The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

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The original version of this courtship fantasy was established (though never actually defined as ‘courtly love’ ) in the High Middle Ages, and was directed towards an ultimate and unattainable object of desire. In practice, even in medieval times, that unattainability may never have been more than a phase in an established process of courtship, but nevertheless its significance still resonates through human relationships even today. The problem a feminist such as Germaine Greer would have with courtly behaviour and the whole paraphernalia of ‘romance’ is that these things combine as part of a patriarchal social construct that leads to women’s imprisonment in what might be a very limited domestic life: ‘romance’ is essentially a fantasy of empowerment that entraps young girls through a kind of socially-induced ‘enchantment’. Such notions aside, however, courtly behaviour is clearly very attractive to men like the Commander, for whom Offred is entirely domesticated already. Despite this, he still gains considerable and obvious pleasure from sitting on the floor at her feet:

Sometimes after the games he sits on the floor, beside my chair, holding my hand. His head is a little below mine, so that when he looks up at me, it’s at a juvenile angle. It must amuse him, this fake subservience. He’s way up there, says Ofglen. He’s at the top, and I mean the very top. (32:197)

reassurance of a woman, the feeling that they are loved and valued; it is this that men really want ‘to do with women’ (32:198). In the course of their conversation in Chapter Thirty-Two about men’s ‘Inability to feel’ in the past, Offred asks, reasonably enough, ‘Do they feel now?’ and the Commander replies:

Yes, he says, looking at me. They do. He stands up, comes around the desk to the chair where I’m sitting. His puts his hands on my shoulders from behind. (Ibid.)

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