The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

★★★★★ (5/5)

A selection of my favourite passages from the book

  • We slept in what had once been the gymnasium. The floor was of varnished wood, with stripes and circles painted on it, for the games that were formerly played there
  • Sunlight comes in through the window too, and falls on the floor, which is made of wood, in narrow strips, highly polished.
  • 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.
  • The circumstances have been reduced; for those of us who still have circumstances.
  • The threshold of a new house is a lonely place.
  • It was an accident, said Cora. No such thing, said Rita. Everything is meant.
  • 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.
  • We seemed to be able to choose, then. We were a society dying, said Aunt Lydia, of too much choice.
  • Modesty is invisibility, said Aunt Lydia. Never forget it. To be seen — to be seen — is to be — her voice trembled — penetrated. What you must be, girls, is impenetrable.
  • Given our wings, our blinkers, it’s hard to look up, hard to get the full view, of the sky, of anything. But we can do it, a little at a time, a quick move of the head, up and down, to the side and back. We have learned to see the world in gasps.
  • I wanted to feel Luke lying beside me. I have them, these attacks of the past, like faintness, a wave sweeping over my head. Sometimes it can hardly be borne. What is to be done, what is to be done, I thought. There is nothing to be done. They also serve who only stand and wait. Or lie down and wait. I know why the glass in the window is shatterproof, and why they took down the chandelier. I wanted to feel Luke lying beside me, but there wasn’t room.
  • We were the people who were not in the papers. We lived in the blank white spaces at the edges of print. It gave us more freedom. We lived in the gaps between the stories.
  • Shameful, immodest. I avoid looking down at my body, not so much because it’s shameful or immodest but because I don’t want to see it. I don’t want to look at something that determines me so completely.
  • There’s time to spare. This is one of the things I wasn’t prepared for — the amount of unfilled time, the long parentheses of nothing. Time as white sound. If only I could embroider. Weave, knit, something to do with my hands.
  • I used to think of my body as an instrument, of pleasure, or a means of transportation, or an implement for the accomplishment of my will. I could use it to run, push buttons of one sort or another, make things happen. There were limits, but my body was nevertheless lithe, single, solid, one with me. Now the flesh arranges itself differently I’m a cloud, congealed around a central object, the shape of a pear, which is hard and more real than I am and glows red within its translucent wrapping. Inside it is a space, huge as the sky at night and dark and curved like that, though black-red rather than black. Pinpoints of light swell, sparkle, burst and shrivel within it, countless as stars. Every month there is a moon, gigantic, round, heavy, an omen. It transits, pauses, continues on and passes out of sight, and I see despair coming towards me like famine. To feel that empty, again, again. I listen to my heart, wave upon wave, salty and red, continuing on and on, marking time.
  • For lunch it was the Beatitudes. Blessed be this, blessed be that. They played it from a tape, so not even an Aunt would be guilty of the sin of reading. The voice was a man’s. Blessed be the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are the merciful. Blessed be the meek. Blessed are the silent. I knew they made that up, I knew it was wrong, and they left things out, too, but there was no way of checking. Blessed be those that mourn, for they shall be comforted. Nobody said when.
  • When I was younger, imagining age, I would think, Maybe you appreciate things more when you don’t have much time left. I forgot to include the loss of energy
  • You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs, is what he says. We thought we could do better.

Better? I say, in a small voice. How can he think this is better?

Better never means better for everyone, he says. It always means worse, for some.

  • Not a dandelion in sight here, the lawns are picked clean. I long for one, just one, rubbishy and insolently random and hard to get rid of and perennially yellow as the sun. Cheerful and plebeian, shining for all alike. Rings, we would make from them, and crowns and necklaces
  • But people will do anything rather than admit that their lives have no meaning. No use, that is. No plot.
  • Women’s Prayvaganzas are for group weddings like this, usually. The men’s are for military victories. These are the things we are supposed to rejoice in the most, respectively.
  • And it would be so flaunting, such a sneer at the Aunts, so sinful, so free. Freedom, like everything else, is relative.
  • Perhaps he’s reached that state of intoxication which power is said to inspire, the state in which you believe you are indispensable and can therefore do anything, absolutely anything you feel like, anything at all.
  • I breathe in the soap smell, the disinfectant smell, and stand in the white bathroom, listening to the distant sounds of water running, toilets being flushed. In a strange way I feel comforted, at home. There is something reassuring about the toilets. Bodily functions at least remain democratic. Everybody shits, as Moira would say.
  • By telling you anything at all I’m at least believing in you, I believe you’re there, I believe you into being. Because I’m telling you this story I will your existence. I tell, therefore you are.
  • I consider these things idly. Each one of them seems the same size as all the others. Not one seems preferable. Fatigue is here, in my body, in my legs and eyes. That is what gets you in the end. Faith is only a word, embroidered.
  • Why shouldn’t he know about Mayday? All the Eyes must know about it; they’ll have squeezed it, crushed it, twisted it out of enough bodies, enough mouths by now

“Well, that’s what we call it, among ourselves. The club.”

“I thought this sort of thing was strictly forbidden,” I say.

“Well, officially,” he says. “But everyone’s human, after all.”

I wait for him to elaborate on this, but he doesn’t, so I say, “What does that mean?”

“It means you can’t cheat Nature,” he says. “Nature demands variety, for men. It stands to reason, it’s part of the procreational strategy. It’s Nature’s plan.” I don’t say anything, so he goes on. “Women know that instinctively. Why did they buy so many different clothes, in the old days? To trick the men into thinking they were several different women. A new one each day.”

He says this as if he believes it, but he says many things that way. Maybe he believes it, maybe he doesn’t, or maybe he does both at the same time. Impossible to tell what he believes.

“So now that we don’t have different clothes,” I say, “you merely have different women.” This is irony, but he doesn’t acknowledge it.

  • Does he know I’m here, alive, that I’m thinking about him? I have to believe so. In reduced circumstances you have to believe all kinds of things. I believe in thought transference now, vibrations in the ether, that sort of junk. I never used to.
  • It’s this message, which may never arrive, that keeps me alive. I believe in the message.
  • Sanity is a valuable possession I hoard it the way people once hoarded money. I save it, so I will have enough, when the time comes.
  • In reduced circumstances the desire to live attaches itself to strange objects.
  • But there’s something missing in them, even the nice ones. It’s like they’re permanently absent-minded, like they can’t quite remember who they are. They look at the sky too much. They lose touch with their feet. They aren’t a patch on a woman except they’re better at fixing cars and playing football, just what we need for the improvement of the human race, right? That was the way she talked, even in front of Luke. He didn’t mind, he teased her by pretending to be macho, he’d tell her women were incapable of abstract thought and she’d have another drink and grin at him. Chauvinist pig, she’d say. Isn’t she quaint, Luke would say to me, and my mother would look sly, furtive almost. I’m entitled, she’d say. I’m old enough, I’ve paid my dues, it’s time for me to be quaint. You’re still wet behind the ears. Piglet, I should have said. As for you, she’d say to me, you’re just a backlash. Flash in the pan. History will absolve me.
  • You young people don’t appreciate things, she’d say. You don’t know what we had to go through, just to get you where you are. Look at him, slicing up the carrots. Don’t you know how many women’s lives, how many women’s bodies, the tanks had to roll over just to get that far? Cooking’s my hobby, Luke would say. I enjoy it. Hobby, schmobby, my mother would say. You don’t have to make excuses to me. Once upon a time you wouldn’t have been allowed to have such a hobby, they’d have called you queer. Now, Mother, I would say. Let’s not get into an argument about nothing. Nothing, she’d say bitterly. You call it nothing. You don’t understand, do you. You don’t understand at all what I’m talking about.
  • But who can remember pain, once it’s over? All that remains of it is a shadow, not in the mind even, in the flesh. Pain marks you, but too deep to see. Out of sight, out of mind.
  • We sit on our benches, facing one another, as we are transported; we’re without emotion now, almost without feeling, we might be bundles of red cloth. We ache. Each of us holds in her lap a phantom, a ghost baby. What confronts us, now the excitement’s over, is our own failure. Mother, I think. Wherever you may be. Can you hear me? You wanted a women’s culture. Well, now there is one. It isn’t what you meant, but it exists. Be thankful for small mercies.
  • When I get out of here, if I’m ever able to set this down, in any form, even in the form of one voice to another, it will be a reconstruction then too, at yet another remove. It’s impossible to say a thing exactly the way it was, because what you say can never be exact, you always have to leave something out, there are too many parts, sides, cross currents, nuances; too many gestures, which could mean this or that, too many shapes which can never be fully described, too many flavors, in the air or on the tongue, half-colors, too many.
  • Cora smiles at me, a smile that includes. These are the moments that must make what she is doing seem worthwhile to her.
  • She did not believe he was a monster. He was not a monster, to her. Probably he had some endearing trait: he whistled, off key, in the shower, he had a yen for truffles, he called his dog Liebchen and made it sit up for little pieces of raw steak. How easy it is to invent a humanity, for anyone at all. What an available temptation.
  • I cram both hands over my mouth as if I’m about to be sick, drop to my knees, the laughter boiling like lava in my throat. I crawl into the cupboard, draw up my knees, I’ll choke on it. My ribs hurt with holding back, I shake, I heave, seismic, volcanic, I’ll burst. Red all over the cupboard, mirth rhymes with birth, oh to die of laughter.
  • There is something subversive about this garden of Serena’s, a sense of buried things bursting upwards, wordlessly, into the light, as if to point, to say: Whatever is silenced will clamor to be heard, though silently.
  • They get sick a lot, these Wives of the Commanders. It adds interest to their lives.
  • but now I think that his motives and desires weren’t obvious even to him. They had not yet reached the level of words.
  • Staring at the magazine, as he dangled it before me like fish bait, I wanted it. I wanted it with a force that made the ends of my fingers ache. At the same time I saw this longing of mine as trivial and absurd, because I’d taken such magazines lightly enough once.
  • Though I remembered now. What was in them was promise. They dealt in transformations; they suggested an endless series of possibilities, extending like the reflections in two mirrors set facing one another, stretching on, replica after replica, to the vanishing point. They suggested one adventure after another, one wardrobe after another, one improvement after another, one man after another. They suggested rejuvenation, pain overcome and transcended, endless love. The real promise in them was immortality.
  • Death is a beautiful woman, with wings and one breast almost bare; or is that Victory? I can’t remember.
  • Ours is not to reason why, said Moira.
  • No mother is ever, completely, a child’s idea of what a mother should be, and I suppose it works the other way around as well.
  • He doesn’t mind this, I thought. He doesn’t mind it at all. Maybe he even likes it. We are not each other’s, anymore. Instead, I am his.
  • 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 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, brushfire or a burning city. Maybe night falls because it’s heavy, a thick curtain pulled up over the eyes. Wool blanket. I wish I could see in the dark, better than I do.
  • What the Commander said is true. One and one and one and one doesn’t equal four. Each one remains unique, there is no way of joining them together. They cannot be exchanged, one for the other. They cannot replace each other. Nick for Luke or Luke for Nick. Should does not apply. You can’t help what you feel, Moira once said, but you can help how you behave. Which is all very well.
  • That’s one of the things they do. They force you to kill, within yourself.
  • If they have to die, let it be fast. You might even provide a Heaven for them. We need You for that. Hell we can make for ourselves.

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