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.