The Key to the Door – on Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale
by Lauren Jackson
The light expands from a small slit to a slithering mass, the soft tread on the carpet is muffled, the whining creak fills the ears as the door is opened. A hushed whisper, a fleeting indifference, a glow of moonlight on hardwood as the door is closed. Earl G. Ingersoll believes in his article ‘The Trope of Doors in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale’ that doors are what opens and closes the narrative to the reader in Atwood’s novel. Doors are the gateway to good and evil, and the symbolism is rife within the doorframe.
Ingersoll’s article makes plain this notion with: “…Atwood’s attraction to the door as a literal part of our lives as well as a trope with multiple meanings in our everyday discourse” (Ingersoll, 2). Readers can ascribe meaning to the trope of doors by applying aspects of our everyday lives. Ingersoll expands this idea by explaining: “When they swing outward, they can represent freedom, opportunity, promise, the unknown…” and furthermore, “Doors also swing inward, and in the process they define the space that is a room” (Ingersoll, 2-3). When doors can open on new horizons or close on a personal domain, meaning can be derived from the possibilities inherent in an open or closed space. Both Ingersoll and Atwood’s novel itself express doors as entrances into private worlds. Offred, The Handmaid’s Tale’s¸ protagonist tells us she has no room of her own. The context of this revolves around doors.
The opening of the novel itself begins by describing the placement of doors within the house: “I walk along the hallway, past the sitting room door and the door that leads into the dining room, and open the door at the end of the hall…” (Atwood, 15). Offred is essentially trapped within this home and this life, all other courses being closed to her save exile and eventual death. Therefore it is easy to assume she may feel doors represent a certain kind of freedom. A pathway to something beyond what it is she is forced to endure now. Doors can maintain a future tense for her, whereas remaining in a room now can only imbue the present.
Ingersoll clings to the idea of rooms representing an essential part of the story, the doors being the access to these rooms propounds the idea. His theory is that: “The room, not her room, becomes a trope for her body because she is powerless to keep Commander Fred from entering it” (Ingersoll, 4). The door in this case, is the gateway to violation, albeit to some extent a willing violation. Ingersoll makes the claim that the door is in this case unreliable, seeking to undermine her femininity and reinforce the patriarchal order. This order is based around sexuality, but the novel seems to skew this power base from Ingersoll’s argument. Offred purposefully flaunts what limited sensuality she has to the guards at a gate, swaying her hips and letting her skirt flounce around her frame. She at first feels shame at the action but then says: “Then I find I’m not ashamed after all. I enjoy the power; power of a dog bone, passive but there” (Atwood, 31). Although the power the female holds may not be overt, throughout the novel it is exerted in these minute ways, demonstrating that females still manipulate males sexually, and that perhaps the balance of power could be tipped.
Yet Ingersoll finds that not only are physical doors a viable means of entering, but metaphorical images are used as well. Ingersoll says: “This ‘interpreter’ is probably one of the ‘Eyes,’ or spies for the State, and thus she must carefully avert her eyes, lest his searching gaze penetrate the open doors of her eyes” (Ingersoll, 5). This notion does appear to be reinforced by the novel, for Offred is taught by Aunt Lydia that to be seen is to be penetrated (Atwood, 38). The very act of seeing and looking is considered metaphorically transcendent to the sexual act. There may be something to the fact that the ritual sex act within the book is done with clothing on, no kissing, and lights off. There is a total lack of seeing that would create an intimate or otherwise expressive atmosphere. Thus averting the eyes for accidental entry is necessary for Offred and all other tamed Handmaids.
There is a shift in the novel when Offred declares the Commander was staring into her room. She ascribes it ownership and seems nearly surprised that she had done it. She claims he is violating custom, yet perhaps he had violated her by doing so. If these rooms are representative of the womb in any fashion, then his unannounced visit in turn destroyed an essential part of the impregnating process. The argument Ingersoll purports for the power of the door and the Commander, is that he must knock on his wife’s door before entering. Serena must hear the knock and admit him into the sitting room. He must ask permission of his wife, but of his Handmaid he may readily enter. But does this really belie a patriarchal society or one in which it is merely sanctioned to have a concubine?
For Offred is indeed seen as nothing more than something to be filled: “We are containers, it’s only the insides of our bodies that are important” (Atwood, 113). Not only does this appear to represent that Offred’s body itself is a doorway, but alludes to ancient Greek beliefs of females being merely containers. Walking wombs. This disquietude in the novel continues throughout, giving rise to the idea that mere production is the only vitality left of life. You cross a threshold in marriage, or in this case Handmaidship, and every doorway contained is then transgressed. The containment of this is inherent, in that one must incubate children and push them through yet another opening into the garish light of the world.
The Commander has ultimate control of his household, and must read from the Bible as part of the Handmaid ritual. What is interesting not only with the juxtaposition of Biblical religion into a world that seems godless is Offred’s observation of the Commander’s reading. Offred feels: “He lets the book fall closed. It makes an exhausted sound, like a padded door shutting, by itself, at a distance: a puff of air” (Atwood, 106). Not only does Offred distance herself and create an almost disconnect through watching this from far away, but the allusion to a padded door is one of an insane asylum. Where has Offred been shut up? Does she feel she is trapped within doors that do nothing more than harbor confusion?
Offred’s confusion is tenfold when the Commander seeks to see her in his study privately. She calls the door to this location a forbidden room. Yet she raises her hand and knocks, she opens the door and enters. Now Offred penetrates the Commander, yet still he rules and directs the method of the operation by telling Offred to close the door behind her. It wasn’t merely penetration Offred expected upon opening this forbidden door either, she had expected perversion. Offred asks of herself: “What had I been expecting, behind that closed door, the first time? Something unspeakable, down on all fours perhaps, perversions, whips, mutilations? At the very least some minor sexual manipulation, some bygone peccadillo now denied him, prohibited by law and punishable by amputation. To be asked to play Scrabble, instead, as if we were an old married couple, or two children, seemed kinky in the extreme, a violation in its own way” (Atwood, 178). I feel it is important to note that she believed not only that the door enclosed sexual perversions, but that what she found was a complete opposite – yet still a violation. Not only did he violate her, but it remained kinky, despite its lack of sexuality. Ingersoll says: “Tellingly it is the imagining of what could be ‘behind that closed door’ that calls to mind perversions far beyond the actualities of Fred’s desires” (Ingersoll, 6-7). Yet did she not still find herself in a state of dishevelment? Of confusion and embarrassment? Was her intellect not violated and tormented? Offred says of this forbidden zone and entertainment, this violation later that: “Behind this particular door, taboo dissolved” (Atwood, 180). What may once have seemed impenetrable and unspeakable, is now the ordinary, and she passes with ease through the door that represented perversions.
Within one scene the trope of the door may be seen to represent many things. When Offred steals about the house late one night, hoping to take something, a door is referenced three times within the scene, each time a different meaning seems to be ascribed. Offred’s adventure begins: “I reach the sitting room, door’s ajar, slip in, leave the door a little open” (Atwood, 115). The door being open appeared to represent an invitation, a method of forward motion. Offred’s space is then invaded by Nick, she does not see him but notes: “The door closes behind me, with a little click, cutting the light” (Atwood, 115). Her privacy has now been violated, the door closes behind her supporting that. All method of escape or exit are now cut off and she is trapped and confined as the male desires. At last, after giving into a small desire with Nick, Offred approaches the door: “I find the door, turn the knob, fingers on cool porcelain, open. It’s all I can do” (Atwood, 116). Offred must first seek the door, she specifically states herself as finding it. Once this feat is accomplished, she must open it to gain freedom once more. That she adds it’s all she can do seems significant. Why is opening a door all she can do? This one act of opening a door is a penultimate experience because of the significance the door portrays. It is a means of enslavement or liberty. It can mean her penetration or her privacy. These ideas are not without support as we have seen. Even in Offred’s dreams the door remains significant: “I dream that I get out of bed and walk across the room, not this room, and go out the door, not this door” (Atwood, 125). The very door of her dream holds a different meaning to her than the one she must face every day, especially knowing what lies on the other side of it. She is unable even to lock the door of her present circumstances, further bolstering the penetration act.
How one uses the door is demonstrated to us as well through the character of Moira. When Moira escapes the Aunts and flees from the other Handmaids, Offred notes merely: “At any moment there might be a shattering explosion, the glass of the windows would fall inward, the doors would swing open…Moira had power now, she’d been set loose, she’d set herself loose. She was now a loose woman” (Atwood, 153). The direction the previous sentence took seems bent with a purpose. First Offred tells us the doors swung open and now Moira is a loose woman. The openness of the doors seems applicable to Moira’s character, her loose morals, her loose ways. Perhaps Offred alludes to Moira’s ability to open her legs or open her heart or open herself in any way she desires now that she’s been loosed.
There are dangers inherent in the door as well. The Library has a doorway that Offred describes with some awe and trepidation: “Victory is on one side of the inner doorway, leading them on, and Death is on the other” (Atwood, 191). There is always a choice to be made of which way the door will swing, or which way one will choose to enter. The door itself is not the only issue, but the method of entry, and the direction of travel. One must choose wisely to make it to safety. Offred often tells us whether or not she entered the house via the back door or the front door, for only certain persons or certain occasions warrant particular uses of doors. A man is kidnapped in broad daylight by the Eyes: “Then they are also inside and the doors are closed and the van moves on” (Atwood, 195). The doors also have a way of obliterating life and memory in this way. Offred believes that doors can protect you from the outside as much as trap you within them. She found that the previous Handmaid to have occupied her room committed suicide by hanging herself. Offred says of her: “She was safe then, protected altogether, by the time Cora opened the door” (Atwood, 241). What does it mean to open the door on death itself? Can one trespass on the mortal specter, the scythe in hand, the grim come to do his reaping? Can the door penetrate into such thickness? There seems a transcendence here between life and death, and the mortal with the immortal. The metaphysical boundary between the natural and the supernatural. On one side is existence, and on the other side extinction.
The act of a man holding a door open for a woman has long been seen as one of chivalry. However, in The Handmaid’s Tale, there is nothing chivalric about the door the Commander opens for Offred. When the Commander takes Offred to a ‘Gentleman’s Club’, the scene is rife with tropes of doors. The first occasion for comment is that he specifies they will enter the back door. As the car door is shut behind Offred when stepping out, Nick looks at her through the glass. Offred says: “He sees me now. Is it contempt I read, or indifference, is this merely what he expected of me?” (Atwood, 266). The act of seeing is one of penetration, and that he does it literally through the medium of the door tells us he is still blocked by society’s rules, for only the Commander holds the power of penetrating the door itself. Significant further of the back door the Commander takes Offred through, is that all round it is piled trash, symbolic perhaps of the demeaned sexuality found within. Further still, the Commander has a key to this door, giving him intimate access, and a sense of ownership over this door. He commands the door via the key, and therefore this poses no threat or boundary to him. The key physically penetrates the door, signifying the acts that occur within. As they step inside, Offred notes: “Doors open off it, with numbers on them: a hundred and one, a hundred and two, the way you count during a thunderstorm, to see how close you are to being struck” (Atwood, 267). Again Atwood stresses the significance of doors, each numbered, each specific. And Offred feels that they represent a sort of distant or hesitant danger, the type of terror struck into the heart of a child when thunder is passing overhead. Will it come near? Or will it move farther away? As the numbers increase, so does the fear decrease.
Ingersoll further relates the use of doors in the affair of Nick and Offred. First Serena Joy dictates directions to Nick’s room by landmarks of doors. Ingersoll says: “Tellingly Offred repeats these door references in her narrative of going to Nick’s room: ‘I open the kitchen door, step out […]. I reach the top of the stairs, knock on the door there’” (Ingersoll, 8). Ingersoll feels that the frequent repetition of the doors as guiding points conveys how dangerous Offred’s journey is: “…after all, it could lead to her death in a variety of manners – underscore the pervasiveness of doors and the spaces they contain in Offred’s world” (Ingersoll, 8). And this too serves to further highlight the space of death within the narrative of doors. When Offred arrives to Nick’s room she tells us two different versions of the story, each time subsequently explaining that wasn’t how it happened. What Ingersoll found most telling about the first version is that Offred specifies there was a door, probably leading to a bathroom, in Nick’s room. In the second version, Offred leaves that bit of description out. Ingersoll believes it is because Offred first notes, and then dismisses that door, as it leads to no freedom, but merely another shell of imprisonment: “Tellingly that door is not a second way out, emphasizing Offred’s sense of entrapment…” (Ingersoll, 9).
Ingersoll feels the very end of the novel neatly ties up the trope of doors, it packages it into its final climax, and allows the reader to tie the bow. The final scene for Offred is one of uncertainty for her and the reader: “The van waits in the driveway, its double doors stand open. The two of them, one on either side now, take me by the elbows to help me in. Whether this is my end or a new beginning I have no way of knowing: I have given myself over into the hands of strangers, because it can’t be helped. And so I step up, into the darkness within; or else the light” (Atwood, 331). This last set of doors was opened to Offred, and within could be found freedom or death. Ingersoll argues she must have survived for the Historical Notes point to the discovery of Offred’s tapes, so surely she must have arrived somewhere to have created them. Ingersoll believes that rather than take the trope of doors inside the novel inside to be representative of Offred, we should take them as a door for the reader. Offred’s door is ceremoniously shut upon us, but this chapter is a door, according to Ingersoll, that opens onto the Historical Notes for the reader. The fact that the van had double doors seems to suggest there were not only two choices available to the reader or to Offred, but that there could be a double meaning. Ingersoll believes the Historical Notes destroy the feminism they seem to support. Have we been misled through the text? Is there a double meaning? This is suggested as “duplicity” by Ingersoll, and may in fact be so. Nevertheless, whether the doors are seen outside of the novel, or present only within the novel proper, we find the door is at last shut. It is our decision whether it was shut on life or death, darkness or light, but always a small sliver shines through.
Atwood, Margaret. The Handmaid’s Tale. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Print.
Ingersoll, Earl G. “The Trope of Doors in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.” LATCH 2 (2009): 1-16. Print.
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