A Handmaid’s Breakfast

When exploring Margaret Atwood’s dystopian fiction, you are advised to begin with breakfast.

Breakfasts enable Atwood’s characters to greet each day anew, alleviating some of their dark predicaments. Atwood, herself, has even described this morning meal as “the most hopeful …, since we don’t yet know what atrocities the day may choose to visit upon us.” (“Spotty-Handed” 173)

But in Atwood’s first dystopian novel, The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), breakfast initially seems too regimented to offer inspiration. In the theocratic society of Gilead, fertile women (and only a few remain) have lost their freedom and now serve as handmaids: second-class citizens who bear children for barren couples of the governing class. Handmaids’ breakfasts are strictly monitored. Vitamins are key. No coffee or tea permitted. These stark meals reinforce the women’s indoctrination and servitude: “You must be a worthy vessel.” (Atwood 75)

In one scene, the protagonist, Offred, lists the items of her morning repast: “In front of me is a tray, and on the tray are a glass of apple juice, a vitamin pill, a spoon, a plate with three slices of brown toast on it, a small dish containing honey, and another plate with an egg-cup on it, the kind that looks like a woman’s torso, in a skirt. Under the skirt is the second egg, being kept warm.” (120)

The oppressive society is reflected in the meal, the two eggs conveying, as Glenn Deer notes, that a handmaid “literally gives birth—lays her egg—while seated in a special ‘birthing stool,’ a chair that allows the [upper-class] wife to sit behind and above the surrogate mother.” (101)

But is there any hope to be had in this cold, institutional repast?

Offred carefully inspects the egg shells, at first seeing only a barren moonscape of purity. A moment later, she shifts her perspective and decides that the “life of the moon may not be on the surface, but inside” (120). In Offred’s and the Republic of Gilead’s hidden depths, the potential for change quietly awaits.

Atwood, Margaret. The Handmaid’s Tale. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1985. Print.

– – – . “Spotty-Handed Villainesses: Problems of Female Bad Behaviour.” Curious Pursuits: Occasional Writing. London: Virago Press, 2005. Print.

Boyd, Shelley. “Ustopian Breakfasts: Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam.” Utopian Studies 26.1 (2015): 160-182. Penn State University Press.

Deer, Glenn.“The Handmaid’s Tale: Dystopia and the Paradoxes of Power.” Margaret Atwood: Modern Critical Views. Ed. Harold Bloom. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2000. Print.

Photo Credit: Alexia Moyer & Text Credit: Shelley Boyd

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