Driving back from the birth, Offred remembers Moira’s escape from the Red Center. Moira caused a toilet to overflow, and while Aunt Elizabeth tried to fix it, Moira jabbed a metal object into Aunt Elizabeth’s ribs and forced her into the furnace room. The object was a long lever from the toilet, but Aunt Elizabeth thought it was a knife. After exchanging clothing with Aunt Elizabeth and tying her up, Moira boldly walked out of the center using Aunt Elizabeth’s pass. No one has seen Moira or heard from her since then.
At home, Offred tells Cora about the child, and the Martha expresses her hope that “they” (meaning Offred) will have a child soon. That night, Offred sneaks out of her room and meets the Commander in his office. She braces herself for a forced physical advance. If Serena were to discover that Offred was with the Commander in his study, she could be sent to the Colonies as an Unwoman. But if she were to refuse the Commander, there could be even more dire consequences, because he has the real power in the household. Offred eyes the walls of the study, which are filled with books. The Commander greets her in the old way, by saying “Hello,” and Offred doesn’t know how to reply. To her surprise, the Commander merely asks her to play a game of Scrabble. This is forbidden, since any kind of reading is forbidden to women. They play two games, and the game feels luxurious to Offred. As she is about to leave, the Commander asks her for a kiss. She imagines coming to his study again with a piece of metal from the toilet, as Moira did, putting her arms around him and killing him. She kisses him, and he says sadly he wanted her to kiss him “‘as if [she] meant it.’”
How easy it is to invent a humanity, for anyone at all. What an available temptation.
After leaving the Commander and returning to her room, Offred decides she has to forget her old name and her past; she needs to live in the present and work within its rules. The Commander’s unorthodox behavior allows her a chance to get something from him. She remembers that underneath all of Aunt Lydia’s speeches, the real message seemed to be that men are “sex machines” and should be manipulated with sex.
Offred recalls a documentary about the Holocaust in which the former mistress of one of the Nazi guards was interviewed. Offred’s mother liked to watch such historical programs, and always explained them carefully to Offred, even when she was too young to understand. The guard’s mistress denied knowing about the death camps and maintained that the guard, her lover, was not a monster. Offred remembers that the woman committed suicide just days after the interview.
Suddenly, sitting on her bed and undressing, Offred finds the events of the night incredibly funny. Laughter threatens to erupt, and she struggles to keep it down. In the dark, she stumbles into the closet (she also calls it a cupboard), where the Latin phrase nolite te bastardes carborundorum is written. She falls asleep on the floor with her head resting in the closet.
In the morning, Cora finds Offred sleeping on the floor, and she screams and drops the breakfast tray, shattering the dishes. Offred tells Cora she fainted. Cora covers for her and tells Rita that she dropped the tray by accident.
Spring gives way to summer, and Offred continues to meet the Commander in his office at night. They develop a system of signals so that Serena will not realize what is going on. If Nick is polishing the car hatless, or hat askew, the Commander wants Offred to come see him. Sometimes she cannot go because Serena is knitting in the sitting room. Other times, Serena goes out to visit other Wives when they are sick, or feigning illness. The Wives take turns being sick; Offred thinks it adds interest to their lives. Other women, the Marthas and the Handmaids, cannot afford to be sick, because the sick and old might be sent away to the Colonies. Offred says that she sees no old women, although no one really knows where they go.
The Commander does not make any further physical advances toward Offred. They play Scrabble, and he allows her to look at an old copy of Vogue. The women in the magazine remind her of princes or pirates. On the third night she asks the Commander for some hand lotion. He laughs when Offred tells him the Handmaids use butter to keep their skin moist, which infuriates her. She leaves the lotion in his office so that it will not be found in her room.
The story of Moira’s escape makes her a symbol of rebellion and resistance for the Handmaids. She is the only woman in the novel who dares to resist Gilead directly. She lacks the strength of her oppressors, but she makes up for it with her resourcefulness and canniness. Her escape from the Red Center is a masterpiece of clever planning and bravado. Moira’s exchange of clothing with Aunt Elizabeth is an important symbolic gesture; Gilead uses clothing to define rank, and by stealing the Aunt’s high-ranking uniform, Moira strikes a blow against Gilead’s attempt to define her identity.
The Commander, the only major male character in the novel, embodies Gilead’s patriarchy. His character becomes fleshed out as Offred begins to visit him in his study. Her first impressions surprise us; we expect the Commander to behave cruelly, but he seems almost likable. Like the women, he seems to be a prisoner of Gilead, starved for genuine human contact. He behaves in a shy, courtly fashion around Offred, careful not to make unreasonable demands or intimidate her. He seems to want her to like him, and even to feel attracted to him, which explains his wistful disappointment at the coldness of her kiss. Offred finds herself liking him in spite of herself.
Ultimately, however, the problems of his life seem laughable compared to the problems of Offred’s. Though kind, the Commander still works as an enforcer of the rules of the totalitarian state. Furthermore, it seems he has no true understanding of the plight of women. He laughs at Offred’s admission that Handmaids put butter on their hands—their ingenuity pleases him. He does not understand the humiliation of these women, treated like animals or babies, forced to hide scraps of their own dinner, denied the tiniest luxuries. He does not even understand that their rooms are searched, that they live under constant scrutiny and have no privacy whatsoever. Offred’s memory of the documentary about the Nazi guard and his mistress creates an obvious parallel to her situation with the Commander. The Commander is a human being, and like all human beings he is not pure evil. But then, neither were the Nazis pure evil. “He was not a monster, to her,” Offred says as she thinks of the concentration camp guard and his mistress. “Probably he had some endearing trait ... How easy it is to invent a humanity, for anyone at all.” The Commander is human, even endearing, but he nevertheless bears responsibility for the monstrous world of Gilead.
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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