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Quotes from a Handmaid That Spun My Head

I have a strange love of dystopian literature.

I read Animal Farm (of my own initiative!) in Grade 8. (I also read The Scarlet Letter that year...I applaud my teacher for allowing me these freedoms; the higher-ups must not have known.) Brave New World was the best thing I read in Grade 11, and Lord of the Flies threw me under a bus in Grade 10. 1984 (possibly an independent read) still haunts me. As does Heart of Darkness.

I remember picking The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood off a turnstile in my high school library, although I can't recall if someone recommended it to me, or I just stumbled across it in my regular browsing of the books. As a particularly naïve teenager, I'm quite sure I didn't understand half of what I was reading. But I recognized that it was shocking and profound, and it went on to my list of favourite novels.

Ten years later, four small things brought The Handmaid's Tale back into my life:
  1. I discovered it was the 25th anniversary of its publication (I also made my world debut in 1985).
  2. I started following Margaret Atwood on Twitter.
  3. My friend Wendy commented that reading it as a woman in her late 20s was intense.
  4. I found it at a book sale for $1.
This past Monday I finally cracked it open. By Tuesday bedtime, I'd devoured the whole thing and stuck a dozen or more pieces of paper into pages I wanted to revisit, quotes I needed to write down.

The book wrecked me. It touches on every topic of importance; gender, religion, politics, ecology, media... and it does so in a precise and troubling way.

This is a novel that makes me want to be an English professor. And a novelist. And a poet. I want to write a blog entry (read: Masters Thesis) on each of the quotes below. Oh, for all the time in the world!

Waste not, want not. I am not being wasted. Why do I want? (7)

Sometimes the Commander's Wife has a chair brought out, and just sits in it, in her garden. From a distance, it looks like peace. (12)

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 stories. (53)

I tell myself it doesn't matter, your name is like your telephone number, useful only to others; but what I tell myself is wrong, it does matter. I keep the knowledge of this name like something hidden, some treasure I'll come back to dig up, one day, I think of this name as buried. This name has an aura around it, like an amulet, some charm that's survived from an unimaginably distant past. I lie in my single bed at night with my eyes closed, and the name floats there behind my eyes, not quite within reach, shining in the dark. (80)

I pray silently: Nolite te bastardes carborundorum. I don't know what it means, but it sounds right, and it will have to do, because I don't know what else I can say to God. Not right now. Not, as they used to say, at this juncture...

Oh God, I pray. Nolite te bastardes carborundorum.
Is this what you had in mind? (86-7)

You can wet the rim of a glass and run your finger around the rim and it will make a sound. This is what I feel like: this sound of glass. I feel like the word shatter. I want to be with someone. (97)

The things I believe can't all be true, though one of them must be. But I believe in all of them, all three versions of Luke, at one and the same time. This contradictory way of believing seems to me, right now, the only way I can believe anything. Whatever the truth is, I will be ready for it.

This also is a belief of mine. This also may be untrue. (100)

Maybe none of this is about control. Maybe it isn't really about who can own whom, who can do what to whom and get away with it, even as far as death. Maybe it isn't about who can sit and wo has to kneel or stand or lie down, legs spread open. Maybe it's about who can do what to whom and be forgiven for it. Never tell me it amounts to the same thing. (127)

I hold the glossy counters with their smooth edges, finger the letters. The feeling is voluptuous. This is freedom, an eyeblink of it. Limp, I spell. Gorge. What a luxury. The counters are like candies, made of peppermint, cool like that. Humbugs, those were called. I would like to put them into my mouth. They would taste also of lime. The letter C. Crisp, slightly acid on the tongue, delicious. (131)

You can think clearly only with your clothes on.

What I need is perspective. The illusion of depth, created by a frame, the arrangement of shapes on a flat surface. Perspective is necessary. Otherwise there are only two dimensions. Otherwise you live with your face squashed against a wall, everything a huge foreground, of details, close-ups, hairs, the weave of the bedsheet, the molecules of the face. Your own skip like a map, a diagram of futility, crisscrossed with tiny roads that lead nowhere. Otherwise you live in the moment. Which is not where I want to be.

But that's where I am, there's no escaping it. Time's a trap, I'm caught in it. I must forget about my secret name and all ways back. (135)

He wanted me to play Scrabble with him, and kiss him as if I meant it.
This is one of the most bizarre things that's happened to me, ever.

Context is all. (136)

It was after the catastrophe, when they shot the President and machine-gunned the Congress and the army declared a state of emergency. They blamed it on the Islamic fanatics, at the time.
Keep calm, the said on television. Everything is under control...

That was when they suspended the Constitution. They said it would be temporary. There wasn't even any rioting in the streets. People stayed home at night, watching television, looking for some direction. There wasn't even an enemy you could put your finger on. (162-163)

You can't help what you feel, Moira said once, but you can help how you behave.
Which is all very well.

Context is all; or is it ripeness? One or the other. (180)

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. (274)

It appears that certain periods of history quickly become, both for other societies and for those that follow them, the stuff of not especially edifying legend and the occasion for a good deal of hypocritical self-congratulation...Surely we have learned by now that such judgements are of necessity culture-specific. Also, Gileadean society was under a good deal of pressure, demographic and otherwise, and was subject to factors from which we ourselves are happily more free. Our job is not to censure but to understand. (284)

As all historians know, the past is a great darkness, and filled with echoes. Voices may reach us from it; but what they say to us is imbued with the obscurity of the matrix out of which they come; and, try as we may, we cannot always decipher them precisely in the clearer light of our own day. (293)

The novel's Wikipedia page (immense spoiler alert).


Jess said…
I'm afraid of Margret Atwood, but this post made me actually want to venture into her world. I have lots of books on my list to read in the next few weeks and little time to read them. But I think I'll make this a priority for January if I can get my hands on a copy.
Mindy said…
I think you'd make an excellent English professor, Beth. I'd want to be in your class if you ever become one.

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