The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

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Whereas the Commander’s words and emotions are described and dissected in the novel at some length, Nick, by contrast – the other male with whom Offred has a romantic liaison in the time-frame of the novel – is left as a far more mysterious figure. In this, he is – apparently deliberately – made to correspond to a familiar romantic stereotype: the powerfully sexual male who has ‘secrets’ he never reveals, and whose real emotions are never exposed by his ‘long sardonic unrevealing face’ (41:253). In the depths of her sexual frustration, Offred gives herself totally to Nick, who could, not unreasonably, be described as an archetypal female fantasy figure, and she does this in a manner she finds embarrassing to relate (‘I told you it was bad’ – 41:252), and which entirely overturns any aspirations she may once have had for a more feminist-style ‘even-steven transaction’ (160):

[…] I knock softly, a beggar’s knock. Each time I would expect him to be gone; or worse, I would expect him to say I could not come in. […] His failure to do any of these things I experienced as the most incredible benevolence and luck. (41:252)

Offred’s complete submission to Nick at the end of the novel in what can only be described as a full-blown romantic climax has not always gone down well in academic circles. It is important to point out though that Atwood’s presentation of Offred’s love for Nick is certainly not without nuance. It is, firstly, completely in character for her that she acts as she does, and also that she describes her first encounter with Nick in a species of lush romantic pastiche:

Outside, like punctuation, there’s a flash of lightning, almost no pause and then the thunder. He’s undoing my dress, a man made of darkness. I can’t see his face, and I can hardly breathe, hardly stand, and I’m not standing. His mouth is on me, his hands. I can’t wait and he’s moving, already, love, it’s been so long. I’m alive in my skin, again, arms around him, falling and water softly everywhere, never-ending. (40:245)

ibid. ) – though she immediately replaces it with another representation of romantic love, this time using the constrained clichés and conventions of movies from the forties and fifties: ‘And what’s a nice girl like me doing in a spot like this?’; ‘Abstinence makes the heart grow fonder.’ (40:246). The fact that her accounts are so obviously fake, however, doesn’t at all affect the fact that something of crucial importance happens in Nick’s apartment. Telling the same story using different genres is an old modernist trick, and post-modernist fiction is full of narrators who do their best to avoid telling the reader the truth about key events in their histories. The effect of such techniques is always to heighten the intensity of that hidden secret moment or event: ‘reality avoidance’ in literature almost always makes things seem more real, not less. And the passage of pastiche given above, while it may not be literally ‘true’, leaves the reader with a powerful sense of Offred’s ‘real’ emotions. As she herself points out: ‘All I can hope for is a reconstruction, the way love feels is always only approximate’ (40:246).

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