In 3-5 pages discuss the novel the Handmaid Tale , analyze the rheotorical strategies and the literary elements that Atwood employs to create her world of dystopia. Include a works cited page. Your essay must be organized with a clear and arguable thesis. As you write your essay you will use the primary source material, The Handmaid’s Tale as well as secondary source material; articles, musical artists.Therefore it is important that you clear on how to properly incorporate outside sources.As you process your essay, keep in mind the topic question of how Atwood creates her dystopian society with use of rheotorical strategies, language and literay elements. Your argument/thesis must clearly address how Atwood accomplishes it.
N i g h t
S h o p p i n g
N i g h t
Wa i t i n g R o o m
N a p
H o u s e h o l d
N i g h t
B i r t h D a y
N i g h t
S o u l S c r o l l s
N i g h t
J e z e b e l ’s
N i g h t
S a l v a g i n g
N i g h t
Historical Notes on The Handmaid’s Tale
About the Author
Connect with HMH
Copyright © 1986 by O. W. Toad, Ltd.
All rights reserved.
For information about permission to reproduce selections from this book, write to
[email protected] or to Permissions, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 3
Park Avenue, 19th Floor, New York, New York 10016.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data is available.
Cover illustration © Patrik Svensson
Author photograph © George Whiteside
This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to persons living or dead is purely coincidental.
Lines from “Heartbreak Hotel” by Elvis Presley © 1956 Tree Publishing Company, Inc. ℅ Dunbar
Music Canada Ltd. Reprinted by permission.
The author would like to thank the D.A.A.D. in West Berlin and the English department at the
University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa, for providing time and space.
And when Rachel saw that she bare Jacob no children, Rachel envied her
sister; and said unto Jacob, Give me children, or else I die.
And Jacob’s anger was kindled against Rachel; and he said, Am I in God’s
stead, who hath withheld from thee the fruit of the womb?
And she said, Behold my maid Bilhah, go in unto her; and she shall bear
upon my knees, that I may also have children by her.
But as to myself, having been wearied out for many years with offering vain,
idle, visionary thoughts, and at length utterly despairing of success, I
fortunately fell upon this proposal . . .
—Jonathan Swift, A Modest Proposal
In the desert there is no sign that says, Thou shalt not eat stones.
Mary Webster and Perry Miller
W e slept in what had once been the gymnasium. The floor was of
varnished wood, with stripes and circles painted on it, for the games that were
formerly played there; the hoops for the basketball nets were still in place,
though the nets were gone. A balcony ran around the room, for the spectators,
and I thought I could smell, faintly like an afterimage, the pungent scent of
sweat, shot through with the sweet taint of chewing gum and perfume from
the watching girls, felt-skirted as I knew from pictures, later in miniskirts,
then pants, then in one earring, spiky green-streaked hair. Dances would have
been held there; the music lingered, a palimpsest of unheard sound, style
upon style, an undercurrent of drums, a forlorn wail, garlands made of tissue-
paper flowers, cardboard devils, a revolving ball of mirrors, powdering the
dancers with a snow of light.
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 there and then, in the small of the back, or out back, in the parking
lot, or in the television room with the sound turned down and only the
pictures flickering over lifting flesh.
We yearned for the future. How did we learn it, that talent for insatiability?
It was in the air; and it was still in the air, an afterthought, as we tried to
sleep, in the army cots that had been set up in rows, with spaces between so
we could not talk. We had flannelette sheets, like children’s, and army-issue
blankets, old ones that still said U.S. We folded our clothes neatly and laid
them on the stools at the ends of the beds. The lights were turned down but
not out. Aunt Sara and Aunt Elizabeth patrolled; they had electric cattle prods
slung on thongs from their leather belts.
No guns though, even they could not be trusted with guns. Guns were for
the guards, specially picked from the Angels. The guards weren’t allowed
inside the building except when called, and we weren’t allowed out, except
for our walks, twice daily, two by two around the football field, which was
enclosed now by a chain-link fence topped with barbed wire. The Angels
stood outside it with their backs to us. They were objects of fear to us, but of
something else as well. If only they would look. If only we could talk to
them. Something could be exchanged, we thought, some deal made, some
tradeoff, we still had our bodies. That was our fantasy.
We learned to whisper almost without sound. In the semidarkness we
could stretch out our arms, when the Aunts weren’t looking, and touch each
other’s hands across space. We learned to lip-read, our heads flat on the beds,
turned sideways, watching each other’s mouths. In this way we exchanged
names, from bed to bed:
Alma. Janine. Dolores. Moira. June.
A chair, a table, a lamp. Above, on the white ceiling, a relief ornament in the
shape of a wreath, and in the center of it a blank space, plastered over, like
the place in a face where the eye has been taken out. There must have been a
chandelier, once. They’ve removed anything you could tie a rope to.
A window, two white curtains. Under the window, a window seat with a
little cushion. When the window is partly open—it only opens partly—the air
can come in and make the curtains move. I can sit in the chair, or on the
window seat, hands folded, and watch this. Sunlight comes in through the
window too, and falls on the floor, which is made of wood, in narrow strips,
highly polished. I can smell the polish. There’s a rug on the floor, oval, of
braided rags. This is the kind of touch they like: folk art, archaic, made by
women, in their spare time, from things that have no further use. A return to
traditional values. Waste not want not. I am not being wasted. Why do I
On the wall above the chair, a picture, framed but with no glass: a print of
flowers, blue irises, watercolor. Flowers are still allowed. Does each of us
have the same print, the same chair, the same white curtains, I wonder?
Think of it as being in the army, said Aunt Lydia .
A bed. Single, mattress medium-hard, covered with a flocked white spread.
Nothing takes place in the bed but sleep; or no sleep. I try not to think too
much. Like other things now, thought must be rationed. There’s a lot that
doesn’t bear thinking about. Thinking can hurt your chances, and I intend to
last. I know why there is no glass, in front of the watercolor picture of blue
irises, and why the window opens only partly and why the glass in it is
shatterproof. It isn’t running away they’re afraid of. We wouldn’t get far. It’s
those other escapes, the ones you can open in yourself, given a cutting edge.
So. Apart from these details, this could be a college guest room, for the
less distinguished visitors; or a room in a rooming house, of former times, for
ladies in reduced circumstances. That is what we are now. The circumstances
have been reduced; for those of us who still have circumstances.
But a chair, sunlight, flowers: these are not to be dismissed. I am alive, I
live, I breathe, I put my hand out, unfolded, into the sunlight. Where I am is
not a prison but a privilege, as Aunt Lydia said, who was in love with
The bell that measures time is ringing. Time here is measured by bells, as
once in nunneries. As in a nunnery too, there are few mirrors.
I get up out of the chair, advance my feet into the sunlight, in their red
shoes, flat-heeled to save the spine and not for dancing. The red gloves are
lying on the bed. I pick them up, pull them onto my hands, finger by finger.
Everything except the wings around my face is red: the color of blood, which
defines us. The skirt is ankle-length, full, gathered to a flat yoke that extends
over the breasts, the sleeves are full. The white wings too are prescribed
issue; they are to keep us from seeing, but also from being seen. I never
looked good in red, it’s not my color. I pick up the shopping basket, put it
over my arm.
The door of the room—not my room, I refuse to say my —is not locked. In
fact it doesn’t shut properly. I go out into the polished hallway, which has a
runner down the center, dusty pink. Like a path through the forest, like a
carpet for royalty, it shows me the way.
The carpet bends and goes down the front staircase and I go with it, one
hand on the banister, once a tree, turned in another century, rubbed to a warm
gloss. Late Victorian, the house is, a family house, built for a large rich
family. There’s a grandfather clock in the hallway, which doles out time, and
then the door to the motherly front sitting room, with its flesh tones and hints.
A sitting room in which I never sit, but stand or kneel only. At the end of the
hallway, above the front door, is a fanlight of colored glass: flowers, red and
There remains a mirror, on the hall wall. If I turn my head so that the white
wings framing my face direct my vision towards it, I can see it as I go down
the stairs, round, convex, a pier glass, like the eye of a fish, and myself in it
like a distorted shadow, a parody of something, some fairy-tale figure in a red
cloak, descending towards a moment of carelessness that is the same as
danger. A Sister, dipped in blood.
At the bottom of the stairs there’s a hat-and-umbrella stand, the bentwood
kind, long rounded rungs of wood curving gently up into hooks shaped like
the opening fronds of a fern. There are several umbrellas in it: black, for the
Commander, blue, for the Commander’s Wife, and the one assigned to me,
which is red. I leave the red umbrella where it is, because I know from the
window that the day is sunny. I wonder whether or not the Commander’s
Wife is in the sitting room. She doesn’t always sit. Sometimes I can hear her
pacing back and forth, a heavy step and then a light one, and the soft tap of
her cane on the dusty-rose carpet.
I walk along the hallway, past the sitting room door and the door that leads
into the dining room, and open the door at the end of the hall and go through
into the kitchen. Here the smell is no longer of furniture polish. Rita is in
here, standing at the kitchen table, which has a top of chipped white enamel.
She’s in her usual Martha’s dress, which is dull green, like a surgeon’s gown
of the time before. The dress is much like mine in shape, long and
concealing, but with a bib apron over it and without the white wings and the
veil. She puts on the veil to go outside, but nobody much cares who sees the
face of a Martha. Her sleeves are rolled to the elbow, showing her brown
arms. She’s making bread, throwing the loaves for the final brief kneading
and then the shaping.
Rita sees me and nods, whether in greeting or in simple acknowledgment
of my presence it’s hard to say, and wipes her floury hands on her apron and
rummages in the kitchen drawer for the token book. Frowning, she tears out
three tokens and hands them to me. Her face might be kindly if she would
smile. But the frown isn’t personal: it’s the red dress she disapproves of, and
what it stands for. She thinks I may be catching, like a disease or any form of
Sometimes I listen outside closed doors, a thing I never would have done
in the time before. I don’t listen long, because I don’t want to be caught doing
it. Once, though, I heard Rita say to Cora that she wouldn’t debase herself
Nobody asking you, Cora said. Anyways, what could you do, supposing?
Go to the Colonies, Rita said. They have the choice.
With the Unwomen, and starve to death and Lord knows what all? said
Cora. Catch you.
They were shelling peas; even through the almost-closed door I could hear
the light clink of the hard peas falling into the metal bowl. I heard Rita, a
grunt or a sigh, of protest or agreement.
Anyways, they’re doing it for us all, said Cora, or so they say. If I hadn’t
of got my tubes tied, it could of been me, say I was ten years younger. It’s not
that bad. It’s not what you’d call hard work.
Better her than me, Rita said, and I opened the door. Their faces were the
way women’s faces are when they’ve been talking about you behind your
back and they think you’ve heard: embarrassed, but also a little defiant, as if
it were their right. That day, Cora was more pleasant to me than usual, Rita
Today, despite Rita’s closed face and pressed lips, I would like to stay
here, in the kitchen. Cora might come in, from somewhere else in the house,
carrying her bottle of lemon oil and her duster, and Rita would make coffee
—in the houses of the Commanders there is still real coffee—and we would
sit at Rita’s kitchen table, which is not Rita’s any more than my table is mine,
and we would talk, about aches and pains, illnesses, our feet, our backs, all
the different kinds of mischief that our bodies, like unruly children, can get
into. We would nod our heads as punctuation to each other’s voices,
signaling that yes, we know all about it. We would exchange remedies and
try to outdo each other in the recital of our physical miseries; gently we
would complain, our voices soft and minor key and mournful as pigeons in
the eaves troughs. I know what you mean, we’d say. Or, a quaint expression
you sometimes hear, still, from older people: I hear where you’re coming
from, as if the voice itself were a traveler, arriving from a distant place.
Which it would be, which it is.
How I used to despise such talk. Now I long for it. At least it was talk. An
exchange, of sorts.
Or we would gossip. The Marthas know things, they talk among
themselves, passing the unofficial news from house to house. Like me, they
listen at doors, no doubt, and see things even with their eyes averted. I’ve
heard them at it sometimes, caught whiffs of their private conversations.
Stillborn, it was. Or, Stabbed her with a knitting needle, right in the belly.
Jealousy, it must have been, eating her up. Or, tantalizingly, It was toilet
cleaner she used. Worked like a charm, though you’d think he’d of tasted it.
Must’ve been that drunk; but they found her out all right.
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.
But even if I were to ask, even if I were to violate decorum to that extent,
Rita would not allow it. She would be too afraid. The Marthas are not
supposed to fraternize with us.
Fraternize means to behave like a brother. Luke told me that. He said there
was no corresponding word that meant to behave like a sister. Sororize, it
would have to be, he said. From the Latin. He liked knowing about such
details. The derivations of words, curious usages. I used to tease him about
I take the tokens from Rita’s outstretched hand. They have pictures on
them, of the things they can be exchanged for: twelve eggs, a piece of cheese,
a brown thing that’s supposed to be a steak. I place them in the zippered
pocket in my sleeve, where I keep my pass.
“Tell them fresh, for the eggs,” she says. “Not like last time. And a
chicken, tell them, not a hen. Tell them who it’s for and then they won’t mess
“All right,” I say. I don’t smile. Why tempt her to friendship?
I go out by the back door, into the garden, which is large and tidy: a lawn in
the middle, a willow, weeping catkins; around the edges, the flower borders,
in which the daffodils are now fading and the tulips are opening their cups,
spilling out color. The tulips are red, a darker crimson towards the stem, as if
they have been cut and are beginning to heal there.
This garden is the domain of the Commander’s Wife. Looking out through
my shatterproof window I’ve often seen her in it, her knees on a cushion, a
light blue veil thrown over her wide gardening hat, a basket at her side with
shears in it and pieces of string for tying the flowers into place. A Guardian
detailed to the Commander does the heavy digging; the Commander’s Wife
directs, pointing with her stick. Many of the Wives have such gardens, it’s
something for them to order and maintain and care for.
I once had a garden. I can remember the smell of the turned earth, the
plump shapes of bulbs held in the hands, fullness, the dry rustle of seeds
through the fingers. Time could pass more swiftly that way. Sometimes the
Commander’s Wife has a chair brought out, and just sits in it, in her garden.
From a distance it looks like peace.
She isn’t here now, and I start to wonder where she is: I don’t like to come
upon the Commander’s Wife unexpectedly. Perhaps she’s sewing, in the
sitting room, with her left foot on the footstool, because of her arthritis. Or
knitting scarves, for the Angels at the front lines. I can hardly believe the
Angels have a need for such scarves; anyway, the ones made by the
Commander’s Wife are too elaborate. She doesn’t bother with the cross-and-
star pattern used by many of the other Wives, it’s not a challenge. Fir trees
march across the ends of her scarves, or eagles, or stiff humanoid figures, boy
and girl, boy and girl. They aren’t scarves for grown men but for children.
Sometimes I think these scarves aren’t sent to the Angels at all, but
unraveled and turned back into balls of yarn, to be knitted again in their turn.
Maybe it’s just something to keep the Wives busy, to give them a sense of
purpose. But I envy the Commander’s Wife her knitting. It’s good to have
small goals that can be easily attained.
What does she envy me?
She doesn’t speak to me, unless she can’t avoid it. I am a reproach to her;
and a necessity.
We stood face to face for the first time five weeks ago, when I arrived at this
posting. The Guardian from the previous posting brought me to the front
door. On first days we are permitted front doors, but after that we’re
supposed to use the back. Things haven’t settled down, it’s too soon,
everyone is unsure about our exact status. After a while it will be either all
front doors or all back.
Aunt Lydia said she was lobbying for the front. Yours is a position of
honor, she said.
The Guardian rang the doorbell for me, but before there was time for
someone to hear and walk quickly to answer, the door opened inward. She
must have been waiting behind it. I was expecting a Martha, but it was her
instead, in her long powder-blue robe, unmistakable.
So, you’re the new one, she said. She didn’t step aside to let me in, she just
stood there in the doorway, blocking the entrance. She wanted me to feel that
I could not come into the house unless she said so. There is push and shove,
these days, over such toeholds.
Yes, I said .
Leave it on the porch. She said this to the Guardian, who was carrying my
bag. The bag was red vinyl and not large. There was another bag, with the
winter cloak and heavier dresses, but that would be coming later.
The Guardian set down the bag and saluted her. Then I could hear his
footsteps behind me, going back down the walk, and the click of the front
gate, and I felt as if a protective arm were being withdrawn. The threshold of
a new house is a lonely place.
She waited until the car started up and pulled away. I wasn’t looking at her
face, but at the part of her I could see with my head lowered: her blue waist,
thickened, her left hand on the ivory head of her cane, the large diamonds on
the ring finger, which must once have been fine and was still finely kept, the
fingernail at the end of the knuckly finger filed to a gentle curving point. It
was like an ironic smile, on that finger; like something mocking her.
You might as well come in, she said. She turned her back on me and
limped down the hall. Shut the door behind you.
I lifted my red bag inside, as she’d no doubt intended, then closed the door.
I didn’t say anything to her. Aunt Lydia said it was best not to speak unless
they asked you a direct question. Try to think of it from their point of view,
she said, her hands clasped and wrung together, her nervous pleading smile.
It isn’t easy for them.
In here, said the Commander’s Wife. When I went into the sitting room she
was already in her chair, her left foot on the footstool, with its petit point
cushion, roses in a basket. Her knitting was on the floor beside the chair, the
needles stuck through it.
I stood in front of her, hands folded. So, she said. She had a cigarette, and
she put it between her lips and gripped it there while she lit it. Her lips were
thin, held that way, with the small vertical lines around them you used to see
in advertisements for lip cosmetics. The lighter was ivory-colored. The
cigarettes must have come from the black market, I thought, and this gave me
hope. Even now that there is no real money anymore, there’s still a black
market. There’s always a black market, there’s always something that can be
exchanged. She then was a woman who might bend the rules. But what did I
have, to trade?
I looked at the cigarette with longing. For me, like liquor and coffee, they
So old what’s-his-face didn’t work out, she said .
No, ma’am, I said.
She gave what might have been a laugh, then coughed. Tough luck on him,
she said. This is your second, isn’t it?
Third, ma’am, I said.
Not so good for you either, she said. There was another coughing laugh.
You can sit down. I don’t make a practice of it, but just this time.
I did sit, on the edge of one of the stiff-backed chairs. I didn’t want to stare
around the room, I didn’t want to appear inattentive to her; so the marble
mantelpiece to my right and the mirror over it and the bunches of flowers
were just shadows, then, at the edges of my eyes. Later I would have more
than enough time to take them in.
Now her face was on a level with mine. I thought I recognized her; or at
least there was something familiar about her. A little of her hair was showing,
from under her veil. It was still blond. I thought then that maybe she bleached
it, that hair dye was something else she could get through the black market,
but I know now that it really is blond. Her eyebrows were plucked into thin
arched lines, which gave her a permanent look of surprise, or outrage, or
inquisitiveness, such as you might see on a startled child, but below them her
eyelids were tired-looking. Not so her eyes, which were the flat hostile blue
of a midsummer sky in bright sunlight, a blue that shuts you out. Her nose
must once have been what was called cute but now was too small for her
face. Her face was not fat but it was large. Two lines led downward from the
corners of her mouth; between them was her chin, clenched like a fist.
I want to see as little of you as possible, she said. I expect you feel the
same way about me.
I didn’t answer, as a yes would have been insulting, a no contradictory.
I know you aren’t stupid, she went on. She inhaled, blew out the smoke.
I’ve read your file. As far as I’m concerned, this is like a business transaction.
But if I get trouble, I’ll give trouble back. You understand?
Yes, ma’am, I said.
Don’t call me ma’am, she said irritably. You’re not a Martha.
I didn’t ask what I was supposed to call her, because I could see that she
hoped I would never have the occasion to call her anything at all. I was
disappointed. I wanted, then, to turn her into an older sister, a motherly
figure, someone who would understand and protect me. The Wife in my
posting before this had spent most of her time in her bedroom; the Marthas
said she drank. I wanted this one to be different. I wanted to think I would
have liked her, in another time and place, another life. But I could see already
that I wouldn’t have liked her, nor she me.
She put her cigarette out, half smoked, in a little scrolled ashtray on the
lamp table beside her. She did this decisively, one jab and one grind, not the
series of genteel taps favored by many of the Wives.
As for my husband, she said, he’s just that. My husband. I want that to be
perfectly clear. Till death do us part. It’s final.
Yes, ma’am, I said again, forgetting. They used to have dolls, for little
girls, that would talk if you pulled a string at the back; I thought I was
sounding like that, voice of a monotone, voice of a doll. She probably longed
to slap my face. They can hit us, there’s Scriptural precedent. But not with
any implement. Only with their hands.
It’s one of the things we fought for, said the Commander’s Wife, and
suddenly she wasn’t looking at me, she was looking down at her knuckled,
diamond-studded hands, and I knew where I’d seen her before.
The first time was on television, when I was eight or nine. It was when my
mother was sleeping in, on Sunday mornings, and I would get up early and
go to the television set in my mother’s study and flip through the channels,
looking for cartoons. Sometimes when I couldn’t find any I would watch the
Growing Souls Gospel Hour, where they would tell Bible stories for children
and sing hymns. One of the women was called Serena Joy. She was the lead
soprano. She was ash blond, petite, with a snub nose and huge blue eyes
which she’d turn upwards during hymns. She could smile and cry at the same
time, one tear or two sliding gracefully down her cheek, as if on cue, as her
voice lifted through its highest notes, tremulous, effortless. It was after that
she went on to other things.
The woman sitting in front of me was Serena Joy. Or had been, once. So it
was worse than I thought.
I walk along the gravel path that divides the back lawn, neatly, like a hair
parting. It has rained during the night; the grass to either side is damp, the air
humid. Here and there are worms, evidence of the fertility of the soil, caught
by the sun, half dead; flexible and pink, like lips.
I open the white picket gate and continue, past the front lawn and towards
the front gate. In the driveway, one of the Guardians assigned to our
household is washing the car. That must mean the Commander is in the
house, in his own quarters, past the dining room and beyond, where he seems
to stay most of the time.
The car is a very expensive one, a Whirlwind; better than the Chariot,
much better than the chunky, practical Behemoth. It’s black, of course, the
color of prestige or a hearse, and long and sleek. The driver is going over it
with a chamois, lovingly. This at least hasn’t changed, the way men caress
He’s wearing the uniform of the Guardians, but his cap is tilted at a jaunty
angle and his sleeves are rolled to the elbow, showing his forearms, tanned
but with a stipple of dark hairs. He has a cigarette stuck in the corner of his
mouth, which shows that he too has something he can trade on the black
I know this man’s name: Nick. I know this because I’ve heard Rita and
Cora talking about him, and once I heard the Commander speaking to him:
Nick, I won’t be needing the car.
He lives here, in the household, over the garage. Low status: he hasn’t
been issued a woman, not even one. He doesn’t rate: some defect, lack of
connections. But he acts as if he doesn’t know this, or care. He’s too casual,
he’s not servile enough. It may be stupidity, but I don’t think so. Smells
fishy, they used to say; or, I smell a rat. Misfit as odor. Despite myself, I
think of how he might smell. Not fish or decaying rat; tanned skin, moist in
the sun, filmed with smoke. I sigh, inhaling.
He looks at me, and sees me looking. He has a French face, lean,
whimsical, all planes and angles, with creases around the mouth where he
smiles. He takes a final puff of the cigarette, lets it drop to the driveway, and
steps on it. He begins to whistle. Then he winks.
I drop my head and turn so that the white wings hide my face, and keep
walking. He’s just taken a risk, but for what? What if I were to report him?
Perhaps he was merely being friendly. Perhaps he saw the look on my face
and mistook it for something else. Really what I wanted was the cigarette.
Perhaps it was a test, to see what I would do.
Perhaps he is an Eye.
I open the front gate and close it behind me, looking down but not back. The
sidewalk is red brick. That is the landscape I focus on, a field of oblongs,
gently undulating where the earth beneath has buckled, from decade after
decade of winter frost. The color of the bricks is old, yet fresh and clear.
Sidewalks are kept much cleaner …