Ofwarren fulfills her purpose on the Birth Day, the kind of day that is hoped for by all of Gilead and that brings the Handmaids together to help bring new life into the Republic. Later, Offred finds herself in a completely unexpected—and incredibly illicit—situation alone with the Commander, as he asks for something ridiculous and demands something illegal.
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.
Offred lies in bed after Nick kisses her in the sitting room, still trembling with the visceral desire to be with someone. She reflects that you can’t actually die from lack of sex—”it’s lack of love we die from.” She could touch herself, but her body feels like “something deserted.” She craves another body to wrap her arms around, to be close to.
She believes in three different fates for Luke: He was shot in the head when she and their daughter were captured; his body is decomposing in the forest, rejoining the earth, his face fading (both physically and from her memory). He is a prisoner somewhere, aged ten years from physical labor or punishment; he wonders why he has been kept alive, what his fate holds. He got away and made contact with the resistance.
In the third scenario, he will send her a message, hidden in some mundane daily detail like her food or shopping trips:
The message will say that I must have patience: sooner or later he will get me out, we will find her, wherever they’ve put her. She’ll remember us and we will be all three of us together. Meanwhile I must endure, keep myself safe for later. What has happened to me, what’s happening to me now, won’t make any difference to him, he loves me anyway, he knows it isn’t my fault. The message will say that also. It’s this message, which may never arrive, that keeps me alive. I believe in the message.
Offred believes in all three versions of Luke at the same time, because the contradiction allows her to believe in something: “Whatever the truth is, I will be ready for it.”
She wonders if Luke hopes.
Reading about the three Lukes, I couldn’t help but think about the belief in multiple soulmates—that various circumstances, decisions, and timing could arrange different but equally complementary partners for someone. It’s not what Offred means here—her coping mechanism is more about not being taken aback if and when she finds out his fate—but the truth is, even if all three of them were reunited, they would not be the same people as before. I wonder what the three versions of June that Luke believes in are: an Unwoman working in the colonies until the labor or the pollution kills her? A Jezebel?
There is something so tragic yet sweet about how Offred conducts these imaginary conversations with Luke in which she asks his forgiveness for what she’s done during the time they were apart.
Can I be blamed for wanting a real body, to put my arms around? Without it I, too, am disembodied.
The use of disembodied was especially striking, because of all of the focus there is on the Handmaids’ bodies. And yet, they only truly matter when someone else is inside them: men impregnating them, or babies growing in their wombs.
Offred’s similarly strong belief in the resistance is a callback both to the war stories she watched on television in Part VI and the pornography that the Handmaids-in-training are forced to watch at the Red Center in Part VIII: images and agendas presented as truth, meant to shock and appall, pointed to as justification for all manner of sins. And yet, Offred has grown to expect the existence of the resistance, as integral to the Republic of Gilead’s workings as the Angels and the Eyes:
I believe in the resistance as I believe there can be no light without shadow; or rather, no shadow unless there is also light. There must be a resistance, or where do all the criminals come from, on the television?
As Moira says in the next part, it could all be actors on a set. As Offred says, it’s hard to tell.
VIII: Birth Day
Offred’s entire daily routine is completely thrown off by a Birth Day—expected but unpredictable as to when it falls, and requiring the full attention of every Handmaid in the area. The red Birthmobile picks up Offred and the others, stopping at each home with a siren that seems to scream Make way, make way! (Which sounds rather similar to “Mayday”…) Some of the Handmaids laugh, others cry, others pray; they can chatter amongst themselves and furtively try to find friends, as Offred asks one to look out for Moira. On a Birth Day, Offred reflects, “we can do anything we want.” Then immediately revises that: “within limits.”
A flashback to the Red Center fills in some of the worldbuilding regarding infertility in the Republic of Gilead: There is a one-in-four chance that babies will be born with deformities, unable to survive outside of the womb. There was no one cause, but excessive levels of pollution and radiation (including exploded atomic plants along the San Andreas fault, triggered by earthquakes), plus a nasty syphilis mutation, conspired to hinder women’s chances to give birth. The Handmaids, then, are the “shock troops” who “march out in advance, into dangerous territory” to try and bring new life into the world. And if they don’t, well, the Unbabies are quickly and quietly disposed of.
They are taken to the home of Commander Warren, which is much more ostentatious than that of Offred’s Commander. The Wife of Warren and Ofwarren (formerly known as the sniveling Janine) both wear cotton nightgowns; but while Ofwarren is struggling through contractions in the master bedroom, the Wife is downstairs among the other Wives, who pat her tiny belly as if she too is giving birth.
Offred’s focus is on Ofwarren, as the Handmaids surround her in a ritual that is both supportive (chanting, guiding her with their voices) verging on hysterical, as they all feel phantom pregnancy symptoms: pain in their wombs, swollen breasts, as if they too are giving birth.
Another flashback: Aunt Lyda showing the Handmaids-in-training the incredibly violent pornography but also showing them film reels of Unwomen—that is, feminists like Offred’s mother (who she glimpses more than once) marching for Take Back the Night, against rape and domestic abuse. Oddly, some of the signs haven’t been censored, though Offred wonders if this is an oversight or a warning. But these images are muted, as they don’t want them to hear what the Unwomen are saying.
“Breathe, breathe,” the Handmaids encourage Ofwarren. “Hold, hold. Expel, expel, expel.” Janine is in agony, as no anesthetics are allowed (I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children), but the Handmaids help her to the Birthing Stool. This strange two-seated chair mimics the Ceremony in that the Wife of Warren perches on the higher seat, holding Ofwarren between her legs as if the baby girl who emerges came from her own womb. To wit, the other Wives take over, handing the baby to the Wife as if she has just labored. The Handmaids stand around Janine, still crying helplessly, to block out the painful sight.
Back at the Commander’s home, Offred is off the hook for chores or other household duties… except for the Commander’s strange command to join her in his office. She is terrified, but she cannot refuse him… and on top of that, she’s curious about what he wants from her, because wanting is a weakness that conversely gives her power.
What he wants is someone to play Scrabble with.
Offred could shriek with laughter, she’s so relieved. At any rate, it’s still illegal for her to stare at the letters, to form words with them: Valance. Quince. Zygote. Limp. Gorge. She wins the first game and lets him win the second. They are co-conspirators.
Then he says, “I want you to kiss me.” This more than anything else, she cannot refuse. But he’s sad, because he wants her to kiss him like she means it.
This, like much of this part, is a reconstruction.
It’s interesting that Offred makes the distinction between these parts being reconstructions, which would imply that she was not able to record them until later, when she had to recreate the memories but could also interject more perspective thanks to hindsight. With theories about these chapters being out of order, perhaps this section of the book reflects the point where Offred begins recording The Handmaid’s Tale:
When I get out of here, if I’m ever able to set this down, in any form, even in the form of one voice to another, it will be a reconstruction then too, at yet another remove. It’s impossible to say a thing exactly the way it was, because what you say can never be exact, you always have to leave something out, there are too many parts, sides, crosscurrents, nuances; too many gestures, which would mean this or that, too many shapes which can never be fully described, too many flavors, in the air or on the tongue, half-colors, too many. But if you happen to be a man, sometime in the future, and you’ve made it this far, please remember: you will never be subject to the temptation or feeling you must forgive, a man, as a woman. It’s difficult to resist, believe me. But remember that forgiveness too is a power. To beg for it is a power, and to withhold or bestow it is a power, perhaps the greatest.
If you consider The Handmaid’s Tale (that is, Offred’s recordings) within the context of the symposium at the end, “even in the form of one voice to another” is how her story does get told, though unfortunately she’s not present to join in the conversation.
Offred looks to the past a lot in these two parts; it seems to be her way of disconnecting from the very visceral moments in the present—the smell, the chanting, the blood, the pain—though she does always return and recenter herself as needed.
Not a hope. I know where I am, and who, and what day it is. These are the tests, and I am sane. Sanity is a valuable possession; I hoard it the way people once hoarded money. I save it, so I will have enough, when the time comes.
I had forgotten how grotesque the Wife’s part of the Birth Day is, how the other Wives coo over her while letting the Handmaids do their work. On the one hand, the Aunts have reminded the Handmaids and us to be sympathetic to everything the Wives go through, as these women they consider sluts and rejects get to have the glory of bearing new life. But on the other hand, it seems vain, desperate, in denial about the reality of Gilead.
Offred’s flashbacks to her mother are a part of the book I had completely forgotten, that I found so affecting on this latest read. I’d like to talk about that more in the comments, but it is so striking that Offred’s mother made a point of being a single mother, having no interest in keeping Offred’s father in the picture, and that Offred would argue “I’m not the justification for your existence” when that’s exactly what has happened to the Handmaids:
What confronts us, now the excitement’s over, is our own failure. Mother, I think. Wherever you may be. Can you hear me? You wanted a women’s culture. Well, now there is one. It isn’t what you meant, but it exists. Be thankful for small mercies.
Thankfully, a small comfort in this women’s culture is figures like Moira, who we discover escaped the Red Center in the most badass way possible: by fashioning a shiv out of a toilet lever and stealing an Aunt’s clothing, then walking right out there like she knew exactly who she was. Her escapade, which gets passed down from Aunt Lydia through tattletale Janine to the other women to try and suss out Moira’s accomplice(s), instead becomes a piece of hope, turning her into a Joan of Arc-esque figure of resistance.