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The Handmaid’s Tale

Margaret Atwood

Chapters 13–15

Chapters 10–12

Chapters 16–21

Summary: Chapter 13

I’m a cloud, congealed around a central object, the shape of a pear, which is hard and more real than I am and glows red within its translucent wrapping.

(See Important Quotations Explained)

After dinner, Offred feels bored. She remembers paintings of harems: she used to think they were about eroticism but now realizes they depicted the boredom of the women. She wonders if men find bored women erotic. She thinks of the Red Center, and how Moira was brought there three weeks after her own arrival. Moira and Offred pretended not to know one another because friendships aroused suspicion. They arranged to meet in the restroom to exchange a few words, which made Offred feel terribly happy. At the Center everyone had to “Testify” about their past lives. Janine testified that she was gang-raped at fourteen. After she finished speaking, the Aunts asked the group whose fault the rape was, and the rest of the Handmaids chanted in unison that it was Janine’s fault because she led them on. When she cried, they called her a crybaby.

Offred says she used to think of her body as an instrument of pleasure or of transportation, an instrument she controlled. Now, others define her body as nothing more than a uterus. She hates facing menstruation every month because it means failure. Her only function is childbearing. Offred remembers running through the woods, trying to escape with her daughter. She could not run very fast, because her child slowed her down. She remembers hearing shots. She and her daughter fell to the ground, hiding; Offred begged her daughter to be quiet, but she was too young to understand. She remembers being physically restrained and watching her daughter get dragged away from her.

Summary: Chapter 14

After bathing and eating, Offred must attend the Ceremony with the rest of the household. The Commander is always late for the Ceremony. Serena sits while Offred kneels on the floor. Rita, Cora, and Nick stand behind Offred. Nick’s shoe touches Offred’s. She shifts her foot away, but he moves his foot so it touches hers again. As usual, Serena allows them to watch the news while they wait. Television stations from Canada are blocked, and most of the programming is religious. The news reports that spies were caught smuggling “national resources” across the border, and that five Quakers have been arrested. The newscaster declares that the “resettlement of the Children of Ham” is proceeding, with thousands of people forced to resettle in the Dakotas.

Offred remembers how she and Luke purchased fake passports when they decided to escape. They told their daughter they were going on a picnic and planned to give her a sleeping pill when they crossed the border so that she would not be questioned or give them away. They packed nothing in their car because they did not want to arouse suspicion.

Summary: Chapter 15

The Commander arrives and proceeds to unlock an ornate box. He takes out a Bible and reads to everyone. Offred wonders what it is like to be a man like him, surrounded by women who watch his every move. The Commander reads passages that emphasize childbearing. As the Commander reads, his Wife begins to sob softly. The Commander reads the story of Rachel and Leah from the book of Genesis. Rachel was barren, so she urged her husband to have a child by her maid, Bilhah. At the Red Center, this story was drilled into the Handmaids. During lunch, they played recordings of a male voice reciting the Beatitudes, so the Aunts would not have to commit the sin of reading. Offred remembers the time when Moira decided to fake an illness, hoping to escape by bribing one of the men in the ambulance with sex. When she tried it on an Angel, he reported her. The Aunts tortured Moira by beating her feet with steel cables, the punishment for a first offense. The -punishment for a second offense was beating the hands. Aunt Lydia reminded the women that hands and feet did not matter for their purpose.

Analysis: Chapters 13–15

If some of Gilead’s rhetoric borrows from the feminist movement, some of it utterly contradicts the feminist movement. We see this when Offred remembers the group taunting of Janine. When Janine tells the story of her gang-rape at the age of fourteen, the group, at Aunt Lydia’s prompting, chants that the rape was Janine’s fault, that she led them on, that God allowed the rape to happen in order to teach Janine a lesson. These sentiments contrast with those espoused by feminists, who fight against blaming the victim of sexual violence and argue that leading someone on never justifies rape. This incident also illustrates the way Gilead turns women against women. Testifying is a powerful way of breaking women, for they are blamed not by their oppressors, men, but by their fellows in oppression, women. The effectiveness of the group condemnation becomes clear when Offred relates that the next week, Janine said without prompting that the rape was her fault because she led them on. These women are coerced into condemning their peer, because they know they will be punished if they do not. Horribly, however, they begin to enjoy the condemnation. When they call Janine a crybaby, Offred says, “We meant it, which was the bad part.” They despise her weakness, and for a moment they truly believe the ideology Aunt Lydia feeds them.

The bath scene shows us how Offred’s view of her body has changed, and more generally how women think of themselves differently in the new world. Before, Offred’s body was an “instrument” for living; in Gilead its only importance is as a “cloud, congealed around her central object.” That central object is her womb, which is the only part of a woman that matters in Gilead. This idea that only the womb matters gets reinforced when Offred remembers Aunt Lydia’s saying hands and feet are not even necessary for Handmaids. Aunt Lydia implies that only the wombs matter, and other body parts can safely be flayed and beaten. Pain and emotion do not matter; only childbearing does.

Offred’s flashbacks continue to flesh out the story of her life before becoming a Handmaid. Few people appear in Offred’s flashbacks—only Luke, Moira, Offred’s mother, and her daughter make appearances. Each of these characters fulfills a different human need. Moira satisfies the need for friendship, Offred’s mother the need for family, her daughter the need for children, Luke the need for romantic love. Offred must satisfy her human needs as best she can by living partially in the past, for none of her needs can be satisfied in her new life.

We also learn more about the time before Gilead when Serena Joy turns on the news before the Ceremony. Previous chapters imply that Gilead is at war, and on the news we see images of the war and of subversives, and we hear reports of victories. The fact of the war is important because it suggests that Gilead does not rule everywhere—somewhere, the possibility of escape exists. The fact that subversives exist also gives hope; even if many are arrested, the fact that anyone still resists the government is encouraging. The newscaster makes reference to the “Children of Ham” and their resettlement, which touches on the subject of race. Racist ideologies of the nineteenth century often held that blacks descended from the biblical figure of Ham, who was cursed by his father, Noah, and made to be a servant of his brothers. The resettlement of this group calls to mind the forced “resettlement” of Jews in Nazi Germany, or peasants in Soviet Russia and Communist China, especially because Offred says no one knows what happens to these people after they move. Atwood implies that Gilead has revived the racist ideology of the past to separate the races once and for all.

The Ceremony reveals more of Gilead’s connection to our world and our history. The decorations in the living room where the Bible reading takes place—paintings of women with pinched faces, constricted breasts, and stiff mouths and backs—emphasize Gilead’s attempt to restore a pre-feminist world. The Bible reading itself involves the citation of an ancient authority to justify the use of Handmaids. The Handmaid-Commander relationship is intended as a response to the emergency caused by low fertility rates, but Gilead does not justify it on those grounds. Instead, Gilead’s leaders claim that it is part of a biblically sanctioned tradition. Again, Atwood implies that nothing about Gilead is new; it merely takes threads from our world and weaves a new, oppressive tapestry out of them.

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Cigarettes

by sidlaecarg, October 15, 2013

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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