Rereading The Handmaid’s Tale

Rereading The Handmaid’s Tale: Parts XI-XII

In this day and age, women try to raise each other up through mentorships, networking groups, alumni connections. In Gilead, it’s through dangerous bargains that feel more like power plays, vague orders from shadowy resistances, and offers to come work in brothels (and that’s the best option). But woven throughout these interactions is the dark, sharp memory of betrayal by someone you don’t even know. This week, Offred does her duty at a Prayvaganza and steals away to Jezebel’s; she affirms her daughter’s existence through a Polaroid and learns her mother’s fate through a secondary source. But at least that source is Moira.

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.

 

Part XI: Night

Summary

Offred prays in her room and ponders whether what she said to the Commander at the end of Part X was true—does she really want to know everything going on? Knowledge is temptation, after all; she remembers Aunt Lydia saying, What you don’t know won’t tempt you.

She remembers her and Luke’s final night in their home, which they had to leave basically untouched so as not to ruin their ruse of popping over the border for a day trip. But that brings up the question of the cat: They can’t let her outside because then the neighbors will know they’ve fled, but they can’t bring her with them on the aforementioned jaunt. Luke says “I’ll take care of it,” which Offred realizes indicates a shift in thinking:

And because he said it instead of her, I knew he meant kill. That is what you have to do before you kill, I thought. You have to create an it, where none was before. You do that first in your head, and then you make it real. So that’s how they do it, I thought. I seemed never to have known that before.

But of course it’s all for naught, because someone—a neighbor? the passport person?—ratted them out anyway.

Offred struggles to pray a version of the Our Father, but all she can do is ask God His true name and what He thinks of the Republic of Gilead committing these atrocities in His name. She ponders how even though the chandelier was removed after her predecessor’s suicide, she could still hang herself from the hook in her cupboard. Instead of Amen, she ends with How can I keep on living?

Commentary

It’s less surprising, on this reread, that I initially confused the novel’s title with medieval times: This Handmaid does resemble a lady-in-waiting, especially when she’s being courted. Nick’s pass under her window brings to mind Romeo and Juliet: Offred, Offred, wherefore art thou Offred? Deny thy Aunts and refuse thy name…

I’m not sure I follow the Commander’s joke about women and math, but I can understand Offred’s application of the notion to her romantic prospects:

One and one and one and one doesn’t equal four. Each one remains unique, there is no way of joining them together. They cannot be exchanged, one for the other. They cannot replace each other. Nick for Luke or Luke for Nick. Should does not apply.

But again, it ties into what I was saying in a previous installment about the notion of soulmates. Offred reflects, later, that Luke was not the first man for her, and perhaps wouldn’t be the last if he weren’t frozen in time, as their last moments together dictated. Offred’s memory of their betrayal—they don’t even know by whom—is so chilling because the feeling itself is so relatable: “the moment when you know beyond any doubt … that some other human being has wished you that much evil.” In the past few weeks, I’ve fallen down the rabbit hole of the My Favorite Murder podcast, my commutes and cooking time taken up with more than one instance of wondering that exact same thing, how someone could so nakedly wish harm on someone else.

I’m surprised that the Nick romance has been such a slow burn. After this, we have only two more sections of the novel left, and much of the current focus—as we’ll get to in the next part—is on the Commander’s attempts to woo Offred.

It’s chilling how the Aunts train the Handmaids to perform rigid posture even in prayer, demanding perfection even in private moments (though of course there is plenty of public prayer, as well). They pray for emptiness, that they might fill the vessels of their bodies (and their minds, but those are less important) with these pleas:

What we prayed for was emptiness, so we would be worthy to be filled: with grace, with love, with self-denial, semen and babies.

Oh God, King of the universe, thank you for not creating me a man.

Oh God, obliterate me. Make me fruitful. Mortify my flesh, that I may be multiplied. Let me be fulfilled…

All of the “fall” imagery is fascinating here: the Fall of Adam and Eve, night falling, betrayal feeling like hurtling down an elevator shaft, even hanging from the cupboard a way of letting one’s body fall away.

 

Part XII: Jezebel’s

Summary

While out for their usual walk, Ofglen and Offred stop in front of what used to be Harvard University’s Memorial Hall but now houses the Eyes’ banquets. Ofglen reveals that “Mayday” was the password by which she and other members of the resistance recognize one another. Though she mentions that “[i]t isn’t good for us to know about too many of the others, in the network. In case you get caught.” Offred doubts, in the hours after these encounters, if their surreptitious whispers are just childlike playacting at rebellion; a real network—which brings to mind the networking her mother used to do with other women—seems impossible.

Back at the Commander’s home, Serena Joy invites Offred to sit with her as she knits her bizarre scarves. Noting that Offred is not yet pregnant, Serena Joy says something treasonous: “Maybe he can’t.” Knowing that fault is supposed to lie only with the women, Offred responds with something even more brazen: affirmation. “Maybe he can’t,” she echoes back, and the two women strike an odd camaraderie. Serena Joy offers to set it up so that Offred could use someone else: Nick, who has been with the family for a long time and likely behind Serena Joy’s various black-market errands. Not a doctor, because they can blackmail, though that’s what Ofwarren (née Janine) used for her baby. Either way, there’s no need for them to tell the Commander.

In return for asking (one might say coercing) Offred to put herself in this danger, Serena Joy offers a prize: a photo of her daughter. She has known where she is all along.

In the meantime, perhaps to soothe this cruel pain, she gives Offred a cigarette and the instruction to ask Rita for a match. Rita doesn’t want to give Offred this little freedom, can’t trust her, but ultimately can’t ignore an order from a Wife. Though Offred is dizzy with desire to smoke her first cigarette in years, she ponders that she could simply eat it, get the high that way, and hide the match away for another time.

The Commander’s household joins others for the Women’s Prayvaganza, celebrating the group wedding of Angels to the young girls betrothed to them. Here, cordoned off from the Commanders and the Wives, the Handmaids can whisper amongst themselves under the guise of praying; they can gossip, or search for information and familiar faces. Offred learns that Janine’s baby Angela was a shredder; she didn’t survive. This is Janine’s second failure, her third child if you count the one she had pre-Gilead. She thinks that it’s her fault, that she’s somehow sinful. Typical Janine, Offred thinks: [P]eople will do anything rather than admit that their lives have no meaning. No use, that is. No plot. Back at the Red Center, at some point where she wasn’t teacher’s pet, Janine almost had a mental breakdown one morning, trying to retreat into her past memories of working in customer service, before she was a Handmaid. Then Moira gave her a cool backhand and barked, Get right back here! You can’t stay there, you aren’t there anymore. That’s all gone.

Watching the group wedding, Offred considers that these are one of the last groups of young women, some as young as fourteen, to remember a pre-Gilead era. During one of their secret rendezvous, the Commander had tried to convince her that the new world order of arranged marriages was for the best: No longer would girls have to alter their bodies or compete with one another for a mate, they were all guaranteed one. Not companionship, nor the wonder of falling in love (there’s that visual again), but a reliable partner and the ability to fulfill their destinies as Wives and mothers. Offred amuses herself by imagining the awful sex for both parties, what a letdown it must be after “I do.”

As they’re leaving the Prayvaganza, Ofglen tells her that “we know you’re seeing him alone.” She doesn’t say who exactly we are aside from the resistance, nor how they know. (Though this lends credence to the theory that Nick is an Eye! Considering how wrapped up in all this he is.) They want to know what he wants, for Offred to find out anything she can.

While the Commander doesn’t want kinky sex, per se, he does want something quite unorthodox: He presents Offred with “a little surprise” of what looks like a showgirl outfit, all feathers and sequins. He also offers her makeup and one of Serena Joy’s winter cloaks: He’s taking her out on the town.

Or if not the town, then to Jezebel’s, the hotel-turned-secret gentleman’s club that only lets in high-ranking officers and Commanders, populated with all of the women who didn’t become Handmaids or get shipped off to the Colonies. There Offred discovers Moira, very much alive and dressed as a Playboy bunny (or so I interpreted her look). But instead of the spitfire who escaped the Red Center in an Aunt’s dress, Moira is almost indifferent to her current position as a Jezebel. It’s not so much a disguise as a permanent identity—until she’s used up and no longer useful, that is.

Though they grab two precious breaks in the bathroom to catch each other up, Offred is rattled by how little Moira is fighting her fate. She learns that her mother was sent to the Colonies—she’s been featured in an informational video, not unlike the old footage of her at a Take Back the Night rally—where she will likely die, if she hasn’t already. She never sees Moira again after this night.

Before they return to the household, the Commander leads Offred, his “evening rental,” to one of the hotel rooms. The Ceremony is set to take place the next day, but he wants to “jump the gun.”

Commentary

I’m stuck on the notion of networking. It’s a throwaway line, one of Offred’s habits of turning over “musty slang of yesterday” or other evocative words that no longer retain their meaning. Even in the past, it was something she brushed off, a social hobby of her mother’s made to sound more important.

As The Handmaid’s Tale was written in the 1980s, I can’t imagine that Atwood or many of her contemporaries had a sense of how the Internet would give way to social networks and, through them, a new way of digitally networking. The idea is not new; I remember my parents first introducing me to the term when I was interviewing for internships in college and attending alumni mixers, but it felt as fussy as what Offred thought her mother did. But if I were to explain to them that I’ve gotten contacts through mutually geeking out over fandom on threads, or jobs through tweets, I don’t know if they would think these instances were anything more than flukes.

Even more so, modern networking has created safe online spaces for women. The other week, I was talking to my partner about how his brother was looking for a job, and without thinking asked, “Well, why doesn’t he post in an online networking group and see if there are any other openings?” Then I remembered that those digital spaces don’t exist for men—mostly because, one would argue, they have more than enough of them in real life—and that the kind of online discourse I mentioned would not be second nature for them.

In Gilead, women are organized not by social networks, but by hierarchy: Even those in the same tier, like the Wives demanding individual attention or the Handmaids constantly eyeing one another, see competition in place of camaraderie. Yet by engaging Offred in candid conversation, Serena Joy seeks to reach across class divides—though let’s not forget that she literally ensnares her Handmaid with her weaving, so that Offred cannot escape their talk—to offer assistance, and even survival. But who is she looking out for? Yes, Offred could be transferred to her third household and that much closer to the Colonies. But how is Serena Joy’s reputation impacted if she and her husband must employ a third Handmaid after having no baby to show for their efforts? Perhaps this is her way of saving face.

Her decision not to tell the Commander, fascinatingly, mirrors his own subterfuge with Offred. She has become the vessel for the secrets that each is keeping from the other, and it behooves her not to clue either one in on the truth. Maybe it’s a small mercy, and she wants to spare him the humiliation of acknowledging his sterility. Yet what we’ve learned of the Commander is that he is a man who wants to be lied to—about certain things, at least. He wants a woman to kiss him like she means it. He sneers at Offred’s talk of falling in love, as if it were some frivolity women should be ashamed of indulging, yet he bemoans the pre-Gilead era where “there was nothing for [men] to do with women.” The Pornycorners and mobile units made it too easy for men to buy sex, to shell out money instead of fighting for it (his words).

Men were turning off sex, off marriage even, he says, as if this justifies the reorganizing of women into disparate roles to satisfy men’s individual desires for food, for partnership, for sex. They feel now, he insists, but what he doesn’t realize—or refuses to acknowledge—is that it comes at the cost of women’s consent. They feel only when every woman around them is a puzzle piece in an elaborately crafted lie about supposedly noble purposes, to be childbearers, or mothers, or servants; when they dare not refuse their duties for fear of exile or death.

You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs, is what he says. We thought we could do better.

Better? I say, in a small voice. How can he think this is better?

Better never means better for everyone, he says. It always means worse, for some.

And yet, not even this is enough. If every Commander gets to sleep with his wife every night except for the Ceremony, when he gets two women at once, why does he keep looking for something else? Ah, but he has Nature to back him up! “Nature demands variety, for men. It stands to reason, it’s part of the procreational strategy. It’s Nature’s plan.” Women’s many outfits, now long outlawed, were part of that competitive streak, trying to keep men’s attention by pretending to be a different type of woman every day.

“So now that we don’t have different clothes,” Offred says, “you merely have different women.” Of course he doesn’t pick up on the irony of this, that despite the different colors and the classes they denote, the clothing is all still uniform. That’s why the Commander gets Nick to find him the ridiculous getup for Offred, and why she’s not actually out of place when they arrive at Jezebel’s.

Just as with the Scrabble, this illicit jaunt is nothing new: If anything, it’s part of the Commander’s secret routine that he and Nick keep from Serena Joy. There’s something unsettling about the idea that Moira and June have both had sex with the Commander, something that never would have happened in their old lives, not least because Moira is gay. Then again, she says, most of the women at Jezebel’s are “not too fond of men.” And there is another level of artifice: These men are so focused on feeling that they would rather gay women fake attraction and endure sex with them than embrace the “indulgent” notion of falling in love.

Moira’s scenes are among the book’s most gutting, because we know that she and Offred never see one another again. The inspiring, Joan of Arc-esque figurehead from the Red Center, who escaped to the Underground Femaleroad before getting betrayed—again, by some stranger wishing evil upon them—has given up her fire and is now solely concerned with survival. Ironically, Jezebel’s becomes the only remaining hub for women to network: “You should figure out some way of getting in here,” Moira tells her. “You’d have three or four good years before your snatch wears out and they send you to the boneyard. The food’s not bad and there’s drink and drugs, if you want it, and we only work nights.” It’s so achingly bleak, most of all because it reflects the complacency that Offred has struggled against.

If this were a more conventional narrative, Offred’s reunion with Moira would give way to the two of them leading their fellow women against The Man. Instead, the best Moira can offer is “let’s survive until they use us up.” It’s galling to realize that Offred must mourn Moira and her mother in a one-two punch, consigned to fates where both of their bodies will be used up, though in vastly different ways.

To add insult to injury, Moira’s last line about her fellow Jezebels is so anticlimactic. I’m surprised that Offred didn’t attempt to arrange the reconstruction so that Moira goes out with a zinger. This must reflect how disappointed and frightened she is.

And of course, she was a bit distracted that night. The Commander’s hotel room is an expansion of his desired good-night kiss like she means it: Offred knows that she cannot just lie there, she must seem as if she wants it, as if she feels something, too:

Fake it, I scream at myself inside my head. You must remember how. Let’s get this over with or you’ll be here all night. Bestir yourself. Move your flesh around, breathe audibly. It’s the least you can do.

The Commander doesn’t care if she’s faking it, so long as she fakes it well.

Natalie Zutter is holding her online spaces closer this week. Find her on Twitter and Tumblr.

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