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Module One

Gilead is a strict, rule-bound society. Nevertheless, the rules get broken.
Find some examples of rule-breaking in Sections I to V of The Handmaid's Tale and explain why you think these events are significant.

The society of Gilead is so strictly regulated that it would appear to be impossible to keep to the rules and yet remain a person. It is therefore necessary for the human survival of Offred and her kind that some small infractions must occur.

The first mention of deliberate rule-breaking is at the ‘Red Centre’. The environment is extremely strict (even for Gilead), when ‘Aunts’ are equipped with cattle prods and every precaution is taken to prevent illicit communication; and yet the women do communicate their names to one another. This is a small rebellion against the rules, and an assertion of identity by these women.

The narrator’s dealings with Moira show the gradual magnification of the rebellion and assertion shown in the whispered names. Moira’s identity is firmly asserted—we know her name, but not the narrator’s (though this is likely to be June, as other women are identified with the other whispered names). The narrator meets Moira illicitly in the washroom, which excites her and makes her very happy; subsequently, Moira attempts to escape, and is eventually successful. Moira is an outright rebel, refusing to comply, always asserting her self, and is a heroic figure to Offred and the other women in the Red Centre, setting an example they admire but dare not copy. However, Moira is not successful in escaping from Gilead, as far as we know, for she turns up at Jezebels, and it is not clear what happens to her after Offred sees her for the last time.

Another figure who breaks the rules in a major way within the early part of the book is the Doctor who carries out Offred’s monthly examination. His suggestion that he could impregnate her violates the regulations of Gilead society concerning who shall have the privilege of sexual and reproductive access to females. The men—or most of them—are very much oppressed by this society, too, although in different ways to the women. What the Doctor suggests is dangerous for him and for Offred. For him, it represents both an opportunity to have the sexual intercourse of which he has been deprived, and a chance at genetic reproduction. For Offred, it may be a chance of life, as she has so far apparently failed to meet the terms of her existence by failing to conceive. It may also bring her to an early death. She finds it impossible to make the decision to break the rules in such a major way (although this is a dilemma which she can only put off until next month); the Doctor may have committed this breach before—there is a possibility that Ofwarren’s baby was fathered by him.

Of course, the Doctor’s offer to impregnate Offred would also represent a major infraction in our own society, and is a great breach of doctor-patient trust. However, in Gilead there is no such relationship between the doctor and his patient.

In this early part of the book, we are given a hint that Ofglen, another Handmaid, is also breaking the rules in an important way. She appears to be dutiful, Offred is unable to decide whether her companion is a sincere believer or not; but her mention of ‘May day’ is the beginning of a revelation that Ofglen is involved with the resistance movement. Less flamboyant and less obviously attractive in character than Moira, Ofglen is nonetheless also a heroic figure, and arguably more effective in her rebellion than Moira is. She kills herself rather than be taken by the ‘black van’, and thus avoids interrogation and the defeat of capture.

Offred’s own rule violations, at this stage, are small things. She participates in the meetings with Moira, but does not go on to attempt escape. By and large, she appears to keep to the rules. But she breaks them in small ways. There is the butter, which she saves. At first an inexplicable act, it turns out that the butter is the only substitute she can obtain for the now-forbidden moisturising creams she would like to use. It is the Wives who have denied the Handmaids access to cosmetics, out of jealousy and (probably) spite. This is one of the instances which demonstrates that many females collude in Gilead’s oppression of women: there is no certainty of feminine solidarity or sisterhood here. So Offred’s use of the butter is a means of rebelling against the Wives who are in authority over the Handmaids; it is also a symbol of hope. “We have Ceremonies of our own,” she declares. Further, her use of butter will lead to the Commander increasing the scope of his own rule violations, when he obtains hand lotion for her use. (He has by this time already broken some rules himself in his relationship with Offred—and her predecessor(s), but it is less deadly for him to do so than for anyone else, due to his status as a senior male.)

Music is mostly forbidden in Gilead, so Offred’s occasional singing to herself, old pop songs, is not allowed. It is another small rebellion, conjuring memories of the time before and its freedoms. This infraction is to some extent shared by the Commander’s Wife, sometime Serena Joy, who listens furtively to recordings of her former self singing, with probably the same motivations as Offred. This points up the link between the two women: their specific situations are different, but both are trapped and confined.

The Wife also indulges in illicit, black market cigarettes, which Offred craves—cigarettes are specifically forbidden to Handmaids. Offred does obtain one, however—when Serena Joy proposes that Offred breaks the rules in a major way, by having sex with Nick in order to get pregnant. The cigarette seems to be symbolic of the two women’s complicity in breaking the law and deceiving the Commander. (Nick is also smoking a cigarette at Offred’s first described encounter with him: Offred inhales the smoke longingly, and says that what she really wants is the cigarette, but there is a degree of physical awareness in her response to him that suggests the cigarette is not the only thing she desires. Of course, the relationship with Nick that develops is an extreme offence.)

The message in the cupboard, ‘Nolite te bastardes carborundorum’, is a breach of the rules committed by Offred’s predecessor (one of them), and leads Offred to do the same. The words are a small subversiveness by the former occupant of the room, and an assertion of self—a message to whoever followed her that she had existed. The message is also encouragement to the next Handmaid. Offred feels the same subversiveness and the same self-assertion when she determines to steal a flower from the sitting room and place it with the message. Although she does not at first understand the meaning of the phrase, she uses it as a silent prayer during the session in the sitting room. It is a kind of talisman for her. Assuming the reader understands what the phrase means (‘Don’t let the bastards grind you down’) it is recognisably a most appropriate talisman for Offred, and a fine prayer. It is interesting that in this state purportedly founded on religious principles and in accordance with scripture, there is no trace of actual religious feeling. This prayer of Offred’s is obviously more heartfelt than any other aspect of the evening’s formalities. Eventually, she learns what the words mean: this is satisfying in certain respects, but she also realises that her predecessor probably had the same improper relationship with the Commander (‘I am his mistress’) that Offred herself now has.

It is clear that, even this early in the book, where nothing very much seems to have happened, there are small incidences of rebellion in everyday situations. The small incidences will be magnified into greater rebellion of varying kinds as the story proceeds. All the most significant characters break some subset of the rules to a greater or lesser extent. This would seem to be inevitable in a society as hedged about with restrictions as Gilead, as it does not appear to be possible to keep within the rules and retain one’s personality.



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