The Importance of Memory in Margaret Atwood’s
For this essay I aim to show the importance of memory and of remembering the past in The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. The Handmaid’s Tale is a ‘speculative fiction’ first published in 1985 but set in the early 2000s. The novel was in response to changes in US politics with the emergence of Christian fundamentalism, the New Right. Atwood believed that society was going wrong and wrote this savage satire, similar to Jonathan Swift’s ‘A Modest Proposal’, depicting a dystopia which she uses as a mirror to hold up to society.
I will be focusing on the main character and narrator, Offred, “a handmaid who mingles memories of her life before the revolution with her rebellious activities under the new regime” (book group corner), as she struggles to cope in the oppressive world of Gilead which is slowly suffocating her mind, in which memory is her only way of escape, her only way to keep her mind sane. To show the importance of memory to Offred’s life, I must also look at the changes in the Gilead society and how these changes affected Offred. For this I will give a brief summary of the rules set down in Gilead and their reasons for them.
The Republic of Gilead is a country formed within the borders of what was formerly the United States of America. It is a militaristic Christian state that has replaced the former Democratic Government after a violent takeover following the assassination of the President. The rise of toxic pollution and sexually transmitted diseases has “caused widespread sterility and a decline of Caucasian births” (Cengage). The state is now ruled by a dominant male regime and is founded on fundamentalist biblical principles. There is also a social hierarchy which is specifically designed to promote controlled reproduction.
In other words, women have become vessels whose main purpose in this society is for procreation. Women who are fertile and unmarried are recruited as Handmaids, a glorified concubine who is sent to a Commander or other high ranking state official and his for whatever reason infertile wife. In its society, women are not allowed to speak in public, have no desire for sex and not think of themselves with rights. Memory plays an important part in the novel. Throughout the entire novel, Offred is reminded of past things by things she sees or smells around her.
She remembers the gymnasium in chapter one and wishes to remember its smell. She becomes in a way nostalgic as she recalls the smell of sweat but describing it as a pungent scent as sweat is usually not describe as a desirable “scent”. Offred remembers her life before the coming of Gilead, when she had a job, a husband, a daughter and a life. “She had been a witness to the dissolution of the old America into the totalitarian theocracy that it now is, and she tries to reconcile the warning signs with reality: “We lived in the gaps between the stories. “”(Newman).
Offred often lapses into past memories. “These memories provider her with relief from the brutality of her new life, in which her body has become a cause of discomfort for her” (Newman) similarly to people in prison (Liebling 320). She has shadowy memories of her former life with glimpses of her university friend Moira, her husband Luke and her freedom. She is reminded of the way she used to dress when she sees some Japanese tourists who are dressed in “skirts [that] reach just below her knee… thrusting the buttocks out” (38 Atwood) compared to the long and heavy red gowns all handmaids wore.
She also looks at the high heeled shoes the tourists are wearing, describing them as “delicate instruments of torture” (38). Offred is already becoming used to the ways of Gilead and is slighted shocked by the ‘obscure’ dress of the tourists. To describe the shoes as “delicate” suggests that she once cared for shoes like it. However, describing them as “instruments of torture” suggests that she wants to forget about these type of shoes as she is no longer allowed wear them. This painful battle between memory and reality is what Offred and the other Handmaids have to deal with.
An example of how memories can be a curse to the handmaids of Gilead is Janine, another handmaid, who after witnessing and partaking in the killing of a “traitor” at a Salvaging, who is accused of raping a woman, goes mad. She forgets where she is and remembers her past life as a waitress. The line between fantasizing about the past and the harsh reality of her new life breaks down. She smiles blankly at the other Handmaids and asks them how they are doing. She had a lapse similar to this at the Red Centre where Handmaids were taught how to act in this new regime.
Janine’s mental state was frail to begin with and her automatic reaction to scenes of brutality or stress set off her memories of her previous life. Janine’s breakdown shows how memories affect us. Janine cannot handle the deprivation she is now faced with compared to the freedoms of her past. There is a strong link between memories and hope. Raffaela Baccolini discusses this link in her article “The Persistence of Hope in Dystopian Science Fiction. ” She says that “Utopia is maintained in dystopia, traditionally a bleak, depressing genre with no space for hope in the story, only outside the story. Offred does not have much, if anything, to stimulate herself with mentally. She is in a bare room with shatterproof glass that has been ‘made safe’ to prevent her from committing suicide. Her only escape is her mind which harbours her memories. She has no “hope” in her story, which is her life, but she does have hope “outside” her story, which is her mind and her memories. Offred is kept alive by her inner life or “story”, and reality and history become a kind of united delusion. She thinks back on Luke and remembers love and what it meant to be loved.
The memory pains her but also keeps her strong. “Falling in love, we said; I fell for him. We were falling women. We believed in it, this downward motion: so lovely, like flying, and yet at the same time so dire, so extreme, so unlikely. God is love, they once said, but we reversed that, and love, like heaven, was always just around the corner. The more difficult it was to love the particular man beside us, the more we believed in Love, abstract and total. We were waiting, always, for the incarnation. That word, made flesh. And sometimes it happened, for a time.
That kind of love comes and goes and is hard to remember afterwards, like pain. You would look at the man one day and you would think, I loved you, and the tense would be past, and you would be filled with a sense of wonder, because it was such an amazing and precarious and dumb thing to have done; and you would know too why your friends had been evasive about it, at the time. There is a good deal of comfort, now, in remembering this. ” (237,38) Offred was different to most handmaids as she did not give up hope on a better future.
She clasped onto her memories as a form of escape but also as a tool to stay focused and being prepared for when the regime would crumble. During her courtship with Nick, the memories of Luke plagued her and she constantly battled with herself each time she went to visit Nick. She felt she was ‘cheating’ on Nick as she still had the strong hope that she would see him again. This hope that Offred carried with her would be her savior. It is important to note that Offred forgets certain things that seem so normal to the reader. Within the new society, certain words are no longer to be used or said.
This goes especially for women. For example ‘sterile’ is an “outlawed” word (161). When hearing her doctor say it during a routine checkup she is taken aback as she has forgotten it being in use. Handmaids also have a certain way they must talk and address each other. “Hello” is a greeting from the past and when the Commander greets her with it she is instantly nervous. “It’s the old form of greeting. I haven’t heard it for a long time, for years. Under the circumstances it seems out of place, comical even, a flip backwards in time, a stunt.
I think of nothing appropriate to say in return. ” (172). For something as basic as “Hello” to seem “comical” shows the reader how different Gilead is to the past. Also she cannot respond to the greeting, as she has forgotten it. Handmaids are also not allowed to write. When she finds a Latin phrase “Nolite te bastardes carborundorum” scratched into her wardrobe she obsesses over it, wondering what it means and what the handmaid who wrote it might be like. All these things that would have been normal in her past life now excite Offred, they stimulate her.
Because she has not seen or heard certain things since the formation of Gilead, they seem strange and foreign, similar to the effect the Japanese tourist had. Her memories of her past life are what keep her in good mental health in the challenging times of Gilead. Her memories often slip into her mind while she is telling a completely different story of her present. Gayle Grenne writes that “episodes set in the past alternate with episodes set in the present until, in the end, past becomes present”. This is in regards to the style the novel was written.