Ofglen and Offred attend a “Prayvaganza” with the other women of their district, held in what used to be a university building. The Wives sit in one section with their daughters, the Marthas and Econowives sit in another, and the Handmaids kneel in a section cordoned off by ropes. Janine walks in with a new Wife, and Ofglen whispers that Janine’s baby was deformed, a “shredder” after all. She adds that Janine slept with a doctor to get pregnant. Offred remembers a strange episode in the Red Center when Janine sat on her bed staring off into space, speaking to an invisible customer in a restaurant where she worked before Gilead. Moira slapped Janine and shouted until Janine came back to her senses.
Women’s Prayvaganzas are weddings for the Wives’ daughters, mass ceremonies in which girls as young as fourteen get married. In a few years, the brides will be girls who do not remember life before Gilead. Offred remembers a conversation with the Commander, in which he insisted that while Gilead has taken away some freedom, it has guaranteed women safety and dignity. Now all women have spouses, and they are not left alone to care for children, beaten, or forced to work if they do not want to. They can “fulfill their -biological destinies in peace.” Offred noted that they do not allow love, but the Commander replied that arranged marriages work better than falling in love.
Although women’s Prayvaganzas usually celebrate group weddings and men’s celebrate military victories, sometimes the Prayvaganzas celebrate Catholic nuns who convert to the state religion. When the authorities of Gilead catches Catholic nuns, they torture them. They send old ones directly to the Colonies, but young ones may choose between the Colonies and conversion. If they convert, the nuns become Handmaids, but many choose the Colonies.
The wedding ceremony goes on, and Offred remembers how Aunt Lydia always said that the real goal of Gilead is to create camaraderie between women. After the services, Ofglen whispers that the subversives know she sees the Commander in private. She urges Offred to find out everything she can.
Offred’s thoughts return, against her will, to the day she and Luke tried to escape Gilead. They reached the border and gave the guard their passports, which said that Luke had never been divorced. Luke saw the guard pick up the phone. They sped away in the car, and then got out and tried to run through the woods. Offred shakes off these memories and tries to remember love and how it felt to be in love—how hard it was, and how precious, and how people defined their lives around it. Thinking that Luke must be dead, she begins to cry. Later that night, Serena shows Offred a photograph of her daughter. In the photo, she wears a white dress and smiles. Offred senses that her daughter hardly remembers her. This tears at her heart.
When Offred goes to see the Commander that night, he seems drunk. He speaks playfully with her and gives her a skimpy outfit decorated with feathers and sequins. He wants to take her out, he claims, using an expression from pre-Gilead days; she agrees to go. She dons the costume and puts cheap makeup on her face. She wears one of Serena’s blue winter cloaks when he escorts her out of the house. Nick is waiting for them in the car, and they drive through darkened city streets. Offred hides on the floor when they pass the gateway. Offred finds herself worrying about Nick’s opinion of her. The car stops in an alley, and the Commander helps Offred out of the robe. He opens a door with a key and slips a purple tag around Offred’s wrist, instructing her to tell anyone who asks that she is an “evening rental.” As Offred enters the building, she imagines Moira calling her an idiot for going along with this.
The word Prayvaganza combines “pray” with “extravaganza,” and emphasizes that in the new order, prayer serves a public, state function. Church and state, far from being separated, make up one entity. Prayer is no longer a private matter, but a public spectacle and an act of patriotic fervor. The banner that hangs over the Prayvaganza sums up the new church-state relationship. It reads “God is a National Resource.”
When the Commander justifies the marriage process in Gilead, he offers a compelling critique of the old order (and consequently of our society). Again using feminist rhetoric, he makes several valid points: society should not force women to spend their entire paycheck on day care, it should value the work of mothering, it should not allow fathers to run off and abandon children, it should not allow domestic abuse. In Gilead, none of these conditions officially exist. Still, Offred deflates the Commander’s argument by pointing out the importance of love. She points out that such a scheme, while removing some uncertainty and unhappiness, leaves out the possibility of freedom. Arranged marriages are, by definition, the opposite of free choice. Romance, though uncertain, is an ultimate expression of the soul’s liberty, the liberty to choose whom to love.
The Commander comments in Chapter 32 that men could not feel before Gilead, but it seems that for Offred, Gilead erases the ability to feel. In depriving her and other women of the opportunity to be in love, Gilead amputates their ability to feel. After the Prayvaganza, Offred thinks of how love felt and is overcome by a wave of strong emotion. She can only cling to her memories of Luke and what loving him felt like. She reflects that the next generation will have no such memories. This affirms Aunt Lydia’s sinister comment that Gildead will eventually “become ordinary.” Atwood suggests that this closing of the horizon is the dark power of a totalitarian society. Once people cannot imagine anything other than oppression, oppression becomes ordinary.
Atwood draws a parallel between the nuns forced to become Handmaids and the Handmaids themselves. The Handmaids resemble nuns: both groups are cloistered, consecrated to a religious duty, and required to wear long garments referred to as “habits.” But whereas nuns vow to remain celibate and serve God by ignoring their fertility and their sexual urges, Handmaids’ sole religious and social duty is to reproduce. According to the worldview of Gilead, nuns pose a greater threat to the totalitarian order than divorced women or women who have premarital sex. The women in the latter groups are simply behaving immorally, but the nuns are taking themselves out of the sexual world entirely. Since Gilead is built on sexual control, the adoption of a celibate life is the ultimate rejection of the totalitarian order.
Offred's thoughts about cigarettes in her new life and the memory of smoking them in her old provides another symbol for control of women's bodies and choices in the Gilead regime. She is a former smoker, but her cigarettes are taken away from her along with many other freedoms when she becomes a handmaid. Offred can no longer smoke because this might harm any children she has yet to bear, though she still yearns for another cigarette whenever she sees one. Offred yearns for the freedoms her old life had to offer. Gilead's removal of cigaret... Read more→
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