She wasn’t singing anymore by then, she was making speeches. She was good at it. Her speeches were about the sanctity of the home, about how women should stay home. Serena Joy didn’t do this herself, she made speeches instead, but she presented this failure of hers as a sacrifice she was making for the good of all.
Offred describes Serena Joy’s background before Gilead. Originally a singer on a channel for fundamentalist religious values, she transitioned to a spokesperson for traditional values. The reader sees that Offred views Serena Joy as a hypocrite, who enjoyed working but preached against other women doing the same. Like the Aunts’ encouragement of women to shame one another, Serena Joy shamed women even before Gilead. Once in Gilead, she was brought down by her own ideas.
She doesn’t make speeches anymore. She has become speechless. She stays in her home, but it doesn’t seem to agree with her. How furious she must be, now that she’s been taken at her word.
Here, Offred describes the irony of Serena Joy’s clear bitterness from living in a world that she helped create. Women are not allowed to read or write, or have any power, so Serena Joy can do nothing but stay at home as she once preached that all women should do. Without the means to express her thoughts or emotions as easily as she used to, she is imprisoned within Gilead as well.
Serena has begun to cry. I can hear her, behind my back. It isn’t the first time. She always does this, the night of the Ceremony. She’s trying not to make a noise. She’s trying to preserve her dignity, in front of us. The upholstery and the rugs muffle her but we can hear her clearly despite that. The tension between her lack of control and her attempt to suppress it is horrible.
Offred describes Serena Joy’s distraught behavior before the procreation rituals between Serena Joy’s husband and his Handmaid. Even though Serena Joy had a part in creating this Gilead policy, she routinely comes undone before the ritual designed to ensure their society could continue. She keenly feels her personal sacrifice each time. Although Handmaids pay a higher price in living as captives, she and the other wives endure oppression in their own ways.
There is loathing in her voice, as if the touch of my flesh sickens and contaminates her. I untangle myself from her body, stand up… Before I turn away I see her straighten her blue skirt, clench her legs together; she continues lying on the bed, gazing up at the canopy above her, stiff and straight as an effigy. Which of us is it worse for, her or me?
After the Ceremony, Serena Joy tells Offred to get out of the room. Offred knows the surrogate copulation humiliates Serena Joy, and she wonders which of them has it worse. However, Serena Joy takes out her hatred and frustration on Offred, who has had no say in the matter. Serena Joy’s attitude shows her self-centeredness as well as her mastery of blaming other women for her own problems.
“Look,” she says. She brings her free hand from behind her back. It’s her cloak she’s holding, the winter one. “There was lipstick on it,” she says. “How could you be so vulgar? I told him …” She drops the cloak, she’s holding something else, her hand all bone. She throws that down as well. The purple sequins fall, slithering down over the step like snakeskin, glittering in the sunlight. “Behind my back,” she says. “You could have left me something.” Does she love him, after all? She raises her cane. I think she is going to hit me, but she doesn’t. “Pick up that disgusting thing and get to your room. Just like the other one. A slut. You’ll end up the same.”
After Offred goes to Jezebel’s with the Commander, Serena Joy confronts Offred with the evidence of their physical intimacy. She has found lipstick smudged on the cloak that Offred wore and figured out what happened. As Offred notes, Serena Joy’s sense of betrayal suggests she feels something for the Commander. However, rather than confronting the Commander, who she knows initiated the trip, Serena reprimands Offred, who had no say in the matter. In Gilead, even women play a role in perpetuating a world where men are never held accountable.