Offred often sings songs in her head—“Amazing Grace” or songs by Elvis. Most music is forbidden in Gilead, and there is little of it in the Commander’s home. Sometimes she hears Serena humming and listening to a recording of herself from the time when she was a famous gospel singer. Summer is approaching, and the house grows hot. Soon the Handmaids will be allowed to wear their summer dresses. Offred thinks about how Aunt Lydia would describe the terrible things that used to happen to women in the old days, before Gilead, when they sunbathed wearing next to nothing. Offred remembers Moira throwing an “underwhore” party to sell sexy lingerie. She remembers reading stories in the papers about women who were murdered and raped, but even in the old days it seemed distant from her life and unrelated to her. Offred sits at the window, beside a cushion embroidered with the word Faith. It is the only word they have given her to read, and she spends many minutes looking at it. From her window, she watches the Commander get into his car and drive away.
Offred says that yesterday she went to the doctor. Every month, a Guardian accompanies Offred to a doctor, who tests her for pregnancy and disease. At the doctor’s office, Offred undresses, pulling a sheet over her body. A sheet hangs down from the ceiling, cutting off the doctor’s view of her face. The doctor is not supposed to see her face or speak to her if he can help it. On this visit, though, he chatters cheerfully and then offers to help her. He says many of the Commanders are either too old to produce a child or are sterile, and he suggests that he could have sex with her and impregnate her. His use of the word “sterile” shocks Offred, for officially sterile men no longer exist. In Gilead, there are only fruitful women and barren women. Offred thinks him genuinely sympathetic to her plight, but she also realizes he enjoys his own empathy and his position of power. After a moment, she declines, saying it is too dangerous. If they are caught, they will both receive the death penalty. She tries to sound casual and grateful as she refuses, but she feels frightened. To revenge her refusal, the doctor could falsely report that she has a health problem, and then she would be sent to the Colonies with the “Unwomen.” Offred also feels frightened, she realizes, because she has been given a way out.
It is one of Offred’s required bath days. The bathroom has no mirror, no razors, and no lock on the door. Cora sits outside, waiting for Offred. Offred’s own naked body seems strange to her, and she finds it hard to believe that she once wore bathing suits, letting people see her thighs and arms, her breasts and buttocks. Lying in the bath, she thinks of her daughter and remembers the time when a crazy woman tried to kidnap the little girl in the supermarket. The authorities in Gilead took Offred’s then-five-year-old child from her, and three years have passed since then. Offred has no mementos of her daughter. She remembers Aunt Lydia saying women should not get attached to things, and should “cultivate poverty of spirit.” Aunt Lydia cited the biblical sentiment “Blessed are the meek,” but she did not go on, as the Bible does, to add “for they shall inherit the earth.”
Sometimes Offred thinks of her daughter as a ghost. She muses that the authorities were right: it is easier to think of your stolen children as dead. Cora, impatient, calls to her, and Offred gets out the bath. She looks down at her ankle, and sees the tattoo that Gilead places on all Handmaids. After the bath, she eats dinner, even though she does not feel hungry. The food is bland. Offred remembers Aunt Lydia saying that Handmaids are not allowed coffee, alcohol, or nicotine. She thinks of Serena and the Commander, eating below her, and wonders if the Commander ever notices his Wife. Handmaids are not allowed to keep uneaten food, but Offred wraps a pat of butter in a piece of the napkin and hides it in her shoe.
By this point in the novel, plentiful clues have clarified the Handmaids’ role. Serena’s hatred of Offred, the Handmaids’ obsession with fertility (“Blessed be the fruit”; “May the Lord open” is how Handmaids greet one another), the references to declining birthrates, and the visit to the doctor all suggest that Handmaids exist to bear the children of their Commanders. In this extremely patriarchal world, men cannot be called sterile. If a woman fails to conceive, she is labeled “barren,” and no one considers that the man’s sterility may have been the reason. Gilead adopts premodern beliefs and rejects modern science in order to glorify men. Yet the doctor’s comments to Offred show that the belief is adopted only officially. Privately, people realize that men, especially older men like the Commanders, can be sterile.
The doctor’s offer to Offred suggests the limits of totalitarianism, and the inability of any state to control human society. Ideology may decree that Commanders can father children, but it cannot make infertile men fertile. It may outlaw the word “sterile,” but people realize sterility exists. It may outlaw sexual impulses and passion, but men like the doctor still lust for strange women. Outlawed activities go on beneath Gilead’s surface, including the secret impregnation of fertile women by lower-class men like the doctor. The universal need for children is central to the novel—in one way or another, it motivates all the characters. Arguably, the need for children created Gilead’s entire oppressive system.
When the doctor suggests impregnating Offred, she realizes it scares her not just because the doctor could punish her if he chose to do so, but because he has offered her an escape. Offred’s fear seems inexplicable at first—how could she not long to escape?—but it illustrates the prisoner mentality that sometimes overtakes her. She wants to survive, and the best way to survive is to learn to bear her chains. When she bears them too well, they become almost comforting to her. Her captivity becomes familiar, and the prospect of a new, free life becomes scary.
Aunt Lydia’s words to the women suggest that Gilead operates not just by using ideas from the women’s movement, but by using and perverting biblical ideas and language. She tells the women, “Blessed are the meek,” but she leaves out the pivotal phrase with which the Bible ends that sentence: “for they shall inherit the earth.” The Bible suggests that the downtrodden can look forward to an eternal reward—rising up against their oppressors—but the ideology of Gilead suggests just the opposite: women’s glory comes from their meekness, and they will always be meek. That women would rise up against their oppressors is—beyond sinful—unthinkable. Gilead uses biblical language when convenient, even if that means taking phrases out of context and destroying their intended meaning.
In the household, a mood of loneliness and isolation exists. As a Handmaid, Offred is not only denied friends, she is denied a family. She must eat dinner apart from the rest of the household; her baths and movements are regulated as if she is an animal; the servants hardly speak to her. Without meaningful contact in the present, Offred spends much of her time remembering her past. Her memory of her daughter’s attempted kidnapping in the supermarket is a piece of retrospective foreshadowing, a memory of an event that foreshadowed the ultimate loss of her daughter to some unknown woman in Gilead, who, like the supermarket madwoman, did not have a daughter and wanted one by any means necessary.
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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