The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

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18 ‘He begins to whistle. Then he winks.’ – Possibly, Offred has earned this mild flirtation – she has been looking intently at him – but there is also a sense here that men can ‘whistle’ and wink and women will inevitably be drawn to them. Offred’s obvious need for sexual fulfilment with a male gnaws away at any feminist credentials she might otherwise possess.

18 ‘so that the white wings hide my face’ – This was the purpose of a nun’s wimple – an elaborate form of veil adopted and adjusted by the Gilead regime for their own purposes.

18 ‘Really what I wanted was the cigarette.’ – She has recently been presented with Serena Joy smoking, so there is some truth in this. It is certainly not, however, the whole truth: she is attracted to Nick, and is already making mental excuses about this to herself.

18 ‘Perhaps he is an Eye.’ – Gilead’s secret police force, similar to Orwell’s ‘Thought Police’ who, in turn, were modelled on Stalin’s NKVD.

18 ‘The sidewalk is red brick. That is the landscape I focus on, a field of oblongs, gently undulating where the earth beneath has buckled […]’ – a richly ironic statement. The only ‘landscape’ Offred can look at is the path under her feet. Its colour marks it out as her path, and there may be a glance at Dorothy’s ‘yellow brick road’, which she follows in order to get back to the American normality of ‘Kansas’.

18 ‘They also serve who only stand and wait’ – John Milton’s sonnet ‘On his Blindness’ ends with this famous line. The context is obedience to God’s will even in the harshest and most unpromising circumstances:

Who best
Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state
Is kingly: thousands at his bidding speed,
And post o'er land and ocean without rest;
They also serve who only stand and wait.

The use of the line by Aunt Lydia is also an example of the way Gilead – a theocracy – likes to identify itself with the Kingdom of God, which Milton is writing about.

19 ‘“Blessed be the fruit”’ – The Handmaid’s ritual greeting derives from Luke 1:42, but is probably more familiar as a phrase from the ‘Hail Mary’: Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee; Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of the thy womb, Jesus…

19 ‘May the Lord open’ – Based on a number of typical priestly blessings that begin: May the Lord bless… The Gilead regime is not interested in the Handmaids being blessed, however: it merely prays that their wombs be ‘opened’.

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the Unkindness of Ravens If you have found our critical notes helpful, why not try the first Tower Notes novel, a historical fantasy set in the time of the Anglo-Saxon invasions.

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The Unkindness of Ravens by Anthony Paul