'The Handmaid's Tale' Analysis: Chapters 12-14
"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..."
Offred prepares to take a bath, which is required on nights of the Ceremony. Again, with the suicidal musings over the lack of razors, though they’re almost casual, like a fleeting thought. She describes the suicide attempts of some Handmaids, whether by exsanguinating or drowning, as “bugs” Gilead had to iron out, like it was a glitch in a computer terminal. She recalls Aunt Lydia stating that “in a bathtub, you are vulnerable” and Offred wonders what she would be vulnerable to in the bath. But a darker perspective can be taken from Cora having to supervise the bath. Quite possibly she has to watch to prevent Offred from killing herself and to ward off a certain bitter Wife from coming into the bathroom to drown her. Odds are, it’s happened before in Gilead.
She ruminates over baths, a small luxury she can take in her oppressed circumstances. She undresses, comparing Moira and Aunt Lydia in their speaking style. Moira was more brazen, saying things like “pantyhose gives you crotch rot” while Aunt Lydia shied away from crass terms and prefers the term “unhygienic.” Even the vocabulary of everyday life has changed. Talking about the female body and its many foibles, such as yeast infections and periods, has become discouraged. Such isn’t that far from the truth in conservative circles today, where men and some women act disgusted from outward talk about periods. Yet, the same conservatives want to ban abortion, but this is about analysis, not ranting. Offred reveals that Handmaids must not cut their hair, which is explained by Aunt Lydia’s allusion to Saint Paul, one of the Apostles of Jesus in the New Testament. Aunt Lydia’s “joke” pertains to Acts 18:18 when Saint Paul sails for Syria and cuts his hair as a part of the Nazarite Vows.
Offred is uncomfortable being naked, remembering when she wore bathing suits at the beach. Gilead’s modesty culture has been ingrained in her already, though she doesn’t feel shame about her naked body, she doesn’t want to see the parts of her that classify her to be in this position. Imagine being imprisoned and forced into sexual slavery for being a woman, for being a mother, for being a second wife. That is what happened to Offred.
She gets into the bath and suddenly has another memory “attack” because the soap smell reminds her of bathing her daughter. She remembers her very young when she’s in the bath. The fact that she has memories of her daughter at different ages, she reasons that she wasn’t a ghost because “if she were a ghost she would be the same age always.”
She lapses into another memory of the time a woman stole her out of a shopping cart in a grocery store. She describes a normal family shopping trip and how Luke would explain how men needed more meat than women. Luke goes through lengths to make sure the things he said were not out of sexism, but he uses a phrase that many in Gilead use as well, “studies have been done.” While he might have been unintentionally sexist, he means well and does respect his wife. He liked to say stereotypical sexist things to the narrator’s mother, who was a second-wave feminist and misandrist.
She recounts how the woman who stole her daughter had been given the child by the Lord and the narrator ruminates of how she thought was it was just one incident. Evidently, child kidnappings became more frequent leading up to the rise of Gilead. The memory of her daughter fades and she guesses that her daughter is a ghost, because Offred doesn’t remember her past the age of five when she was taken. She thinks of pictures she had of their family, how they were kept in boxes and drawers. In a way, it’s a metaphor for how her memories help her through each day. When she lays in her bed, the bath, or goes out into town, she’s rifling through boxes of her memories in her mind, trying to grasp onto her past.
Gilead is trying to dehumanize the Handmaids by eliminating their past. She remembers Aunt Lydia telling them that the Handmaids must “cultivate poverty of spirit,” also “blessed are the meek.” Offred takes note that she never finishes the Bible verse with “for they will inherit the Earth.” This is an example of how Gilead cherry-picks verses out of the Bible to suit their purpose. Handmaids aren’t allow to read, so they can’t read the verses to check on their accuracy. Also, Gilead doesn’t want Handmaids to inherit the Earth, so leaving off the rest of the verse is purposeful. By the “meek,” Gilead means the Commanders.
Offred hopes her daughter exists, not for her benefit, but of her daughter having a future. She wonders if her daughter remembers her. She reveals that she’s been in this predicament for three years, since her daughter was taken at 5-years-old and Offred reckons she’d been 8 now. She despairs, thinking that it might be better to think of her as dead. And as depressing as it is, sometimes it’s more of a comfort to hope someone is dead rather than suffering. Aunt Lydia describes it as “bashing your head against the wall” which is just like her melodramatic self.
Offred washes off, hyperbolizing about being completely without bacteria “like the surface of the moon.” She can’t wash later, after the Ceremony, or the day after, so she’s washing herself clean enough to last two days. She sees the tattoo on her ankle, her branding that reminds her that she’s a part of the system. In the Nazi concentration camps, prisoners were tattooed with alphanumerical codes to keep up with how many were being processed through the camps. “I am a national resource.” She means that her viable ovaries are the national resource.
Offred recalls a film about women being held down, presumably having their heads shaved. I’m not quite sure what film she means, though it could be her confusing films with events that actually happened. For instance, after the liberation of France in 1944, women caught having relationships with German soldiers had their heads shaved for punishment. Nazi-occupied Germany also imposed this punishment on women caught having relationships with non-Aryans.
Offred appreciates Cora for respecting her privacy, even though she has none. Cora is the nicer Martha, demonstrating that not all of Gilead’s servants are ruthless and condemning as Serena Joy and Rita. Offred thanks her, still retaining her manners. Cora gives Offred her dinner and Offred observes the food. Rita shows her disdain toward the Handmaid by how she prepares the dinner. She overcooks the chicken and sometimes leaves it rare. Offred recalls Aunt Lydia’s spiel about vitamins and minerals, how Offred is to be a “worthy vessel.” This is a society that has presumably done away with mass producing foods and switched over to organic farming. This is explored more thoroughly in the Hulu adaptation, with mentions of carbon-emissions reduced drastically, solar-power grids, and elimination of plastics.
Offred has been emotionally manipulated into thinking she has a better life than most, that she owes to thanks to God. This is a common way of brainwashing, comparisons to those classes that don’t have as many privileges as the group does. This is done in fundamentalist circles in real life. For instance, I went to a fundamentalist Christian academy that continually impressed upon us that public state schools were leading children astray, they were too diverse, and they had godless students and teachers, and corrupting curriculums. It’s also a threat, telling Handmaids that they better appreciate what they have and toe the line, or they would become Unwomen.
She eats the food, though she’s nauseated, because every aspect about her life, including her diet, is closely monitored. She debates asking Cora not to report her if she doesn’t eat all the food, but soldiers on. Her thoughts drift to what the Commander and his Wife are doing while eating dinner downstairs in their luxurious dining room. Offred supposes that the Wife would also be nervous or upset, and she, too, would be too nauseated to eat, though she can get away with it. The readers surmises that the Commander and his Wife’s relationship is strained, understandably so since the Wife has been secluded to the house, not allowed to work, read, or write. Most of the Wives probably didn’t think that the rules for lesser classes would apply to them as well. Again, this is a social commentary on how women who strive to take away basic human rights for women end up hurting themselves as well.
Offred makes a strange show of saving a pat of butter by slipping it into her spare shoe. This might seem an odd thing to do overall, but it will make sense later. The next few lines are of particular importance: “I wait. I compose myself. My self is a thing I must now compose, as one composes a speech. What I must present is a made thing, not something born.” The last sentence means she has to present herself as ready-made, open. She can’t exhibit herself as closed off and hostile, she has to be a “worthy vessel.”
PART V – “NAP”
Offred muses over her boredom, the massive amounts of time in which she can’t occupy herself with hobbies. Unlike Wives, Handmaids can’t partake in tactile crafts because they aren’t respected as people, only vessels to bear children. Offred thinks of the paintings she’s seen in art galleries of harems, which are designated parts of a house for concubines or multiple wives to live. She proposes that these male artists were fascinated by bored women, “But maybe boredom is erotic, when women do it, for men.”
She compares her bath routine to how a show animal is prepared. She likens herself to a pig, which is not far off from Gilead’s supposition of Handmaids in this society. The Narrator goes off on a tangent about pig balls, then the psychological experiments done on pigeons. The final group of pigeons she describes, the pigeons that wouldn’t give up hope for a random gift of corn, is a metaphor for the human condition, specifically how beneficial and harmful hopefulness can be. Offred jokes that she wants a pig ball. This excerpt of the novel was used in the TV adaptation in Season 2, Episode 4, “Other Women” when she’s recaptured by Gilead’s forces after her short-lived escape and held prisoner in the basement of a Rachel and Leah Center. Rather than Offred’s monologue being used as an expression of boredom, it’s out of survival, a distraction from the hopelessness she feels now that’s she back under Gilead’s oppression.
She does exercises on a mat for strengthening her back and abdominal muscles. She remembers doing such exercises back in the Red Center while listening to Les Sylphides, a popular ballet dance and song. The narrative transitions into a flashback of the Red Center, of when the Narrator and the Handmaids napped in between sessions. Comparatively, the Red Center operates like a kindergarten but for adult women. The Narrator supposes it was the Aunts getting them used to “blank time.” She remarks that the Handmaids needed the sleep, as though they were being unknowingly drugged.
The Narrator recalls when Moira was first brought into the Red Center, but the two couldn’t show any sign of knowing one another. “Friendships were suspicious, we knew it, we avoided each other during the mealtime lineups in the cafeteria and in the halls between classes.” They finally do get a chance to talk and make plans to meet each other in the bathroom. The Narrator notes that she felt safer that Moira was there, even though they were pretty much in the same situation, no matter what alliances they kept.
A particularly horrifying scene is described. The Aunts have the Handmaids do something called Testifying, in which the Handmaids are to shame one of their own for an action they did that offended Gilead’s morals. The Narrator remembers Janine, a brown-nosing Handmaid she doesn’t like, in the docket for the shaming ritual. Her “crime?” Being impregnated from a gang-rape when she was 14 and having to get an abortion. The Handmaids and Aunts then condemn her as though the rape was her fault and that she led her rapists on. This scene is not made any less terrifying and rage-inducing than its adaptation’s depiction. Ann Dowd’s portrayal of Aunt Lydia is masterful in how much she can make us hate this character. More depressing still is Janine’s acceptance of her “guilt” and the Handmaids’ tribalistic condemnation of her. “We meant it, which is the bad part. I used to think well of myself. I didn’t then.” This is evidence of the Handmaids’ indoctrination which is only exasperated in groups because not only do you have these female oppressors, you have peer pressure from the other captive women.
There’s another scene that shows how ruthless the Aunts are. A Handmaid named Dolores wets herself because the Aunt in charge wouldn’t let her go to the bathroom when she asked. She’s taken away and it’s implied she was punished, but the audience doesn’t know how, which somehow makes it even worse. The Narrator manages to get permission to go the bathroom. The Narrator notes how the bathrooms used to be for boys and she makes a morbid observation of the urinals as “babies’ coffins.” She muses over how men seem to nonchalantly be naked in front of other men. “What is it for? What purpose of reassurance does it serve? The flashing of a badge, look, everyone, all is in order, I belong here.” She applies this logic to women, how they don’t seem have to prove to each other that they’re women. (I would argue this as not exactly being true, but that’s another rant.) Now, that the Narrator lives in a society where their gender and past “indiscretions” determine how they dress and what limited power they hold within this androcentric theocracy. There’s a hole in the wall of a toilet stall, a hole that has crude past connotations, but serves as a means for Handmaids to talk with one another privately. The Narrator talks with Moira and the flashback ends.
She centers herself in reality, describing it as sinking down into a swamp. “Treacherous ground, my own territory.” She doesn’t feel safe where she is in the Commander’s home, because she really isn’t safe. She’s being confined in this house as a breeding slave and only given a few chances to get pregnant before she’s sent away as disposable. “I become the earth I set my ear against, for rumors of the future.” Meaning that her future is contingent on her success in getting pregnant. “Each twinge, each murmur of slight pain, ripples of sloughed-off matter, swellings and diminishings of tissue, the droolings of the flesh, these are signs, these are the things I need to know about.” Pertaining to her menstrual cycle, specifically cramps, swollen tissues such as breasts, and the sloughing off of uterine layer that defines the blood seen during a menstrual period. She speaks of being terrified of her periods, because their presence means that she has failed to become pregnant once more and she’s only given a few chances.
She mourns the use of her body, how she used to have autonomy of how she used it. Through several metaphors and similes, she compares her body as something cosmological that marks time. “Every month there is a moon, gigantic, round, heavy, an omen. It transmits, pauses, continues on and passes out of sight, and I see despair coming towards me like a famine.” The moon cycle has been a symbol of femininity, occultism, menstruation, and fertility for many ages. She describes herself as being empty, meaning not pregnant, which is her only salvation in this regime. She lapses back into her old life, only this time it’s not a flashback as much as it is a cleaving onto her old life. She “sees” Luke in her vision, not giving eye contact, rather he’s staring down at a cat. She calls out to him, but he’s not listening, symbolizing how the Narrator believes him to be dead and unreachable.
This vision turns into a flashback of the Narrator running through a forest with her daughter, presumably trying to escape from Gilead forces. The Narrator was considered an adulteress because she was having an affair with a married man, so the newfound Gilead regime tracked her down and took her daughter. She’s desperate in her efforts and her daughter begins crying. She crouches down to hide and she tries to hush her daughter, but she’s too young to understand the desperation of the moment. “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…” This represents how she and her daughter are separated, both physically and emotionally. She wakes up in tears and this marks the end of the chapter.
VI – HOUSEHOLD
Back in the present, she goes downstairs, into the sitting room. She describes the room as money being frozen, indicating that it is an old house owned by many people throughout the decades. She views a painting in the room displaying two women in dark dresses “like the ones in the old church” which a clue that implies this is a painting of Puritan women. Margaret Atwood took inspiration for her book from Puritan culture, namely the dress style, theocratic laws, and oppression of women.
Serena Joy’s presence is always accompanied by Lily of the Valley perfume. Lilies of the Valley are associated with Christian lore, particularly a tale of Mary, mother of Jesus, crying upon the ground at the Crucifixion and such Lilies grew from where her tears fell. The Wives’ blue dresses symbolize Mary, the Marthas’ green represents Martha from the Bible, and the Handmaids’ red alludes to Mary Magdelene. So, where does that leave Jesus? Could the Commanders really be so delusional to think they are Christlike?
She kneels in her designated place, awaiting Serena Joy and the Commander to begin the Ceremony. Each Ceremony begins with a reading of the Genesis chapters featured in the foreword of the novel. All of the household has to gather on these nights of the Ceremony, to which Rita resents. She thinks of Offred as a waste of time, but it is obliged like the rest of the household to attend. Nick the Guardian also has to be present and he prods the back of Offred’s shoes with the toe of his boot, an attempt at flirting, but in this context sounds like he’s taking advantage of the situation. Offred ruefully regards Serena’s dress of flowers, implying that she’s withered, meaning barren. Offred says in her monologue that flower petals are the genital organs of plants, ironic when you consider the repressed culture of Gilead.
Serena Joy smokes, which seems counter-intuitive to Gilead regime. Even second-hand smoke can harm an unborn baby and harm people within their general proximity. Alcoholic beverages are also allowed, counter to evangelical culture which sees smoking and alcohol as sinful vices. Whereas the oppressed women have had every vice, good or bad, taken from them and outlawed, the elite still get to drink, smoke, and do other heretical things because of their influence. This is an impression of how the power dynamics of Gilead works – the higher your status, the more things can be swept under the rug.
Serena turns on the television, which shows only Gilead sanctioned channels. Serena flips through the channels and pauses on a preacher, whom Offred thinks he and the rest of the preachers look like businessman, which in a sense, they are. The Narrator debates whether the news is even true, a sign that the media has been severely censored. A civil war is still being waged between Gilead and other sects, such as the Baptists. The full job title of the Angels is “Angels of the Apocalypse” and possibly the “Angels of Light” refer to their airforce. Only victories are shown on the news, never defeats, another clue of the propaganda Gilead is spreading. An anchor describes a group of Quakers being arrested who were smuggling Handmaids to Canada. The Republic of Gilead outlawed any sect of Christianity and other religions than their own brand of doctrine
In the novel, Gilead is not only severely misogynistic, they are also white supremacists. Black people are referred to as the “Children of Ham” and are relocated to National Homeland One, a name possibly alluding to Airstrip One in George Orwell’s 1984. Offred once again dissociates when Serena Joy turns off the television. She describes her true name like a magical talisman, something to keep her anchored to her true self. She describes her daughter as dead, though she might mean in the sense like the Aunts were suggesting. The sentimentality of remembering her daughter’s dolls has her near tears.
The Narrator describes the moments that led up to her capture and separation from her daughter. She was terrified that they would be caught at any time. “That is how I feel: white, flat, thin. I feel transparent. Surely they will be able to see through me.” She’s worried she won’t be able to lie convincingly enough. Every single aspect even before the Gilead takeover was monitored, including happiness because happiness could mean that people were escaping.