Rereading The Handmaid’s Tale

Rereading The Handmaid’s Tale: Parts V-VI

The moon is full and it is time for the Ceremony. Or at least, the first part of the Ceremony, which is waiting on the Commander. While these sections take place entirely in the Commander’s household, we learn a lot about the women (and one man) who depend on this powerful man for their survival. While Serena Joy awaits the monthly ritual with dread and tears, Offred retreats inside herself, to recall a very different household: Luke and their daughter, as they attempted to flee the country.

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

 

V: Nap

Summary

Last we left Offred, she was composing herself in preparation for the Ceremony. But what we had forgotten, and what she had to learn during her time at the Red Center, was that part of the process is the blank time—the waiting, “the amount of unfilled time,” “time as white sound.” The Aunts encouraged the Handmaids-in-training to “practice” at the Center, both what sounds like kegels or some other sort of firming up (“Arms at the sides, knees bent, lift the pelvis, roll the backbone down. Tuck. Again. Breathe in to the count of five, hold, expel.”) as well as the mandatory hour of rest each day between 3 and 4 p.m. It’s meditative, but it’s also a preview of their lives, as Nick says, of “hurry up and wait.”

So, Offred spends her catnap returning in her mind’s eye to the Center, to the first time Moira appeared. It was about three weeks after Offred arrived at the Center; though they recognized one another, they knew not to announce that fact to anyone who might be watching. Instead, they found excuses to go to the washroom at the same time—different times on different days, so as not to arouse suspicion—and speak standing side by side in stalls, with only a small hole in the wood through which to touch fingers. (Not to be crass, but it’s a glory hole, right? Offred/Atwood never explicitly says, but it’s described as the “legacy of an ancient voyeur,” and it would fit into Offred’s observations about sexualized spaces in this former school. Also, there’s something wonderfully ironic about Offred and Moira using this chip in the wood for forbidden communication.)

Of course, they have to time their conversations so as to slip away during unobtrusive times. Before she’s able to talk to Moira for the first time, Offred must sit through the weekly Testifying, which brings to mind an AA meeting. Janine—the pregnant Handmaid that Offred spied in one of her daily shopping trips—tells the same story two weeks in a row, about how she was gang-raped at fourteen and had to have an abortion. Offred observes:

She seemed almost proud of it, while she was telling. It may not even be true. At Testifying, it’s safer to make things up than to say you have nothing to reveal.

Almost like a high-school game of Never Have I Ever, or the monthly required confession I had at my Catholic school—if you say you have nothing to share, then you must be hiding something. I remember racking my brain for some minor sin to tell the priest, just so he could give me ten Hail Marys and send me on my way. If I had not engaged with the ritual, it would have been worse.

The first time Janine tells the story, Aunt Helena uses her experience to push Gilead’s teachings:

But whose fault was it? Aunt Helena says, holding up one plump finger.

Her fault, her fault, her fault, we chant in unison.

Who led them on? Aunt Helena beams, pleased with us.

She did. She did. She did.

Wy did God allow such a terrible thing to happen?

Teach her a lesson. Teach her a lesson. Teach her a lesson.

Janine bursts into tears, and the other Handmaids-in-training hurl insults of “crybaby” at her, because they despise how pitiful she looks and fear looking the same. But the second time, before she can be the object of disgust again, she says that it’s her fault, that she deserves the pain. Very good, Janine, Aunt Lyda congratulates her. You are an example.

Back in the present, in her nap, Offred has two more snippets of dreams: one highly symbolic, in which she’s standing in an empty version of her and Luke’s first apartment, staring at a cupboard full of clothes belonging to his wife, none of which fit her, and Luke can’t hear her, perhaps because he’s dead; the other is the memory of the day her daughter was taken from her. The two of them are running through the bracken, but her daughter is sluggish due to the pill Offred gave her so that she wouldn’t panic or give them away during their escape. Offred could run fast enough to get to the border if it were just her, but instead shots are fired and the two of them drop down to try and hide. Offred tries to curl herself around her daughter without smothering her, whispers to her to be quiet, but it’s no use:

She’s too young, it’s too late, we come apart, my arms are held, and the edges go dark and nothing is left but a little window, a very little window, like the wrong end of a telescope, like the window on a Christmas card, an old one, night and ice outside, and, within a candle, a shining tree, a family, I can hear the bells even, sleigh bells, from the radio, old music, but through this window I can see, small but very clear, I can see her, going away from me, through the trees which are already turning, red and yellow, holding out her arms to be, being carried away.

Cora wakes her from her reverie, as it’s time to go downstairs. Offred wipes her wet face and thinks, Of all the dreams this is the worst.

Commentary

Part of the wonder of this reread has been rediscovering all of Atwood’s gorgeous prose that I don’t remember between reads because I’m always so hung up on the big ideas. Yes, this is the kind of story that needs to be adapted to all mediums; yes, the visuals on the TV series will be oh-so-striking; but this had to be a novel first, it had to have these words as the baseline.

My first response to Janine’s Testifying was just to write the very ineloquent “oh shit” next to that passage because wow, the Aunts are just completely leaning into the “she was asking for it” frame of thought. And why wouldn’t they? In a future where “there is no such thing as a sterile man […] only women who are fruitful and women who are barren,” of course a foundational teaching would be that rape is the woman’s fault. Women, but especially Handmaids, seem to be a contradiction: the objects of temptation for men and objects of disdain for other women. They are simultaneously held up for their noble service of conceiving and birthing the next generation yet put down for doing the nitty-gritty work required for conception.

The Handmaids are expected to be passive objects, and yet they are credited with such strange control (and, yes, unfair blame): by this reasoning, they are the ones who inspire arousal, whose bodies dictate when sex occurs, whose wombs can support life.

Despite the next passage where we see how much the Commander’s household literally waits on him, the date of the Ceremony is nonetheless determined by Offred’s ovulation: Even the Commander is subject to its whims, she thinks. Before that moment, she considers her body before Gilead and after:

Treacherous ground, my own territory. […] Each month I watch for blood, fearfully, for when it comes it means failure. I have failed once again to fulfill the expectations of others, which have become my own.

I used to think of my body as an instrument, of pleasure, or a means of transportation, or an implement for the accomplishment of my will. I could use it to run, push buttons of one sort of another, make things happen. There were limits, but my body was nonetheless lithe, single, solid, one with me.

Now the flesh arranges itself differently. I’m a cloud, congealed around a central object, the shape of a pear, which is hard and more real than I am and glows red within its translucent wrapping. Inside it is a space, huge as the sky at night and dark and cured like that, though black-red rather than black. Pinpoints of light swell, sparkle, burst and shrivel within it, countless as stars. Every month there is a moon, gigantic, round, heavy, an omen. It transits, pauses, continues on and passes out of sight, and I see despair coming towards me like a famine. To feel that empty, again, again. I listen to my heart, wave upon wave, salty and red, continuing on and on, marking time.

Gah, again with these poetic passages. I wish I could just sink into these like Offred in her bath, but alas, we must commence with the Ceremony.

 

VI: Household

Summary

The household—that is, Serena Joy sitting, Offred kneeling, Cora, Rita, and Nick standing behind—assembles in a bizarre tableau as they wait for the Commander in the sitting room. This waiting is part of the ritual, or at least their version of it; they await his arrival, as of a father returning home to his family from the office. During that time, Serena Joy watches the news, which allows them to watch the news, especially updates from the war: “The Appalachian Highlands, says the voiceover, where the Angels of the Apocalypse, Fourth Division, are smoking out a pocket of Baptist guerillas, with air support from the Twenty-first Battalion of the Angels of Light.” It all looks so cinematic that it could be full of actors on a set, Offred reflects in a callback to Part II:

Such as it is; who knows if any of it is true? It could be old clips, it could be faked. But I watch it anyway, hoping to be able to read beneath it. Any news, now, is better than none.

An anchorman, with his kindly eyes and white hair “looking like everybody’s ideal grandfather,” tells them that Everything will be all right soon. I promise. There will be peace. You must trust. You must go to sleep, like good children. The news reports also show the Eyes cracking an underground espionage team run by “the heretical sect of Quakers,” and the resettlement of the Children of Ham in National Homeland One, formerly North Dakota.

Nick stands too close to Offred, so that the tip of his shoe touches hers—twice, even after she shifts away. Instead of responding, Offred recalls when she, Luke, and their daughter tried to sneak over the border into Canada on a Saturday morning in September:

My name isn’t Offred, I have another name, which nobody uses now because it’s forbidden. I tell myself it doesn’t matter, your name is like your telephone number, useful only to others; but what I tell myself is wrong, it does matter. I keep the knowledge of this name like something hidden, some treasure I’ll come back to dig up, one day. I think of this name as buried. This name has an aura around it, like an amulet, some charm that’s survived from an unimaginably distant past. I lie in my single bed at night, which my eyes closed, and the name floats there behind my eyes, not quite within reach, shining in the dark.

They packed a picnic to fool everyone from the border patrol (with their forged passports and fake one-day visas) to their unsuspecting daughter (We didn’t want to lay upon her the burden of our truth). Offred was too scared, Luke too falsely cheery from the adrenaline, as they had been warned not to look too happy.

For now, we return to the Ceremony, finally, as the Commander—acting surprised to see the group assembled all prettily just for him, almost reluctant to have all the attention focused on him—reads from the Bible as if it’s a bedtime story. He reads the usual stories: God to Adam, God to Noah, Rachel to Jacob from the epigraph. All with an emphasis on being fruitful, multiplying, and replenishing the Earth. And, for added effect, Rachel’s plea of Give me children, or else I die. Am I in God’s stead, who hath withheld from thee the fruit of my womb? Behold my maid Bilhah, etc.

Offred remembers these prayers—plus some fake Beatitudes—being delivered like medicine at the Red Center, and Moira’s decision to flee. She cut out vitamin C to induce scurvy and get a brief reprieve at the hospital. But either she was found out there, or she tried to escape, because she was brought back to the Red Center and punished: her feet lashed with steel cables with frayed ends so that they were too swollen for her to walk. It’s brutal, and the Aunts don’t care if it’s permanent, because as Aunt Lydia says, For our purposes your feet and your hands are not essential.

As the Commander finishes reading about Rachel, Leah, Bilhah, and Zilpah, Serena Joy begins to cry—a regular occurrence at every Ceremony. It’s the kind of emotional release in a tense atmosphere that’s almost absurd, like a fart in church; it makes Offred want to laugh, but not because it’s funny. But the Ceremony must go on.

We’ll address the specifics more in the Commentary section, but this is what happens: Offred lies between Serena Joy’s legs—her head on Serena Joy’s stomach, above her pelvic bone—as the two of them clasp hands, to act as if they are one person experiencing sex with the Commander. He props himself up above the two of them and has sex with Offred’s lower half, looking as if he is distractedly doing his duty and nothing more. Everyone is fully clothed.

After he finishes and leaves the two of them, Serena Joy is supposed to let Offred lie there for ten minutes with her legs up, to aid in conception. Instead, she dismisses her so quickly that as Offred stands, some of the Commander’s semen drips down her leg.

Back in her room, Offred changes into a nightgown and uses the stolen pat of butter as moisturizer. The Wives forbid the Handmaids from having anything that might make them look attractive (For them, things are bad enough as it is), but it’s a trick she picked up at the Red Center.

Offred feels restless, like she wants to steal something, so she sneaks downstairs, unsupervised. Back in the sitting room, searching for some small trinket or dried flower to hide for the next Handmaid in her room, she runs into Nick. Something about the forbidden nature of their presence, both together and apart, lights a match to the attraction that had sparked when his foot touches hers:

He too is illegal, here, with me, he can’t give me away. Nor I him; for the moment we’re mirrors. He puts his hand on my arm, pulls me against him, his mouth on mine, what else comes from such denial? Without a word. Both of us shaking, how I’d like to. In Serena’s parlor, with the dried flowers, on the Chinese carpet, his thin body. A man entirely unknown. It would be like shouting, it would be like shooting someone. My hand goes down, how about that, I could unbutton, and then. But it’s too dangerous, he knows it, we push each other away, not far. Too much trust, too much risk, too much already.

[…] I want to reach up, taste his skin, he makes me hungry. His fingers move, feeling my arm under the nightgown sleeve, as if his hand won’t listen to reason. It’s so good, to be touched by someone, to be felt so greedily, to feel so greedy. Luke, you’d know, you’d understand. It’s you here, in another body.

Bullshit.

He breaks away and tells her that the Commander wants to see her, in his office, tomorrow. She leaves before she can do anything else.

Commentary

I still remember my stunned surprise at reading this passage, my thought of oh, she actually went there. It’s one thing to establish a world in which Commanders and Wives use Handmaids as proxies for having babies, but it’s another thing entirely to depict the act of conception.

My red skirt is hitched up to my waist, though no higher. Below it the Commander is fucking. What he is fucking is the lower part of my body. I do not say making love, because this is not what he’s doing. Copulating too would be inaccurate, because it would imply two people and only one is involved. Nor does rape cover it: nothing is going on here that I haven’t signed up for. There wasn’t a lot of choice but there was some, and this is what I chose.

Strangely, despite all evidence to the contrary, teenage me thought this scene was still somehow the slightest bit erotic. Probably the pointed use of the word fucking, the unflinching description of the act when most of the sex scenes I had read at the time tended toward either the fade-to-black or the very explicit slash fanfiction. Then again, it’s like Offred’s reflection about supposedly erotic art: There are the familiar symbols (there, harems; here, fucking), but the meaning is something else entirely.

I’m always surprised to remember that even the Commander finds no joy in this act. Despite Offred’s wry rhetorical question about isn’t this everyone’s wet dream, two women at once?, he attends to his duty with dedication but also distraction: It’s as if he’s somewhere else, waiting for himself to come, drumming his fingers on the table while he waits. Despite the way that Serena Joy and Offred are posed, there is no enticing visual for him, no enthusiasm (certainly not real, as Gilead society cares little for women’s arousal or orgasm; but not faked for his benefit, either), no encouragement. When he comes it’s a relief, as much about the biological release as it is about fulfilling his part in the ritual and getting to leave the room.

It ties into the moment, earlier in the Ceremony, when Offred considers the Commander with some small measure of empathy. They’re both people who are watched, though for very different reasons; she is an object to be consumed visually, without her control, while her observations of the Commander are always wary, as she is constantly reminded of her dependence on him:

To be a man, watched by women. It must be entirely strange. To have them watching him all the time. To have them wondering, What’s he going to do next? To have them flinch when he moves, even if it’s a harmless enough move, to reach for an ashtray perhaps. To have them sizing him up. To have them thinking, He can’t do it, he won’t do, he’ll have to do, this last as if he were a garment, out of style or shoddy, which must nevertheless be put on because there’s nothing else available.

To have them putting him on, trying him on, trying him out, while he himself puts them on, like a sock over a foot, onto the stub of himself, his extra, sensitive thumb, his tentacle, his delicate, stalked slug’s eye, which extrudes, expands, winces, and shrivels back into himself when touched wrongly, grows big again, bulging a little at the tip, traveling forward as if along a leaf, into them, avid for vision. To achieve vision in this way, this journey into a darkness that is composed of women, a woman, who can see him darkness while he himself strains blindly forward.

She watches him from within. We’re all watching him. It’s the one thing we can really do, and it is not for nothing: if he were to falter, fail, or die, what would become of us? No wonder he’s like a boot, hard on the outside, giving shape to a pulp of tenderfoot. That’s just a wish. I’ve been watching him for some time and he’s given no evidence, of softness.

But watch out, Commander, I tell him in my head. I’ve got my eye on you. One false move and I’m dead.

Still, it must be hell, to be a man, like that.

It must be just fine.

It must be hell.

It must be very silent.

For some reason, I find the Commander’s who, me? act infuriating. Yes, you’re the head of the household, you’re the only one who gets to read the Bible (or read anything), stop acting like you’re constantly surprised that everyone hangs on your every word and action, and just fulfill your part of the Ceremony already. I’m also fascinated by this description of the Bible itself:

It is an incendiary device; who knows what we’d make of it, if we ever got our hands on it?

Yes, only the women would do something bad with that book…

He has something we don’t have, he has the word. How we squandered it, once.

Offred’s regrets about “squandering” her freedom in the past keep hitting me like punches to the gut. As does this reflection on her unorthodox beauty routine and the camaraderie it inspires in the women:

As long as we do this, butter our skin to keep it soft, we can believe that we will someday get out, that we will be touched again, in love or desire. We have ceremonies of our own, private ones.

What’s funny is that the specifics of the Ceremony have always stuck in my mind, but I forgot that Offred and Nick have this actually erotically charged encounter at this point in the story. It’s the forbidden nature of the touch, the kiss, that makes it so appealing, that makes it about more than the two people involved—because how much do they even know about each other?—and that’s so human. Perhaps that’s why the Angels and Eyes are more attracted to the Handmaids than the Commanders; for the latter, it’s a duty dictated by the government, to the former, it’s something they can never have in their current states. Perhaps if they gain enough clout to get a household of their own, complete with a Handmaid, someday they’ll perform the Ceremony with the same level of distraction and wanting it to be over.

Natalie Zutter found it incredibly bizarre to reread this section during that time of the month. Find her on Twitter and Tumblr.

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