The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

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9 ‘There remains a mirror, on the hall wall […] round, convex, a pier-glass, like the eye of a fish, and myself in it like a distorted shadow’ – another image of the ever-present ‘eye’. A ‘pier-glass’ is a mirror hung on a ‘pier’ or section of a wall between two windows. They are generally rectangular (to fit the shape of the wall); this one, however, is circular.

9 ‘some fairy-tale figure in a red cloak’ – This is obviously Little Red Riding-Hood, one of Charles Perrault’s original fairy-tale characters. The moral of her story is a warning not to stray off the path – an idea with important overtones for Offred, who later does just this, and puts herself in danger. The reader soon sees her walking a set route or path with her shopping companion Ofglen. Originally, ‘Little Red Riding-Hood’ was intended as a warning for young women against sexual predators.

9 ‘bentwood’ – wood steamed and bent for use in furniture etc.

9 ‘the soft tap of her cane’ – establishes that the Commander’s Wife is old, and could not reasonably expect to bear a child. The word ‘cane’ suggests both a walking stick and also a means of punishment.

9 ‘it’s the red dress she disapproves of, and what it stands for’ – The Handmaids have an indeterminate social status, and lack the permanence of the other female roles, since they are passed on from household to household. They are also solitary, compared to the Marthas (since each household has only one Handmaid) and they exist in a kind of no-man’s-land between ‘upstairs’ and ‘downstairs’, rather like the housekeepers and governesses of Victorian England. In addition to this, their very function verges on being taboo, since it involves a kind of sanctioned adultery. This is presumably one reason why only women who have broken Gilead’s strict set of sexual mores are chosen as Handmaids: they are, essentially, penitents, trying to save themselves ‘in childbearing’ (cf. 1 Tim, 2:15).

10 ‘Go to the Colonies. […] With the Unwomen, and starve to death’ – The brief dialogue between Rita and Cora introduces two important concepts. The ‘Colonies’ are territories under Gileadean control, but where the specific form of society described in the novel has yet to be established. They appear to be used by the regime much as successive Russian governments have used Siberia. In the Colonies, the best prospect open to a citizen of Gilead would be a life of hard labour; most die quickly through being used in clean-up squads to deal with the various nuclear and biological environmental catastrophes that contributed to Gilead’s foundation in the first place. The term ‘Unwomen’ is a borrowing from George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four , which labels dissidents who are removed from historical records as ‘unpersons’. In Atwood’s usage, the term implies an inability to fit into the set categories provided for women: if you are not a Wife, Aunt, Handmaid or Martha, you are nothing – an Unwoman. Unwomen live ‘beyond the gate’: the Commander has to take Offred ‘beyond the gate’ in Chapter Thirty-Seven, for example, to visit the Unwomen who work at Jezebel’s.

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