The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

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There is something poignant about Offred’s father continuing to send ‘Christmas cards’ from ‘the coast’ to his daughter and her mother, but the reader will recall that Offred doesn’t even have an address for her own offspring to send cards to: her only contact with her in the novel is the Polaroid snapshot shown to her by Serena Joy. Despite Offred’s mother’s impersonal approach to conception, however, a latent romantic sensibility is seen in her memory of Offred’s father’s ‘beautiful blue eyes’ – a rather comically clichéd example of romanticism as amusing as it is unexpected. The implied critique of Offred’s mother for her treatment of the ‘nice guy’ who ‘wasn’t up to fatherhood’, combined with her own suppressed romanticism, clearly undermines her implied critique of romantic love.

The same parallel between patriarchy and matriarchy is played out again in a conversation found in Chapter Twenty-Eight between Offred and Moira, who is objecting to Offred’s relationship with Luke, a married man. Moira, as Offred points out, is not concerned in the least with the issue of fidelity: as a lesbian, she has no qualms ‘about stealing […] or borrowing’ other women’s women (28:160), but she sees relationships between men and women as different, and inescapably political. This is why she accuses Offred of ‘poaching, on another woman’s ground’ ( ibid. ), a ‘sin’ that Offred goes on to repeat with the Commander and Serena Joy, though she has, of course, little or no choice about how she acts in this later scenario. Moira’s point is essentially that women should never undermine each other in the universal struggle against patriarchy: the political imperative overrides every other consideration, including romantic love: ‘I said I was in love. She said that was no excuse. Moira was always more logical’ ( ibid. ). Just as in the case of Offred’s mother’s attitudes to conception paralleling those enforced by the Gilead regime, Moira’s opposition to adultery on feminist grounds mirrors the Gilead regime’s ‘declaring all second marriages and non-marital liaisons adulterous’ (‘Historical Notes’, 286). Love, for the ‘Sons of Jacob Think Tank’, as for Moira, is ‘no excuse.’ Offred’s lesbian friend is a powerful role model and one of the most sympathetic characters in the book, but it is sobering to look at her character from this ‘romantic’ perspective. While Atwood unquestionably presents this gay woman in a positive light, she still portrays her as someone with no desire to ‘fall in love’ and have a long-term committed relationship, and this arguably reinforces the deeply ingrained stereotype of promiscuous homosexuality. The idea is present even in Moira’s final appearance in Jezebel’s, which she refers to as ‘Butch paradise’ (38:234). Of course it can be argued that Moira is just one of those people who is not interested in a committed relationship per se – a decision independent of her sexuality – but nevertheless she still embodies a persistent and harmful stereotype in this respect, and that is to be regretted.

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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