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Module One

Find as many references to animals as you can in the opening sections of the novel.
What do you think is the significance of these references?

The first animal reference in the story is in the first chapter: the Aunts are equipped with cattle prods. This matter-of-fact statement is shockingly incongruous, and turns the story at once from intriguing mystery into nightmare. What kind of world is this, in which ‘Aunts’ are allowed to use cattle prods on defenceless women? It is a world in which women, or at least a subset of women, are effectively defined as cattle, as breeding animals. Cattle are required to produce either milk or more cattle; the women at the Red Centre are required to produce babies. As is pointed out to them, their hands and feet are irrelevant; they are also forbidden to have individual identities, and their subsequent labels as “Of-“ the male to whom they are assigned are like brands on farm animals.

Another farm animal referred to in these early sections is the pig. It is worth noting that while a cow can produce milk or offspring without being killed, the pig has to offer ‘total commitment’ for the production of pork and bacon!

Ofglen, the narrator’s Handmaid counterpart, is described as taking “short little steps like a trained pig’s on its hind legs”. There is something grotesquely funny about a pig on its hind legs, in a completely unnatural posture and doing what men tell it to do; it is also very undignified for the pig. There is an element of contempt in the way Offred likens the other woman to a trained pig; at this stage she does not trust, and indeed, hardly knows, her companion.

Later, however, Offred refers to herself as a prize pig. She muses on the use of ‘pig balls’ to keep pigs amused and happy while they were fattened for the slaughter, and wishes she herself had a pig ball. It is clear that she spends most of her time utterly bored, now that normal pursuits such as work, reading and music are denied to her. (Another animal image that occurs here is that of “caged rats who give themselves electric shocks for something to do”. This image gives a brutal picture of the Handmaid’s life, which can be compared to one in which pain is at least interesting.) The idea that the pigs are being prepared for slaughter is also highly significant: Offred’s purpose is to produce a healthy child, but the threat of death is coming ever closer, particularly as she fails to conceive, month by month.

The image of the mouse is another recurring one. The repellent Aunt Lydia’s long, yellowish teeth remind Offred of “the dead mice we would find on our doorstep”. It is the Aunt’s mouth that is the key part of her body, apparently always open and emitting unpleasantness, and unlike the rest of her is referred to frequently, and always in similar terms. “Aunt Lydia pressed her hand over the mouth of a dead rodent.” At another point Aunt Lydia is described as “neighing” with laughter, bringing to mind the long, yellowing teeth of a horse this time, instead of a rodent.

The main image connected with Aunt Lydia is a hideous one of something stiff and half-eaten, with its tiny mouth gaping (my cat has left me similar gifts, and they are not at all appreciated), but interestingly it is a mouse rather than the more obviously nasty rat. Perhaps it is because there is a smallness, a pettiness to Aunt Lydia which is more nearly personified by the mouse—perhaps because as a woman, she has a very limited sphere of authority. She is so complicit with the authorities in Gilead that she hardly qualifies as a person at all, yet she casts a long shadow over Offred, who is frequently reminded of something Aunt Lydia used to say. Indeed, Aunt Lydia can be taken as a representation of Gilead itself, with her constant stream of bleak ‘doublespeak’ propaganda and her authorised brutality: thus the connection with a partly-eaten dead creature reminds us that Gilead is, physically and spiritually, in decay.

Janine, one of the other women at the Red Centre, is also given a rodent image, she is ‘like a newborn mouse’, and it is very plain that this is not an appealing infant but a repulsive one. Like the baby mouse, Janine is helpless, but does not inspire pity; there is something in her that responds to the ugly situation in which she finds herself. Her ‘Testifying’ is done with some enthusiasm, and she willingly accepts the blame for what was done to her. Like the other ‘mouse’, Aunt Lydia, Janine accepts the regime of Gilead and complies readily with its demands (until it drives her mad)—it seems that she has not enough character to insist on her own individuality.

The social system of Gilead is repressive to most men as well as to women, and males are often associated with canine imagery. There is for example the young Guardian who has “the large full eyes of a dog, spaniel not terrier”. This would seem to be inappropriate for a Guardian (a low-status male, a security guard or general worker); this one ‘ought’ to be more like a terrier, aggressive and tough. Spaniels are soft and silky, and altogether more appealing—just as this young man is rather pitiful and pleading. He blushes when Offred catches his eye, indeed, his vulnerability is such that she considers making an overture of some kind.

Later, when Offred finds the Commander has been looking in her room, she passes him in the corridor and puts their brief meeting into very animal terms: “The signals animals give one another: lowered blue eyelids, ears laid back, raised hackles. A flash of bared teeth..” This strongly suggests two dogs at a first encounter. Offred’s response here is entirely instinctive—the man has invaded ‘her’ territory, even though with her mind she knows the room is not hers in the way she feels it. But her relationship with the Commander is not on a normal human footing while it remains within the rules of Gilead, and so the only way she can react to his misbehaviour is at the instinctive level which she shares with beasts.

There is a similar reference in the “dog-like sniffing” she associates with the male toilets. She imagines that the public use of urinals constitutes a kind of male ritual display, proving to other males that each user is a member of the privileged group. Women have no comparable ritual and, by extension, no female solidarity. Women are not generally associated with canine images.

Although Offred does not generally apply dog imagery to herself, she does strikingly compare herself with a dog’s bone. Enjoying the fact that her female presence is provocative to the low-status Guardians with no women of their own, she thinks of “teasing a dog with a bone held out of reach”. She has no active power, but she has the passive power of the bone, the object of desire. Although many of the males in Gilead are restricted, they can be likened to a dog on a leash—but the female is compared to an inanimate object, not even a living thing. This gives considerable emphasis to the assumption in Gilead that women are inferior creatures with no individual worth.

A similar comparison of Offred to a non-living thing occurs when she visits the Doctor; however, there is an earlier scene in which Rita inspects the chicken on its glazed paper, which the Handmaid has brought back from the shops. Rita prods at it. “The chicken lies there, headless and without feet, goose-pimpled as though shivering.” When this passage occurs it appears to be a very vividly descriptive scene, but the details in this scene give extra force to Offred’s experiences when she is examined by the Doctor. Her head is ‘cut off’ by the vertical screen, she lies on “chilly, crackling disposable paper”, her skin pimples in the draft, and she is “poked and prodded” very much as the chicken was. Offred is reduced from a human being to a mere torso, an object, a commodity whose fitness is being scrutinised.

As she enters the Doctor’s office, she notices the symbol of entwined snakes and sword, and correctly identifies it as an ancient symbol of doctors. Originally Greek, in the Bible-oriented world of Gilead the snake takes on an inevitable new significance as the serpent which tempted Eve with forbidden fruit—exactly as the Doctor will tempt Offred with forbidden fecundity. Snakes are also traditionally regarded as deceitful and dangerous, often deadly: the Doctor is deceiving the system for which he works, and Offred knows that he could condemn her to death by declaring her infertile if he so chooses.

There are a number of references to birds in these early chapters. Describing talks round the kitchen table, the narrator uses the simile of “our voices soft and minor-key and mournful as pigeons”, a poetic image of gentle harmlessness and sorrow, as though such talks could never be carefree, or fun. Offred’s headgear is described as having white wings; although this is a practical description it also carries a hint of the image of a white dove, passive and defenceless. Later, in Offred’s meditation she remembers seeing white dancers in ‘Les Sylphides’, “their legs fluttering like the wings of held birds”. Again the bird image is associated with helplessness.

Then there are the experimented-upon pigeons referred to when Offred is longing for a ‘pig ball’. The third group of pigeons will peck endlessly at a button which had once been the trigger for food, on the grounds that “Who knew what worked?” Here is an image of despair and pointless, fruitless effort, in a situation where nothing makes sense. Much of Offred’s effort to maintain her own personality may well be pointless.

By contrast, the Japanese tourists are likened to robins, fierce, bright little birds often used as symbols of good cheer. The image of the robin conveys very effectively the lively curiosity the tourists display, and also reflects the small stature of the visitors. These tourists are not helpless trapped things; they are from a completely different world. Perhaps the bright colour of the robin, set against the soft paleness of pigeons, emphasises the difference between the modest, prescribed dress of the Gilead women and the bright, ‘immodest’ clothes of the tourists.

There are a few other places in which animal imagery is used—for example, Offred’s description of the sitting room or parlour as the kind that would have spider and flies. This refers to the old nursery rhyme, and the threat offered to any unfortunate fly which might enter spider territory. The image suggests the oppressiveness of the sitting room, and enhances the helplessness of Offred and Nick and the two Marthas in the parlour, where they are at the mercy of the Commander’s Wife’s whim.

The pier-glass is described as being “like the eye of a fish”—cold, round and glassy. In it Offred sees herself “like a distorted shadow”. As well as a physical description of the object in question, this provides an image of what Offred’s life now is. Her ‘self’ has been distorted almost out of recognition, and is so repressed that it has little more substance than a shadow.

Finally, in Offred’s first described encounter with Nick, she uses some fairly cliched animal imagery: “Smells fishy, they used to say; or, I smell a rat”. These are well-known expressions of distrust, linked to her suspicions that Nick may be an Eye (a spy or informer). But she rejects these in favour of something attractively human—“tanned skin, moist in the sun, filmed with smoke. I sigh, inhaling.” The passage shows the beginnings of sexual desire in her sensual awareness of this man; and she explicitly rejects the comparisons with animals so that Nick is presented in a completely human light.

In the society of Gilead, most (if not all) of the people are effectively less than human. Even the Commander is not free from threat, and others of lower status are repressed and restricted, unable to relate to one another in ways we consider civilised and normal, and not permitted to enjoy simple activities such as reading or music. People have become single-purpose: Handmaids are for breeding, Guardians are dog-like, etc. The many animal images reinforce the idea that people are reduced to little more than beasts.



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