Rereading The Handmaid’s Tale

Rereading The Handmaid’s Tale: Parts XIII-XIV

For all that we have lived the Handmaids’ bizarre, horrifying existence for the past three-quarters of this novel, now we come to “these red events, like explosions, on streets otherwise decorous and matronly and somnambulent”—the true demonstrations of Gilead’s power over its people. This week, Offred is tempted away from Ofglen’s rebellion and toward the life she’s begun to make for herself… until she attends a Salvaging and a Particicution.

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 XIII: Night

Summary

Like Cinderella, Offred had to be back from Jezebel’s by midnight, because that’s when Serena Joy comes for her. The sequined getup discarded, the lipstick scraped off, she has replaced her Handmaid outfit just in time for Serena Joy to lead her out of the house and across the yard to where Nick stays. Well, Serena Joy stays put in the kitchen to deter Rita or Cora; Offred must walk across the compound, terrified the searchlights will catch her or she’ll get shot, despite the Wife’s assurances that she’s okayed it all. Offred wonders how Serena Joy convinced the Guardians monitoring the premises to look the other way; did she pay them, or will they get the next crack at Offred if sleeping with Nick doesn’t work?

Nick opens the door to his bachelor pad. They don’t speak. They have sex while the lightning flashes and the thunder roars and it’s poetic and love is back and…

I made that up, Offred tells us. It didn’t happen that way. Here is what happened.

He offers her a cigarette, she’s awkward, he cracks a mean joke about just being used for his sperm. They transition into cheesy, porny chatter, but this helps them find a common ground and address the ridiculousness of their situation. They’re upfront:

“No romance,” he says. “Okay?”

That would have meant something else, once. Once it would have meant: no strings. Now it means: no heroics. It means: don’t risk yourself for me, if it should come to that.

And so it goes. And so.

It didn’t happen that way either, Offred admits. I’m not sure how it happened; not exactly. All I can hope for is a reconstruction: the way love feels is always only appropriate.

Perhaps she doesn’t remember because she blocked out everything but the sounds she made, the sounds of enjoyment that felt like the hugest betrayal.

Commentary

What peculiar timing that the Commander and Serena Joy are both manipulating things so that Offred will have two instances of forbidden sex the day before the Ceremony. It’s a bizarre reversal of the “one man, two woman” fantasy that is supposedly offered to the Commander, but in both instances, she is coerced: the Commander expecting a fantasy when he takes her out of the house, Serena Joy expecting her supposedly fertile body to fulfill the duty for which it was designated. In both instances, Offred does what she’s told because if she refuses, she’ll be sent to a place where her body will be used up like her mother’s, or like Moira’s.

I really like that Offred is being more transparent about the reconstructions. Otherwise, what’s the point of pulling back the veil to reveal that these are imperfect retellings? Of course the first time she talks about a sex scene, it sounds like purple prose from someone who didn’t actually experience this intimate, private moment. The second time is similarly fake, like a romantic comedy: all banter and talking around the act itself. Rather than rack her brain for the truth of it, she claims not to remember. Perhaps she truly blocked it away, out of her own guilt at betraying Luke; perhaps she wanted to hoard it to herself, like her butter or match stick, to be pulled out and revisited on her own terms.

The amount of hindsight in this reconstruction seems higher than in the others. While the Historical Notes will tell us that we can never know the true order of Offred’s account, I have to imagine that this was near the end. She seems more willing to excavate her Gilead-era memories, to deconstruct them and comment on what she finds, instead of merely escaping into pre-Gilead memories. Though she also says things like this:

I would like to be without shame. I would like to be shameless. I would like to be ignorant. Then I would not know how ignorant I was.

While Offred ties ignorance to shame here, I couldn’t help but think back to her challenge to the Commander of “I want to know what’s going on” and read the above line as her wishing to go back to blissful ignorance, before she became some sort of chess piece (or Scrabble tile?) for the two heads of her household. It’s worth noting that Serena Joy does not approach Offred about Nick until after she demands knowledge from the Commander. If anything, Serena Joy’s confirmation that she is willing to do anything for a baby is more of a revelation than the Commander’s field trip to Jezebel’s. Could the Commander and Serena Joy be in on it together?

 

Part XIV: Salvaging

Summary

Offred and Nick don’t just sleep together the one time to conceive: She goes back to him, over and over, without Serena Joy’s permission or knowledge. She takes risks sneaking across the courtyard at night, gets reckless in her desire to snatch spare time in Nick’s arms. Whereas she closes her eyes with the Commander during even the good-night kiss, she always keeps them open with Nick. It’s not just her body she shares with him:

I tell him my real name, and feel that therefore I am known. I act like a dunce. I should know better. I make of him an idol, a cardboard cutout.

He on the other hand talks little: no more hedging or jokes. He barely asks questions. He seems indifferent to most of what I have to say, alive only to the possibilities of my body, though he watches me while I’m speaking. He watches my face.

Impossible to think that anyone for whom I feel such gratitude could betray me.

Neither of us says the word love, not once. It would be tempting fate; it would be romance, bad luck.

Ofglen has also grown bolder: On their daily walks, she bugs Offred to snoop in the Commander’s office and find something, anything. But Offred can’t be moved to care, though she pretends that it’s fear that paralyzes her. Ofglen says that should things go sideways, “[w]e can get people out if we really have to, if they’re in danger. Immediate danger.” But Offred doesn’t feel in danger; she doesn’t want to leave Nick, especially since she wants to believe that they were successful conceiving:

I put his hand on my belly. It’s happened, I say. I feel it has. A couple of weeks and I’ll be certain.

This I know is wishful thinking.

He’ll love you to death, he says. So will she.

But it’s yours, I say. It will be yours, really. I want it to be.

We don’t pursue this, however.

In short, Offred thinks, I have made a life for myself, here, of a sort. Sensing her lack of engagement, Ofglen begins pulling back. Offred feels relief.

The women of the area are summoned to a district Salvaging. Unlike the Ceremony, this does not happen regularly; unlike the Birth Days, they have no real warning. They find out about Salvagings the day before—perhaps to time it with ideal weather conditions, perhaps to keep them psychologically on their toes. The Handmaids are also not given breakfast on Salvaging days.

Women’s Salvagings are not frequent (“[t]hese days we are so well behaved”), but today’s subjects are interesting: a Handmaid and two Wives. Aunt Lydia from the Red Center comes swanning out to preside over the Salvaging, and despite rubbing their noses in the fact that she gets the obscene pleasure of reading the women’s crimes, she chooses not to. Or rather, the powers that be have decided to discontinue the practice of reading out the crimes. So now all the observers can do is speculate: Offred thinks that one of the Handmaids, Ofcharles, may have been guilty of Unchastity or trying to murder either her Commander or his Wife. As for the sole Wife up on the stage, there’s only one real, punishable offense: “They can do almost anything to us, but they aren’t allowed to kill us, not legally. Not with knitting needles or garden shears, or knives purloined from the kitchen, and especially not when we are pregnant.” That, or adultery.

The women are hanged, to later be placed on the Wall.

Then, there’s a little “treat”—a Particicution. Out comes a male prisoner, a former Guardian who raped a woman at gunpoint so brutally that she lost her baby. The Handmaids do not like this:

A sigh goes up from us; despite myself I feel my hands clench. It is too much, this violation. The baby too, after what we go through. It’s true, there is a bloodlust; I want to tear, gouge, rend.

Aunt Lydia reminds them of the rules: “You will wait until I blow the whistle. After that, what you do is up to you, until I blow the whistle again.” What used to signal a game of volleyball, forever ago, now gives the Handmaids carte blanche to tear the man apart. While Offred holds herself back, Ofglen pushes past everyone and kicks the man until he’s screaming, and then not. When Offred tries to yell at her about being an animal, Ofglen reveals that this man “wasn’t a rapist at all, he was a political. He was one of ours. I knocked him out. Put him out of his misery. Don’t you know what they’re doing to him?”

After Aunt Lydia blows the whistle, some Guardians have to step in to pull the more bloodthirsty Handmaids off the corpse; others have fainted. Janine has completely lost it (“[h]er eyes have come loose”): She babbles nonsense, back in her customer-service days.

The next morning, Ofglen has been replaced: Offred’s walking partner is still Ofglen, but she’s a different woman in looks and personality. Now Offred is in the same position as the former Ofglen, trying to sniff out her companion for signs of resistance or the marks of a true believer:

“I’ve only known her since May,” I say. I can feel my skin growing hot, my heart speeding up. This is tricky. For one thing, it’s a lie. And how do I get from there to the next vital word? “Around the first of May I think it was. What they used to call May Day.”

“Did they?” she says, light, indifferent, menacing. “That isn’t a term I remember. I’m surprised you do. You ought to make an effort…” She pauses. “To clear your mind of such…” She pauses again. “Echoes.”

Now I feel cold, seeping over my skin like water. What she is doing is warning me.

She isn’t one of us. But she knows.

While Offred is panicking that she’s crossed the line of recklessness—that “they” will conjure up her daughter, or Luke, or Moira, and make her choose between them—the new Ofglen leaves her with a brief moment of mercy:

Then she does an odd thing. She leans forward, so that the stiff white blinkers on our heads are almost touching, so that I can see her pale beige eyes up close, the delicate web of lines across her cheeks, and whispers, very quickly, her voice faint as dry leaves. “She hanged herself,” she says. “After the Salvaging. She saw the van coming for her. It was better.”

Offred is relieved (and guilty at her relief) that Ofglen is dead and therefore can’t give her away. She also, despite herself, is overcome with the desire to give up, to abandon all of her hopes and sever all of her ties to her old life, to keep her head down.

Back at the house, she encounters Serena Joy, who is furious: She’s found the blue wool cloak that the Commander pilfered for their trip to Jezebel’s—and, the biggest of clichés, the lipstick on the collar gave it away. She’s furious at Offred’s vulgarity and the Commander’s insatiable desires outside of Gilead’s rules, but most of all she seems personally offended: “You could have left me something.”

Offred returns to her room, “orderly and calm,” to await her fate.

Commentary

I wish this story were different. I wish it were more civilized. I wish it showed me in a better light if not happier, then at least more active, less hesitant, less distracted by trivia. I wish it had more shape. I wish it were about love, or about sudden realizations important to one’s life, or even about sunsets, birds, rainstorms, or snow.

Maybe it is about those things, in a way; but in the meantime there is so much else getting in the way, so much whispering, so much speculation about others, so much gossip that cannot be verified, so many unsaid words, so much creeping about and secrecy. And there is so much time to be endured, time heavy as fried food or thick fog; and then all at once these red events, like explosions, on streets otherwise decorous and matronly and somnambulent.

I’m sorry there is so much pain in this story. I’m sorry it’s in fragments, like a body caught in crossfire or pulled apart by force. But there is nothing I can do to change it.

I’ve tried to put some of the good things in as well. Flowers, for instance, because where would we be without them?

Whether or not this was the last part that Offred recorded, this is her conclusion, her goodbye. She’s examining the narrative as a whole and finding that it’s not the story she wanted to be telling, but it’s what happened. It’s fascinating that the flowers were a motif that she added retroactively, for texture and for a little bit of hope. Which of course now gets me thinking on Ophelia’s famous flowers speech (There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance. Pray you, love, remember. And there is pansies, that’s for thoughts…), though that one is more ominous considering Ophelia’s fate. Part of what made her speech in Hamlet so memorable is who she gives the flowers to; if I had more time, I’d go back through the book and see who Offred associated with which flower, or which blooms matched Serena Joy at which points in the narrative.

Why did Offred have to tell her story over and over again? Was she tortured by the Eyes into giving information, or interrogated by the Underground Femaleroad for insights into her household? I haven’t (re)read ahead to the Historical Notes yet, so I’m operating from memory here. Having Ofglen grilling her for any little bit of intel on the Commander, contrasted with Nick’s orders to “[k]eep on doing everything exactly the way you were before,” makes Offred seem like a double agent working for two handlers.

But is she really pregnant? Or is that just an excuse to turn away from the resistance, to embrace complacency? Offred should know better that the “life she’s made for herself” will only extend a few more months, and then she’ll give birth and, whether the baby is healthy or a shredder, be transferred. She acts like the pregnancy puts down roots (the way that we would regard such a life event today), but it’s all temporary.

I remember the Salvaging and Particicution being so much bigger on previous reads, probably because there’s so much build-up to the former (with Offred’s frequent visits to the Wall), and because the latter is just such a chilling portmanteau of dystopian life. At first I felt weirdly let down by what was “just” a public hanging, the precursor to the bodies that have been part of Offred’s daily observations—especially because we don’t even find out what their supposed crimes were, when every time she saw men hanging on the Wall they were costumed and color-coded for their sins.

Then I realized how insidious and manipulative it is for the Aunts, the closest thing to maternal figures in this book, to “protect” the women by not contextualizing the crimes. (It’s especially messed up that Aunt Lydia makes a show of reading the paper and then withholding that information.) Now we are left to our own devices, Offred thinks, our own speculations. Which, of course, are so much worse than the truth, colored as they are by the women’s individual fears, resentments, and traumas. Considering that women are second-class citizens at best (and much worse depending on where they’re placed in the hierarchy), simply declaring their crimes makes them automatically sympathetic: They exist in a system of oppression, so there’s an automatic level of understanding and empathy if they attempted to murder their Commander or had an affair for an emotional escape. Through them, Offred thinks, we show ourselves what we might be capable of, after all. By withholding that information, the Aunts break the Handmaids down into individuals with no support network.

But then they do the complete inverse with the Particicution: They bring in one man, they detail his crimes so that they strike the same chord (It is too much, this violation) with each and every woman, and then they goad the mob into descending upon him.

Participatory execution—it has both the eerie ring of a kindergarten lesson (let’s all work together, children) and the ominously alien sound of Atwood’s many famous portmanteau from Oryx and Crake, which helped along the downfall of human civilization in that trilogy. The Particicution sublimates the Handmaids’ aggression by giving them a singular, morally reprehensible target to distract from the higher-ups who run Gilead. The added detail of the miscarriage is something they all feel so deep in their bones that they forget to feel that same sense of injustice about the people who put them in this position in the first place.

I could have sworn that I remembered Offred being part of the Particicution; and in my version of events, I still forgave her for being part of the brutal mob. Instead, she holds herself back, and even looks down on Ofglen when she thinks that the latter gave in to the bloodlust. While I was oddly disappointed to realize it was not as I remembered, here’s another case where the truth was more devastating. Because Offred just about gives up. Not immediately after the Particicution, but after she almost risks everything with the new Ofglen’s warning. That brush with danger, that chance of losing everything in her meager existence, is enough to have her bargaining with God (just like she was when they were trying to cross the border) and crumbling under the weight of Gilead’s oppression:

Dear God, I think, I will do anything you like. Now that you’ve let me off, I’ll obliterate myself, if that’s what you really want; I’ll empty myself, truly, become a chalice. I’ll give up Nick. I’ll forget about the others. I’ll stop complaining. I’ll accept my lot. I’ll sacrifice. I’ll repent. I’ll abdicate. I’ll renounce.

I know this can’t be right but I think it anyway. Everything they taught at the Red Center, everything I’ve resisted, comes flooding in. I don’t want pain. I don’t want to be a dancer, my feet in the air, my head a faceless oblong of white cloth. I don’t want to be a doll hung up on the Wall, I don’t want to be a wingless angel. I want to keep on living, in any form. I resign my body freely, to the uses of others. They can do what they like with me. I am abject.

I feel, for the first time, their true power.

Can we blame her for being tempted to complacency, to putting her head down if it means her survival? Can you justify giving up the fight because you’ve found a way to cope?

Fortunately/unfortunately, Offred’s moment of resignation is short-lived: Serena Joy has found out about her betrayal. So, that blows my theory about her and the Commander being in on it out of the water. It sounds as if she had her inklings, with her comment of “I told him…” To stop after the last one? To have his silly Scrabble games but keep something sacred? I actually felt for her with “you could have left me something.” For all of the Commander’s “woe is me, my wife doesn’t understand me,” we have no indication that he’s actually expressed any of this to Serena Joy, that he tried to fix it before fixating on the Handmaids. It’s one thing to use Offred as a womb to be inseminated, but then he began engaging her mind, and the rest of her body. It’s the difference between an affair that’s just sex and one that becomes emotional—similar, I would imagine, to how her relationship with Luke began. First it was illicit trysts in a hotel room, and then their world expanded to the point where he left his wife entirely, not just for those stolen afternoons.

I’m looking forward to how the TV adaptation handles the relationship between Serena Joy and Offred, especially by making them the same age. Not least because Yvonne Strahovski is portraying her, but I think that we’ll gain a lot more sympathy for Serena Joy as she watches her position as Wife be slowly chipped away by this intruder.

 

All of a sudden, we’re almost to the end of the novel! There’s one more Night, and then the Historical Notes.

Natalie Zutter hopes that this reread, if not perfect, has matched the original story she wanted to tell. Find her on Twitter and Tumblr.

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