The Power of Love
In The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, Offred, the main character lives in Gilead, a dystopia where fertile women are solely used to reproduce children. Known as handmaids, these women are confined into prison-like centers and forced to fornicate with an aging commander. In this world, the handmaids are treated as farm animals instead of humans. Instead of love and respect, these women get punished or even killed if they do not complete their task. Most importantly, these women lack a sense of love and care that is necessary for civilization. Love is the quintessential emotion that motivates people to strive forward. Because these women do not receive any love, they are not treated as human. In The Handmaid’s Tale, Atwood uses Offred and the other handmaids to show that the capacity and conscious of love for oneself and each other makes us human.
Conscious love makes us more than just objects. During one instance where Offred has sex with the commander, Offred thinks about the commander’s role in the process of impregnation and how both of them are just tools to the government. Atwood writes, “Possibly he wants something from me, some emotion, some acknowledgment that he too is human, is more than just a seedpod” (262). Atwood describes the commander as a “seedpod” because his sole purpose is to spread his seed and reproduce. More importantly, seedpods do not have a conscious, and that is what the government of Gilead wants to impose on the commanders. Their relationship also emphasizes the importance of love because love is the emotion that Offred describes. Furthermore, this quote is a critique on modern society and human relationships. Atwood points out the importance of understanding each other as people instead of just useful tools. Atwood also describes this type of objectification. During a group wedding arranged by the government, Offred talks to Ofglen, another handmaid; Ofglen tells her that the relationship between handmaids and commanders is strictly professional.” Atwood writes, “But you aren’t expected to love him. You’ll find that out soon enough. Just do your duty in silence” (221). As sex slaves, these handmaids are only supposed to bear children for Gilead. Ofglen tells Offred that she should do her “duty in silence” because she does not have to enjoy her job. Just as the commanders are objects to the handmaids, the handmaids are also tools in the eyes of the commanders. On the other hand, the names of the handmaids demonstrate the objectification of the handmaids. Ofglen and Offred literally means “of Glen” and “of Fred”, the commanders that they are assigned. Like cattle to farmers, the commanders have full ownership of these women. This hierarchy shows the lack of love and care for the handmaids.
Love serves as a way for people to connect and show their empathy. Near the beginning of the book, Offred explores a room and finds stains on a mattress. Immediately, she thinks of Luke, her husband before she was a handmaid: “The stains on the mattress. Like dried flower petals. Not recent. Old love; there’s no other kind of love in this room now….I wanted to feel Luke lying beside me” (52). This “old love” refers to the act of sex as an enjoyable and pleasing activity. Even though she still has sex wit the commander, the feeling of pleasure has been lost because the activity is forced. Atwood describes the stains as “dried flower petals” because the petals symbolize love and fertility. Both flower blossoms and children renew a sense of pleasure and delight. However, these flower petals are dried up and dead to show the loss of that love. Offred also thinks of her husband Luke because this “Old love” reminds her of her old love with Luke. She is reminded of her human connection with Luke and wants to keep that thought alive to stay motivated. Later in the book, Offred thinks about Luke again while she is sleeping and sees his face in a flash of lightning. Atwood writes, “… nobody dies from lack of sex. It’s lack of love we die from,” (103). In this quote, Atwood demonstrates the difference between love and sex. People die from a lack of love because love is about care and respect for one another. While sex can be a part of love, love is not only a part of sex. The act of sex does not motivate us to live because humans do not only strive for physical pleasure, but also spiritual pleasure. Sex does not provide the spiritual pleasure that comes from love. Atwood also uses this quote to criticize the current view of sex and love. In popular culture, the definition of the two words have blurred significantly to such an extent that they almost mean the same thing. Without this sense of affection between two people, each partnership would be like the relationship between a commander and a handmaid. Love not only connects us to each other but also gives us motivation to survive.
Love gives us hope and comfort. During another conversation between Offred and the commander, Offred brings up the topic love and how it motivates her. Atwood writes, “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” (226). This abstract and total “Love” that Offred describes is a feeling of connection with another human being. Atwood uses the lowercase and uppercases differences of the words to show the differences between her relationship with the commander and her hope for true love. The abstract love is uppercase to show that it is more important than the “love” with the commander. This quote also gives a sense of Godliness to love. Similar to love, the image of God is abstract and total and many people hope to see God in the flesh. Atwood compares religion and love to show its importance for humanity. Love, like religion, moves society forward and can bring comfort into a gloomy and depressing world. In the same scene, Offred also remembers her past love and reflects upon it. Atwood writes, “That kind of love comes and goes and is hard to remember afterwards, like pain…. you would be filled with a sense of wonder because it was such an amazing and precarious and dumb thing to have done“ (226). Offred compares love to pain to show the duality of both feelings. Even though pain is usually physically or mentally harmful, it can teach us and improve us. On the other hand, love can bring joy and comfort but it can also bring some pain, especially with heartbreaks. The mistakes and recklessness that can come with love is part of the experience because humans improve and retry past failures. In addition, Atwood explains love as “an amazing and precarious and dumb thing” because it is so unpredictable, but when it works its life-changing. Our ability to comprehend the full body experience of love is unique to humans. Just as Offred needs love from others to survive her torment, we also need it to help with our daily struggles.
As humans, we believe in love because affection is a sign of hope. Offred believes in love and fights for it even though almost all hope is lost. She holds on to that last bit of hope because that bit of love is keeping her sane. Despite the horrendous treatment, Offred’s unwavering love for herself keeps her humanity. Atwood discusses love in The Handmaid’s Tale to outline its importance in our everyday lives. Atwood demonstrates how love guides us through our darkest times. Love is a spiritual realm full of opportunities and dreams; love makes us human because we are capable of understanding it. Our expressions of love not only make us human, but also bind society together with its simple, yet complex terminology.
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