Memory in ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’

Unlike Morrison’s Beloved, Margaret Atwood takes the concept of memory in a different direction in The Handmaid’s Tale. Now, this post is going to be on the shorter side, due to the fact that we are still relatively in the beginning of the book. In Beloved, Sethe is ashamed and destroyed by her past. Slavery had, and always would, haunt her. Although she didn’t necessarily like physically talking about it, the memories engraved into her mind were there to stay. In The Handmaid’s Tale, Offred brings up certain times from her past that make her happy. Her memories make her long for the past, and realize how dreadful the present is.

Through Sethe and Offred, we see how memory manipulates the present…manipulates the emotional and psychological welfare. For Offred, memory forces her to almost be stuck in her own past, causes her to lament for what was and realize what is. In Sethe’s situation, memory drives her away from the past and teaches her to love and appreciate the present. Different emotions come from these situations as well. Offred for example, feels love and excitement and wonder. She mentions how she would pace in a hotel room waiting for Luke before he was still married:

The knock would come at the door; I’d open, with relief, desire. He was so momentary, so condensed. And yet there seemed no end to him. We would lie in those afternoon beds, afterwords, hands on each other…” (51).


So. I explored this room…I didn’t want to do it all at once, I wanted to make it last…I saw the stains on the mattress. Like dried flower petals. Not recent. Old love…when I saw that, the evidence left by two people…I covered the bed and lay down on it…I wanted to feel Luke lying beside me…I wanted to feel Luke lying beside me, but there wasn’t room” (52).

At this point in the book, we are completely aware of the fact that expressing any sort of emotion as a woman is not acceptable. You could almost think of memory in Offred’s situation as manipulative. Unable to erase her past of being content, in love, with a family (etc), Offred is forced to go against the law of society. The way she describes waiting for Luke illustrates young love. It excites the reader. When Offred gets a flashback in this case, she is again in the hotel room. Her memories of Luke and her love come back when she examines the bed. It was a good flashback, but it was a flashback that exemplified how Offred’s past was so much better than her current situation. She laments, she can almost picture the whole scene with the two of them in the bed together again. Why? Because it had happened once, and then many times after that. The feelings she remembered from that experience drove her to want it all over again. She “wanted to feel Luke lying beside” her. To be able to literally re-create her past.

Memory is manipulative, almost torturous for Offred, as well as for Sethe, but for different, obvious reasons. Offred’s memories soothe her, comfort her, yet make her long to live what her life once was. Yet, despite the fact that Offred can almost feel being in the bed with Luke, touching him, loving him, she knows she cannot. Sethe’s memories torture her, emotionally destroying her. When she looks at the present, she is content, for the most part. She escaped slavery, violence, death, and by remembering those emotions, she comes to the conclusion that the present is better. It’s almost as if Sethe’s memories work to her benefit.

Both Atwood and Morrison integrate memory, weave memory, into their main characters. It is interesting as the reader to interpret and then come to an understanding about what memory is doing in each. The power and control memory has on both characters physical actions and emotions is rather significant. For Sethe, the manipulation of her memory works with her, benefits her. Offred’s memory manipulates her into realizing how horrible her life truly is. She remembers the old, and wants to go back. Although not finished with The Handmaid’s Tale, Offred’s flashbacks and memories of her past are sure to have a lasting impact on how she behaves as a Handmaid in the Republic of Gilead.

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