Memories of One’s Own

When many people describe Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale as science fiction, I read it with my eyes wet, as an emotional journey. Indeed, it is a science fictional story set in a democratic a United States of America-turned theocratic state after nuclear, biological and chemical pollution render a large portion of the population sterile, and a terrorist attack abolishes the US constitution. Thus an imaginary state the Republic of Gilead is formed under the rule of a military dictatorship. It’s a state run by a government which degrades women’s status down to merely a means of reproduction under the name of God and the Bible. Comprising a few social critiques, including religious movements, feminism, the backlash against feminism, and terrorism, the novel presents a dystopian vision of life in a country under a totalitarian regime.

Offred, the protagonist narrates the story of her life being a handmaid who along with other women, exists in a void-like world with no trus t, love, or escape. She tells her story in fragments, with many flashbacks through which the readers slowly envision her life before and after she became Offred.  The story is quietly told in a subtle atmosphere and it exists only because you are listening.

In a world without freedom, Offred has a lot of free time. “Time as white sound”; “the long parentheses of nothing.” She travels through time in her memories to her rebellious lesbian friend Moira, her peculiar feminist mother, her lost daughter, and more often her husband Luke. In Atwood’s poetic descriptions, these passages of memories with Luke are lovingly tender but also heartbreaking to read. “I have them, these attacks of the past, like faintness, a wave sweeping over my head. Sometimes it can hardly be borne…it’s the lack of love we die from. There’s nobody here I can love, all the people I love are dead or elsewhere.” 

As the story moves forward, the Commander starts to summon Offred to his office at nights. There is a possibility of an affair between them. However, she does not like him and he only wants to play Scrabble with her. She still takes in what he has to give to the emptiness of her life: moisturizer, a women’s magazine, a cheap lipstick, a costume-like dress with feathers, and a night out in the underground brothel.

Love happens in the very last part of the book, or it almost does. In order to have a baby, the Commander’s wife Serena Joy arranges Offred to meet Nick, the chauffeur. In Nick’s single room above the garage, sex isn’t a ritual anymore. Desire and love sparkle in Atwood’s again poetic but also fast-paced descriptions. “Love, it’s been so long, I’m alive in my skin, again, arms around him, falling and water softly everywhere, never-ending. I knew it might only be once.” She herself isn’t sure how it happens either, “the way love feels is always only approximate”.

She then takes risks and goes back to him again and again. In the glow of the searchlight filtered through the white curtains she memorizes him, to save him up so she can live on the image. “The lines of his body, the texture of his flesh… I ought to have done that with Luke, paid more attention, to the details, the moles and scars, the singular crease; I didn’t and he’s fading. Day by day, night by night, he recedes, and I become more faithless.” She knows each time with him might be the last, and if more, that is a surprise, extra, a gift. Love is a spark, lost in the dark. Her momentary happiness bears as much hopelessness as love.

However, when the story is at its climax, it also abruptly ends. Offred is taken away by the authorities that are led to her room by Nick. He tells her to go with them and says “It’s alright.” So she sets off into “the darkness within; or else the light.” Her memories end here with an ambiguous ending of not knowing whether she escapes or dies, whether Nick has betrayed her or saved her.

In this beautifully written book, it looks like nothing much happens within pages of the poetic style of writing, but at the same time a lot happens intensely like waves one after another. Atwood imaginatively creates a dystopian society, but more importantly she weaves together one’s memories of the past and the feelings of love. Love and desire are sensually described with metaphors such as flowers and water, but moreover, are heartfully perceived. She tells the story with great compassion. It is not only a story that gives you the chill to consider about society, but also a story that brings out your own memories till you’re in tears.

Published in Zing, 2009