Friday, May 1, 2009

The Handmaid's Tale

It was after the catastrophe, when they shot the president and machine-gunned the Congress and blamed it on the Islamic fanatics, at the time.
Keep calm, they said on 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 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.


I try to congure, to raise my own spirits, from wherever they are. I need to remember what they look like. I try to hold them still behind my eyes, their faces, like pictures in an album. But they won't stay still for me, they move, there's a smile and it's gone, their features curl and bend as if the paper's burning, blackness eats them. A glimpse, a pale shimmer on the air; a glow, aurora, dance of electrons, then a face again, faces. But they fade, though I stretch out my arms towards them, they slip away from me, ghosts at daybreak. Back to wherever they are. Stay with me, I want to say. But they won't.
It's my fault. I am forgetting too much.


The pen between my fingers is sensuous, alive almost, I can feel its power, the power of the words it contains. 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 his pen. It's one more thing I would like to steal.


Are they old enough to remember anything of the time before, playing baseball, in jeans and sneakers, riding their bicycles? Reading books, all by themselves? even though some of them are no more than fourteen-Start them soon is the policy, there's not a moment to be lost-still they'll remember. And the ones after them will, for three or four or five years; but after that they won't. They'll always have been in white, in groups of girls; they'll always have been silent.


I saw your mother, Moira said.
Where? I said. I felt jolted, thrown off. I realized I'd been thinking of her as dead.
Not in person, it was in that film they showed us, about the Colonies. There was a close-up, it was her all right. She was wrapped up in one of those gray things but I know it was her.
Thank God, I said.
Why, thank God? said Moira.
I thought she was dead.
She might as well be, said Moira. You should wish it for her.


The three bodies hang there, even with the white sacks over their heads looking curiously stretched, like chickens strung up by the necks in a meatshop window; like birds with their wings clipped, like flightless birds, wrecked angels. It's hard to take your eyes off them. Beneath the hems of the dresses the feet dangle, two pairs of red shoes, one pair of blue. It it weren't for the ropes and the sacks it could be a kind of dance, a ballet, caught by flash-camera: midair. They look arranged. They look like show biz. It must have been Aunt Lydia who put the blue one in the middle.
"Today's Salvaging is now concluded," Aunt Lydia announces in to the mike.


At the corner we turn to one another in the usual way.
"Under His Eye," says the new, treacherous Ofglen.
"Under His Eye," I say, trying to sound fervent. As if such play-acting could help, now that we've come this far.
The she does an odd thing. She leans forward, so that the stiff white blinkers on our heads are almost touching, so that I can see her pale beige eyes up close, the delicate web of lines across her cheeks, and whispers, very quickly, her voice faint as dry leaves.
"She hanged herself," she says. "After the Salvaging. She saw the van coming for her. It was better."
Then she's walking away from me down the street.


Dear God, I think, I will do anything you like. Now that you've let me off, I'll obliterate myself, if that's what you really want; I'll empty myself, truly, become a chalice. I'll give up Nick, I'll forget about the others. I'll stop complaining. I'll accept my lot. I'll sacrifice. I'll repent. I'll abdicate. I'll renounce.
I know this can't be right but I think it anyway. Everything they taught at the Red Center, everything I've resisted, comes flooding in. I don't want pain. I don't want to be a dancer, my feet in the air, my head a faceless oblong of white cloth. I don't want to be a doll hung up on the Wall. I don't want to be a wingless angel. I want to keep on living, in any form. I resign my body freely, to uses of others. They can do what they like with me. I am abject.
I feel, for the first time, their true power.


The van waits in the driveway, its double doors stand open. The two of them, one on either side now, take me by the elbows to help me in. Whether this is my end or a new beginning I have no way of knowing: I have given myself over into the hands of strangers, because it can't be helped.
And so I step up, into the darkness within; or else the light.



  1. Thanks for the post. I recently read this book for my blog.

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. I love this novel - have done ever since sixth form. I am an English teacher and found your blog googling quotations on Moira for a lesson. TFS!