The Normal Handmaid

In Chapter 23 of The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood illustrates the strangeness of normalcy and shows how the overregulation hurts everyone in society.

Margaret Atwood starts on page 137 by showing the pure fear that is coursing through Offred’s body. She is terrified first and foremost because it is under incredibly rare circumstances that anyone is able to see the Commander personally, without supervision from Serena Joy. As she enters the room, she notices the very reason it is kept such a secret from the remainder of the population – it was normal. To Offred, it resembles “an oasis of the forbidden” (Atwood 137). She panics as he uses “the old greeting” upon his saying “Hello” (137). She is almost moved to tears by this one simple word – a word very commonly used throughout history – simply because this greeting is now considered almost unacceptable in average society. Atwood shows the association these people draw between the things that are normal and those that are forbidden in an attempt to show the scarcity of all that was once considered normal, and how these people have such a visceral reaction to something as simple as someone saying “hello”, solely because the government says it is incorrect.
            The negative effect that the over zealous government has on the common citizens is shown throughout the story, but this is one of the first times the reader gets a glimpse at how it negatively effects one of the higher ranking officers – the Commander. He is portrayed as a man who has much training in dealing with common members of society, but one that does not seem happy in the least. He relies on someone who is typically regarded as an inferior in order to provide the most basic of pleasures that a board game such as Scrabble might bring. He is visibly distraught over the fact that he is not even permitted to play with his wife, and even feels the need to turn to Offred for affection.
            It is clear that normalcy is scare throughout their society, and that it is something that is highly regarded as unacceptable and even forbidden. Strange rules like this provide force even the people controlling their system to surrender many of the things that foster happiness. For the Commander here it was playing Scrabble with his family. Strange rules like this is what perpetuates the state of misery felt by everyone involved.

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