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The Handmaid's Tale - Chs. 01 - 05

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The Handmaid's Tale - Chs. 01 - 05

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The Handmaid's Tale - Chs. 01 - 05


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Re: The Handmaid's Tale - Chs. 01 - 05

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1. Night
There was old sex in the room and loneliness, and expectation, of something without a shape or name. I remember that yearning, for something that was always about to happen and was never the same as the hands that were on us there and then, in the small of the back, or out back, in the parking lot, or in the television room with the sound turned down and only the pictures flickering over lifting flesh.
We are sleeping in a gymnasium set up for basketball with a floor "of varnished wood, with stripes and circles painted on it" and "the hoops for the basketball nets were still in place though the nets were gone." We have distant memories like the quote above. And yet...we are in a different and very scary place.
Aunt Sara and Aunt Elizabeth patrolled; they had electric cattle prods slung on thongs from their leather belts. No guns though, even they could not be trusted with guns. Guns were for the guards, specially picked from the Angels.
We have close relatives on patrol, but why? Why are there armed guards and who are the Angels? "We learned to communicate almost without sound." Very mysterious.
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Re: The Handmaid's Tale - Chs. 01 - 05

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2. Shopping
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 could tie a rope to.

...There’s a rug on the floor, oval, of braided rags. This is the kind of touch they like: folk art, archaic, made by women, in their spare time, from things that have no further use. A return to traditional values. Waste not want not. I am not being wasted. Why do I want?
That's clever, applying a proverb that refers to efficiency instead to humans.
... I know why there is no glass, in front of the watercolor picture of blue irises, and why the window opens only partly and why the glass in it is shatterproof. It isn’t running away 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.

So. Apart from these details, this could be a college guest room, for the less distinguished visitors; or a room in a rooming house, of former times, for ladies in reduced circumstances. That is what we are now. The circumstances have been reduced; for those of us who still have circumstances.
We are being shown small ominous clues that don't reveal much about our overall situation.
The bell that measures time is ringing. Time here is measured by bells, as once in nunneries. As in a nunnery too, there are few mirrors.

I get up out of the chair, advance my feet into the sunlight, in their red shoes, flat-heeled to save the spine and not for dancing. The red gloves are lying on the bed. I pick them up, pull them onto my hands, finger by finger. Everything except the wings around my face is red: the color of blood, which defines us. The skirt is ankle-length, full, gathered to a flat yoke that extends over the breasts, the sleeves are full. The white wings too are prescribed issue; they are to keep us from seeing, but also from being seen. I never looked good in red, it’s not my color. I pick up the shopping basket, put it over my arm.
We seem to be in some sort of religious order. We don't know what our uniform signifies, but it presents "A Sister, dipped in blood." The headpieces function like horse blinders: see only what is directly in front of you; a slight tilt of the head avoids eye contact.

We are introduced to strange words without definition.
Marthas
The Colonies
Unwomen

We overhear very disturbing conversations without understanding.
The Marthas know things, they talk among themselves, passing the unofficial news from house to house. Like me, they listen at doors, no doubt, and see things even with their eyes averted. I’ve heard them at it sometimes, caught whiffs of their private conversations. Stillborn, it was. Or, Stabbed her with a knitting needle, right in the belly. Jealousy, it must have been, eating her up. Or, tantalizingly, It was toilet cleaner she used. Worked like a charm, though you’d think he’d of tasted it. Must’ve been that drunk; but they found her out all right.
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Re: The Handmaid's Tale - Chs. 01 - 05

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4.
He lives here, in the household, over the garage. Low status: he hasn’t been issued a woman, not even one. He doesn’t rate: some defect, lack of connections.
Oh oh. There must be strong authoritarianism in place to enforce a system like that.
Perhaps he is an Eye.
...We aren’t allowed to go there except in twos. This is supposed to be for our protection, though the notion is absurd: we are well protected already. The truth is that she is my spy, as I am hers. If either of us slips through the net because of something that happens on one of our daily walks, the other will be accountable.
...As we walk away I know they're watching, these two men who aren't yet permitted to touch women.
...Then I find I’m not ashamed after 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.
Authoritarianism combined with lots of spying and personal restrictions. The level of discomfort is steadily rising...
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Re: The Handmaid's Tale - Chs. 01 - 05

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5.
This is the heart of Gilead, where the war cannot intrude except on television. Where the edges are we aren’t sure, they vary, according to the attacks and counterattacks; but this is the center, where nothing moves. The Republic of Gilead, said Aunt Lydia, knows no bounds. Gilead is within you.
I vaguely recall that as a college freshman, a professor of English stated he read novels as puzzles, where the author drops little clues for attentive readers to suss out deeper meaning. I don't know if "The Republic of Gilead" is such a clue, but perhaps it bears investigation. First, it's a Republic. I don't think there are very many Republics with Strongmen at the helm, but they tend to be the type where the incumbent wins 99.2% of the vote in every election.

As to "Gilead," the only reference I can think of is an old hymn called "There is a balm in Gilead." There are several references in the Bible.
Is there no balm in Gilead?
Is there no physician there?
Why then is there no healing
for the wound of my people?
Jeremiah 8:22

“Go up to Gilead and get balm,
Virgin Daughter Egypt.
But you try many medicines in vain;
there is no healing for you.
Jeremiah 46:11
To be aware of this hymn, I must have sang it in church way back when I was in that mode, probably scratching my head wondering about the meaning. Here's a version with lyrics.



As usual when encountering the Bible, I am left very confused.
  1. We see the typical contradictions: in the first quote above there is no balm in Gilead, but in the 2nd quote there is.
  2. In both quotes this balm, if it exists, does not provide healing. Or is the second one saying if you use anything other than this balm, there is no benefit?
  3. This was written about ancient Egypt, long before Jesus. So Jesus is not "the balm."
  4. However the hymn was written as if Jesus is the balm that is available in Gilead. Why? The text says this is not true.
  5. This is sung in churches as a promise of healing, but again both biblical quotes seem to say this is not available.
I give up. I expect Margaret Atwood has some special meaning for Gilead, but I can't decipher it - perhaps someone else can solve this puzzle.

On the other hand, perhaps that confusion is Atwood's hidden message. The Republic of Gilead appears to offer peace and healing on the surface, but in reality "there is no rest for the wicked."
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Re: The Handmaid's Tale - Chs. 01 - 05

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I remember the rules, rules that were never spelled out but that every woman knew: Don’t open your door to a stranger, even if he says he is the police. Make him slide his ID under the door. Don’t stop on the road to help a motorist pretending to be in trouble. Keep the locks on and keep going. If anyone whistles, don’t turn to look. Don’t go into a laundromat, by yourself, at night.

I think about laundromats. What I wore to them: shorts, jeans, jogging pants. What I put into them: my own clothes, my own soap, my own money, money I had earned myself. I think about having such control. Now we walk along the same street, in red pairs, and no man shouts obscenities at us, speaks to us, touches us. No one whistles.

There is more than one kind of freedom, said Aunt Lydia. Freedom to and freedom from. In the days of anarchy, it was freedom to. Now you are being given freedom from. Don’t underrate it.
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