The Handmaid’s Tale

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Storytelling and Memory Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
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Religion and Theocracy Theme Icon
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LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The Handmaid’s Tale, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Storytelling and Memory Theme Icon

The structure of The Handmaid’s Tale is characterized by many different kinds of storytelling and fiction-making. For one, the title itself, and the fictional “Historical Notes on the Handmaid’s Tale” of the book’s end, frame the entire novel as Offred’s story, that she’s said into a tape recorder in the old fashioned storytelling tradition. For another, her whole story is also punctuated by shorter stories she tells herself, of the time before Gilead or Aunt Lydia’s lessons. These small flashbacks can be triggered by the slightest impression, and they occur so often throughout the novel that it seems like Offred lives in several worlds, the terrible present, the confusing but free past, and the Rachel and Leah Center that bridged them.

Adding to the overlap of past and present, the tenses are always shifting, with some memories in the past tense, and some in the present. A third form of storytelling comes about because of the constant atmosphere of paranoia and uncertainty. Offred constantly makes up fictions. She’s filled with questions—is Ofglen a true believer, or lying? Is Nick’s touching her foot accidental, or intentional? Offred must keep several stories in mind at once, imagining each to be true at the same time. This form of storytelling is most clear in her imaginings about Luke’s fate, where he could be dead, imprisoned or maybe escaped.

Fourth, Offred also uses storytelling as a pastime. Since she has no access to any entertainment, and very few events happen in her life, she often goes over events from other people’s points of view, making up very involved fictions about what others might be thinking and saying. One major example is her long imaginary recreation of Aunt Lydia and Janine talking about Moira. Another is her creative ideas about what Nick might think of her and the Commander’s relationship. With more stories and memories than current-time actions, the book is profoundly repetitive. It forms its own kind of simple, quiet hell—we, like Offred, are trapped within the echo-chamber of her mind.

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Storytelling and Memory Quotes in The Handmaid’s Tale

Below you will find the important quotes in The Handmaid’s Tale related to the theme of Storytelling and Memory.
Chapter 1 Quotes

We yearned for the future. How did we learn it, that talent for insatiability?

Related Characters: Offred (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Color Red
Page Number: 3
Explanation and Analysis:

The novel opens with Offred recalling the time she spent inside a building that was formerly used as a school, which the reader later learns is the Rachel and Leah Re-Education Center, or the "Red Center." Offred has described the gymnasium, imagining the activities that took place there before the school was turned into the Red Center––activities that invoke the lively, happy, and carefree mood of youth. She says that the atmosphere now is one of "yearning," although it's not clear what for.

This abstract longing is explained by the fact that people of Offred's age and older were alive before the United States became the Republic of Gilead, and thus remember what the world was like before; however, their memories are vague, and their nostalgia for the past turns into a desire for an unknown future. The word "insatiability"––meaning a hunger or desire that cannot be satisfied––indicates the shame associated with desire in the world of the novel. Indeed, "insatiable" is often used in a sexual context, and Offred's words thus evoke disgust and condemnation of women's sexuality––a phenomenon that exists in our modern world, yet is vastly exaggerated in Gilead. In this context, the women's "insatiable" desire is simply for a world in which they are free and equal.

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Chapter 2 Quotes

I try not to think too much. Like other things now, thought must be rationed.

Related Characters: Offred (speaker)
Page Number: 8
Explanation and Analysis:

Offred has continued describing her room in the Commander's house, and recalled Aunt Lydia telling her to "think of it as like being in the army." She describes the single bed in the room, saying that the only thing that happens there is sleep ("or no sleep"), and says that she "rations" her thoughts. This statement highlights the austere, dull scarcity of life in Gilead. Not only has Offred lost access to material pleasures, intimacy with others, and freedom, but even her thoughts are restricted and impoverished by the oppressive world in which she lives. Offred's admission that she tries not to "think too much" suggests that too much thinking is dangerous, especially for women who, like her, live such tightly controlled lives. 

Chapter 7 Quotes

I would like to believe this is a story I’m telling. I need to believe it. I must believe it. Those who can believe that such stories are only stories have a better chance.

Related Characters: Offred (speaker)
Page Number: 39
Explanation and Analysis:

Offred is lying in bed, and has recalled hazy memories from different moments in her life, featuring Moira, her mother, and her daughter. She has recalled waking up from a drug-induced sleep to find that her daughter had been taken from her and assigned to another family. She confesses that she wants to believe that "this is a story I'm telling," as this will help her to survive. There are several layers of meaning to Offred's wish. On the surface, she seems to be referring to the importance of storytelling as a way to preserve one's dignity, and to feel loved and valued. Offred believes she will have "a better chance" to survive if she can imagine one day escaping her life as a Handmaid and telling her story to a willing listener. 

However, although the reader does not yet know it, the novel is a story that Offred is telling; the "Historical Notes" at the end of the book reveal that the narrative was found recorded on audio cassettes in Maine. This suggests that perhaps Offred means she wishes her experiences were only a story. Even while relating the terrible events that happened to her, she wishes to believe they are only a story in order to preserve her sanity and dignity. 

Chapter 9 Quotes

We thought we had such problems. How were we to know we were happy?

Related Characters: Offred (speaker)
Page Number: 51
Explanation and Analysis:

Offred has described the time when she first arrived at the Commander's house and spent hours looking around her new bedroom. This memory has then made her think of hotel rooms, and the time she spent having an affair with Luke while he was still married. She reflects that at the time they thought they had "such problems" and did not appreciate how happy they truly were.

This passage conveys the clichéd wisdom of not being able to appreciate what you have until it's gone. Regardless of how difficult it might have been to conduct their affair in secret, at least Offred and Luke were free, and loved each other. At the same time, Offred does not condemn or resent her former inability to enjoy the freedom she had, asking rhetorically how she could have known otherwise.

Chapter 18 Quotes

But this is wrong, nobody dies from lack of sex. It’s lack of love we die from.

Related Characters: Offred (speaker)
Page Number: 103
Explanation and Analysis:

While sneaking downstairs to steal a daffodil, Offred has run into Nick, and the two share an erotically-charged moment. Back in her room, Offred remembers lying in bed with Luke while she was pregnant, and thinks that if she thought she'd never have sex again she'd die. She then corrects herself, saying that people can live without sex but not without love. This view resonates ambiguously with the events of the novel. Despite the sexual repression by the state, Gilead is a world filled with sex––from the Ceremony to Jezebel's to the illicit acts and gestures performed in secret between various characters. This indicates that people's drive to have sex will survive even the strictest repression of sexuality.  

On the other hand, all that sex doesn't seem to make people very happy or provide much meaning to their lives. And for Offred herself, sex has come to play a rather negative role in her life––yet she is sustained by her memories of love. Indeed, this quotation relates back to Offred's statement that believing she is "telling a story" helps her to stay alive. Both strategies highlight the fundamental importance in trusting that there are people out there in the world who love and care about you. 

Chapter 21 Quotes

You wanted a women’s culture. Well, now there is one. It isn’t what you meant, but it exists. Be thankful for small mercies.

Related Characters: Offred (speaker), Offred’s Mother
Page Number: 127
Explanation and Analysis:

Offred is at Janine's house while Janine is giving birth, and has been recalling her time in the Red Center, when the women were shown videos of "unwomen." One of these videos showed Offred's mother at a feminist rally, and Offred then remembers the fights she and her mother used to have about feminism. At the Red Centre, she recalls thinking about her mother, who had "wanted a women's culture." The Red Centre––along with the whole structure of Handmaids, wives, and other castes of women––is, as Offred reflects in this passage, a "women's culture" of sorts. Socialization is segregated by gender, so women spend time almost exclusively with other women, engaged in "feminine" activities such as housework.

This passage suggests that Offred believes radical feminism was part of a chain of events that led to the establishment of Gilead. While she acknowledges that the hyper-religious, restricted world she now lives in is far from what her mother and other feminists intended, it seems that the backlash against radical feminist activity helped to bring about this new, ultra traditional era. Her comment "Be thankful for small mercies" is largely ironic, a reference to the religious imperative that Offred be grateful for the hellish world in which she now lives. On the other hand, we could perhaps read a note of sincerity in it, too – although the "women's culture" Offred now lives in is misogynist and oppressive, there are several moments when she finds strength and solidarity through her connections to other women, such as Moira, Ofglen, and the previous Handmaid. 

Chapter 24 Quotes

You can think clearly only with your clothes on.

Related Characters: Offred (speaker)
Page Number: 143
Explanation and Analysis:

Offred has secretly spent an evening with the Commander, playing an illicit game of Scrabble and then sharing a kiss. Back in her room, she sits on her bed with her clothes on, waiting before taking them off because she can't think clearly without them.

This observation reveals the complexity of the various forms of oppression to which women are subjected in the novel. In many ways, Offred's extremely modest and unwieldy Handmaid's uniform is oppressive––it robs her of individuality, and implies that her body is shameful. On the other hand, this quotation shows that nakedness can also be disempowering. Although her uniform is somewhat ridiculous and uncomfortable, Offred evidently feels protected by it. Her words suggest that concealing her body allows freedom and clarity in her mind. 

Chapter 33 Quotes

But people will do anything rather than admit that their lives have no meaning. No use, that is. No plot.

Related Characters: Offred (speaker)
Page Number: 215
Explanation and Analysis:

Ofred and Ofglen have gone to a Prayvaganza, and Oflgen observes that Janine has been moved to another family because the baby she had turned out to be a "shredder." Ofglen reveals that Janine thinks she has been punished by God for having sex with the doctor in order to get pregnant; Offred reflects that Janine only thinks this way to give her life a sense of meaning, a coherent "plot." This thought draws an interesting parallel between religion and storytelling.

Just as Janine and other true believers convince themselves that they live in order to please God, Offred gives her own life meaning by making a story out of it. This comparison allows Offred to feel sympathy for even the most reprehensible characters in the novel, as she believes their actions are motivated by their own fear and suffering. 

Chapter 40 Quotes

All I can hope for is a reconstruction: the way love feels is always only approximate.

Related Characters: Offred (speaker)
Page Number: 263
Explanation and Analysis:

Compelled by Serena Joy, Offred has gone to Nick's apartment in order to have sex with him in the hope of getting pregnant. Offred tells several versions of her encounter with Nick; the first portrays the experience as positive and passionate, the second as awkward and transactional. She then admits that it is hard to accurately recreate what happened between them, saying "the way love feels is always only approximate."

Here Offred connects the experience of love to storytelling and memory. Indeed, these two themes are closely intertwined in the narrative, as many of Offred's memories are of times when she felt loved. However, the connection also illuminates the fact that both love and memory are elusive––we can never be sure of our perception of either. 

Chapter 41 Quotes

Humanity is so adaptable, my mother would say. Truly amazing, what people can get used to, as long as there are a few compensations.

Related Characters: Offred’s Mother (speaker)
Page Number: 271
Explanation and Analysis:

Offred has started seeing Nick more regularly, enjoying her time with him and even idolizing him. When Ofglen offers to help her escape, Offred admits to herself that she no longer really wants to leave. At times, she feels that she loves Nick, but on other occasions she reasons that it is not love but simply necessity; she remembers her mother saying that people are "so adaptable," and that is amazing what they "can get used to." The world depicted in the novel reveals the truth of Offred's mother's words. Despite how quickly society has changed, and despite how oppressive life now is, people find ways to keep going and survive. 

However, it is debatable whether or not this is really a good thing. While adaptability and survival skills are impressive, they are also shown to be selfish. After all, now that Offred has managed to make life more enjoyable, she has lost interest in the Resistance. Adapting to one's circumstances can also, then, be interpreted as acquiescing to being controlled by others, as well as ignoring the plight of those who are in a worse position. 

Historical Notes on the Handmaid’s Tale Quotes

We must be cautious about passing moral judgment upon the Gileadean. Surely we have learned by now that such judgments are of necessity culture-specific…our job is not to censure but to understand.”

Related Characters: Professor Pieixoto (speaker)
Page Number: 302
Explanation and Analysis:

The "Historical Notes on the Handmaid's Tale," the final section of the novel, is an invented transcript of a speech at an academic conference on "Gileadean Studies" in the year 2195. Professor Pieixoto, an expert on Gilead from Cambridge University, has explained that he found Offred's story recorded on cassette tapes in Maine. Early on in his talk, Professor Pieixoto emphasizes that "we must be cautious about passing moral judgment upon the Gileadean."

At first glance, this passage can be read as a critique of the cultural relativism that has become dominant in the academic world and in contemporary feminism. Although it is usually good not to be overly judgmental, it is difficult to read Offred's story and be neutral about the world it depicts. Further, one could certainly argue that to insist on not judging the Gileadean's is to treat their society's terrible and oppressive treatment of women as legitimate and acceptable. Additionally, consider the impact of the choice to make Professor Pieixoto a man. Perhaps the dispassionate attitude he encourages is only possible because, as a man, he does not feel as intimately connected to Offred's suffering and the issue of misogyny in general.

On the other hand, Professor Pieixoto's words do resonate with the ambiguities and complexities depicted within Offred's narrative. Most characters, including Offred herself, are shown to be motivated by a complex mix of selfishness and altruism. Even symbols of Gilead authority, such as the Commander, are depicted as being conflicted and oppressed by the world which they have created. In this sense, Professor Pieixoto's advice may cohere with the overall message of the novel.

Finally, the phrase "our job is not to censure but to understand" is particularly significant, given the fact that The Handmaid's Tale has frequently been banned from high school syllabi. Such bans usually occur because local authorities deem the novel's explorations of sexuality to be too explicit, but making that assessment those authorities are therefore implying that women's sexuality and bodies are somehow shameful and should be controlled rather than understood. In other words, those banning the book seem to suggest that the impulse that, in the novel, led to the creation of Gilead is widespread in American society as well.