Summary: Chapter 37
The Commander takes Offred to an old hotel that Offred remembers from pre-Gilead days, when she often met Luke there. In the central courtyard, Offred sees women dressed in gaudy and revealing clothing from the past. The women mingle with important, powerful men. Offred realizes she should stay quiet and look dumb. She senses that the Commander likes showing her off and enjoys showing off for her. He explains that “the club” is officially forbidden, but that everyone knows that to be satisfied, men require a variety of women. Some of the women were prostitutes before Gilead. Others, once lawyers, sociologists, and businesswomen, prefer turning tricks in the club to life in the Colonies or as a Handmaid. Suddenly Offred spots Moira in the crowd. Moira wears an ill-fitting Playboy bunny costume. She turns and sees Offred. They pretend not to recognize one another, and then Moira gives the old signal to meet her in the washroom.
Summary: Chapter 38
Five minutes later, Offred makes her way to the washroom. A dressed-up Aunt standing guard with a cattle prod tells her she has fifteen minutes. Offred meets Moira inside and explains that the Commander smuggled her into the club just for the night. Moira tells her own story. After escaping from the Red Center, she made her way to the center of town in Aunt Elizabeth’s clothes and went to the home of a Quaker couple involved in the resistance. She says at that time the general public did not know about the Red Center because the authorities of Gilead feared people would object at first.
The Quakers put Moira on the Underground Femaleroad, a system for getting women to safety. They tried to smuggle her out of the country, but just as Moira was leaving the final safe house to slip across the border in a boat, she was caught. The Eyes tortured her and showed her movies of the Colonies, where old women and subversives clean up radioactive spills and dead bodies from the war, and the life expectancy is three years. Moira chose to work as a prostitute in the club, which is nicknamed “Jezebel’s,” rather than go to the Colonies. Offred is disappointed to hear the fatalism in Moira’s voice—Moira resignedly tells Offred she should try to work at the club, where they get three or four years to live, and face cream. Offred misses the old Moira who was so spirited and full of rebellion. After she leaves the club, she never sees Moira again.
Summary: Chapter 39
The Commander takes Offred to a hotel room, which reminds her of her affair with Luke. She excuses herself to go to the bathroom. She hears toilets flushing in other rooms and feels comforted, thinking of the universality of bodily functions. She thinks about Moira and her mother. In the washroom, Moira said that she saw Offred’s mother in one of the films about the Colonies. Offred had assumed her mother was dead. Offred remembers going to her mother’s apartment with Luke during the early days of Gilead; she found the place in disarray and her mother gone. Luke told her not to call the police, saying it wouldn’t do any good. She remembers how much spirit her mother used to have, but she realizes that the Colonies must have stripped it away. The Commander is lying on the bed waiting for her when she exits the bathroom. He seems disappointed that she is not excited about a real sexual encounter. He looks smaller and older without his clothing. Offred feels no excitement and silently orders herself to fake it.
Summary: Chapter 40
Back in her room at the Commander’s house, Offred has removed her makeup and put on her Handmaid clothes. Serena plans to meet her at midnight to take her to Nick so that Offred and Nick can have sex. In the middle of the night, Serena comes and tells Offred to go to Nick’s apartment. Serena will wait for Offred to return.
Offred twice tells the story of what happens next. The first story, thick with passion and desire, is told in the breathy language of a romance novel. The second, probably more accurate, is awkward, uncertain, and full of sadness for the lost courtship rituals of the pre-Gilead world. “No romance . . . okay?” Nick says before they begin. Offred takes pleasure in the act this time. Offred says that neither of the versions is completely accurate, that every story is by nature a reconstruction. After sleeping with Nick, she feels ashamed. She feels she betrayed Luke and wonders if she would feel differently if she knew Luke was dead.
Analysis: Chapters 37–40
Atwood suggests that patriarchal societies tend to divide women into two types: the virgin and the whore. In Gilead, the virginal women are the nearly sexless Wives and daughters, the invisible Marthas, and the holy Handmaids—all of whose sexual lives are tightly restricted. The whores are the prostitutes at Jezebel’s. Jezebel, for whom the men’s club is named, was an evil Old Testament queen, guilty of every sort of depravity, who came to symbolize the prototypically vicious woman in the Judeo-Christian imagination. The men of Gilead admit to no middle ground or gray area between virgin and whore.
The club exposes the hypocrisy of the powerful men who pontificate about sexual morality and then spend their evenings dallying with prostitutes. Officially, Gilead draws its ideology from the Old Testament (although it warps the Old Testament in order to suit its ideas) and wholly rejects modern science. Yet to justify Jezebel’s existence, the Commander snatches at the rhetoric of late-twentieth-century evolutionary psychologists, lecturing Offred on how men need multiple sexual partners because “Nature demands variety . . . it’s part of the procreational strategy.” The Commanders pick and choose from earlier traditions as they please. The Old Testament is useful for subjugating women, but modern sociobiology provides justification for their own philandering.
During her encounter with Moira, Offred learns that the spirits of her mother and Moira, both figures of transgression and resistance, have been broken. At the Red Center, Moira was an icon whose actions suggested that fighting Gilead was possible. Offred’s mother, a feminist and a political activist, embodied everything that Gilead condemns. Although Offred once took for granted the freedoms her mother’s generation fought for, now, trapped in Gilead, she realizes that her mother was like Moira, an embodiment of resistance to the regime. At Jezebel’s, Moira says she is resigned to her fate. She seems listless and trapped. Instead of embodying defiance, Moira now embodies Gilead’s ability to crush even the strongest spirit. When Offred learns that her mother went to the Colonies, she knows her mother will not have any strength left for resistance, even if she is still alive. Only one flash of hope lights up Moira’s narrative: her description of the Underground Femaleroad, an underground network working to smuggle women out of Gilead. Its name references the Underground Railroad, which transported escaped slaves from safe house to safe house in the days before the Civil War in the United States. The fact that such a network exists gives us the sense that even if Moira herself has given up hope, the struggle against Gilead presses on.
Atwood juxtaposes Offred’s sexual encounters with the Commander and with Nick to highlight the difference between forced sex and sex by choice. When the Commander has sex with her, Offred cannot muster any passion. Her passivity disappoints the Commander, who seems to want romance and passion despite his praise for arranged marriages. Atwood’s novel suggests that Offred cannot give him passion because she sleeps with him against her will, and romance requires the exercise of free will. Because Gilead outlaws the freedom essential to passion, the Commander cannot just conjure it when he wants. Offred and Nick’s coupling, on the other hand, has a spark, a sense of desire. Offred narrates the scene in an elegiac tone, depicting her sex with Nick as an act of mourning for the vanished world of romance and courtship and love. His request, “no romance,” reminds them of what they cannot have.