Mothers and children in The Handmaid's Tale

The significance of children in Gilead

Human relationships and their significance are strongly represented in the novel through repeated examination of the relationships between mothers and daughters (we see little of fathers and their children Mother and Child by Henry Essenhigh Corke, 1912except for passing references to Luke and his daughter by Offred). Because of the dearth of healthy children in Gilead, brought about, so we are told in the section Historical Notes, by such factors as nuclear accidents, toxic leakages, AIDS and syphilis, reproduction in Gilead is a matter of state survival. Offred's tale focuses on a system where a child is important as a statistic rather than for itself, and those which do not measure up to the state's standard of perfection are removed as ‘shredders'. Ofwarren's baby may be called ‘Angela' by Warren's wife, but it does not stop the infant being destroyed, as Ofglen tells Offred in chapter 33: ‘it was a shredder after all.' A cold and unfeeling production and use of children is now the norm in Gilead - except possibly among the econowives, whose lives are only tangentially seen in the novel.

Offred and her mother

In stark contrast to Gilead's attitude to children is the relationship between Offred and her own mother, and her passionate love for her own lost child. There are many occasions during the telling of her tale when Offred thinks about her mother who, according to Moira (chapter 39), is now undergoing a living death in the Colonies. One of Offred's most vivid memories is included by Atwood in the section ‘Birth Day', when, watching Ofwarren in labour, Offred recalls seeing films at the Red Centre of ‘Unwomen'- feminist protestors from the days before Gilead- among which she recognises her own mother. This makes Offred recall her mother's account of Offred's own conception and birth: ‘You were a wanted child, all right,' her mother says - though the father was not wanted, except to inseminate her. Later (chapter 28), after thinking of how her mother was arrested and disappeared, Offred remembers her mother and recalls their disagreements; Offred wanted ‘a life more ceremonious'. Yet, she ponders, ‘despite everything, we didn't do badly by one another.' And she adds, ‘I wish she were here, so I could tell her I finally know this.'

Offred and her child

Some of the most moving and powerful language in the novel concerns Offred's passionate love and yearning for the daughter who was taken away after the unsuccessful attempt to escape from Gilead. So pervasive are Offred's memories that she does not even introduce the topic - she seems to assume that her (unknown) audience will be as aware as she herself is that when she speaks of ‘she' for the first time in chapter five, it is her lost daughter whom Offred is recalling, even though the child has not previously been mentioned:

‘She could get one of those over her head, Luke would say, warning about plastic bags. You know how kids like to play.'

As with Offred herself, we never know the child's name. Offred will suddenly think of her, in sharp memories induced, for example, by the smell of the soap (chapter 12) which makes her recall with anguish ‘baby powder and child's washed flesh and shampoo'. Offred realises that her daughter, taken from her aged five, will now be eight. More bitterly still, she has a dream (in chapter 13) re-told in vivid, present-tense narrative, of the failed escape and her daughter ‘being carried away' - a dream from which she wakes with her face wet with tears.

When Offred is finally shown a photograph of her daughter, in an arrangement organised by Serena Joy, Offred feels, very sadly, that her daughter seems changed and has moved on and away from her:

‘Time has not stood still'. Offred feels, ‘I am only a shadow now, far back behind the glib shiny surface of this photograph.'

Most bitterly, the fact that Serena Joy could offer such an arrangement makes Offred realise with horror that Serena Joy has ‘known all along ‘where her daughter is. Serena Joy wants a baby in the household, but only so that she no longer has to have a Handmaid in the house. Offred knows now that the Commander's Wife has no understanding at all of what it is to be a mother: ‘She's made of wood, or iron, she can't imagine.' The real, deep, passionate and all-consuming love of mother for daughter is very clearly depicted by Atwood in her creation of Offred.

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