The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

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The proverb can also be read as suggesting that if human life is reduced to its barest essentials – a nomadic desert existence, for example – then there is no need for laws, since the rules required to survive are too obvious for words: no one would ever mistake stones for actual food in reality. In attempting to bring humanity back to this ‘ground-level’ – to an almost monastic, un-stimulating ‘desert’ of simple, repetitive tasks – the Gilead regime hopes that people will come to obey its precepts naturally and thoughtlessly, without, finally, the need for brutal legal enforcement.

I – Night
Chapter One


The book is structured around a series of sections of four or five chapters, each section intercalated with a chapter titled ‘Night’ (there is also an exceptional ‘Nap’). In addition, the novel begins and end with a ‘Night’ chapter. While each of the ‘day-time’ segments revolve around a particular event (‘Shopping’ or ‘Jezebel’s’, for example) the ‘Night’ sections are more purely reflective and take place exclusively in Offred’s room. This room comes to represent her own semi-private space, but at the same time it underscores the fact of her confinement and oppression as a Handmaid. It is also associated with her possible future death, as the Commander’s previous Handmaid, whose history mirrors her own, hanged herself from the light-fitting in the ceiling. The fitting itself has been removed and plastered over, but the wreath-like ceiling rose remains. Each ‘day-time’ segment of the novel is a movement away from the ‘Night’ of this room and Offred’s (potential) death; each seeks, however improbably or temporarily, for some small means of escape. Her actual freedom (at least for a time and possibly for the rest of her natural life) comes at the very end of the final ‘Night’ section.

3 ‘I thought I could smell […] the pungent smell of sweat’ – Although the actual smells she recalls could not have survived, she may be smelling sweat from one of the bodies sleeping around her, and scents are known to be one of the most efficient triggers of memory. Offred is returning to the first moments of her sexual awakening as a girl: first, she imagines herself watching boys playing basketball and smelling the scent of their pheromones rising into the stands; memories of dances in the school gym follow. As frequently, Offred’s early musings are laden with an understated sensuality.

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