Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale, first published in 1986, has returned to the forefront of public discourse-not that it ever really disappeared. The book, which has sold millions of copies and graced countless syllabi and required reading lists, is now a Hulu television series (it premieres today), but it was first adapted to film in 1990. Atwood herself, a Booker Prize-winning writer of more than sixty works who has long been considered the most famous living Canadian author, has been the subject of renewed interest.
The Handmaid’s Tale imagines a near-future America controlled by a fascist Christian regime that governs through violent suppression and a literal interpretation of the Bible. Fertility has sharply declined due to pollution, and some women-including Offred, the book’s narrator-are conscripted as “handmaids” to bear children for the most powerful families. As Atwood says in the introduction to the new edition of the book, “Under totalitarianisms-or indeed in any sharply hierarchical society-the ruling class monopolizes valuable things.”
Households in The Handmaid’s Tale eat simple, American foods of the eighties: one night dinner is “the thigh of a chicken, overcooked,” served with “a baked potato, green beans, salad. Canned pears for dessert.” Another night it’s “hamburger balls and hashed browns.” In the kitchen before a party at her house, Offred sees “radishes made into flowers, roses or tulips” bobbing in “a glass bowl with ice cubes.” Offred explains that “meat is expensive, and even the Commanders don’t have it every day.” Exotic ingredients, like oranges, are hard to come by and a source of excitement when they appear in the market: “The war interferes with the oranges from California, and even Florida isn’t dependable, when there are roadblocks or when the train tracks have been blown up.” At the training center before their placements, the Handmaids eat “porridge with cream and brown sugar” for breakfast, while listening to the story of Rachel and Leah from the Bible. They are encouraged to appreciate their simple breakfast. “You’re getting the best, you know,” says Aunt Lydia, one of the women who train and instruct the Handmaids. “There’s a war on, things are rationed. You are spoiled girls.”
In the book, food, and especially breakfast, reveals much about the treatment of women in an authoritarian society where childbearing is a rare and highly desired commodity. “It’s good enough food, though bland. Healthy food,” says Offred. Handmaids must follow a strict diet designed to improve their health and encourage fertility. “You have to get your vitamins and minerals,” explains Aunt Lydia. “You must be a worthy vessel. No coffee or tea, though, no alcohol.” The control of the Handmaids’ diets is part of the more general control of their bodies and their physical desires.
Offred’s meals, almost always the same, are served to her on a strict schedule and she must eat everything she is given. Eggs, a symbol of fertility and an excellent source of protein, are of course a main staple of her diet. She describes her breakfast in detail. “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 eggcup on it, the kind that looks like a woman’s torso, in a skirt. Under the skirt is the second egg, being kept warm.” The skirt-shaped egg cup mirrors Offred’s role as a blank vessel holding an egg-an interplay that drives home the point that womanhood, food, and fertility cannot be separated.
Egg imagery and symbolism appear throughout the book. Offred describes “the glass half egg of the elevator.” A dandelion is “the color of egg yolk,” and a toneless voice is a “voice of raw egg white.” She spends hours staring at the circle on her bedroom ceiling where a chandelier used to hang, where the room’s previous occupant hung herself. She calls it “a frozen halo,” invokes “all things white and circular,” and mentions “the round face of the implacable clock” as she awaits breakfast and “the arrival of the inevitable egg.” Like the cycle of her fertility, breakfast arrives like clockwork.
When Offred’s Commander asks what she thinks about the new society they’ve made, and she carefully sidesteps the question, he sighs and tells her, “You can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs,” a phrase whose origins hearken back to the French Revolution and that implies it’s necessary to sacrifice some lives for the greater good. The phrase is often incorrectly attributed to such violent and ruthless historical figures as Stalin, Napoleon, and Robespierre-clearly an intentional choice on Atwood’s part to include it here.
Through her role as a Handmaid, and her strictly controlled egg-centric diet, Offred is reduced to her physical self, and everything else about her stops mattering-her only value as a human is through her physical capabilities. “I used to think of my body as an instrument, of pleasure, or a means of transportation, or an implement for the accomplishment of my will . . . ” she says. “Now the flesh arranges itself differently. I’m a cloud, congealed around a central object, the shape of a pear, which is hard and more real than I am and glows red within its translucent wrapping.” Offred is nothing more or less than her uterus. “We are containers, it’s only the inside of our bodies that are important,” she says.
Women’s bodies have always been central to their oppression, whether through sexual objectification or limited reproductive rights. As the most direct conduit between our physical selves and the outside world, food and eating can be a tool of oppression as well as a source of pleasure and desire. The Handmaid’s Tale depicts a world where the oppression of women is taken to its logical extreme-a world where a woman is merely an egg waiting to be fertilized. As Offred says, “We are two-legged wombs, that’s all: sacred vessels, ambulatory chalices.” But Offred also finds power in her physical self, speculating that “this is what God must look like: an egg.”