The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

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7 ‘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.’ – Offred’s narrative is deliberately stilted and repetitive, perhaps to make her sound as though she has regressed to a child-like state, or possibly as an indication that her brain is not functioning in a normal, healthy way. The window with its ‘two white curtains’ seems to obsess her: in nearly every subsequent description of this room, the curtains are depicted slightly differently, and the window itself is presumably intended to be understood in a symbolic sense, representing the freedom and hope denied to her. However, the window remains simply a window, and the unhealthy way her mind returns again and again to the word in this quotation is certainly suggestive of an unhealthy mental state. Offred speculates at the bottom of the page on whether her ‘white curtains’ are government issue (specifically for Handmaids). The colour white represents hope and purity. If she can bear a child, she will be made ‘whiter than snow’ (Psalm 51) and her scarlet sins blotted out (cf. Isaiah 1:18). She will be permitted then to live a natural lifespan, rather than being shipped out to the ‘Colonies’ to clean up toxic waste. The Handmaids’ red habits are not meant to recall their ability to menstruate but their ‘sinfulness’ – some, like Offred, might have married a divorcee; others have had same-sex relationships like Moira.

7 ‘A return to traditional values’ – This was one of the political rallying cries of 1980s conservatism. It was particularly associated in America with the Presidency of Ronald Reagan, and in the U.K. with the premiership of Margaret Thatcher. In the U.S.A., an important aspect to the movement was an alliance between the political right and Evangelical Christianity.

7 ‘Waste not, want not. I am not being wasted. Why do I want?’ – Offred constantly plays on words, the hidden implications of which seem to fascinate her. Here, an old proverb about thrift leads to a restatement of the theme of ‘yearning’ associated with the school gymnasium in Chapter One.

8 ‘ladies in reduced circumstances’ – more of Offred’s ironic humour. The regime has taken almost everything away from women: their education, their right to work, even their ability to own property if they are married.

8 ‘in love with either/or’ – Aunt Lydia’s rhetoric corresponds to the sort of simple threats often used to control children: ‘either you do this, or this unpleasant thing will happen to you.’ The ‘prison’/‘privilege’ antithesis sounds similar to slogans such as ‘War is Peace’ found in Nineteen Eighty-Four .

8 ‘Time here is measured by bells, as once in nunneries.’ – Bells are rung in monasteries and convents to signal the various hours of prayer. The reference here is most likely to the ‘angelus bell’ (a triple stroke, rung three times, with a pause between each triplet) tolled at 6.00 am, noon and 6.00 pm. The bell is the signal for the Angelus prayer which includes three Hail Mary’s and focuses on the Virgin Mary’s conception of the Christ-child. It thus offers an interesting, though distorted, parallel to Offred’s situation. One of the responses in the Angelus is: ‘Behold the handmaid of the Lord.’

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