Searching for Stability

“I move the eggcup a little, so it’s now in the watery sunlight that comes through the window and falls, brightening, waning, brightening again, on the tray. The shell of the egg is smooth but also grained; small pebbles of calcium are defined by the sunlight, like craters on the moon. It’s a barren landscape, yet perfect; it’s the sort of desert the saints went into, so their minds must not be distracted by profusion […] The egg is glowing now, as if it had an energy of its own. To look at the egg gives me intense pleasure. The sun goes and the egg fades” (Atwood 110).

Throughout this passage, Offred is fixated on a single egg, a seemingly innocuous object that is meant to represent herself. With the use of diction, syntax, parallel structure, and symbolism, Offred reveals the duality that exists within herself—whether or not to conform to society— in order to implicate the societal doctrines that oppress women.

Offred’s slight moving of the egg into “the watery sunlight” demonstrates that Offred has the ability to “move” and react against the current society. But as an egg, Offred’s life is fragile, easily crushed or overshadowed. Furthermore, “the watery sunlight that comes through the window and falls, brightening, waning, brightening again” reflects her hesitation and apprehension as to how others will respond. Rather than provide a warm and constant light, which would give Offred stability and support, the sun is unable to offer anything more than “watery sunlight.” The diction of “watery” lends a sense of mutability and lack of substance.

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The “watery sunlight” that Offred experiences

The parallel structure of “brightening, waning, brightening again” further develops the control society wields over Offred, who is a Handmaid. The lack of the sunlight’s constancy reveals her paradoxical role (she is simultaneously important and not important): In the context of this passage, the “watery sunlight” will brighten if a Offred becomes pregnant and eventually gives birth. However, if she fails to deliver a child in a specific amount of time, the “watery sunlight” will wane and Offred will be discarded. The presence of this “watery sunlight” manipulates her into thinking she has a purpose in life. But because her value is solely determined by her ability to “breed” and produce, Offred cannot fully develop and express her own sense of identity. The value of her life (represented by the “small pebbles of calcium”) is “defined by the sunlight.” Offred notes that the “small pebbles” are like “craters on the moon,” a comparison that reflects how she, as a Handmaid, is only valuable when society says she is.

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The craters on the moon are only visible when light hits the moon, which parallels Offred’s current situation.

Offred does seems to express appreciation for individualism—she notes that the egg’s surface is “smooth, but also grained […] It’s a barren landscape, yet perfect.” The grains reflect Offred’s past life and experiences, as well as her own thoughts. Although the landscape is barren, as Offred is not allowed to actually express herself, it is perfect because her individual thoughts still exist. Nevertheless, she reverts back to the societal expectation of women to be pristine and untouched when she says that “it’s the sort of desert the saints went into, so their minds must not be distracted by profusion.” Any “profusion” that a man or “saint” experiences is automatically blamed on women (similar to how in this society, no man is sterile. It is only the women who are infertile.)

Offred’s pondering of society’s shortcomings causes the egg to glow, “as if it had an energy of its own”; this glowing demonstrates the potential Offred has to rebel against society and find stability for herself, and it is something that gives her “intense pleasure.” But ultimately, the “sun goes and the egg fades.” The short, abrupt syntax is a warning to Offred that society controls the “sun,” and ultimately holds the power to rob her of her stability.

References:

  1.  Sunlight (https://blog.dashburst.com/pic/dense-sunlight-through-windows/)
  2.  Moon (https://www.britannica.com/place/Moon/images-videos)

Life as a Two-legged Womb

“We are for breeding purposes: we aren’t concubines, geisha girls, courtesans. On the contrary: everything possible has been done to remove us from that category. There is supposed to be nothing entertaining about us, no room is to be permitted for the flowering of secret lusts; no special favors are to be wheedled, by them or us, there are to be no toeholds for love. We are two-legged wombs, that’s all: sacred vessels, ambulatory chalices.” (Atwood 136)

In the society of The Handmaid’s Tale, women, specifically handmaids, are objectified to be merely “two-legged wombs” (136). The women in this society are bound to staying home, doing domestic work as usual. There is no true love and emotion in this society, and these strict guidelines put forth in the women’s lifestyles are apparently for their own benefit. By intermingling words that usually describe animals as well as the repetition of negative words, Atwood emphasizes how unnecessarily restricted and confined women are in order to encourage women to not give into the objectification of themselves by the men in society as well as society itself.

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Women have been degraded to be breeders, just like this mom polar bear

In the passage, handmaids are stated to be for breeding purposes. Breeding is typically associated with the reproduction of animals. By using this word, Atwood shows how dehumanized women in this society have become. Women have been degraded to being baby making machines and no more. While stating that the women are for breeding purposes, the narrator also lists what the women aren’t: concubines, geisha girls, courtesans. This is a list of women who perform many sexual favors. However, a lot of those are for the entertainment and pleasure of the men that are receiving these sexual favors. In The Handmaid’s Tale, sex isn’t enjoyable to either the men or the women, for it is only a required monthly activity. Also, by listing everything that the handmaids aren’t, the specificity and simplicity of the role of the handmaids is emphasized. The handmaids have one job and one job only: to make babies.

With the use of a negative word “nothing” and the repetition of the word “no” three times in the middle part of the passage, readers are shown how strict and numerous the rules governing what handmaids can do are. Also, the sentence that starts with “there is supposed to be nothing entertaining about us…” (136) isn’t divided at all. All the rules are continuously stated, either separated by a comma or a semicolon. Since this sentence isn’t separated between the different rules, it visually makes it seem as if the list of rules is endless.

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Handmaids are “chalices”

Also, there are to be “no toeholds for love” (Atwood 136). The word toehold is described as “a relative insignificant position from which further progress may be made.” The fact that there can’t even be a toehold for love shows how cautious the commanders and rules are so that the emotion of love doesn’t get involved in the process of reproduction at all. Handmaids are also described as “chalices” (136). This means “a large cup or goblet.” The handmaids are degraded to being only a cup that gets filled metaphorically with a baby. Once that baby is out, the cup is then used again for the same purpose until the cup, metaphorically the handmaids, is no longer usable. With all these mechanisms, Atwood emphasizes how strictly the process of reproduction in this society is monitored in order to encourage women reading her book to not conform to society’s ideas of what a women’s role should be.

Sources:

  1. Definition of toehold: Google
  2. Polar bear picture: https://s-media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com/236x/26/f8/01/26f8014c31959b59e4739cb6e1b75c93.jpg
  3. Definition of chalice: Google
  4. Goblet: http://vignette1.wikia.nocookie.net/clubpenguin/images/7/73/Goblet_Pin.PNG/revision/latest?cb=20150314205740