Thursday, 16 January 2014

Points of Contact II

The points of contact trend continues in Atwood's novel, The Handmaid's Tale. They include rare moments of physical contact, speaking in whispers in a bathroom stall, communicating in writing across time and space, even shows of emotion.

Our main character, whose new name turns out to be Offred ("Of Fred," meaning belonging to her Commander, Fred), finds a trace of a former handmaid in her room (what she comes to call her room): "There it was, in tiny writing, quite fresh it seemed, scratched with a pin or maybe just a fingernail, in the corner where the darkest shadow fell: Nolite Te Bastardes Carborundorum." Offred doesn't know what it means (not yet), but she exclaims (to us), "I'm communing with her, this unknown woman [...] her taboo message made it through, [...] washed itself up on the wall of my cupboard" (62). The words are a point of contact between them, a kind of communication, something they share apart from the oppressive world of Gilead.

Through snatches of memories, fragments, dreams, Offred tries to remember and hang onto her daughter, who was taken from her. When Offred steps into the bath, she closes her eyes and says, "She's there with me, suddenly, without warning, it must be the smell of the soap. I put my face against the soft hair at the back of her neck and breathe her in [...] She comes back to me [...] She's not really a ghost" (73). This passage is one of many involving hunger, longing, craving for physical touch. Offred imagines holding her daughter. If she were able to hold her, she would know that she exists and is alive--that they both are--in a reality that has become almost entirely surreal.

They are many other kinds, points of contact. The handmaids long to touch the pregnant handmaid when they are out to market; Offred longs for the physical touch of her husband, Luke. There are also a thousand instances of contact being denied, outlawed, made impossible upon penalty of death. Aunt Lydia, when she is training the Handmaids, bursts into tears. Atwood writes, "I'm doing my best, she said. I'm trying to give you the best chance you can have [...] Don't think it's easy for me either" (65). Surely the handmaids know, then, have affirmed, that Lydia, too, is one of them--human, feeling.

Points of contact let us know we are alive; they tell us we exist and help us belong to something bigger than ourselves. Babies die without being touched. We are nourished by physical contact. Indeed, we need it to survive.

This has me thinking about points of contact in my own life, of course. (Perhaps this will be a third post soon.)

1 comment:

  1. I began tracking the word "feel," as it was intriguing how this part of their society is so rare yet for us it is a given. Another part to think about is when they are doing the ceremony and the commander reached out to touch the handmaid even though it is against the rule. Also the outfits the handmaids' are forced to wear are to prevent physical contact, as well as wandering eyes. The isolation, the routined schedules, the clothes are help in the lack of physical contact or "feel." I guess to prevent normal or sexual feelings towards others.