A Caricature of Present Reality

“Finally, he tells me it’s time for me to go home. Those are the words he uses: go home. He means to my room. He asks me if I will be all right, as if the stairway is a dark street. I say yes. We open his study door, just a crack, and listen for the noises in the hall.” (Atwood 139)

This passage depicts the tense moments as Offred leaves the Commander’s study after a night of scrabble, a forbidden act, but within the context of a larger narrative, the passage depicts central themes of the novel. Atwood uses imagery and syntax to bring to mind the dangers and struggles of womanhood, both in the novel and in the present reality.  

First, the passage consists of a metaphor  equating Offred’s room to her house and the stairway as a dark alley. The comparison illustrates a central theme of the novel, the subjection of women  because the right to own a home and the freedom to travel at night are liberties  that many readers of the book, such as women, are not necessarily granted. Atwood is paralleling the tensions and struggles Offred faces to the sexism and lack of sexual freedom faced by women of real life society.

The first textual evidence of implementation of this metaphor is when the Commander tell Offred to “go home.” The use of italics in the passage marks the short command as the most important and central part of the passage (syntax). The italicized command highlights the power assumed by the Commander because he sees no need to ask her and forcefully tells her what to do. The command also points to fact that Offred does not actually own anything in her life. Not only does she not own her own room, she does not own her own body because the Commander has assumed this responsibility with his demand.

When Offred describes the Commander speaking of the stairway as if were a dark street, she is implying that he is speaking of the stairway as if it were a dangerous space. In our past and current narratives, dark alleys are depicted as spaces where violence occurs, often towards women (e.g. back alley abortions, rape, etc.). In the passage, the dark stairway represents the dangers of Offred’s society and her own womanhood. By comparing the stairway to a dark street, Atwood relates the dangers of being a woman walking alone in a dark alley. For both Offred and women in our society, walking down a dark street alone poses a serious threat for simply being a woman.

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A dark street (Image via Flickr)

Finally, rather than opening the door freely, the Commander opens it “just a crack.” This careful action represents how women must watch their every movement when dealing their sexuality and sexual health. Offred is not able to step freely into the outside world, the stairway, after she makes her own choice regarding her sexuality, kissing the Commander, out of fear of punishment from her government and society. This experience is easily relatable to women in real life modern society. The present reality for women, even in highly developed societies is one rooted in fear. If a woman wished to take responsibility for her health (e.g. abortion, birth control, etc.), she may fear judgment from family, friends, partners, or even the medical professionals on which she depends. Through use of metaphor that compares the Commander’s house to a pre-war neighborhood, this passage argues that the atrocities being committed are merely caricatures of the real society of the reader.

The Constant Internal Battle

Gender imbalances are a constant in our society. Albeit, there are fewer differences between the two genders – female and male – today than there have been in almost all of human history. The novel The Handmaid’s Tale, written by Margaret Atwood, is a piece of speculative fiction that focuses on the story of Offred, who is a handmaid. Through the lens of Offred found in an excerpt on page 88, the differences between gender are heightened to a state in which the children of today would not recognize, which is shown by the internal questioning displayed, and the reader gains insight of Offred’s internal struggles between wanting to rebel and wanting to survive as long as possible within the societal structure she lives in, as seen through the back and forth internal banter. Continue reading