Critical Essays Setting of The Handmaid's Tale


Atwood draws settings evocative of a fast-paced shift of moods. By probing Offred's pensive moments in the quiet of her Byzantine cell or on languorous walks to town by way of the cemetery or river, the author balances ennui and too much introspection with unforseen moments of unpredictability. Without warning, Offred deserts a bland meal to enter the Birthmobile and hurry to the home of Commander Warren. At the side of Ofwarren, whose labor pains precede Aunt Elizabeth's assisted delivery of baby Angela, Offred witnesses one of the more pleasant moments in an otherwise bleak series of scenarios. As Handmaids chant encouragement, the Wives leave their banqueting and prepare Warren's Wife for the Birthing Stool, through which Ofwarren's child is born. Atwood saves for later the sobering fact that Angela turns out to be a "shredder," Gilead's cynical term for a freak, the product of radiation-damaged reproductive cells.

From the vivid birthing scene to a suspenseful night prowl of Commander Fred's parlor, Offred, lurking in the dark sitting room, is drawn into Nick's embrace, then acknowledges the bizarre message — her master wants to see her in his private quarters. Incapable of guessing what he might want with her — more passionate sex, perversion, maybe even torture — she is nonplussed to enter a Scrabble competition, calling on word talents she has almost lost through months of living without books or newspapers. With the agility of a born negotiator, Offred profits from the Commander's need for more intimacy and parlays her value to him into hand lotion and facts about the political scene.

From the privacy of "dates" in the den, Offred is startled to receive a showgirl's outfit, complete with makeup, heels, and cloak, and to find herself being whisked away to Jezebel's into a setting that, by Gilead's standards, no longer exists. The "meat market" bar scene, now frequented by Arab and Japanese businessmen, jolts Offred into the old-time man-woman games of flirtation, enticement, seduction, and acquiescence. Recalling that the nightclub was once a hotel, she pictures herself spending afternoons in clandestine meetings with Luke. Once more in a hotel bathroom, she must steady her nerve before performing the familiar female ritual of convincing her "date" of her eagerness to be seduced. To his dismay, she can only lie supine, a body obeying a mind that screams, "Fake it."

The last six chapters pick up the rhythm of scene change. From her lonely upstairs room, Offred escapes the stifling over-ripeness of summer and creeps downstairs to the kitchen with Serena Joy and outside to Nick's quarters. To Offred's guilt-ridden dismay, the covert sessions with the chauffeur draw her into repeated trysts. Like a foretaste of doom, a tolling bell summons Offred and the rest of the female population to a Salvaging and Particicution. So unnerved is the main character that she returns to her room in an irrational state. Smelling the tar that her hands have encountered on the rope, Offred responds to animal-like urgings — the need to clean her hands of death, intense hunger, and a cry of "I am, I am," like a wolf baying at the moon.

The familiar street scene in Chapter 44 yanks Offred further into mental trauma — Ofglen has evaded arrest by killing herself. Overwhelmed by the encroachment of Gilead's power, Offred is just beginning to calm herself when she encounters Serena and the incriminating sequined costume, proof that Offred and the Commander have transgressed Gilead's controlled mating ceremony. By night, Offred stares from the window and enumerates her choices, ranging from fire and murder to a plea for mercy to flight to an agonized suicide. In one quick scene, Nick and two escorts whisk her down the stairs, past the Commander and Serena Joy, and into the van, an ambiguous Hellmouth that could lead to freedom or a hook on the Wall.