14: “The Hands of Strangers” (Margaret Atwood)

        “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.”
        -Margaret Atwood

        Spoiler Alert: I’m going to talk about the end of The Handmaid’s Tale, a wonderful book that you should probably read.

        When we finished The Handmaid’s Tale, I asked my students, “When was the last time you put your life in someone else’s hands?” “Never,” was the first answer. “Always,” another answered a little while later. We talked about airplane pilots and the people driving the other way on the road. We talked about the chef who prepared our chicken, the contractors who finished the building we’re in, and the people all around us, whose chance remarks can mean so much to our social, emotional lives. “Unless you went off into the mountains,” one student said, “And tried to live truly alone, it’s always.”
        By the end of The Handmaid’s Tale, we’ve come to care for Offred. And we’ve seen her hurt: so hurt, so many times and by so many people. As a heroine she doesn’t do much: towards the end she even says that she wishes her story had more action in it, and more beauty.
        All that is an aside. I want to talk about the end. Throughout the book, we’ve followed Offred, a natural, struggling human, as she tries to keep hold of her own human heart amid the insanity of a cruelly twisted, twisting world. We’ve seen her hurt by people who don’t care about her, by people who are too scared to help her, by people who don’t even realize they’re hurting her, because they’re too thoughtless or too cruel or too far gone. Then, at the end, a van comes to pick her up. It’s either the secret police, who will take her away and kill her; or it’s the uncertain resistance, the citizens who are fighting back and trying to rebuild a better, kinder world. She doesn’t know which. We don’t know which. But we know who we want it to be, and she chooses to trust them. She steps up into their hands.
        But whose hands are these? Whose hands are helping her into the van? All we know is that they’re strangers. The book ends without telling us, and that’s a bit frustrating. We want to know. We want Atwood to tell us.
        But whose hands are these? All we know is that they belong to some of the other people in the world: the unknown others, fumbling through their own lives, stumbling into hers. There could be books about their lives, though there aren’t.
        But whose hands are these? They’re ours. Atwood doesn’t tell us how the story ends. I don’t think she knows how the story ends. That’s why she wrote the book. Offred is standing there right now, climbing into the van, and our hands are helping her. Who are we? What will we choose? Are we too wrapped in our own hurt to help, or try to help? Are we so scared that we’re cruel? Have we accepted that the world’s ills are too large for our hands to help with? Or do we, here, now, hold out our hands in courage and in kindness?
        Whose hands are these?

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