Jennifer Bannon
English 4300
Spring 2000

 Romantic Love in Margaret Atwood's 
The Handmaid's Tale

"All I have is a voice / To undo the folded lie / The romantic lie in the brain / Of the sensual man-in-the street / And the lie of Authority / Whose buildings grope the sky / There is no such thing as State / And no one exists alone / Hunger allows no choice / To the citizen or the police / We must love one another or die."                           --W.H. Auden,"September 1939" 
In her novel The Handmaid's Tale, Margaret Atwood addresses the concept of different expression of romantic love through the eyes of Offred, a woman who has lost almost all her freedom to a repressive, dystopic society. Throughout her struggle against oppression and guilt, Offred's view evolves, and it is through this process that Atwood demonstrates the nature of love as it develops under the most austere of circumstances.

The first glimses of romantic love one notes in this novel are the slivers of Offred's memeories of Luke, her husband from whom she has been separated. For the most part they are sense memories--she recalls most of all images of comfort: of lying in her husband's arms, of his scent, and of little details of his appearance--but also a sense of connectedness that gives her identity. And it is this that she misses the most. "I want Luke here so badly. I want to be held and told my name. I want to be valued, in ways that I am not; I want to be more than valuable" (125-126). And yet already the person as a whole is beginning to slip away. The life she is leading now is driving him from her reality--she says, "Day by day, night by night he recedes, and I become more faithless" (346). Her love for her husband is marked with guilt and regret even in the beginning--she misses all the little characteristics about him that she never took time to appreciate when she was with him. She even misses the arguments, and wonders, "How were we to know we were happy?" (67). The memory of her love for Luke, and her guilt at betraying him with other men, especially Nick, for whom she develops genuine affection, is a significant psychological factor throughout the course of the novel. Foreshadowing the fact that she will turn from her memories to the tangible comforts of a living man, she says of her unhappy predicament: "But this is wrong, nobody dies from lack of sex. It's lack of love we die from. There's nobody here I can love, all the people I love are dead or elsewhere" (131-132). This presents her to the readers as alone, but seeking some comfort in her life--something more than a physical relationship.

Her relationship with the commander is transient--one of convenience and necessity. Her feelings for him are ambiguous, and confusing even to her. She muses: "I ought to feel hatred for this man. I know I ought to feel it, but it isn't what I do feel. What I feel is more complicated than that. I don't know what to call it. It isn't love" (76). So we see that Offred sets up this relationship as the antithesis of romantic love--a foil for her relationships with both Luke and Nick. It is forced: a physical act devoid of desire, and in it she feels dominated and trapped. How she describes herself in relation to this situation, even at her most empowered (when she is with him in her office), is very revealing. Calling herself "an attentive pet, prick-eared and eager to perform" (238), she tolerates this relationship for the tiny bit of power it can afford her in this dystopic society. And yet, there is something more to this, because she admits to taking an interest in their social interaction: "I don't love the commander, or anything like it, but he's of interest to me, he occupies space, he is more than a shadow" (211). This last line directly links him to Luke, for whom she feels true romantic feelings, but from whom she is quite possibly forever separated. Her feelings for the Commander are not the tender, comforting feelings she feels for Luke, and later for Nick, but they fill the void all the same. And it is through Offred's discussion with him that the reader is given her philosophy about love: 

Falling in love, we said. I fell for him. We were falling women. We believed in it, this downward motion:so lovely, like flying, and yet at the same time so dire, so extreme, so unlikely. God is love,they once said, but we reversed that, and love, like heaven, was always just around the corner. The more difficult it was to love the particular man beside us, the more we believed in Love, abstract and total. We were waiting, always for the incarnation. That word made flesh. (292)

Knowing this determination to make love work against all opposition that is found at the center of her philosophy explains in part why Offred is so determined to hold on to a semblance of faithfulness to Luke, and why she abandons reason and caution in her pursuit of her relationship with Nick.

At the heart of her relationship with Nick is a desire to be comforted and validated by him. She says, "It's so good, to be touched by someone, to be felt greedily, to feel so greedy. Luke, you'd know, you'd understand. It's you here, in another body" (127-128). She seeks immediately to make a connection between the man to whom she is determined to remain faithful and the tangible one, who has potential to offer her the comfort and tenderness of a less tenebrous sort. In spite of her guilt, she is forced by her unbearable need for a sort of love in the austere atmosphere of her life to pursue the relationship as long as she can. She commits herself to a sort of balance--she decides to enjoy fully this new love, and not let all its pleasant little details go lost or unappreciated. She is determined to memorize his features to have with her forever, and to live completely for and in the moment: "We make love each time as if we know beyond a shadow of a doubt there will be no more, for either of us, with anyone, ever. And then when there is, that too is always a surprise, extra, a gift" (346). In this way, she seems to feel as though she is atoning in a way for the love of her husband, which she realizes she did not fully appreciate. In a way, they are substitutes for each other. She shares secrets with Nick, as well as her identity--her real name. She wants to trust him, and at one point she brings herself to admit feeling love, just not aloud: "Neither of us says the word love, not once. It would be tempting fate; it would be romance, bad luck" (347). Her feelings for him eclipse in a way even her desire to escape: "The fact is that I no longer want to leave, escape, cross the border to freedom. I want to be here, with Nick, where I can get at him" (348). They share tender moments with each other over her expectancy, and then we learn that this love is returned when Nick risks himself to help her and their unborn child flee death.

In all, it is this last relationship that is the fruition of her suffering and loneliness. She was not fully prepared for her relationship with Luke--she did not appreciate him enough, and the Commander provided only oppression. It is her love for Nick, and his for her that is the ideal Atwood seems to offer--a romantic love based on mutual emotional need and constructed in the ruins of unsuccessful or unfulfilling previous relationships. It is perhaps what can be seen as the one spark left of a healthy bond between man and woman in the midst of a society that seems to have forgotten there could be such a thing. They alone among the victims of this dystopic society have learned the truth that  "we must love one another or die."


[   back to 4300 esssay index   ]


Copyright © 2000 by Jennifer Bannon.  All rights reserved.