By Jessica A. Kent
It’s no secret The Handmaid’s Tale is having a moment (you’d have to be living under a rock, or in Gilead, not to know). Margaret Atwood’s 1986 classic, which has trended on favorites list since publication, has found new life in the Hulu series of the same name, and its themes, questions, and frankly harrowing vision of society has resonated deeply in Trump's America. The Handmaids have become a symbol for a woman’s autonomy, resistance against an unjust patriarchal system, and a reminder that if we’re not vigilant, we could see Gilead form in our lifetime.
And it’s no secret that The Handmaid’s Tale takes place in Boston and Cambridge; we got a very distinct reminder in Season 2 as the action took us to an abandoned Fenway Park, and as June hid out in the now-defunct Boston Globe headquarters (whose scenes ring far too possible in a country where the media is attacked at every turn). Unfortunately, the TV series has missed out on a number of opportunities to really ground the show in a future post-Boston: “Back Bay” had a large highway above it and looks like Medford; they ask for “the train to Boston” in Arlington station, literally in the middle of Boston; none of the buildings look anything close to the Boston skyline; and the bodies are supposed to be hung on the walls of Harvard University, not along the river.
So let’s return to the novel, a narrative that Atwood firmly rooted in Harvard Square and Cambridge, with places you can identify from the descriptions - places you can actually visit today. Welcome to our walking tour of The Handmaid’s Tale.
Early in the novel we follow Offred and Ofglen on their daily errands, and if you head to the Square yourself, you can follow them pretty easily. We start at the Brattle Theatre, which opened in 1890, and began showing arthouse films in 1953, which is still does to this day:
In front of us, to the right, is the store where we order dresses. Some people call them habits, a good word for them. Habits are hard to break. The store has a huge wooden sign outside it, in the shape of a golden lily; Lilies of the Field, it’s called. You can see the place, under the lily, where the lettering was painted out, when they decided that even the names of shops were too much temptation for us. Now places are known by their signs alone.
Lilies used to be a movie theater, before. Students went there a lot; every spring they had a Humphrey Bogart festival, with Lauren Bacall or Katharine Hepburn, women on their own, making up their minds (24-25).
Cross Brattle Street, and you'll be facing Church Street. Milk and Honey is probably what was Sage’s Market, opened in 1908, which then turned into Market in the Square (now Wholesome Fresh):
We don’t go into Lilies, but across the road and along a side street. Our first stop is at a store with another wooden sign: three eggs, a bee, a cow. Milk and Honey. There’s a line, and we wait our turn, two by two (25).
Similarly, All Flesh would be another spot located on Church Street:
Next we go into All Flesh, which is marked by a large wooden pork chop hanging from two chains. There isn’t so much of a line here: meat is expensive, and even the Commanders don’t have it every day (27).
Offred and Ofglan pause somewhere on the east end of Church Street:
A block past All Flesh, Ofglen pauses, as if hesitant about which way to go. We have a choice. We could go straight back, or we could walk the long way around. We already know which way we will take, because we always take it.
“I’d like to pass by the church,” says Ofglen, as if piously.
“All right,” I say, though I know as well as she does what she’s really after.
We walk, sedately. The sun is out, in the sky there are white fluffy clouds, the kind that look like headless sheep. Given our wings, our blinkers, it’s hard to look up, hard to get the full view, of the sky, of anything. But we an do it, a little at a time, a quick move of the head, up and down, to the side and back. We have learned to the see the world in gasps (30).
JFK Street, Harvard Stadium, Weld Boathouse, and the Dorms
They arrive to the corner of Church and Mass Ave. The description fits perfectly: If you turn to the right and head south, Mass Ave. turns into JFK Street, which will take you down to the Charles River. The Weld Boathouse is there before the Anderson Bridge on Memorial Drive. On the way to the river are the Harvard dorms - Eliot, Winthrop, Kirkland, Lowell, Adams, Quincy, and Leverett:
To the right, if you could walk along, there’s a street that would take you down towards the river. There’s a boathouse, where they kept the sculls once, and some bridges; trees, green banks, where you could sit and watch the water, and the young men with their naked arms, their oars lifting into the sunlight as they played at winning. On the way to the river are the old dormitories, used for something else now, with their fairy-tale turrets, painted white and gold and blue. When we think of the past it’s the beautiful things we pick out. We want to believe it was all like that (30).
Cross the Anderson Bridge towards the Harvard Business School campus, and you’ll find the the athletic complexes to your right, including the magnificent Harvard Stadium, modeled to look like the Coliseum:
The football stadium is that way too, where they hold the Men’s Salvagings. As well as the football games. They still have those (30-31).
Harvard Square T Stop
Offred would be looking right towards the Harvard Square T Station, built in 1912, right in the heart of the Square:
I don’t go to the river anymore, or over bridges. Or on the subway, although there’s a station right there. We’re not allowed on, there are Guardians now, there’s no official reason for us to go down those steps, ride on the trains under the river, into the main city. Why would we want to go from here to there? We would be up to no good and they would know it (31).
First Parish Church
At the corner of Church and Mass Ave. is the First Parish Church of Cambridge. The congregation was established in 1632, and the current structure was built in 1833, across from Harvard Yard:
The church is a small one, one of the first erected here, hundreds of years ago. It isn’t used anymore, except as a museum. Inside it you can see paintings, of women in long somber dresses, their hair covered by white caps, and of upright men, darkly clothed and unsmiling. Our ancestors. Admission is free (31).
Next door is a burial ground:
We don’t go in, though, but stand on the path, looking at the churchyard. The old gravestones are still there, weathered, eroding, with their skulls and crossed bones, memento mori, their dough-faced angels, their winged hourglasses to remind us of the passing of mortal time, and, from a later century, their urns and willow trees, for mourning.
They haven’t fiddled with the gravestones, or the church either. It’s only the more recent history that offends them (31).
Harvard University and Johnston Gate
Right across the street is Harvard Yard, and the famous Johnston Gate. These are the walls Offred and Ofglen would have been looking at, changed, altered, and desecrated:
Now we turn our back to the church and there is the thing we’ve in truth come to see: the Wall.
The Wall is hundreds of years old too; or over a hundred, at least. Like the sidewalks, it’s red brick, and must once have been plain but handsome. Now the gates have sentries and there are ugly new floodlights mounted on metal posts above it, and barbed wire along the bottom and broken glass set in concrete along the top.
No one goes through those gates willingly. The precautions are for those trying to get out, though to make it even as far as the Wall, from the inside, past the electronic alarm system, would be next to impossible.
Beside the main gateway there are six more bodies hanging, by the necks, their hands tied in front of them, their heads in white bags tipped sideways onto their shoulders. There must have been a Men’s Salvaging early this morning. I didn’t hear the bells. Perhaps I’ve become used to them.
We stop, together as if on signal, and stand and look at the bodies. It doesn’t matter if we look. We’re supposed to look; this is what they are there for, hanging on the Wall. Sometimes they’ll be there for days, until there’s a new batch, so as many people as possible will have the chance to see them.
What they are hanging from is hooks. The hooks have been set into the brickwork of the Wall, for this purpose. Not all of them are occupied. The hooks look like appliances for the armless. Or steel question marks, upside-down and sideway (31-32).
Steve's Ice Cream
Later on in the novel, Offred and Ofglen again are out and about running errands. They reminisce about an ice cream store, which could either be Bailey’s Ice Cream on Brattle Street (where Felipe’s Taqueria is today), but is probably Steve’s Ice Cream on Church Street, since they tend to frequent only Church Street (where the current Lizzy’s Ice Cream is):
There used to be an ice cream store, somewhere in this block. I can’t remember the name. Things can change so quickly, buildings can be torn down or turned into something else, it’s hard to keep them straight in your mind the way they used to be. You could get double scoops, and if you wanted they would put chocolate sprinkles on the top. These had the name of a man. Johnnies? Jackies? I can’t remember (165).
Once again Offred and Ofglen find themselves back on the corner of Church and Mass Ave., looking at the walls of Harvard:
“Let’s go around,” she says. She means down, towards the river. We haven’t been that way for a while.
“Fine,” I say. I don’t turn at once, though, but remain standing where I am, taking a last look at the Wall. There are the red bricks, there are the searchlights, there’s the barbed wire, there are the hooks. Somehow the Wall is even more foreboding when it’s empty like this…
I don’t know why I expect [Luke] to appear on this wall. There are hundreds of other places they could have killed him. But I can’t shake the idea that he’s in there, at this moment, behind the blank red bricks.
I try to imagine which building he’s in. I can remember where the buildings are, inside the Wall; we used to be able to walk feely there, when it was a university. We still go in there once in awhile, for Women’s Salvagings. Most of the buildings are red brick too; some have arched doorways, a Romanesque effect, from the nineteenth century. We aren’t allowed inside the buildings anymore; but who would want to go in? Those buildings belong to the Eyes (165-166).
Offred remembers inside the Yard, which is open to all to walk the paths between the buildings of the Old Yard and the New Yard, also known as the Tercentenary Theatre. She then remembers being in Widener Library, and large paintings at the top of the stairs, flanking the room where Harry Widener’s study is perfectly preserved:
Maybe he’s in the Library. Somewhere in the vaults. The stacks.
The Library is like a temple. There’s a long flight of white steps, leading to the rank of doors. Then, inside, another white staircase going up. To either side of it, on the wall, there are angels. Also there are men fighting, or about to fight, looking clean and noble, not dirty and bloodstained and smelly the way they must have looked. Victory is on one side of the inner doorway, leading them on, and Death is on the other. It’s a mural in honor of some war or other. The men on the side of Death are still alive. They’re going to haven. Death is a beautiful woman, with wings and one breast almost bar; or is that victory? I can’t remember.
They won’t have destroyed that (166).
Soul Scrolls is probably the location across from First Parish on Mass Ave., which has cycled through a few eateries in past years, and is now the new Pokéworks:
At the corner is the store known as Soul Scrolls. It’s a franchise; there are Soul Scrolls in every city center, in every suburb, or so they say. It must make a lot of profit (166).
Offred and Ofglen head up Mass Ave. to the Science Center (or what’s left of it, probably) and its plaza, which leads to Memorial Hall: a theatre, a place for classes, and the undergraduate dining hall. It's the only location named by name in the book:
Today we turn in the opposite direction from Soul Scrolls, to where there's an open park of sorts, with a large old building on it; ornate late Victorian, with stained glass. It used to be called Memorial Hall, though I never knew what it was a memorial for. Dead people of some kind.
Moira told me once that it used to be where the undergraduates ate, in the earlier days of the university (201).
Harvard Kennedy School
Later on, the women are gathered for the Prayvaganza, and herded into the Harvard Kennedy School of Government (long since defunct, as the university no longer exists in the novel), as Kennedy is “some dead president they shot.” It’s located on JFK street heading south towards the Charles River. And there is indeed a large courtyard inside (an enclosed courtyard in years past, recently renovated to be an outdoor convening area - still applicable):
After a while we turn right, heading past Lilies and down towards the river. I wish I could go that far, to where the wide banks are, where we used to lie in the sun, where the bridges arch over. If you went down the river long enough, along its sinewy windings, you’d reach the sea; but what could yo do there? Gather shells, loll on the oily stones.
We aren’t going to the river though, we won’t see the little cupolas on the buildings down that way, white with blue and gold trim, such chaste gaiety. We turn in at a more modern building, a huge banner draped over its door - WOMEN’S PRAYVAGANZA TODAY. The banner covers the building’s former name, some dead president they shot…
The Prayvaganza is to be held in the covered courtyard, where there’s an oblong space, a skylight roof. It isn’t a citywide Prayvaganza, that would be on the football field; its’s only for this district (213).
The last scene, fittingly, takes place inside the walls of Harvard University, in the Old Yard, which is also known as the Tercentenary Theatre. On one side is Memorial Church; facing is Widener Library. And in between, every May, 30,000 graduates of Harvard gather for Commencement (they were setting up the elements of the Commencement stage when I took this photo):
To the tolling of the bell we walk along the paths once used by students, past buildings that were once lecture halls and dormitories. It’s very strange to be in here again. From the outside you can’t tell that anything's changed, except that the blinds on most of the windows are drawn down. These buildings belong to the Eyes now.
We file onto the wide lawn in front of what used to the library. The white steps going up are still the same, the main entrance is unaltered. There’s a wooden stage erected on the lawn, something like the one they used every spring, for commencement, in the times before. I think of hats, pastel hats worn by some of the mothers, and the black gowns the students would put on, and the red ones. But this stage is not the same after all, because of the three wooden posts that stand on it, with the loops of rope (272-273).
Further Afield: Jezebel's
Additionally, Jezebel’s is also a familiar spot in Boston. It’s the Hyatt Regency, located on Memorial Drive a few miles from Harvard Square, with its large, open lobby. (There's some thought that it might be in Boston, as they have to go through checkpoints and a "gateway" to get there, which may signal crossing the river, but no other spot seems to fit this description):
We emerge into a central courtyard. It's wide and also high: it goes up several stories to a skylight at the top. There's a fountain in the middle of it, a round fountain spraying water in the shape of a dandelion gone to seed. Potted plants and trees sprout here and there, vines hang down from the balconies. Oval-sided glass elevators slide up and down the walls like giant mollusks.
I know where I am. I've been here before: with Luke, in the afternoons, a long time ago. It was a hotel, then. Now it's full of women (234).
Longfellow House - Washington's Headquarters
Finally, the house Offred resides in (serves in? imprisoned in?) is never properly placed through descriptions in the novel, but it’s probably west of the Square on Brattle Street. It wouldn’t surprise me if the Commander’s house was based on the Longfellow House, which was originally General Washington’s headquarters. Seems right for one of the founders of Gilead.
If you have a free afternoon, take a copy of The Handmaid's Tale and walk around Harvard Square, follow the path of Offred, and read some of these passages out loud. Atwood didn’t create a fantasy world for her novel; she deliberately showed us a reality where the largest university in the world is shut down, places of art and cultural are turned into places that have pictures for signs because women are no longer allowed to read, where institutions don't exist anymore, where those who are a bit different are killed, and where our places of history have been deemed “not part of the new order.” Atwood has given us a vision of a future Boston if we don’t stay vigilant, and keep our eyes opened to what’s happened around us - because we could lose it all.
Nolite te bastardes carbordundorum.