Rereading The Handmaid’s Tale

Rereading The Handmaid’s Tale: Parts IX-X

May(day) leads to June (a secret name) turns into summer, filled with ripeness and temptation. Inside the Commander’s household, Offred becomes a mistress; outside of it, she becomes a confidante and grows this much closer to the supposed resistance. Just as Offred begins to understand why the Commander has singled her out, we readers rediscover how the Republic of Gilead rose to power in the first place. All it took was the punch of a button.

The index to the Handmaid’s Tale reread can be found here! As this is a reread, there will be spoilers for the rest of the book, as well as speculation about the TV series.

 

IX: Night

Summary

Just like after her kiss with Nick, we witness Offred immediately in the aftermath of another strange request from a man she hardly knows. Instead of undressing to put on her nightgown (“You can think clearly only with your clothes on”) she sits in the darkness in her red dress, willing herself to both have perspective on what has just happened—her illicit game of Scrabble with the Commander and the kiss he “won”—while ignoring the temptation to retreat into her memories:

But that’s where I am, there’s no escaping it. Time’s a trap, I’m caught in it. I must forget about my secret name and all ways back. My name is Offred now, and here is where I live.

Live in the present, make the most of it, it’s all you’ve got.

Time to take stock.

I am thirty-three years old. I have brown hair. I stand five seven without shoes. I have trouble remembering what I used to look like. I have viable ovaries. I have one more chance.

But something has changed, now, tonight. Circumstances have altered.

I can ask for something. Possibly not much; but something.

Offred doesn’t know if the Commander’s desire could be a lifeline or a noose around her neck. She’s also still shocked by the domestic banality of it, playing Scrabble and kissing him like she means it. She flashes back to a television program she had watched when she was seven or eight, too young to understand. Or rather, she understood some: It was about the mistress—a word she knew that young, thanks to her mother—of a man who had supervised one of the concentration camps during the Holocaust, an elderly woman who still “took pride in her appearance” and claimed that her lover was not a monster. The woman killed herself mere days after she filmed the interview.

Hysteria threatens to take over Offred, laughter so loud that it will draw attention, and suspicion, and perhaps wounded pride from the Commander. So she hurries into the cupboard and hunches in there, struggling to compose herself. She traces her finger over the Nolite te bastardes carborundorum carving and practices slowing her breathing, just as the Handmaids are taught for when they eventually (hopefully) give birth.

Commentary

I really appreciate the contrast between Offred’s reactions: turned-on then versus verging on hysteria now. If anything, the latter is more dangerous. It immediately brings to mind the famous quote, from Atwood herself, that encapsulates the difference between the sexes: “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.” (Which apparently is a paraphrase of two quotes Atwood discovered in research of this topic.)

It’s fitting, then, that she retreats to the cupboard where her predecessor left the seemingly secret message—her predecessor who took her own life, not unlike the mistress of that long-ago documentary. But this time, Offred can’t take hope from the carving: Why did she write it, she wonders, why did she bother? There’s no way out of here. Having read ahead to Part X, I wonder if the former Offred—because let’s not forget, she would have had the name first—intended it as some sort of odd tribute to the Commander, her favorite joke he shared with her? Or did she transform a throwaway bit of wordplay into her own mantra, a mantra that ultimately failed to keep her from ending her life?

 

X: Soul Scrolls

Summary

The next morning, Cora finds Offred curled up in a heap of red clothes in the cupboard; she screams and drops the breakfast tray, thinking first that Offred had run away or, after seeing her body, that she had killed herself. Offred demurs and claims that she fainted, though of course that just gets Cora going on it being an early sign of pregnancy—despite it being far too early for such things, she hopes against hope. She also implies that Offred should go without the breakfast Cora has ruined, so as not to raise suspicion about their encounter. Offred complies, because she likes that Cora will lie for her.

Spring gives way to summer, in the first big time jump of the novel: As Offred trades her wool gown for the lighter summer version, she nonetheless feels the heaviness of desire, of ripeness (not pregnant, but nonetheless potent). During this time, she and the Commander develop a system. She sees him two to three nights a week, depending on the signal for Nick (polishing the car versus not, hat tipped or straight-on) and when Offred can sneak past Serena Joy. The Commander’s Wife unwittingly makes this easier on the nights that she goes to visit another Wife who has fallen ill—apparently a regular, almost cyclical, bit of attention-grabbing that each of the Wives claims at one point or another.

Offred reflects on her first few evenings with the Commander, feeling off-balance at his odd desires… and, if she’s being honest, somewhat letdown, having expected something depraved behind closed doors:

To be asked to play Scrabble, instead, as if we were an old married couple, or two children, seemed kinky in the extreme, a violation in its own way. As a request it was opaque.

[…]

I thought he might be toying, some cat-and-mouse routine, but now I think that his motives and desires weren’t obvious even to him. They had not yet reached the level of words.

Tapping into the ability to spell is like regaining a nearly-forgotten language; Offred realizes that he probably let her win, even that first time when she thought she triumphed (and then gamely let him have the next round). After Scrabble on their second evening, he gives her “a little present”: an old Vogue magazine. Talking about it like a vintage wine or an ancient luxury (“[s]ome of us […] retain an appreciation for the old things”), he watches her take in the images of scantily-clad women, the editorials and advertisements. She doesn’t know if she’s being tested, if she’s supposed to turn it down; when she identifies it as taboo, he points out (without explicitly saying so) that they have already broken the rules just by these secret meetings.

And when Offred dares to ask why he doesn’t show Serena Joy the magazines, he reveals that “she won’t talk to me much anymore. We don’t seem to have much in common, these days.” There it is—an even bigger letdown:

So there it was, out in the open: his wife didn’t understand him.

That’s what I was there for, then. The same old thing. It was too banal to be true.

Yet when the next Ceremony comes around, there has been an undeniable change in Offred and the Commander’s dynamic: Instead of being completely unengaged in the act, she feels shy around him and considers the act of the Commander fucking her lower half not erotic, per se, but “uncouth” and “indecorous.”

He was no longer a thing to me. That was the problem. I realized it that night, and the realization has stayed with me. It complicates.

And he almost gives things away when he unconsciously reaches for her face during. Thankfully, she turns her head away before Serena Joy can notice. But just as Offred possesses a new and heightened sense of the Commander, she also feels more guilt toward Serena Joy’s position in all of this. This generation of Handmaids and Wives will never fully get along, but they are meant to be working toward a greater harmony, as Offred remembers one of Aunt Lydia’s lessons from the Red Center:

For the generations that come after, Aunt Lydia said, it will be so much better. The women will live in harmony together, all in one family; you will be like daughters to them, and when the population level is up to scratch again we’ll no longer have to transfer you from one house to another because there will be enough to go round. There can be bonds of real affection, she said, blinking at us ingratiatingly, under such conditions. Women united for a common end! […] Your daughters will have greater freedom. We are working toward the goal of a little garden for each one, each one of you […]

Right now, however, Offred has become the Commander’s mistress.

She has also become Ofglen’s confidante, and vice versa. On one of their walks, they stop in front of the store called Soul Scrolls, where Commanders’ Wives can call in prayers to be printed and read aloud, only for the pages to be recycled back into the machine to be reprinted over and over. There, Ofglen offers up a small bit of treason (“Do you think God listens to these machines?”), and in one another they find kindred spirits. Neither are true believers, though they both kept up a very good act. They aren’t able to talk much, but Ofglen reveals that there is a resistance, and that Offred should join them. Then, on the street in front of them, a seemingly normal-looking man is apprehended by the Eyes, swiftly stuffed into a car, and driven away before anyone truly registers the disturbance. Offred feels relief that it wasn’t her.

Instead of napping, too keyed up on adrenaline, Offred sits in her sweltering room and thinks about a fight with Moira, who disapproved of June “poaching” another woman’s man; of her job at the “discotheque” a.k.a. library, where she and other women transferred books to computer discs; when paper money got replaced with cards, which, she realizes, may have helped the transition to a male-dominated society:

It was after the catastrophe, when they shot the president and machine-gunned the Congress and the army declared a state of emergency. They blamed it on the Islamic fanatics, at the time.

Keep calm, they said on television. Everything is under control.

I was stunned. Everyone was, I know that. It was hard to believe. The entire government, gone like that. How did they get in, how did it happen?

That was when they suspended the Constitution. They said it would be temporary. There wasn’t even any rioting in the streets. People stayed home at night, watching television, looking for some direction. There wasn’t even an enemy you could put your finger on.

Look out, said Moira to me, over the phone. Here it comes.

Here what comes? I said.

You wait, she said. They’ve been building up to this. It’s you and me against the wall, baby. She was quoting an expression of my mother’s, but she wasn’t intending to be funny.

And it’s not funny at all, as June tries to pay for cigarettes at the market and finds that her card number is invalid; as her supervisor fires all of the women because “it’s the law”; as Moira reveals that all accounts marked with an F (for female) have been transferred to a M(ale) next of kin; as Luke’s attempts to console her just feel patronizing; as June and other women feel some bizarre shame, like it’s somehow their faults.

Her next night with the Commander, Offred asks him questions but just gets tantalizing answers: “You might say I’m a sort of scientist” is how he explains-but-doesn’t his job and attaining his new rank; it turns out that Nolite te bastardes carborundorum is a schoolboy’s joking Latin, translated to “Don’t let the bastards grind you down”; the former Offred also had these special nights with him, so the current Offred is not unique in even that regard.

Offred realizes that the Commander gives her these small perks—including more magazines and even a few (gasp) books—because he wants her life to be more bearable. To that end, she tells him, “I would like to know. […] Whatever there is to know. What’s going on.”

Commentary

You guys. In the most ironic timing, I reread the section with June’s invalid number on International Women’s Day, a.k.a. the Women’s Strike, a.k.a. A Day Without a Woman. Wearing red in solidarity for women who were making their presence known that day through their absence, juxtaposed with reading a dystopian narrative in which all it takes is pressing a few buttons to erase women from databases, was truly surreal and more than a little upsetting; I found myself tearing up at my desk.

This portion is one that has stuck with me through every read, thanks to the shocking simplicity of it: Take away the women’s money, and you cut them off at the knees. What seems like a genuine error slowly reveals itself as deliberate, like the chilling slow build of a horror movie where you realize the killer has been right next to you the whole time. I was nowhere near financially independent during my first read of the book, yet I could still feel June’s frustration and mounting fear—and Luke’s inability to match her fear. So she lost her job and can spend more time taking care of the house, so she needs the extra step of him taking out money and giving it to her—these paternalistic behaviors don’t strike him as that unusual, because in his mind they’re a unit. Yet for her, it’s a massive life change, a loss of momentum she may never recover.

The part that I only just now appreciate on this read is the shame experienced by June and the others when their boss—who, to his credit, looks as if he’s been drinking to numb his own shock—fires them. Excuse me, lets them go. What a small but damning distinction; I’ve been “let go” from jobs, crushed with guilt and anxiety that it was all my fault, and only in hindsight could I see that the blame lay with both sides. June and her coworkers experience this bizarre sense that “we’d been caught doing something we shouldn’t” and that (you’ve heard this song before) they somehow deserved it. I never realized that you could gaslight someone simply by blaming them for doing something they liked and that gave them security.

Like the domino effect of Gilead’s rise, there is the slow dismantling that happens with the small taboos that Offred and the Commander court:

It’s not permitted, I said.

In here, it is, he said quietly. I saw the point. Having broken the main taboo, why should I hesitate over another one, something minor? Or another, or another; who could tell where it might stop? Behind this particular door, taboo dissolved.

It’s not quite the boiling-frog metaphor of how Gilead insidiously conditions its citizens; it’s more of foot-in-the-door phenomenon, where one small indiscretion changes everything. But I got very frustrated by the Commander’s defense for why he keeps women’s magazines in his desk:

What’s dangerous in the hands of the multitudes, he said, with what may or may not have been irony, is safe enough for those whose motives are…

Beyond reproach, I said.

He nodded gravely. Impossible to tell whether or not he meant it.

I assume that’s how he approaches the matter of having the Bible but not allowing “impressionable” types to read it. Then there are the Soul Scrolls (a.k.a. the Holy Rollers, amazing), which are printed but never read, like some contradictory riddle.

My grandmother had a saying that my dad picked up from his childhood and passed down to us. Not a saying, actually, but a distinctive line reading of a single word: “Oh, pobrecito.” She would elongate the vowels in mock-sympathy for you poor, poor thing when you know she didn’t feel a shred of empathy and was actually outright mocking you. That’s what I wrote next to every passage in which the Commander expressed sadness or wistfulness for his Wife not appreciating I mean understanding him. Is he genuinely surprised that he and Serena Joy are no longer close now that they have Handmaids assigned to the house to bear his children? This is a man who had high enough social standing before in order to receive the rank of Commander, yet he acts as if he didn’t know what he was getting into.

While his and Offred’s dalliances make each of them more distinct to the other—he is no longer a shadow, she no longer just a usable body—the Handmaid just becomes another sort of surrogate, this time for emotion. She must endure the Commander’s jokes and amusement when his every laugh further belittles her and the other Handmaids:

Butter, he said, musing. That’s very clever. Butter. He laughed.

I could have slapped him.

[…]

The trouble is, I said, I don’t have anywhere to keep it.

In your room, he said, as if it were obvious.

They’d find it, I said. Someone would find it.

Why? he asked, as if he really didn’t know. Maybe he didn’t. It wasn’t the first time he gave evidence of being truly ignorant of the real conditions under which we lived.

They look, I said. They look in all our rooms.

What for? he said.

I think I lost control then, a little. Razor blades, I said. Books, writing, black-market stuff. All the things we aren’t supposed to have. Jesus Christ, you ought to know. My voice was angrier than I’d intended, but he didn’t even wince.

Then you’ll have to keep it in here, he said.

On top of everything else—the chores, the lowered position in the household, the fucking Ceremony—Offred must perform the emotional labor of explaining her limitations and the dangerous borders of her existence to a master who could notice these things if only he would pay attention. Interesting how she uses “our” and “we” instead of “my” and “I”; she’s speaking not as an individual, but as part of a population.

Yet she still feels special, for how the Commander has singled her out within his own household. For all that she sympathizes with Serena Joy, Offred also clings to the little bit of superiority she has over the Wife:

I now had power over here, of a kind, although she didn’t know it. And I enjoyed that. Why pretend? I enjoyed it a lot.

Though it’s a certain kind of privilege that Serena Joy can choose not to engage her husband in intellectual games or kiss him like she means it. For all the power it affords her, Offred still has to do these things, or risk getting sent to the colonies.

Is the Wall the wall that borders what was once Harvard University? Have I realized this on every read and then forgotten it again? We’ll see more of Harvard, including the Yard, once we get to the Salvaging, but here’s something to think about from SparkNotes: “Harvard becomes a symbol of the inverted world that Gilead has created: a place that was founded to pursue knowledge and truth becomes a seat of oppression, torture, and the denial of every principle for which a university is supposed to stand.”

I’ll leave us with this striking passage about what Offred sees when she looks into the magazines:

What was in them was promise. They dealt in transformations; they suggested an endless series of possibilities, extending like the reflections in two mirrors set facing one another, stretching on, replica after replica, to the vanishing point. They suggested one adventure after another, one man after another. They suggested rejuvenation, pain overcome and transcended, endless love. The real promise in them was immortality.

Ironically, the Handmaids, in their modest garb and demure demeanor, are meant to become immortal, as well—or at least, to ingrain the way of life into their daughters and granddaughters.

Natalie Zutter is amused she was able to work gaslighting and emotional labor into this post, and wonders what terms will exist in the lexicon on future reads. Find her on Twitter and Tumblr.

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