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The Handmaid's Tale
by Margaret Atwood
p.4 It was in the air; and it was still in the air, an afterthought, as we tried to sleep, in the army cots that had been set up in rows with spaces between so we could not talk. We had flanellette sheets, like children's, and army-issue blankets, old ones that stool at the ends of the beds. The lights were turned down but not out. Aunt Sara and Aunt Elizabeth patrolled; they had electric cattle prods slung on thongs from their leather belts.
No guns though, even they could be trusted with guns. Guns were for the guards, specially picked from the Angels. The guards weren't allowed into the building except when called, and we weren't allowed out, except on walks, twice daily, two by two around the football field, which was enclosed now by a chain-link fence topped with barbed wire. The Angels stood outside it with their backs to us. They were objects of fear to us, but something else as well. If only they would look. If only we could talk to them. Something could be exchanged, we thought, some deal made, some tradeoff, we still had our bodies. That was our fantasy.
We learned to whisper almost without a sound. In the semidarkness we could stretch out our arms, when the Aunts weren't looking, and touch each other's hands across space. We learned to lip-read, our heads flat on the beds, turned sideways, watching each other's mouths. In this way we exchanged names, from bed to bed: Alma. Janine. Dolores. Moira. June.
p.7 A chair, a table, a lamp. Above, on the white ceiling, a relief ornament in the shape of a wreath, and in the center of it a blank space, plastered over, like the place in a face where the eye has been taken out. There must have been a chandelier, once. They've removed anything you can tie a rope to.
p.8 A bed, mattress medium-hard, covered with a flocked white spread. Nothing takes place in the bed but sleep; or now sleep. I try not to think too much. Like other things now, thought must be rationed. There's a lot that doesn't bear thinking about. Thinking the window opens opens only partly and why the window opens only partly and why the glass in it is shatterproof. It isn't running away that they're afraid of. We wouldn't get far. It's those other escapes, the ones you can open in yourself, given a cutting edge.
p.11 Or I would help Rita make the bread, sinking my hands into that soft resistant warmth which is so much like flesh. I hunger to touch something, other than cloth or wood. I hunger to commit the act of touch.
p.22 The one with the moustache opens the small pedestrian gate and stands back, well out of the way, and we pass through. As we walk away I know they're watching, these two men who aren't you permitted to touch women. They touch with their eyes instead and I move my hips a little, feeling the full red skirt sway around me. It's like thumbing your nose from behind a fence or teasing a dog with a bone held out of reach, and I'm ashamed of myself for doing it, because none of this is the fault of those men, they're too young.
Then I find I am not ashamed at all. I enjoy the power; power of a dog bone, passive but there. I hope they get hard at the sight of us and have to rub themselves against the painted barriers, surreptitiously. They will suffer, later, at night, in their regimented beds. They have no outlets now except themselves, and that's a sacrilege. There are no more magazines, no more films, no more substitutes; only me and my shadow, walking away from the two men, who stand at attention, stiffly, by a roadblock, watching our retreating shapes.
p.24 There is more than one kind of freedom, said Aunt Lydia. Freedom of and freedom from. In the days of anarchy, it was freedom to. Now you are being given freedom from. Don't underrate it.
p.43 There are three new bodies on the Wall. One is a priest, still wearing the black cassock. That's been put on him, for the trial, even though they gave up wearing those years ago, when the sect war first began; cassocks made them too conspicuous. The two others have purple placards hung around their necks: Gender Treachery. Their bodies still wear the Guardian uniforms. Caught together, they must have been, but where? A barrack, the shower?
p.43-44 "It's a beautiful May Day," Ofglen says. I feel rather than see her head turn towards me, waiting for a reply.
"Yes," I say. "Praise be," I added as an afterthought. Mayday used to be a distress signal, a long time ago, in one of those wars we studied in high school. I kept getting them mixed up, but you could tell them apart by the airplanes if you paid attention. It was Luke who told me about mayday, though. Mayday, mayday, for pilots whose planes had been hit, and ships--was it ships too?--at sea. Maybe it was SOS for ships. I wish I could look it up. And it was something from Beethoven, for the beginning of the victory, in one of those wars.
Do you know what it came from? said Luke.
No, I said. It's a strange word to use for that, isn't it?
Newspapers and coffee, on Sunday mornings, before she was born. There were still newspapers, then. We used to read them in bed.
It's French. From m'aidez.
p.52 I knelt to examine the floor, and there it was, in tiny writing, quite fresh it seemed, scratched with a pin or maybe just a fingernail, in the corner where the darkest shadow fell: Nolite te bastardes corborundorum.
I didn't know what it meant, or even what language it was in. I thought it might be Latin, but I didn't know any Latin. Still, it was a message, and it was in writing, forbidden but that very fact, and it hadn't yet been discovered. Except by me, for whom it was intended. It was intended for whoever came next.
It pleases me to ponder this message. It pleases me to think I'm communing with her, this unknown woman. For she is unknown; or if I know, she has never been mentioned to me. It pleases me to know that her taboo message made it though, to at least one other person, washed itself up on the wall or my cupboard, was opened and read by me. Sometimes I repeat the words to myself. They give me a small joy. When I imagine the woman who wrote them, I think of her as about my age, maybe a little younger.
p.56 Is that how we lived, then? But we lived as usual. Everyone does, most of the time. Whatever is going on is as usual. Even this is as, now.
p.56 We lived, as usual, by ignoring. Ignoring isn't the same as ignorance, you have to work at it.
p.57 We were the people who were not in the papers. We lived in the blank white spaces at the edges of the print. It gave us more freedom.
We lived in the gaps between the stories.
p.65 Cora brings my supper, covered, on a tray. She knocks at the door before entering. I like her for that. It means she thinks I have some of what we used to call privacy left.
p.69-70 I wait, washed, brushed, fed, like a prize pig. Sometime in the eighties they invented pig balls, for pigs who were being fattened in pens. Pig balls were large colored balls; the pigs rolled them around with their snouts. The pig marketers said this improved their muscle tone; the pigs were curious, they liked having something to think about. I read about that in Introduction to Psychology; that, and the chapter on caged rats who'd give themselves electric shocks for something to do. And the one on the pigeons trained to peck a button that made a grain of corn appear. Three groups of them: the first one got one grain per peck, the second one grain every other peck, the third was random. When the man in charge cut off the grain, the first group gave up quite soon, the second group a little later. The third group never gave up. They'd peck themselves to death, rather than quit. Who knew what worked?
I wish I had a pig ball.
p.103 I lie in bed, still trembling. You can wet the rim of a glass and run your finger around the rim and it will make a sound. this is what it feels like: this sound of glass. I feel like the word shatter. I want to be with someone.
p.103 If I thought this would never happen again I would die.
But this is wrong, nobody dies from lack of sex.
It's lack of love we die from. There's nobody here I can love, all the people I could love are dead or elsewhere. Who knows where they are now or what their names are now? They might as well be nowhere, as I am for them. I too am a missing person.
p.113 On the top of my desk there are initials, carved into the wood, and dates. The initials are sometimes in two sets, joined by the word loves. J.H. loves B.P. 1954. O.R. loves L.T. These seem to me like the inscriptions I used to read about, carved on the stone walls of caves, or drawn with a mixture of soot and animal fat. They seem to me incredibly ancient. The desktop is of blond wood; it slants down, and there is an armrest on the right side, to lean on when you were writing, on paper, with a pen. Inside the desk you could keep things: books, notebooks. These habits of former times appear to me now lavish, decadent almost; immoral, like the orgies of barbarian regimes. M. loves G. 1972. This carving, done with a pencil dug many times into the worn varnish of the desk, has the pathos of all vanished civilizations. It's like a handprint on stone, Whoever made that one was alive.
There are not dates after the mid eighties. This must have been one of the schools that were closed down then, for lack of children.
p.114 A thing is valued, she says, only if it is rare and hard to get. We want you to be valued, girls. She is rich in pauses, which she savors in her mouth. Think of yourselves as pearls. We, sitting in our rows, eyes down, we make her salivate morally. We are hers to define, we must suffer her adjectives.
I think about pearls. Pearls are congealed oyster spit, This is what I will tell Moira, later, if I can.
p.117 You are a transitional generation, said Aunt Lydia. It is the hardest for you. We know the sacrifices you are being expected to make. It is hard when men revile you. For the ones who come after you, it will be easier. They will accept their duties with willing hearts.
She did not say: Because they will have no memories, of any other way.
She said: Because they won't want things they can't have.
p.129 She thought all Janine's sniveling and repentance meant something, she thought Janine might have been broken, she thought Janine was a true believer. But by that time Janine was like a puppy that's been kicked too often, by too many people, at random: she'd just roll over for anyone, she'd tell anything, just for a moment of approbation.
p.164 They put the picture in the window when they have something, take it away when they don't. Sign language.
p.174 It was after the catastrophe, when they shot the president and machine-gunned the Congress and the army declared a state of emergency. They blamed it on the Islamic fanatics, at the time.
Keep calm, they said on the television.
Everything is under control.
I was stunned. Everyone was, I know that. It was hard to believe. The entire government, gone like that. How did they get in? How did it happen?
That was when they suspended the Constitution. They said it would be temporary, there wasn't even any rioting in the streets. People stayed at home at night, watching television, looking for some direction. There wasn't even an enemy you could put your finger on.
Look out, said Moira to me, over the phone.
Here it comes.
Here what comes? I said.
You wait, she said. They've been building up to this. It's you and me up against the wall, baby. She was quoting an expression of my mother's but she wasn't intending to be funny.
p.176-177 About two o'clock, after lunch, the director came in to the discing room.
I have something to tell you, he said. He looked terrible; his hair was untidy, his eyes were pink and wobbling, as though he'd been drinking.
We all looked up, turned off our machines. There must have been eight or ten of us in the room.
I'm sorry, he said, but it's the law. I am really sorry.
For what? Somebody said.
I have to let you go, he said. It's the law, I have to.
I have to let you go. He said this almost gently, as if we were wild animals, frogs he'd caught, in a jar, as if he were being humane.
We're being fired? I said. I stood up. But why?
Not fired, he said. Let go. You can't work here anymore, it's the law. He ran his hands through his hair and I thought, He's gone crazy. The strain has been too much for him and he's blown the wiring.
You can't just do that, said the woman who sat next to me. This sounded false, improbable, like something you would say on television.
It isn't me, he said. You wouldn't understand. Please go, now. His voice was rising. I don't want any trouble. If there's trouble the books might be lost, things will get broken...He looks over his shoulder. They're outside, he said. They gave me ten minutes. By now he sounded crazier than ever.
He's loopy, someone said out loud; which we must all have thought.
But I could see out into the corridor, and there were two men standing there, in uniforms, with machine guns. This was too theatrical to be true, yet there they were: sudden apparitions, like Martians. There was a dreamlike quality to them; they were too vivid, too at odds with their surroundings.
Just leave the machines, he said while we were getting our things together filing out. As if we could have taken them.
We stood in a cluster, on the steps outside the library. We didn't know what to say to one another. Since none of us understood what had happened, there was nothing much we could say.
p.178-179 She got up and went to the kitchen and poured us a couple of Scotches, and came back and sat down and I tried to tell her what happened to me. When I'd finished, she said, Tried getting anything on your Compucard today?
Yes, I said. I told her about that too.
They've frozen them, she said. Mine, too.
The collective's, too. Any account with an F on it instead of an M. All they needed to do is push a few buttons. We're cut off.
But I've got over two thousand dollars in the bank, I said, as if my account was the only one that mattered.
Women can't hold property anymore, she said. It's a new law. Turn on the TV today?
No, I said.
It's on there, she said. All over the place.
She was not stunned, the way I was. In some way she was gleeful, as if this was what she'd been expecting for some time now and she'd been proven right. She even looked more energetic, more determined. Luke can use your Compucard for you, she said. They'll transfer your number to him, or that's what they say.
Husband or male next of kin.
But what about you? I said. She didn't have anyone.
I'll go underground, she said. Some of the gays can take over our numbers and buy us things we need.
But why? I said. Why did they?
Ours is not to reason why, said Moira. They had to do it that way, the Compucounts and the jobs both at once. Can you picture the airports, otherwise? They don't want us going anywhere, you can bet on that.
p.181 You were a wanted child, God knows, she would say at other moments, lingering over the photo albums in which she has me framed; these albums were thick with babies, but my replicas thinned out as I grew older, as if the population of my duplicates had been hit by some plague.
p.186 I look around for something to write on and he hands me the score pad, a desktop notepad with a little smile-button face printed at the top of the page. They still make those things.
I print the phrase correctly, copying it down from inside my head, from inside my closet. Nolite te bastardes carborundorum. Here, in this context, it's neither prayer nor command, but a sad graffiti, scrawled once, abandoned. The pen between my fingers is sensuous. Pen is envy, Aunt Lydia would say, quoting another Center motto, warning us away from such objects. And they were right, it is envy. Just holding it is envy. I envy the Commander and his pen. It's one more thing I would like to steal.
p.186 The Commander takes the smile-button page from me and looks at it. Then he begins to laugh, and is he blushing? "That's not real Latin," he says. "That's just a joke."
"A joke?" I say, bewildered now. It can't only be joke. Have I risked this, made a grab for knowledge, for a mere joke? "What sort of a joke?"
"You know how schoolboys are," he says. His laughter is nostalgic, I see now, the laughter of indulgence towards his former self. He gets up, crosses to the bookshelves, takes down a book from his trove; not the dictionary though. It's an old book, a textbook it looks like, dog-eared and inky. Before showing it to me he thumbs through it, contemplative, reminiscent; then, "Here," he says, laying it open on the desk in front of me.
What I first see is a picture: the Venus de Milo, in a black-and-white photo, with a mustache and a black brassiere and armpit hair drawn clumsily on her. On the opposite page is the Coliseum in Rome, labeled in English, and below, a conjugation: sum es est, sumus estis sunt "There," he says, pointing, and in the margin I see it, written in the same ink as the hair on the Venus. Nolite te bastardes carborundorum.
"It's sort of hard to explain why it's funny unless you know Latin," he says. "We used to write all kinds of things like that. I don't know where we got them, from the older boys perhaps.
"Look at this," he says. The picture is called The Sabine Woman, and in the margin is scrawled: pim pis it, pimus pistis pants. "There was another one," he says. "Cim cis cit..." He stops, returning it the present, embarrassed. Again he smiles, this time you could call it a grin. I imagine freckles on him, a cowlick. Right now, I almost like him.
"But what does it mean?" I say.
"Which?" he says. "Oh. It meant, 'Don't let the bastards grind you down.' I guess we thought we were pretty smart, back then."
p.191 Night falls. Or has fallen. Why is it that night falls, instead of rising like the dawn. Yet if you look east, at sunset, you can see the night rising, not falling; darkness lifting into the sky, up from the horizon, like a black sun behind cloud cover. Like smoke from an unseen fire, a line of fire just below the horizon, brush fire or a burning city.
Maybe night falls because it's heavy, a thick curtain pulled up over the eyes.
p.193 Because they were ready for us, and waiting. The moment of betrayal is the worst, the moment when you know beyond any doubt that you've been betrayed: that some other human being has wished you that much evil.
It was like being in an elevator cut loose at the top. Falling, falling, and not knowing when you hit.
p.195 Then there's Kingdom, power, and glory. It takes a lot to believe in those right now. But I'll try it anyway. In Hope, as they say on the gravestones.
You must feel pretty ripped off. It's not the first time.
If I were You I'd be fed up. I'd be really sick of it. I guess that's the difference between us.
I feel very unreal, talking to You like this. I feel as if I'm talking to a wall. I wish You'd answer. I feel so alone.
p.199 I put on my clothes, summer clothes, it's still summer; it seems to have stopped at summer. July, its breathless days and sauna nights, hard to sleep. I make a point of keeping track. I should scratch marks on the wall, one for each day of the week and run a line through them when I have seven. But what would be the use, this isn't a jail sentence; there's no time here that can be done and finished with. Anyway, all I have to do is ask, to find out what day it is. Yesterday as July the fourth, which used to be Independence Day, before they abolished it. September the first will be Labor Day, they still have that. Though it didn't used to have anything to do with mothers.
p.200-201 Today, after, with Ofglen, on our shopping walk:
We go to the church, as usual, and look at the graves. Then to the Wall. Only two hanging on it today: one Catholic, not a priest though, placarded with an upside-down cross, and some other sect I don't recognize. The body is marked only with a J, in red. It doesn't mean Jewish, those would be yellow stars. Anyway there haven't been many of them. Because they were declared sons of Jacob and therefore special, they were given a choice. They could convert, or immigrate to Israel. A lot of them emigrated, if you believe the news. I saw a boatload of them on TV leaning over the railings in their black coats and hats and their long beards, looking as Jewish as possible, in costumes fished up from the past, the women with shawls over their heads, smiling and waving, the richer ones, lining up for the planes. Ofglen says some other people got out that way, by pretending to be Jewish, but it wasn't easy because of the tests they give you and they've tightened up on that now.
You don't get hanged only for being a Jew though. You get hanged for being a noisy Jew who wouldn't make the choice. Or for pretending to convert. That's been on the TV too: raids at night, secret hoards of Jewish things dragged out from under the beds, torahs, talliths, Magen Davids. And the owners of them, sullen faced, unrepentant, pushed by the Eyes against the walls of their bedrooms, while the sorrowful voice of the announcer tells us voice-over about their perfidy and ungratefulness.
So the J isn't for Jew. What could it be? Jehovah's Witnesses? Jesuit? Whatever it meant, he's just as dead.
p.221 The mothers have stood the white-veiled girls in place and have returned to their chairs. There's a little crying going on among them, some mutual patting and hand-holding, the ostentatious use of handkerchiefs. The Commander continues with the service:
"I will that women adorn themselves in modest apparel," he says, "with shamefacedness and sobriety; not with braided hair, or gold, or pearls, or costly array;
"But (which becometh women professing godliness) with good works.
"Let the women learn in silence all subjection." Here he looks us over. "All," he repeats.
"But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence.
"For Adam was first formed, then Eve.
"And Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived was in the transgression.
"Not withstanding she shall be saved by childbearing, if they continue in faith and charity and holiness with sobriety."
Saved by childbearing, I think. What did we suppose would save us, in the time before?
p.222 What we're aiming for, says Aunt Lydia, is a spirit of camaraderie among women. We must all pull together. Camaraderie, shat, says Moira through the hole in the toilet cubicle. Right fucking on, Aunt Lydia, as they used to say. How much you want a bet she's got Janine down on her knees? What you thing they get up to in that office of hers? I bet she's got her working away on that dried-up old withered--.
Moira! I say.
Moira what? She whispers. You know you've thought it.
It doesn't do any good to talk like that, I say, feeling nevertheless the impulse to giggle.
But I still pretended to myself, then, that we should try to preserve something resembling dignity.
You were always a wimp, Moira says, but with affection. It does so do good. It does.
And she's right, I know now, as I kneel on the undeniably hard floor, listening to the ceremony drone on. There is something powerful in the whispering of obscenities, about those in power. There's something delightful about it, something naughty, secretive, forbidden, thrilling. It's like a spell, of sorts. It deflates them, reduces them to the common denominator where they can be dealt with. In the paint of the washroom cubicle someone unknown had scratched Aunt Lydia sucks. It was like a flag waved from a hilltop in rebellion. There idea of Aunt Lydia doing such a thing was in itself heartening.
So now I imagine, among these Angels and their drained white brides, momentous grunts and sweating, damp furry encounters; or better, ignominious failures, cocks like three-week-old carrots, anguished fumblings upon flesh cold and unresponding as uncooked fish.
p.224 Now there's a space to be filled, in the too-warm air of my room, and a time also; a space-time, between here and now and there and then, punctuated by a dinner.
p.228 I sit at the little table, eating a creamed corn with a fork. I have a fork and a spoon, but never a knife. When there's meat they cut it up for me ahead of time, as if I'm lacking manual skills or teeth. I have both, however. That's why I'm not allowed a knife.
p.230 I wonder where he found it. All such clothing was supposed to have been destroyed. I remember seeing that on television, in news clips filmed in one city after another. In New York it was called the Manhattan Cleanup. There were bonfires in Times Square, crowds chanting around them, women throwing their arms up thankfully into the air when they felt the cameras on them, clean-cut, stony-faced young men tossing things onto the flames, armfuls of silk and nylon and fake fur, lime green, red, violet; black satin, gold lame, glittering silver, bikini underpants, see-through brassieres with pink satin hearts sewn on to cover the nipples. And the manufacturers and importers and salesmen down on their knees, repenting in public, conical paper hats like dunce hats on their heads, SHAME printed on them in red.
p.292-293 I look out at the dusk and think about its being winter. The snow falling gently, effortlessly, covering everything in soft crystal, the mist of moonlight before a rain, blurring the outlines, obliterating color. Freezing to death is painless, they say, after the first chill. You lie back in the snow like an angel made by children and go to sleep.
p.304 We held out no hope of tracing the narrator herself directly. It was clear from the internal evidence that she was among the first wave of women recruited for reproductive purposes and allotted to those who both required such services and could lay claim to them through their position and elite. The regime created an instant pool of of such women by the simple act of declaring all second marriages and nonmarital liaisons adulterous, arresting the female partners, and, on the grounds that they were morally unfit, confiscating the children they already had, who were adopted by childless couples on the upper echelons who were eager progeny by any means. (In the middle period, this policy was extended to cover all marriages not contracted within the state church.) Men highly placed in the regime were thus able to pick and chose among women who had demonstrated their reproductive fitness by having produced more of more healthy children, a desirable characteristic in an age of plummeting Caucasian birthrates, a phenomenon observable not only in Gilead but in most northern Caucasian societies of the time.
p.306 From the limpkin material we know that there are two possible candidates, that is, two people whose names incorporate the name "Fred": Frederick R. Waterford and B. Frederick Judd. No photographs survive of either, although Limpkin describes the latter as a stuffed shirt, and I quote: "somebody for whom foreplay is what you do on a golf course."
NAMES: Ofglen, Ofwayne, Ofwarren, Offred, Alma, Ihalianen, Gilead, Gopal, Baroda, Pieixoto