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The Hope and Hopelessness of Moira: “The Handmaid’s Tale” by Margaret Atwood

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Independence is what teenagers strive for while going through adolescence. Once achieved, this right of passage is one of the most difficult to surrender. Such strong defiance and independence is shown in Margaret Atwood’s, “The Handmaid’s Tale”, through the minor character of Moira. This character is referred to throughout the novel as strong-willed and independent until Offred finds her near the end, different and broken. Through Moira, Atwood is able to develop Offred as a dependent on hope and further develop the theme of hopelessness in Totalitarian governments.

Throughout the novel, Offred makes references to Moira, Offreds friend since college. Every time this character is mentioned, it’s in remembrance of her defiance. Moira is first referred to in chapter seven at night when Offred remembers the days before the reform. Offred describes Moira as wearing “purple overalls”, “one dangling earring”, a “gold fingernail…to be eccentric” (49-50), with “a cigarette between her stubby yellow-ended fingers”. All of these details show the reader a rebellious, independent college student. This feature of rebellion is what brings Offred’s thoughts back to Moira. Offred wishes to rebel, but is senseless as to how it could be accomplished. Later, after the reform, the girls had been sent to the “Red Center”, where Moira’s independence leads to her beating in the first offense. During one of the girls’ rendezvous in the bathroom, Moira explains that she must escape.

“I’ll fake sick. They send an ambulance, I’ve seen it.” (115). Although Moira was able to escape the “Red Center” for some time, she was found out and punished: an example that the strong willed cannot overpower the laws of a Totalitarian government. Offred sympathizes for Moira, but more so, she admires her bravery as she looks back at the event. Offred later recalls Moiras second attempt to escape. “Moira went in [the washroom]…the toilet was overflowing…Aunt Elizabeth hurried in [and then] felt something hard and sharp and possibly metallic jab into her ribs from behind.” (168) Offred remembers the story further; “She told Aunt Elizabeth to take off all her clothes…Moira marched straight out the front door…And disappeared.” (169-171). Offred’s nostalgia for this cunning event while riding back from the birth implies how she wished to escape then. Moira’s successful getaway, and Moira herself, serves as a symbol of hope and strong independence for Offred to depend on under this Totalitarian rule.

Through most of the novel Atwood is ambiguous as to the fate of Moira. However, Offred surprisingly encounters her old friend again in the least likely of places, a whorehouse. The commander had snuck Offred out of his household and to Jezebels, the whorehouse. Upon their arrival Offred quickly spots Moira, who gives the old hand signal to meet in the washroom. Although their reunion is short, Offred learns a lot of what Moira has gone through and how she ended up at Jezebel’s. Moira described her journey; “I kept on going as if I knew where I was heading…I remember the designation beside their name. Q [for] Quaker…I told her I was doing a questionnaire.” (317-319). Thus far in her summary, Moira seems like the same person that Offred idolized her as. Moira’s rebellious nature had let her escape to safety for the time being. She continues her story with the Quaker couples decision.

“He’d take me to another house…the other house was Quakers too…a station on the Underground Femaleroad…they said they’d try to get me out of the country.” (320). The use of the word “try” takes away from the hopeful aspects of Moira, as it hints at the uncertainty of fate. This also foreshadows her demise and total alteration under the Totalitarian government. Moira finishes her tale, “I was underground it must have been eight or nine months…I almost made it out…they picked us up just as we were coming out the back door…I’d rather not talk about it…they didn’t leave any marks…I had the choice…this or the colonies…it’s not so bad, they’re lots of woman around.” (321-324). These final pieces of information show Offred and the reader that the government has totally changed who Moira was. She is no longer independent or strong-willed, but another product of the Totalitarian machine.

Moira’s character parallel’s that of Julia in 1984 by George Orwell. Both characters were rebellious to the governments in which they were controlled by, and both were turned out to the ideologies of the latter by the end. Moira was a symbol of hope to Offred in this novel. The metamorphosis of this character is another symbol that there is little or no hope in Totalitarian regimes.

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