The Commander and Offred have become more informal with one another. After a game of Scrabble, he offers her a magazine as usual, but she wants to talk instead. She tries to get information about him, but he gives her vague answers. Then she asks him what the Latin phrase in her room means. The Commander translates it as “don’t let the bastards grind you down,” and explains that the phrase is a schoolboy joke. Offred guesses that the former Handmaid must have learned the phrase from him and scratched it into the floor. She asks what happened to that Handmaid. The Commander replies that Serena discovered their nighttime liaisons, and the Handmaid hanged herself. Suddenly, Offred realizes that the Commander summons her to his office because he wants her life to be bearable: he feels guilty. She knows that his guilt is a weapon she can use. The Commander asks her what would make her life better. Offred asks for knowledge about “what’s going on.”
Later that night, Offred stares through her window and catches sight of Nick. She senses the charge of sexual desire in the glance they exchange before she pulls the curtains closed. She remembers the day she and Luke tried to escape from Gilead. They did not pack anything because they did not want to look as if they were leaving permanently. Luke killed their pet cat because they did not want to leave her to starve, and leaving her to meow outside would arouse suspicion. Someone must have reported their plans, because the escape attempt failed. It could have been a neighbor or the man who forged their passports. Offred wonders if the Eyes sometimes posed as forgers in order to catch people trying to escape. Lying in the dark, she prays in a confused fashion and thinks about suicide.
Summer drags on—with no hope of release from the horror of life in Gilead, the passage of time is unbearable. During a shopping trip one day, Ofglen and Offred find two new bodies on the Wall. One is a Catholic, and another is marked with J, which the women do not understand. If he were Jewish, he would be marked with a yellow star. In the early days of Gilead, Jews were accorded special status as “Sons of Jacob,” and they had the choice of converting or emigrating to Israel. Some people pretended to be Jewish and escaped Gilead that way. Many Jews left, but others pretended to convert or refused to convert; now those who did not truly convert are hanged when caught.
Ofglen tells Offred that subversives in Gilead use “mayday” as a password, but she warns Offred not to use it often. If she is caught and tortured, she should not know names of other subversives. When Offred reaches the house, she notes that Nick’s hat is askew. Serena calls Offred over and asks her to hold the wool while she knits. She asks if there is any sign of pregnancy. When Offred indicates there is not, Serena suggests that the Commander may be sterile. After a moment of hesitation, Offred agrees that it is possible. Serena suggests she try another man, since Offred’s time is running out. Serena says Nick would be the safest possibility, and then offers to let Offred see a picture of her daughter if she agrees. Blinded by sudden hate for Serena, Offred nonetheless agrees, and Serena gives her a cigarette as a reward and instructs her to ask Rita for a match.
The problem wasn’t only with the women, he says. The main problem was with the men. There was nothing for them anymore.
Offred considers eating the cigarette little by little for the nicotine rush and saving the match to burn down the house. The Commander has taken to drinking during his evenings with Offred. Ofglen says Offred’s Commander is high in the chain of power. One night he explains that in the old world, before Gilead, there was nothing for men to do with women anymore—nothing to struggle for, nothing to hold their interest. Men used to complain that they felt nothing. He asks what she thinks of Gilead. Offred tries to empty her mind; she cannot give her real opinion. She does not answer, but he can feel her unhappiness. “You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs,” he says. “We thought we could do better.”
Even before she knew what it meant, Offred cherished the Latin scrawl nolites te bastardes carborundorum as a connection between her and the previous Handmaid, and as a symbol of her resistance to Gilead. Now, thanks to the Commander, she learns that it means “don’t let the bastards grind you down”—an appropriate response to a totalitarian, patriarchal society. Offred and the other Handmaids must struggle to hold on to their humanity, and to resist their oppressors. The translation of the phrase is not an entirely joyous moment, however, for it signals to Offred that someone came to the Commander’s study before her. It is not clear whether this upsets her because she feels jealous of her connection with the Commander, or because she worries about the fate of the Handmaid before her.
The Commander’s comments and revelations during his evenings with Offred cast him in an increasingly unflattering light. His admission that the previous Handmaid also made forbidden, clandestine visits to his study, and that she hanged herself after Serena found out, makes him seem selfish and obtuse. He not only evinces no concern over the suicide of the Handmaid; he seems unfazed by the possibility that Serena might discover Offred’s visits too. He recognizes that he is putting Offred’s position and possibly her life at risk in order to satisfy his desire for a little bit of intimacy, but he does not seem to care.
The Commander’s explanation of the reasoning employed by the founders of Gilead shows the founders to be equally selfish. He tells Offred that men in the old world found everything too easy, too available—especially women and sex. Gilead, from the Commander’s point of view, has restored meaning to men’s lives. He insists that it has made them “feel” again. Yet he does not realize that such feeling comes at the price of human misery, which is borne by the women of Gilead. When Offred wonders how he can imagine Gilead to be better than the old world, the Commander callously replies that “[b]etter . . . always means worse, for some.” The Commander thinks he has made men happier and more fulfilled. If that means that life is ghastly and oppressive for women, so be it.
While the Commander looks colder and crueler in these chapters, Serena Joy briefly comes across as, if not kind, then at least willing to consider Offred a fellow human being. Serena’s suggestion that her husband is sterile establishes a brief moment of unity between the two women, against the Commander and the other men of Gildead, who refuse to acknowledge that men can be sterile. Yet Serena’s offer to help Offred get pregnant, even though it is a kind request because it will keep Offred from the Colonies, is also a selfish one, since it is Serena and not Offred who will raise the child. And Serena’s offer to get a photo of Offred’s daughter reveals that Serena has known where the girl is all along but has never mentioned her or given Offred news of her. Again, the cruelty of women to other women in Gilead proves as bad as, if not worse than, anything the men inflict on women.
The trip to the Wall creates an explicit parallel between Gilead and Nazi Germany. We have already seen that Gilead, like the Nazis, persecutes Catholics, executes homosexuals (“gender traitors”), and practices racism; now we see that it is anti-Semitic as well. Offred describes Gilead’s anti-Jewish laws, which provide for deportation, and then create an Inquisition-style atmosphere for those who remain and do not convert.
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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