Question: There are a number of key unforgettable scenes in the novel. Without focusing on description, discuss what is so memorable about any 3 or 4.
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood has a number of key unforgettable scenes with memorable language and imagery created through Offred’s opinions and descriptions. The introductory scene, the biblical scene, the first meeting with the Commander, and the Birth Day chapter are all scenes which are not only unforgettable within the context of the novel but contain language which both emphasises the ideas in the novel and is metaphorical and full of symbolism providing the reader with a greater understanding of the novel.
The chapter in which Offred is introduced to the reader sets the scene for the novel, in Offred’s bedroom. The room in which she stays is quite empty, the descriptions of the objects in the room are listed, emphasising the lack of character of the room; “A chair, a table, a lamp” (pg 17).
This emptiness highlights to the reader immediately that Offred has an ‘empty’ life in Gilead. Offred’s references to herself are also memorable. She compares herself often with a nun, the time “is measured by bells, as once in nunneries. As in a nunnery too, there are few mirrors.” (pg 18).
Nuns are associated with chastity and virtue, and are also often connected to the colour white, yet Offred also refers much to the colour “red: the colour of blood, which defines us” (pg 18).
... by playing a game of scabble with Offred in a room which Offred called the forbidding room, the game had been banned because of ... . This small moment of communication was a small defiance by Offred towards the Gilead society. Rebellion is caused when something that ... rebellion written I the novel "The Handmaids Tale" was when Offred secretly sings to herself in side her head, something lugubrious ...
Red is a colour associated with fertility, which is contrary to the pureness of the nun references. Her comment that she is a “sister, dipped in blood” (pg 19) combines the two, which are contradictory metaphors, a nun; innocence, dipped in blood; fertility. The two are opposite yet Offred links them. This stands out to the reader because it is such an unusual pairing. In the mirror Offred describes herself as a “fairytale figure in a red cloak” (pg 19) which seems to create a separation between Offred’s story and reality.
In the chapter in which the Commander reads the bible, Offred continues to bring about this fairytale quality to which she gives her thoughts. She describes the Commander as “a shoemaker in an old fairytale book.” (pg 98).This gives her story another aspect of a fairytale, that the characters are like fairytale characters. The chapter also emphasises what role men and women play in Gileadian society. That the women are so infatuated with the man, “we watch him: every inch, every flicker” (pg 98) symbolises that the men are the centre of the society, in fact, they are the keepers of “the word” (pg 99).
As a man, the Commander is able to read, and this is symbolic of power. The saying that ‘knowledge is power’ is important in this chapter. The ‘word’ symbolises knowledge, and therefore power. Because the Commander is the only one with access to books, he has power over the others. Offred’s perception that the authorities of Gilead make things up; “I knew they made that up, I knew it was wrong, and they left things out too, but there was no way of checking” pg (100) stresses the power of knowledge. That by using words, and knowledge, the authorities are able to change other’s knowledge and therefore manipulate them to do their will.
The importance of knowledge is also highlighted in the chapter of the first meeting between Offred and the Commander. The Commanders room itself is symbolic of all that is forbidden to women in Gilead, full of books and reading material; knowledge. The furniture, such as the “small sofa, covered in brown plush” (pg 147) is much more exclusive than Offred’s own empty and stark room, and therefore highlights the higher status of men in Gilead in comparison to women. The language used to describe the Commander and Offred during the initial moments after Offred has arrived also effectively highlights the different roles in Gilead because it presents the Commander in a position of power, the “studied pose, something of the country squire” (pg 147) gives him a scholarly and academic atmosphere. His use of the old greeting “Hello” (pg 147) gives him a certain element of being beyond the total reach of Gilead, that he is able to use the old greeting when the new biblical phrases are supposed to be compulsory. Offred is described using language making her in a much less powerful position, she is intimidated, “The fact is I’m terrified.” (pg 147).
... Offred for the Commanders love, which he gives to Offred move than to his own wife. The people with the most power in Gilead ... centre to the secret meetings between the Commander and Offred. The first we see of the struggles ... The first event is when the Commander starts to invite Offred to his private quarters and they ... the society it also allows them to push their views and opinions onto the handmaids ...
Her shock at his use of ‘Hello’ demonstrates the mental difficulty the Handmaids face in Gileadian society. The chapter is memorable not only because it highlights the more dominant role of the male in Gilead, but also because of the humorous yet ironic scrabble game. The reader expects that the Commander will want something sexual and physical from Offred, yet a scrabble game, which is such an ordinary event in reality, seems so out of place in the context of Gilead. The chapter is told from Offred’s perspective, and her fragmented narration adds to the intensity of the situation, and the confusion she experiences.
Offred’s narration of the Birth Day scene is also fragmented, but results in an intense atmosphere. The repetition of the Handmaid’s chants adds to the intense atmosphere, as does Janine’s ‘transition’. Offred jumps quickly from one event, such as Janine going to the toilet, to the other, such as Janine sitting. The rushed language gives it a fast-paced feeling. The Handmaid’s chants; “Push, push, push…Relax. Pant. Push, push, push” (pg 135) all add to the intense atmosphere. The language Offred uses to describe the Commander’s Wife also adds to the intensity, using quick words such as “scrambles”, “spindly” (pg 135) all words that are almost onomatopoeic, and further emphasise the intensity of the birth. Birth is an event which occurs in our world as well as in Gilead. Offred contrasts the feelings associated to birth in her two different worlds, the present and the past. In the past the happiness associated with birth was happiness and wonder of the miracle of the creation of new life, which Offred shows through her memories of Luke, his “breath coming out in wonder.” (pg 136).
... giving contradictory messages to others by indicating one kind of feeling with words, another with actions, and still another with nonverbal expressions ... you don’t care. – When I’m pushed, I feel stressed. I can’t meet your time ... troubles in those relationships when you cannot handle your feelings efficiently. In other words, when you lose control and cannot adjust your ...
Yet in the present, the feelings associated with birth are victory related, it’s not about the miracles of new life, but of the production of new life; “It’s a victory, for all of us. We’ve done it.” (pg 137).
The biblical scene, the first meeting with Commander, and the Birth Day all use Offred’s language and imagery to emphasise certain aspects of Gileadian society such as the status of men and women, and the power of the ‘word’ and knowledge. Offred’s style of retelling her story induces feelings and emotions such as intimidation or intensity. Her descriptions compare aspects of her old reality to Gilead, and highlight their differences. As a result, through Offred’s opinions and descriptions, these scenes become key and unforgettable.