The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

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3 ‘felt-skirted […] mini-skirted […] spiky green hair’ – These female fashions represent the fifties, sixties and seventies respectively. Offred is about thirty years of age in the 1980s (the 1980s of Atwood’s alternate reality): she would have experienced something, therefore, of all these decades.

3 ‘an undercurrent of drums, a forlorn wail, garlands made of tissue-paper flowers, cardboard devils’ – the school ‘disco’ as a bizarre species of pagan fertility rite.

3 ‘old sex’ – which, ironically, was experienced by the young in this gymnasium. The adjective ‘old’ implies that Gilead has moved on from such things, but the novel clearly establishes the indestructibility of ‘old sex’ which is seen to motivate several of the novel’s key characters.

3 ‘We yearned for the future’ – Youthful hopes and dreams have supposedly been supplanted: but Offred continues to yearn and hope, as do others. The Gilead regime, however, aims to create a kind of medieval social stasis, in which all yearnings and expectations will gradually evaporate, leaving a stable, unchanging society in which the hierarchies of power are inviolable.

3 ‘cots […] flannelette sheets like children’s [..] The lights were turned down but not out’ – This is partly for surveillance reasons, but it is also noticeable that, in the Red Centre, grown women are encouraged to become children again. References to such encouraged infantilism pepper the novel, as do a surprising number of figures of speech involving animal imagery. The regime wants the Handmaids to be as malleable and unthinking as infants or animals.

4 ‘electric cattle prods slung on thongs from their leather belts’ – In return for working directly for the patriarchal Gilead regime, the Aunts are given substitute penises (the obvious masculinity and sexual meaning of their ‘cattle prods’ is strongly implied by ‘slung on thongs from their leather belts’). There is possibly a reference lying behind this to Sigmund Freud’s famous theory of ‘penis envy’ in women. Electric cattle prods were used by police in Alabama and other southern American states to control African-American protesters during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. The implied comparison of the Handmaids to ‘cattle’ is significant: they are, essentially, breeding stock.

4 ‘No guns, though’ – The most dangerous penile analogues are reserved for men.

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