Friday, 18 February 2011

On Forgiveness in 'A Handmaid's Tale'

One of my favorite passages in this novel arrives suddenly and seemingly out of nowhere in Chapter Twenty-Three:
"Forgiveness too is a power. To beg for it is a power, and to withhold or bestow it is a power, perhaps the greatest. 

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 who 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" (144-145). 

Nothing about this novel seems to do with forgiveness so far, and we're about half way through. Why, then, does the narrator (Offred for now) present what seems to be a pivotal, climactic statement about a seemingly disparate theme?

This is what Atwood does in this story, though. The mood is unsettling. So is the language. We never fully know what is happening, what has happened, or what to make of it all. We both know the narrator intimately and fail to know her. She believes in contradictions. She speaks in paradoxes.

Perhaps one place where we have indeed seen forgiveness so far has to do with Luke and the notion of fidelity. When the narrator bumps into Nick in the night, illegally, she finds that she is physically attracted to him, but she says, quickly, to her husband, "'Luke, you'd know, you'd understand'" (110). In other words, Luke would forgive a transgression of this kind. Soon she adds that "It's lack of love we die from" and that there's "nobody here [she] can love" (113). So the story in part is about whether or not a person can forgive his beloved for a physical betrayal and about whether or not that betrayer can forgive herself...

I wonder, too, if this introduction of forgiveness as a significance in the story raises questions about whether or not this society can be absolved--whether or not individuals, people, whole cultures can be forgiven for what they do.


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