Romantic Love in Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale
In her novel The Handmaid's Tale, Margaret Atwood addresses the concept of different expression of romantic love through the eyes of Offred, a woman who has lost almost all her freedom to a repressive, dystopic society. Throughout her struggle against oppression and guilt, Offred's view evolves, and it is through this process that Atwood demonstrates the nature of love as it develops under the most austere of circumstances.
The first glimses of romantic love one notes in this novel are the slivers of Offred's memeories of Luke, her husband from whom she has been separated. For the most part they are sense memories--she recalls most of all images of comfort: of lying in her husband's arms, of his scent, and of little details of his appearance--but also a sense of connectedness that gives her identity. And it is this that she misses the most. "I want Luke here so badly. I want to be held and told my name. I want to be valued, in ways that I am not; I want to be more than valuable" (125-126). And yet already the person as a whole is beginning to slip away. The life she is leading now is driving him from her reality--she says, "Day by day, night by night he recedes, and I become more faithless" (346). Her love for her husband is marked with guilt and regret even in the beginning--she misses all the little characteristics about him that she never took time to appreciate when she was with him. She even misses the arguments, and wonders, "How were we to know we were happy?" (67). The memory of her love for Luke, and her guilt at betraying him with other men, especially Nick, for whom she develops genuine affection, is a significant psychological factor throughout the course of the novel. Foreshadowing the fact that she will turn from her memories to the tangible comforts of a living man, she says of her unhappy predicament: "But this is wrong, nobody dies from lack of sex. It's lack of love we die from. There's nobody here I can love, all the people I love are dead or elsewhere" (131-132). This presents her to the readers as alone, but seeking some comfort in her life--something more than a physical relationship.
Her relationship with the commander is transient--one of convenience and necessity. Her feelings for him are ambiguous, and confusing even to her. She muses: "I ought to feel hatred for this man. I know I ought to feel it, but it isn't what I do feel. What I feel is more complicated than that. I don't know what to call it. It isn't love" (76). So we see that Offred sets up this relationship as the antithesis of romantic love--a foil for her relationships with both Luke and Nick. It is forced: a physical act devoid of desire, and in it she feels dominated and trapped. How she describes herself in relation to this situation, even at her most empowered (when she is with him in her office), is very revealing. Calling herself "an attentive pet, prick-eared and eager to perform"...