“The Handmaid’s Tale” by Professor Wade
Offred’s story was found by Professor’s Wade and Pieixoto on the site of what was once the city of Bangor, in what would have been the State of Maine, which was a prominent way-station on what Offred refers to as “The Underground Femaleroad”. The story was of spoken form, recorded on approximately thirty cassette tapes which were found in a US Army issue metal foot locker. It bore no title but was given the superscription “The Handmaid’s Tale” by Professor Wade in a partial homage to Geoffrey Chaucer.
Offred was among the first generation of women to be recruited for reproductive purposes. The reasons for the decline in Caucasian births are not altogether clear, although some can be linked to the widespread availability of birth control, including abortion; AIDs; genetic deformities linked to nuclear plant accidents and toxic waste sites.
Offred appears to be an educated woman, graduating from a North American college. Ironically, there was the risk of herself being deformed as her mother was thirty seven when she was born. But it is clear from “The Handmaid’s Tale” that she was definitely “a wanted child”. It is also clear that her mother was very keen on education. Offred speaks of a television program she watched when she was seven or eight, describing it as “the sort of thing my mother liked to watch: historical, educational”.
Like most children of her age at the time, she thought that any history before her own was untrue, and found especially terrifying the way the Jews were killed in ovens, believing them to be in a kitchen and therefore eaten.
Offred’s mother did not believe in ‘mystification’ and had, according to the text, given her a pop-up book of sexual organs when she was four. She also took her to a park once where she and her friends were burning men’s magazines. Offred, however, was upset that her mother was spending time with her friends and not solely with her, as it was supposed to be, on a Saturday.
When she was twenty, Offred moved to an apartment by herself that was funded by her job in a library where she worked a s a ‘discer’, transferring books to computer discs which would cut down on storage space and replacement costs. Sometimes she even took some of the books home with her instead of putting them in the shredder. Two years later she met Luke and became pregnant, giving birth to their daughter.
Then came the change. It started just after the president had been shot. Newspapers were censored and roadblocks began to appear. All the female Compucounts were closed – these were like credit cards which everyone had as there was no loose money. The new law said that women could not hold property anymore. That same day, Offred lost her job. She recalls in her text how the director came in to the discing room in the library and told them all that they must go, saying that it was the law. Naturally, people protested. Offred said she could see through the window that there were two men standing with guns. No one could quite believe it was real. Eventually Luke came home and reassured Offred saying that he could use her account for her.
Two or three weeks later, things had become much worse. Offred tried to call her mother but there was no answer. In her text, she tells of her worry and of how she telephoned the apartment superintendent, who said that he had not seen her lately either. She began to suspect the worse; perhaps her mother had had a heart-attack or a stroke, so she and Luke drove across the city to the apartment and ordered the superintendent to open it. When the door opened the apartment was a mess, with furniture upturned everywhere. Offred never saw her mother since.
In the September, Offred and Luke made plans to escape the situation. They obtained forged passports which they exchanged for Offred’s grandmother’s jewellery and Luke’s uncle’s stamp collection, as there was no money or Compucounts. They did not tell anyone of their plans – not even their daughter, as they could not afford to have her tell anyone – and pretended they were just going across the border for a picnic. They took nothing with them as they did not want to look as though they were going somewhere far or permanent. Offred recalls the scene at the check-point, where the man glanced in the car and took their fake passports inside the office. Luke noticed the man was picking up the telephone so got back into the car fast and they sped off in to the woods, where they got out of the car and ran. As they ran, Offred says they could hear shots behind them. She pulled her daughter to the ground and lay on top of her to shield her. But they became separated and never saw each other again. Much later, however, whilst Offred was a Handmaid for Serena Joy, Serena showed her a picture of her daughter and Offred realised that she was no longer a part of her daughter’s life.
Offred spent time at the Rachel and Leah Re-education Centre, which was commonly called ‘The Red Centre’, situated in an old high school. Offred and the others slept in what had once been the gymnasium, in army cots set up in rows with spaces between so they could not talk. There were flannelette sheets and army issue blankets. They were patrolled by two Aunts with cattle prods slung on belts. In here, the girls learnt to whisper without sound and to lip-read, and with this they exchanged names from bed to bed.
One day, when Offred was lying on her bed for the prescribed afternoon rest, her old friend Moira was brought in. Both knew that friendships were suspicious, so did not acknowledge each other properly. They met in the washroom at certain times, although they were careful not to do it too often and always at different times of day for fear of being caught or being refused permission to go.
Once a week they would have movies after lunch, these were called ‘Unwoman documentaries’. However, they did not play the soundtrack to these movies and they blacked out the names on the credits, although in one such movie, Offred saw her mother.
After some time, Offred was moved to a posting for a lady called Serena Joy, wife of either Frederick R. Waterford, who had a background in market research and was responsible for the designs of the female costumes; or B. Frederick Judd, who drew up the early hit lists of prominent “Americans” at the time. Offred was given a room near the attic, which was very basic, with a chair, table, lamp, wardrobe and bed. There was shatterproof glass in the window and it only opened partly. There was no glass in the picture frames and they had removed anything that a rope could be tied to.
Once a month, the Handmaids were taken to the doctor’s for tests; urine, hormones, cancer smear, blood test. It was quite common for the Handmaids to sleep with the doctors, to give them the babies they desired and the doctor offered to do this for Offred but she refused. However, eventually Serena Joy suggested to Offred that Nick, one of the Guardians assigned to the household, could help her, since her time was running out.
Before the Commander slept with the Handmaid, a Ceremony would take place in the sitting room. Offred would kneel beside Serena’s chair, and then the Marthas – these were the kitchen staff and were in charge of, amongst other things, taking the food up to the handmaids and supervising them in the bath – would come in and stand behind her. Nick would also attend. Finally, the Commander would come, dressed in his black uniform, and read from the bible. This new sex had nothing to do with passion or romance – it was business: a duty.
After a while, Offred’s Commander started asking to see Offred alone in his office in the evenings. The signal for that evening was given if Nick had his cap on crooked that day. Offred could never work out what the Commander wanted from her, and it was illegal for the Handmaids to be alone with the Commanders. However, it seemed she was not the first Handmaid in that household to see the Commander alone. If she had been caught, Offred would have become an Unwoman and sent to the Colonies.
At these secret reunions, they often played Scrabble together and he would let her read magazines, something that was strictly forbidden. On one such occasion, he took her out to a ‘club’ in an old hotel. These ‘clubs’ were for Officers only and provided a sense of enjoyment. They were filled with women, dressed in little clothing, who could be hired out for the evening. These women would have been sent to the Colonies but instead were sent here. It was at this club that Offred saw Moira again. Once again, they could not acknowledge each other’s presence, but they used their former signal to meet in the toilets, where Moira filled Offred in on what had happened to her since they last met.
After Serena Joy had taken Offred to see Nick, Offred went back to Nick on several occasions by herself. She says that he began to take the place of Luke in her head, although she also says that she tried to fight against such thoughts.
Soon after this, the black van came to the household. But it was Nick who came up the stairs to take Offred away. We do not know who had called for the van, and the fact that it was Nick who came to get her could suggest that this was not an ordinary occasion but perhaps that Nick intended to rescue her and to take her to a safe place, for a new beginning. It is believed that Nick was a member of the Mayday underground, which was similar to Underground Femaleroad, and it is not unusual that one of these Mayday members could be placed as chauffer to someone as high up as Waterford. There are many possibilities as to what happened to Offred. She may have been smuggled over the border of Gilead, or on the other hand she may have been recaptured. We shall never know.
I have chosen The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood for my text transformation because I enjoyed reading it and wanted to explore it further.