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Margaret Atwood: The Handmaid's Tale (1985)

This is a futuristic story of a time when fertile women are captive to  the society's elites, most of whom have become sterile.  These handmaids are women who are no longer allowed to read or think for themselves.

         I wait at the corner for Ofglen.  She's late.  At last I see her coming, a red and white shape of cloth, like a kite, walking at the steady pace we've all learned to keep.  I see her and notice nothing at first.  Then, as she comes nearer, I think that there must be something wrong with her.  She looks wrong.  She is altered in some indefinable way; she's not injured, she's not limping.  It's as if she has shrunk.

         Then when she's nearer still I see what it is.  She isn't Ofglen.  She's the same height, but thinner, and her face is beige, not pink.  She comes up to me, stops.

         "Blessed by the fruit," she says. Straight-faced, straight-laced.

         "May the Lord open," I reply. I try not to show surprise.

         "You must be Offred," she says. I say yes, and we begin our walk.

         Now what, I think.  My head is churning, this is not good news, what has become of her, how do I find out without showing too much concern?  We aren't supposed to form friendships, loyalties, among one another.  I try to remember how much time Ofglen has to go at her present posting.

         "We've been sent good weather," I say.

         "Which I receive with joy." The voice placid, flat, unrevealing.

         We pass the first checkpoint without saying anything further.  She's taciturn, but so am I . Is she waiting for me to start something, reveal myself, or is she a believer, engrossed in inner meditation?

         "Has Ofglen been transferred, so soon?" I ask.  But I know she hasn't. I saw her only this morning. She would have said.

         "I am Ofglen," the woman says. Word perfect. And of course she is, the new one, and Ofglen, wherever she is, is no longer Ofglen. I never did know her real name. That is how you can get lost, in a sea of names. It wouldn't be easy to find her, now.

         We go to Milk and Honey, and to All Flesh, where I buy chicken and the new Ofglen gets three pounds of hamburger. There are the usual lines. I see several women I recognize, exchange with them the infinitesimal nods with which we show each other we are known, at least to someone, we still exist. Outside All Flesh I say to the new Ofglen, "We should go to the Wall." I don't know what I expect from this; some way of testing her reaction, perhaps. I need to know whether or not she is one of us. If she is, if I can establish that, perhaps she'll be able to tell me what has really happened to Ofglen.

         "As you like," she says. Is that indifference, or caution?

On the Wall hang the three women from this morning, still in their dresses, still in their shoes, still with the white bags over their heads. Their arms have been untied and are stiff and proper at their sides.  The blue one is in the middle, the two red ones on either side, though the colors are no longer as bright; they seem to have faded, grown dingy, like dead butterflies or tropical fish drying on land. The gloss is off them. We stand and look at them in silence.

         "Let that be a reminder to us," says the new Ofglen finally.

         I say nothing at first, because I am trying to make out what she means.  She could mean that this is a reminder to us of the unjustness and brutality of the regime.  In that case I ought to say yes.  Or she could mean the opposite, that we should remember to do what we are told and not get into trouble, because if we do we will be rightfully punished. If she means that, I should say praise be.  Her voice was bland, toneless, no clues there.

         I take a chance.  "Yes," I say.

         To this she does not respond, although I sense a flicker of white at the edge of my vision, as if she's looked quickly at me.

         After a moment we turn away and begin the long walk back, matching our steps in the approved way, so that we seem to be in unison....

         "I didn't know Ofglen very well," I say. "I mean the former one."

         "Oh?" she says.  The fact that she's said anything, however guarded, encourages me.

         "I've only known her since May," I say.  I can feel my skin growing hot, my heart speeding up. This is tricky. For one thing, it's a lie. And how do I get from there to the next vital word? "Around the first of May I think it was.  What they used to call May Day."

         "Did they?" she says, light, indifferent, menacing. "That isn't a term I remember. I'm surprised you do. You ought to make an effort..."  She pauses.  "To clear your mind of such..." She pauses again. "Echoes."

         Now I feel cold, seeping over my skin like water.  What she is doing is warning me.

         She isn't one of us. But she knows.

         I walk the last blocks in terror. I've been stupid, again. More than stupid. It hasn't occurred to me before, but now I see: if Ofglen's been caught, Ofglen may talk, about me among others. She will talk. She won't be able to help it.

         But I haven't done anything, I tell myself, not really.  All I did was know. All I did was not tell.

         They know where my child it. What if they bring her, threaten something to her, in front of me? Or do it. I can't bear to think what they might do. Or Luke, what if they have Luke. Or my mother or Moira or almost anyone. Dear God, don't make me choose. I would not be able to stand it, I know that; Moira was right about me. I'll say anything they like, I'll incriminate anyone. It's true, the first scream, whimper even, and I'll turn to jelly, I'll confess to any crime, I'll end up hanging from a hook on the Wall.  Keep your head down, I used to tell myself, and see it through. It's no use....

         Then she does an odd thing. She leans forward, so that the stiff white blinkers on our heads are almost touching, so that I can see her pale beige eyes up close, the delicate web of lines across her cheeks, and whispers, very quickly, her voice faint as dry leaves.  "She hanged herself," she says.  "After the Salvaging. She saw the van coming for her. It was better."

         Then she's walking away from me down the street.

Question:  What is a possible theme for this document, a trend that can be proven with examples from previous eras?