The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

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In the novel, both patriarchy and matriarchy regard romantic love as an irrelevance that can be ignored. As well as indifference to love, the novel details certain social attempts at replacing it altogether. Such strategies at least have the merit of partially recognising the ‘yearning’ Offred mentions on the first page of the novel – a ‘yearning’ she goes on to explain as being for something different to ‘the television room’ of her youth, with its ‘pictures flickering over lifting flesh’ (1:3). This image prepares the reader for the thematic importance of sex in Offred’s story, and particularly for the fact that pre-Gilead ‘America’ seems to have become obsessed with it. Atwood convincingly extrapolates the (very real) explosion of hard-core pornography in the seventies to a point where prostitution and other ‘adult’ services have begun to fundamentally alter society. Faced with a world in which sex is as freely available on the streets as pretzels and hot-dogs, the ‘Sons of Jacob Think Tank’ takes decisive action against the problem, as the Commander himself explains to Offred:

The sex was too easy. Anyone could just buy it. There was nothing to work for, nothing to fight for. We have the stats from that time. You know what [men] were complaining about the most? Inability to feel. Men were turning off on sex, even. They were turning off on marriage. (32:197-8)

I hope they get hard at the sight of us and have to rub themselves against the painted barriers surreptitiously. They will suffer, later, all night, in their regimented beds. They have no outlets now except themselves, and that’s a sacrilege. There are no more magazines, no more films, no more substitutes […] (4:22)

legally – at least as far as Offred is concerned. The Guardians she teases, however, have the possibility of rising through the ranks to a point where they will be rewarded for their services and loyalty with a Wife, and perhaps eventually with a Handmaid as well. That is, essentially, the Gilead regime’s ‘big idea’ with regard to social, and sexual, engineering. It addresses the issue of sex, but, notably, it ignores any romantic agenda, since these hoped-for marriages are all arranged by the state: there is, again, no room for love.

It makes perfect sense, therefore, both in terms of her own characterisation and thematically, that when the Commander asks Offred, ‘What did we overlook?’ in Chapter Thirty-Four, she answers ‘Love’, and then explains that she means, specifically, romantic love: ‘Falling in love’ (206). It is notable, too, that while the Commander rejects her criticism out of hand, his actions with regard to Offred comically betray his own need for romantic love – or, at least, for a substitute that retains many of its trappings. This central representative of extreme patriarchy, member of the ‘Sons of Jacob Think Tank’, does his best, after all, to take his Handmaid out on a date.

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