because Gilead’s institution of male-dominated martial law fractured traditional family structures, Offred remains partially infantilized due to early disruption in the development of her own female identity so remains childlike in her self-perception. Upon seeing herself in a mirror for the first time in the Commander’s house, she is shocked as the “external image of the body” collides with her illusionary self or Ego, and her “emerging experience of self-identification” is abrupt and disorienting:

There remains a mirror on the hall wall…round, convex, a pier glass, like

the eye of a fish, and myself in it like a distorted shadow, a parody…” (9)

For Offred, seeing her image reflected in the mirror “serves as a significant psychological experience” and lays the foundation for a “forever unfolding and emerging experience of self-identification and consciousness” (Hermes 2). But her self-image is disturbed and colored by images of death and paranoia, as the eye-like mirror represents the constant presence of the pious “Eyes” which rule Gilead. Owing to this constant state of scrutiny, Offred’s Id is only marginally checked by the self-governing Super-ego which would aid her in managing her fears. Offred’s self-concept remains one of confusion in which these disparate elements of her psyche constantly strive against a spectrum of reactions from “preoccupation to mild neurosis to psychosis” (Rivkin 483) when encountering highly representative, emotionally charged symbols of “the uncanny” in her everyday environment (Rivkin 419).

Another facet of personal identity denied to a Handmaid is that of uttering and being called by her birth name. Instead, she is branded as an extension of the Commander for whom she will perform sexually in the hope of producing an heir for him and his Wife. Offred’s birth name is June, but she is given the moniker of “Of Fred,” which marks her as her Commander’s possession and also carries a second meaning. When read as “Off Red,” it implies the shedding of menstrual blood which marks her womb as conducive to bringing forth life. The color red is complex for its symbolism psychologically and spiritually. For Freud, “the colors of the unconscious have a direct mimetic link to actual experience,” though he elaborated little on specific colors (Riley 304). Offred’s strong sensory reactions to the sight of foods like apples and meat, and her red robe, umbrella, and other accessories are all suggestive of sex and the ripe, life-sustaining sustenance of her womb. Jung, who commented extensively on color, saw “a wide range in its significance” and “a deep concern with its properties and meanings” (Riley 304). On the color wheel he developed, Jung associated the color red with blood and wine, hot coals and gems of the deep earth like rubies and garnets (Riley 308). Offred’s uterus, as a warm, blood-rich environment capable of sustaining life, could be said to function symbolically as a site of transubstantiation resulting in the answering of Fred’s wife’s barrenness with a viable child. Because death is a constant specter for Handmaids, whether in terms of suicidal ideation, corporal punishment, or the dangers of childbirth, red could arguably also symbolize a dark, subterranean tomb. Beside the white wimple that forms angelic “wings” around her face, and prevents her looking at or being looked upon by men, Offred is the fulfillment of the classic “angel-whore” dichotomy found in various genres of literature, including Victorian Gothic literature in which blood and purity denote the “right girl” to be chosen and parasitized by male vampires. While preparing for sexual encounters with Fred, Offred trades the white headdress required outside for red garments that represent a confusing mixture of purification and sexual preparation (Atwood 65). Something between a sacrificial lamb and a concubine, she is cloistered, cleansed and ripened for consumption, her body marked and dressed in a robe and scarf the color of not just sex and blood, but of hatred and murder:

I pull the plug, dry myself, put on my red terry cloth robe. I leave today’s dress

here…I dress again. The white headdress isn’t necessary…I won’t be going

out.” (65)

Even in her initial encounter with the hallway mirror, images of accidental death and danger occupy Offred’s mind in references to Red Riding Hood “descending towards a moment of carelessness that is the same as danger,” alluding to both her own preoccupation with death and her fear of going mad (9).

Memory continues to play a prominent role in Offred’s story, as she struggles to reorder memories of the past and integrate them into her present, thereby resisting objectification and depersonalization and striving toward a subjective consciousness. Memories of her mother, and failed attempts to form daughter-mother attachments to surrogates like Aunt Lydia and Serena Joy, reveal Offred’s difficulty in defining herself as a woman in a society characterized by deeply distorted views of femininity and motherhood. The early separation of women in Gilead based on reproductive potential is accomplished because the “intrusion of language and law institutes a break with nature,” supplanting the female social conditioning normally developed through the mother-daughter relationship with that of deeply disturbed and even abusive surrogates (Zakin 10). The Aunts and Wives, as archetypal “wicked stepmothers” employ a distorted lexicon of “symbolic articulation” in the form of rules of indoctrination and punishment to artificially “raise” girls and enslave them as women. By recalling the images and words of her mother, Offred is not simply indulging wistfully in incidental remembrances, but she is unconsciously identifying crucial stages in her female development that were interrupted and destabilized by the institution of the Gilead’s chauvinistic regime. This interruption creates a “significantly splintered and conflicted” woman, whose psyche was deliberately fragmented when external interests coopted her normal gender identity and maternal instincts for the sake of clinical, prescribed sex and procreation. In this scenario, her physical body becomes “caught in the crossfire or pulled apart” and she is continually forced to grapple with “ever-evolving conceptions of…female identity” in an aggressively male-dominated society (Hermes 13).

Within Gilead, institutions that would support female interests, such as peer groups, are dim reflections of pre-regime society. The Handmaids resist the proscription on free speech, share their suffering, and reject the judgment of the Martha’s by gossiping among themselves. This marginal form of Gestalt therapy’s “talking cure” allows the women to “bring their repressed memories forward and abreact or release them,” and forms their only sense of community (Zakin 3). Other than this activity, for which Handmaids still risk grave punishment if caught, they are granted little or no social esteem from other women. “For the supposed greater good” of supplying offspring to “male elites of society” and their wives, the “sexually-enslaved Handmaids…experience incredible oppression at the hands of their female overseers” (Porfert 1). Females granted the regime’s cynical form of favor, based on their possession of viable ovaries, are afforded premium medical care while they each serve as the “ambulatory wombs” needed to “ostensibly propagate” the Caucasian race of Gilead (Porfert 2). Offred’s gynecological appointments are impersonal and clinical, and another duty she must fulfill as her body becomes the equivalent of a petrie dish in the Republic’s reproductive laboratory:

I’m taken to the doctor’s once a month, for tests; urine, hormones, cancer

smear, blood tests; the same as before, except that now it’s obligatory.” (59)

Because Gilead’s history is one “written in blood,” women must consciously engage in a measure of denial to cope, and rebel against succumbing completely to the endless stream of “traumatic stressors” (Rivkin 487) that lead to what Kolk and McFarlane call “the black hole of trauma” sexual abuse creates (Rivkin 489). Offred accomplishes this by assigning terms of positivity to elements of her intolerable situation. She tells herself that Handmaids “enjoy” benefits of a “pampered life,” such as healthier food designed to undergird their fertility and promote the development of healthy offspring, and “luxuries” like privacy in the bath and grocery shopping. In her interactions with the Martha’s, Offred achieves what to her is a tolerable level of social independence, trading upon her status as “national resource” in order to form even minimal connections with her fellow women (65). These green-clad servant women tend to the Handmaids, occasionally rebelling within their own marginalized roles by entering a Handmaid’s room without knocking, or serving improperly cooked meat. As with the Wives she has previously served, Offred must contend with the jealousy directed at her status as a reproductively viable female, despite the fact that her “freedom” is only a wisp of genuine liberty:

Cora…knocks at the door before entering. I like her for that. It means she

thinks I have some of what we used to call privacy left.” (65)

I take the cover off the tray. The thigh of a chicken, overcooked. It’s better

than bloody, which is another way she does it. Rita has ways of making her

resentments known.” (65)

Offred’s life becomes one of constant tension between dependence upon others for the conditions of her survival, and her desire for feminine comfort to overcome horrors like “orgies of barbarian regiments” (113), Handmaids’ mourning their stolen “ghosts babies,” and the postpartum “ache” that leaves their wombs feeling hollow and spent, like “bundles of red cloth” (127). Because her movements and words are subject to such severe restriction, only through her private thoughts and rituals can Offred resist the strict doctrine and confinement that characterize her daily life. Owing to her status as a valuable sexual commodity, she devises ways to resist the claustrophobia of captivity and indulge in mock luxuries in the sanctity of her room in the Commander’s home. When she is able to acquire a portion of spoiled butter, Offred spreads it on parts of her body, which becomes a subconscious anointing ritual as she attempts to find subjective value in her position in the “full deadly hardware” of the reproductive industry. Allusions to bread, oil and the red of blood and wine suggest Offred subconsciously associates her own body and blood with elements of ritual of consecration. By means of these small gestures of self-gratification, she manages to rebel against the use of her body as strictly an instrument of male pleasure, or as only a means of material production:

The butter is a trick I learned at the Rachel and Leah Center. The Red

Center, we called it, because there was so much red. My predecessor

must have done this too, this buttering. We all do it.”

Buttered, I lie on my single bed, flat, like a piece of toast.” (65)

I would have also liked to ask for some bath oil…that were so much like

magic to me when they existed in my mother’s bathroom and home.”

(158)

One of the many offenses punishable by death in Gilead is to look upon or engage in unprescribed conversation with men. She is shocked when she first meets Nick, the Commander’s assigned Guardian, who exerts rebellious independence in a number of ways, from openly winking at her, to smoking cigarettes and rolling up the sleeves of his uniform, revealing his arms. While she is increasingly aware of the sensual nature of her own body, her thought processes have been so infiltrated with the language and agenda of the regime that while her Id and Ego respond to Nick’s attraction and her increasing preoccupation with becoming pregnant, her Super-Ego is still able to mitigate these drives and she is able to police herself. She suspects Nick may be an Eye, and Aunt Lydia’s admonitions are perpetually at the forefront of her thinking and decision-making. She contents herself temporarily with using her body movements and seemingly accidental acts such as dropping objects for a guard to pick up, or allowing them to briefly glimpse her face inside her wimple But as such encounters with men increase in number, her subconscious attempts to bring aspects of her former life to her consciousness while she sleeps, and she dreams of her husband, Luke, and of having babies and living in her own home. These competing internal interests percolate further to the surface as she confronts her need to accept her conditions for sanity’s sake, and her discontent and grief triggered by these incompatible thought processes. She becomes both a sympathetic victim and an unreliable narrator, as she endures psychological and physical abuse by the Gileadan medical establishment, but has difficulty differentiating fantasy from reality so the reader can determine the veracity of her statements. Offred’s mind remains the site of possible planted memories, that casts doubt on her recorded story, her voice:

There must have been needles, pills…I know I lost time…I would come up

through a roaring and a confusion, like surf boiling….”

I would like to believe the story I’m telling. I need to believe it. I must

believe it. Those who can believe that such stories are only stories have

a better chance.” (39)

Because Offred only experiences the freedom she truly yearns for in memory and dream, the reader senses that she is in danger of psychic disintegration altogether, or possibly risks punishment or death due to the very kind of reckless decisions she feared when viewing herself in the hallway mirror. The stream-of-conscious facility with which Offred passes between fantasy and reality exposes a state of confusion created by the warring parts of her fragmented psyche.

As Offred attempts to order and make sense of her thoughts and observations, she engages in cerebral forms of rebellion, especially against the power of language to define her self and her circumstances. Mental exercises in the form of wordplay are direct evidence that Offred has consciously decided to “own” language, rather than let it continue to condition her unconsciously or subconsciously. Nighttime, when “her” world is quiet and she is alone with her thoughts, becomes her favorite time to mock the misogynist underpinnings of Gilead society, especially as it relates to the regime’s sexual enslavement and propagandist abuse of words. She plays especially with words containing sexually charged double meanings, such as “lie” and “lay” (37). Onto the term “date rape,” she tags on a French accent so it sounds like “date rape’,” and she jokes that it sounds like “some kind of dessert” (38). She applies this practice to the signs of businesses she passes or holidays such as May Day, remembering that Luke told her it was a distress call for ships rooted in the French request for help, “m’aidez” (44). She also mocks Serena Joy’s name, likening it to a brand of hair product, suggesting that it is both artificial and vain (45) and a misleading allusion to her former career as a gospel singer. Because her wordplay is not simply clever but also a completely conscious activity, language becomes an arena in which she can think autonomously, and enact small intellectual rebellions. This form of resistance has even larger implications for her quest for a subjective identity, as she places direct responsibility for her and the other Handmaids’ predicament on a regime built on actual psychological and sexual violence.

In order to tolerate sex with the Commander, Offred learns to endure it in a dispassionate, disassociated state. Viewing it as neither a loving act or even a pleasant one, she adopts “Queen Victoria’s advice to her daughter” as her own: “Close your eyes and think of England”. She does not equate sex with lovemaking, explaining that “nor does rape cover it” (94). She experiences it as an animalistic, almost militant form of bodily invasion accompanied by rhythms of drums and troop-like marching (94). The depersonalized sexual encounters are complicated further by the presence of Serena Joy, in whose lap Offred’s head must rest while she holds up the Handmaid’s arms. “Arousal and orgasm are no longer thought necessary” and each meeting concludes like a banking transaction, with the Commander’s withdrawal and Offred, as both the currency and site of deposit, dismissed with Serena’s command to “Get up and get out” (95).

A continued miasma of past memories and images of death continue as Offred’s attraction to Nick intensifies. Her worry over not becoming pregnant grows, and her memories of both Luke and her daughter continue to come forward into her conscious mind. As she utilizes her arsenal of secret resistance methods, such as her buttering ritual and mental word games, she manages to keep her own tenuous connection with her physical body and her newfound sense of identity. She imagines numerous possible circumstances for Luke’s death, as well as rescue scenarios that might have allowed her daughter to survive. Flashbacks to her mother’s feminism and Aunt Lydia’s sadistic pornographic films leave her at once grieving and enraged, and she realizes she is in the most unfortunate sense “the incarnation” of both women’s version of “women’s culture” and the feminist ideal (122). She must once again be considered as an unreliable narrator, as her revenge fantasies wax both hopeful and gruesome, and none of her stories can be corroborated. In each scenario she imagines, object cathexIs on bodies and death remain a theme as she celebrates the “birth days” of other Handmaids’ live babies, marks the disposal of Unbabies, and admits to the value of delusion and denial to her own survival: “in reduced circumstances you have to believe all kinds of things” (105).

While noting the air of docility that settles over the Handmaids when Moira escapes the Rachel and Leah Center, Offred continues to exhibit a subtle form of rebellion by enjoying and treasuring both the story of the woman’s escape, and its embellished retellings. Because Moira never returns, she is seen as victorious and becomes a new object of cathexis, a new “mirror” in which the Handmaids may imagine and project their own desire for freedom. The Handmaids enjoy this rebellion story among themselves with “audacity” and “a giggle” (133). Offred calls the one-time conscripted adulteress a “loose woman” and the Handmaids’ new “fantasy,” thereby engaging again in the use of language to find irony and admiration, and thus a measure of subjectivity as she incorporates a measure of hope and humor into her own continued captivity (133).

The theme of rebellion or resistance is not unique to the Offred’s experience in Atwood’s novel. Where indoctrination had long been the intent of both the regime and its surrogates, like the Aunts, the Commander’s house is one in which education and knowledge are valued. His library is full of books, and he asks Offred to play Scrabble with him. “Education” outside of the Rachel and Leah Center is prohibited to Handmaids, so inviting Offred to “play” with him is a transgression against the laws and purposes of the regime he helped design. Because she can be killed for engaging in this activity, it represents her most serious transgression yet, but she relishes the “delicious” words and letters she can spell, and the “voluptuous” sensation of handling the wooden pieces in spite of fearing she may be the victim of a conspiracy (139). The Commander has also resisted the current order in not taking sexual advantage of Offred as he legally could, though after dismissing her to her own home, he tells her he would like her to kiss him. The exchange does not arouse Offred, but triggers a brief episode of pre-Oedipal psychosis and she fantasizes about killing him. As she describes her fantasy of stabbing him with his own lever, and his “blood coming out of him, hot as soup,” she mentions his kind, sad expression after her kiss, and confesses that the entire scene may be yet another of her reconstructed narratives (140).

Offred’s unreliability and tendency toward psychosis remain an issue to the reader as flashbacks become difficult to discern form her present. Within the novel’s multitemporal text, such movements in and out of the timeline reveal how longstanding Offred’s battle for a subjective identity has really been, as she recalls Gilead’s origins and her role in the Resistance up until the regime’s establishment. Handmaid names are all she uses even in her flashbacks, and the reader once again wonders which, if any, portions of her tale are trustworthy, and which are the reconstructions of a hysteric. Though she is wary of crowds and spies for the omniscient Eyes, Offred even wonders if her fellow rebel Of glen is one, too. Where the red Birthmobiles once represented the reproductive enslavement of her life as a Handmaid, black vans dominate her pre-Gilead consciousnesses. The white eyes painted on them are a perpetual reminder that the regime’s operatives are everywhere. The loss of her husband Luke and their daughter are fresh traumas at this flashpoint in her narrative. She also recalls her mother’s participation in abortion marches, while simultaneously imagining making weapons of electric fan blades with Moira’s help. The resurfacing of more frequent and vivid violent memories signifies an early preoccupation with death and phallic objects, so that incidents such as her “earlier” fantasy of killing the Commander are more easily understood.

Chapter 28 jolts the reader back to Offred’s “present,” and she is once again in the Commander’s office, but in a more romanticized context after the flashes of abortion riots, bomb-shattered glass and citizens disappearing into black vans. She subtly manipulates the Commander over a game of Scrabble by exhibiting “precocity, like an attentive pet,” in a Pygmalion-like display of controlled feminine performance. He later watches her as she reads Dickens’ Hard Times, whose title may explain why the Commander’s watching feels to Offred like a “curiously sexual act” (184). She is disappointed to learn that he is more desirous of human connection than particularly attracted to her, but then he tells her that his previous Handmaid hanged herself. Offred’s limited empathy for the Commander is tinged with rejection and jealousy as she realizes she is not the first woman to “play children’s word games with him” (187). Her tenuous connection with him morphs through transference into sympathy for her dead predecessor, with whom she now identifies in a sort of suicidal sisterhood:

He hardly misses a beat. “Did you know her somehow?””

Somehow,” I say.

She hanged herself,” he says; thoughtfully, not sadly. “That’s why we had the

light fixture removed. In your room.” He pauses.

If your dog dies, get another. (187; emphasis mine)

The exchange presents Offred with an unforeseen opportunity to add another “notch” to her developing subjectivity, as she now esteems herself highly enough to question whether she should remain in an environment that destroyed another Handmaid. When the Commander asks her to remain, she realizes that he actually wants her “life to be bearable,” and to not kill herself, too. She seizes upon the knowledge that he fears the thought of losing her, and agrees to stay. In framing her remaining presence as her own choice, she not only resists but reverses the gender-based power structure that formed the basis of their relationship (188).

From that night in the Commander’s office, Offred’s rebellions grow in number and magnitude, including in conversations with those around her. One conversation with the Commander turns to a subject forbidden to a Handmaid, that of love. Offred meditates on her youthful, naive belief in love’s “incarnation” as “word made flesh,” and again grieves for Luke and her daughter. She willfully grasps at these remembrances of familial love, and calls herself a “refugee from the past” and weeps (227).

Though she is concerned over her inability to become pregnant, her company is solicited by Serena Joy, who engages her in conversation. The Wife also includes her in what had always been an insular, solitary activity, that of knitting, by asking Offred to hold her wool. She lets slip to Serena her fears of not conceiving a child, and Serena suggests a male surrogate, offering Offred a way to avoid the exiled fate of barren Handmaids. This sudden connection with Serena fulfills Offred’s yearning for the pre-Oedipal “passionate attachment” of the mother-daughter bond, which her own mother was unable to provide for her because of her militant political distractions (Rivkin 473). The game-playing, reading and conversation she engages in with the Commander bring full circle the pre-Oedipal father-daughter attachment and rejection that encourage girls to bond with their mothers (Rivkin 472). Her relationship with the Commander has developed into an egalitarian, respectful one resembling that of properly bonded fathers and grown daughters.

When Serena Joy brings Offred a Polaroid of her now-grown daughter, Offred is forced to confront the pain of the betrayal that kept her from knowing her daughter was still alive, or where she was for so long. The loss of her own mother-daughter bond with her little girl causes a tidal wave of grief, and in the fish-eye mirror of her own mind, she sees herself as “a woman of sand” and “a shadow of a shadow, as dead mothers become.” For Offred, rather than the grandfather clock slowing doling out time since early in her tenure in the Commander’s house, time had not “stood still,” but has washed her away (228).

With the loss of hope of ever knowing her daughter again, Offred’s suicidal ideation escalates again, even as the “positively daddy-ish” Commander revives their Pygmalion-like sexual arrangement, and dresses her in sequined stockings and takes her out to a men’s club as “a treat” (240). Her flashbacks continue as he shows her off while explaining that some of the women around her are former prostitutes, and that some are successful women who “chose” their employment. Offred is aware that the women only “chose” their present lot for the same reason she “chose” hers as a Handmaiden: out of terror of something worse. She sees Moira across the smoky room, walks “off balance” in her high heels to the ladies’ room, which is administered by a woman Offred recognizes as an Aunt. In spite of her garish purple robe and gold eyeshadow, the woman maintains order among the club’s sex workers with the same cattle prod that Aunt Elizabeth and Aunt Lydia did at the Red Center. Moira, now a sex worker, tells Offred that she has slept with the Commander and insults him, but Offred clings to her position of power in their relationship by calling him “my Commander” (243). Moira shares her story, and Offred, intent on “keeping her alive,” and once again demonstrates the importance of story as resistance among the sorority of Handmaids (244). Moira’s account of “the sectarian roundups” and being “picked up” at the border “crawling with Eyes,” and forced sterilization at the Red Center are tragic manifestation of the angel-whore dichotomy, and Moira tells Offred that the club is called Jezebel’s. She insists that “only a nun would pick the Colonies” over prostitution, and that “the Aunts see us all as damned anyway” (249). Like the Handmaids, the women of Jezebel’s are shown movies, and she learns that Moira saw her mother in one. As a former feminist, Offred’s mother was sent to the Colonies to work until poisoned to death, a targeted casualty of the “waste not, want not” ethic of Gilead in which rebellious women are “recycled” as object lessons for those who might think of rebelling against the regime.

In the course of Serena’s arranged sex appointments with Nick, Offred falls in love. Memories of Luke continue to surface even as she makes love with Nick, and guiltily wishes that she had “paid more attention, to the details” of lovemaking when they had been together (269). She admits to continued reliance on fantasy as she goes about her daily life, likening Nick’s apartment to a port in a storm in spite of the penalty awaiting her if she is ever caught there. In an act outright rebellion, Offred claims her pre-regime identity as her own and tells Nick her name, professing “I am known.” Though their relationship is characterized by eros, she acknowledges that they dare not risk “tempting fate” by speaking the word “love” to each other (270). She equates the intensity and danger of her love for Nick, and that of her secret rebellious life, to a “near-death” experience. Because she has seen noncompliant Handmaids drugged and hanged by other Handmaids, Offred fears betrayal by Of glen, who knows of her affair and helped execute a man. Her thoughts move between rationality, euphoria, and paranoia, purposely compartmentalizing her thoughts in order to balance her “wishful thinking” and “seriousness” for Nick with Ofglen’s warnings of “He’ll love you to death.” She must still also monitor the monthly cycles that will ensure her continued Handmaid status (271). News of Ofglen’s suicide at that state-sanctioned Particicution arrives, and she is relieved that her affair with Nick will remain secret, but her paranoia tells her that because women turn on women in Gilead, this news may be a lie. When Serena discovers the stockings she wore to Jezebel’s, the mother-daughter relationship she had forged with Serena is destroyed, and Offred is relegated once again to the role of sex slave. Offred must call on her disassociative skills and detach from the crumbling of her fragile concept of womanhood. She is again the embodiment of the angel-whore as Serena brands her “bitch” and “slut,” and Offred calls herself “dark angel” suspicious of Nick’s arrival along with the Eyes’ black van. When he tells her “It’s May Day…trust me,” she engages in a last desperate, rebellious grasp at hope with some naughty wordplay: “I snatch it.” (293-4)

As Offred’s recordings trail off, it is impossible to know whether the van she steps up into will result in her ascension to freedom or will swallow her in death. Though her life story has consistently been one of fixation on death, including murder fantasies and escapist suicidal ideation, Howell also points out that her story is one of “shadowed optimism” (Bouson 155). Offred’s ambivalence in the face of so much suffering is understandable from a psychological standpoint, and preserves her as a sympathetic character. The historical notes that follow present the very real possibility that the “rescue fantasy generated by the narrative” manifests in Nick’s arrival, and that her escape from Gilead is successful. In this vision of the tale’s not-quite ending, Offred does not simply survive, but lives to rebel another day. If it is indeed her death that she meets, she has still done so in an a swift and decisiveness act of trust, which of itself is an act of resistance in a world shot through with every conceivable manifestation of confusion and betrayal. Offred has shown the ability of her higher reasoning, or Super Ego, to enlist the aid of the self-interested Ego, thereby mastering the primal, panic-prone Id in order to risk living. In so deciding, she has achieved the integrated female identity she desired, and whether she survives or not, her quest is complete.

Works cited:

Atwood, Margaret. The Handmaid’s Tale. New York: Anchor, 1998. Print.

Bouson, J. Brooks. Brutal Choreographies: Oppositional Strategies and Narrative Design in

the Novels of Margaret Atwood. Amherst: U of Massachusetts, 1993. Print.

Hermes, Theodora. “Reflections in Contemporary Feminist Literature.” Valley Humanities

Review Spring (2012): n. pag. Lebanon Valley College, 2012. Web. 17 July 2015.

Porfert, James. “Hell on Earth: The Feminist Dystopia of The Handmaid’s Tale.” Old

Dominion University College of Arts and Letters. Old Dominion University, 2011.

Web. 19 July 2015.

Riley, Charles A. “Color Codes: Modern Theories of Color, Painting and Architecture,

Literature, Music and Philosophy.” University Press of New England, 1995.

Rivkin, Julie, and Michael Ryan. Literary Theory: An Anthology. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 1998.

Print.

Zakin, Emily. “Psychoanalytic Feminism.” Stanford University. Stanford University, 16

May 2011. Web. 22 July 2015.

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