Now that Offred has a friendship with the Commander, she feels embarrassed about having sex with him during the Ceremony. Offred still hates Serena, but she also feels jealous of her, and guilty, since she realizes that she is now the Commander’s mistress despite the absence of any covert sexual activity between them. If Serena were to find out what was going on, she could expel Offred. Once, the Commander almost touches Offred’s face during the Ceremony, and she later tells him never to touch her because Serena could transfer her to the Colonies. He says he finds sex impersonal, and she asks him how long it took him to figure that out. She is becoming more comfortable with him. Offred remembers Aunt Lydia telling the Handmaids that the population would eventually reach an acceptable level, at which point the Handmaids would live in only one household, instead of getting transferred, and Handmaids would become like daughters to the Wives.
Ofglen and Offred, now more comfortable with one another, continue to make their shopping trips. The fish store, Loaves and Fishes, rarely opens now, because the seas have become so polluted that few fish still live in them. They continue to visit the Wall, and Offred wonders if Luke is imprisoned behind the Wall in the place that used to be a university and now serves as a detention center. On one of their return trips, Ofglen and Offred stop at a store called Soul Scrolls. Inside, humming machines print prayers. Many of the Wives phone in orders for prayers in order to signal their piety. After the prayers are printed, the paper is recycled and used again.
Suddenly, Ofglen whispers to Offred, asking her whether she believes God actually listens to the machines. Ofglen’s question is treasonous, but Offred decides to trust Ofglen and answers, “No.” The two women realize they can trust one another. Offred is tremendously excited. She learns that Ofglen is part of a group of subversives. As they walk home, a dark black van painted with a white-winged eye, the symbol of the Eyes, stops abruptly. Offred thinks perhaps her conversation with Ofglen was recorded, but the two Eyes who jump out grab a man carrying a briefcase. They drag him into the vehicle and drive away, and Offred feels tremendous relief.
Offred recalls how Moira disapproved of her affair with Luke, saying that Offred was poaching on another woman’s property. We learn that Moira was a lesbian. Offred accused Moira of poaching women, and Moira says it is different with women. It is hot in Offred’s room, and she has been given a fan. She muses that if she were Moira, she would know how to take the fan apart and use the blades as a weapon. She thinks of how strange it now seems to her that women used to have jobs.
Offred remembers the fall of the United States and the creation of Gilead. First, the president was shot and Congress was machine-gunned; then the army declared a state of emergency, telling everyone to remain calm. Islamic fanatics were falsely blamed for the -execution of the entire government. The Constitution was suspended. In shock, people stayed at home and watched their televisions. At this point, Moira warned Offred that something terrible was going to happen. Slowly, the newspapers were censored and roadblocks appeared, and soon everyone had to carry an Identipass. There was a crackdown on smut of all kinds: the “Pornomarts” shut down, and the “Feels-on-Wheels vans” and “Bun-dle Buggies” disappeared.
In Offred’s pre-Gilead days, paper money had been replaced by Compucards that accessed bank accounts directly. One day after the fall of the government, Offred tried to use her Compucard in the local store, and her number was declared invalid. She went to her job at the library, phoned her bank, and got a recording stating that the lines were overloaded. Later that afternoon, her boss appeared looking disheveled and distraught. He told Offred and her female coworkers that he had to fire them, because it was the law. The women had to leave within ten minutes. Two men wearing army uniforms and carrying machine guns watched over the procedure.
When she reached her home, Offred called Moira and learned that women could no longer legally work or hold property. Their bank accounts were transferred to their husbands or the nearest male family member. Luke tried to console her, but Offred wondered if he was already patronizing her. She realizes that the army men she saw were not members of the United States army. They were wearing different uniforms. In the weeks and months that followed, there were protests and marches, but the army cracked down hard on dissent and the protesting stopped. Offred and Luke never joined any of the protests, because they were afraid for their lives and for the life of their daughter. Remembering the marches makes Offred remember earlier protests in which her mother was involved. She remembers being an adolescent and being ashamed of her mother’s activism.
Looking out her window, Offred sees Nick come into the yard and notices that his hat is askew. She wonders, idly, what he gets out of facilitating her forbidden liaisons with the Commander, and she remembers their fleeting kiss in the darkened living room. Then she remembers how the night after she lost her job, Luke wanted to make love, but Offred felt uncomfortable, because the balance of power had shifted subtly. They no longer belonged to each other; instead, she belonged to him. She thought perhaps he liked the fact that she belonged to him. Now she wants to know whether she was right.
Ofglen provides Offred with hope. She is a friend with whom she can talk and a connection to the resistance movement. Atwood juxtaposes Offred’s sudden sense of hope with an immediate reminder of the power of the Gileadean state: the two Handmaids witness the Eyes seize a man and drag him off. Against this display of the state’s reach, the idea of a resistance seems laughable.
Offred’s extended flashback provides an explanation of how Gilead was created. The pre-Gilead United States is our world in the near future—all money has been computerized, and pornography and prostitution have become more accepted and available. Offred mentions “Pornomarts” and “Feels-on-Wheels” as if the terms needed no explanation, leaving the details to the imagination but conveying a sense of a society more sexually liberated than our own. The extent of this sexual liberation may prompt the extremism of the conservative backlash. Offred mentions “porn riots” and “abortion riots” that take place before Gilead—the conservative precursor to the uprising against the liberal government. In the epilogue, an expert on Gilead’s history says its founders used a “CIA pamphlet on the destabilization of foreign governments as a strategic handbook” to topple the U.S. government. First, governmental officials are assassinated; then martial law is declared “temporarily”; finally, the new regime consolidates its power and squashes dissent.
In Offred’s telling, there is little resistance to the new regime, even after it disenfranchises women and strips them of their jobs. This may be intended as a condemnation of the complacency of ordinary people in times of crisis, or of the complacency Atwood saw at the time she wrote the novel. Pre-Gilead society seems more fraught with gender tensions, and these may play a role in the strange reaction of the women. When Offred loses her job and her money, Luke does not express outrage; he tells her not to worry and promises to take care of her. Later, during marches, he tells her that it would be “futile” to march and that she needs to think about him and their daughter. Everything we know of Luke suggests that he is a decent man, but he is willing to go along with this oppression of women. Gilead re-establishes the old patterns of patriarchy, and Luke slips back into those patterns, promising to “take care” of Offred instead of fighting for her rights. Women also bear blame: they do not respond to the outrages against feminism with rage or action, but with lassitude. Offred doesn’t know or remember the details of the coup. This ignorance, in her and in other women, may have been the failure. Women took for granted the gains of feminism and the government’s protection of the rights of women, and so lost them all.
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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