The Handmaid’s Tale
Offred has been trapped in her room for 13 days. Not locked up, mind you, because why would they need to lock the door? When you live every moment of your life at gunpoint, you’re already locked up. The door is always open and never open.
She drifts into her memories of her old life, the one that seems almost fantastical now. “If I let myself fall in too far, I’ll never get out,” she says, drifting through the room almost translucent, like she is becoming less solid as her grip on reality loosens.
There’s a reason solitary confinement is often considered torture, why “lasting mental damage” can occur after only 15 days. Without human contact, without mental stimulus, without any contact with the substance of the world, we start to detach from it. The mind unravels, the self dissolves. Of course, the handmaids are already in social and psychological confinement: They are forbidden to read, to hear the news, even to speak and move except in highly regulated circumstances. Their minds are supposed to waste away by design. Why would they need to think? What good could come of that?
The world has shrunk for Offred, and it just keeps on shrinking. She has a life in miniature, a dollhouse life, and she is a doll to be taken out, played with, then put away. There is a closet here, too, lined with her red handmaid uniforms, a smaller room inside a room, smaller and smaller and smaller. She lies on the floor inside the closet, where someone has scratched a Latin phrase: Nolite te bastardes carborundorum. A message from the old Offred to the new one: Don’t let the bastards grind you down.
“You had to be brave to do this,” Offred says. Moira was brave. Back at the Red Center, she scraped a message of her own into the toilet stall: Aunt Lydia Sucks. Bathroom graffiti is a brave, even revolutionary act now; you can lose a hand for it. “Oh God, don’t do that. It’s not worth it,” Offred warns. “Yeah, it is,” Moira replies. Violence turns us all into bargainers: Put a gun to our heads and we’re willing to strip off our rights, our dignity, our needs, our beliefs, our selves, layer by layer. But what are you left with at the end? How small would a life need to be to not be worth living?
If you stop trying to escape, they don’t have to lock the door anymore — it will never be open for you again. So that’s exactly what Moira and Offred do after they learn the creepy, rapey truth about the Ceremony: They lure an Aunt into the bathroom, hold a shiv to her neck, steal her clothes, and make a break for it. Moira walks out of the Center in the social armor of an Aunt, and when a guard asks where she’s taking the Handmaid, all she says is, “Open the gate.” He does, and there are no more questions. You can almost see why being an Aunt is appealing in this world. In every oppressive system, there is always a way for collaborators to steal a little bit of power for themselves.
In the end, Moira makes it out, but Offred gets caught by a guard and dragged back to the Red Center to get yelled at for her “ingratitude” and have her feet beaten bloody by some kind of weird metal rake. The door has closed for her; maybe this is why she said, “I’m not that kind of person” when Ofglen the First asked her to join the rebellion. Maybe this is the story of how that part of herself died.
Back in Offred’s room-that-is-the-world, Rita walks in to see her body on the closet floor and drops a tray in surprised fright. Offred ends up with an appointment to see a doctor, who generously offers to have sex with her in case the Commander is sterile. She says no, it’s too dangerous, but thank you. So important to be polite, to seem grateful to men, even for this. On the way home, something snaps: Suddenly she is screaming and crying and beating on the glass between her and Nick, yelling, “Fuck, God fucking damn it!”
What happens to the words you can’t say, the ones that are forbidden, the I love yous and the fuck yous and the how dare yous that scream inside your body but never make it to the air? How long can you swallow those words until the part of you that believes you are a person — that you matter, that your feelings matter, that you do not deserve this — starts to drift away slowly like an untethered rowboat?
Downstairs, Serena Joy learns that an Aunt has escaped to Canada where she’s given an incendiary interview about life in Gilead. She has ideas for how to discredit this traitorous Aunt, but the Commander shuts her down. “You don’t need to worry about this, I promise. We’ve got good men working on it.” Something in her face falls, some part of her that wanted to be more, to think something, to say something that mattered.
Gender roles are a sort of solitary confinement, too, the way we lock ourselves away from other people, from happiness, from intimacy, from ourselves, inside smaller and smaller rooms until parts of us die. We invent rules about what it means to be a person born with a certain kind of body and cut away anything else, no matter how healthy, like diseased flesh. We punish and push people away even when they manage to make the cut. Then we wonder why it feels like parts of ourselves are missing, why there are holes in our hearts, why we feel so alone.
And so we have Serena Joy, who has locked herself in a box of feminine virtue that does not permit her to have any other agency or value; Commander Waterford, who has locked himself in a box where he cannot connect with the emotionally and intellectually deformed women his regime has created; and Offred, who is pretty much trapped inside a Russian nesting doll of shitty boxes.
Before the next ceremony, the Commander comes in early to see Offred, now that she has momentarily been released from her prison. “Hi,” he says, dropping a little breadcrumb of normalcy at her feet. Turns out he’d like to play another Scrabble game that night. “What do you think?” he asks. It’s a sort of gaslighting, a pantomime of care that belies the torture she’s endured. She’s been in solitary confinement for two weeks inside the house he rules like a god, but what does she think about Scrabble? She doesn’t answer. During the Ceremony, the Commander can’t get it up — he didn’t get to connect with her, Offred thinks — and she gets sent back to her room, thinking about how she will be blamed for this too. I bet there aren’t supposed to be men who can’t get it up in Gilead, where all the penises are rock hard by government fiat.
Offred goes to his office that night anyway. She asks him about his trip; she flirts, jokes, teases. This is what the Commander wants in this chaste affair with the woman he rapes every month. She gives him not sex but the illicit intimacy he desires: the taboo fantasy of connecting with a woman who might even be smarter than he is.
When he challenges one of her Scrabble words, she goes to get the dictionary and notices a Latin grammar book on the shelf. That’s when she realizes: “Has she been here, my predecessor, knower of Latin, scratcher of words?” There’s a sort of cold dread in this thought, like a twisted version of discovering that a man has said the same sweet nothings to another woman or sent her the same flowers — like you are an interchangeable part that can be swapped out at a moment’s notice. Did the former Offred say the wrong thing. Did she displease him?
When Offred finally dares to ask the Commander what happened to her, he reveals that she hung herself, that she gave up. “I suppose she found her life unbearable.” He would like Offred’s life to be bearable, he says, acting the role of the benevolent dictator. “How about a rematch tomorrow, after the ceremony?“ he asks. After I rape you … more Scrabble?
Instead, Offred decides to play a different game. “I’m afraid I’m starting to give up,” she says, and he glances up at her. “I certainly wouldn’t want to give up.” He says that it would be a tragedy, and they both know that this, too, is a sort of play. A moment ago, she was playing the role he wanted: the flirtatious, brilliant woman, teasing and challenging him. Now she has changed the script. Now she is the fragile, contrite damsel who needs to be saved, and he is the hero who must save her unless he wants to see another Scrabble partner swinging from the ceiling. In Gilead, knowing how to play your role is very important. And so he does.
The next day, we see Offred walk outside into the open air, as Mrs. Waterford watches from the window, trapped behind glass, a little part of herself dying slowly in a box of her own creation.