'The Handmaid's Tale' Analysis: Chapters 15-17
"I knew they made that up, I knew it was wrong, and they left things out too, but there was no way of checking. 'Blessed be those that mourn, for they shall be comforted.' Nobody said when."
The Ceremony continues. Blink and you’ll miss it, but there’s a clever bit of subtle dramatic metaphor in how the scene is set up. The Commander must knock on the sitting room door to enter, the sitting room being described as “Serena Joy’s territory” in which “he’s supposed to ask permission to enter it.” The Commander enters the room without her permission, foreshadowing what exactly this Ceremony entails. Offred muses over this “protocol,” wondering if it’s because of a domestic spat over dinner.
Offred compares the Commander to several elderly male archetypes, an attempt to humanize him in her mind. She describes him like a man who’s gone to seed, similar to his barren wife with severe arthritis. Offred offers the assumption that the Commander thinks of his household as possessions, not individual people, indicated by the line “…as if we are something he inherited, like a Victorian pump organ, and he hasn’t figured out what to do with us. What we are worth.” This displays how the society of Gilead has been determined to objectify not just women, but anyone who the elite view as unworthy. Fertile women are counted as resources, Wives and Marthas as servants, and Guardians and Angels are the protectors.
The Commander has the only key to the box containing a Bible. Women are not permitted to read or write in this society because the men view them as intellectually inferior. Also, by limiting the people who can read the Bible, they can push forward their own warped interpretations of scripture in order to benefit their own ideals and corrupt practices.
Offred supposes her own peculiar theory of the Commander’s predicament of being watched by women all the time: “…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…” It’s not hard to pick up which part of the male anatomy this describes. She might not be outright saying it, but the insinuation is deliberate. “To achieve vision in this way, this journey into a darkness that is composed of women, a woman, who can see in darkness while he himself strains blindly forward.” Possibly, this symbolizes the true intellect of an oppressed woman, who understands blatantly why and how she’s being oppressed while the oppressor remains ignorant of his own tyrannical nature, whether intentionally or unintentionally.
The Commander begins to read and Offred briefly notes each Biblical allusion that has codified into law by Gilead. The Biblical quotations listed at the foreword of the novel, the main verse that Gilead’s Handmaid system is built upon: “And so Rachel said unto Jacob, ‘Give me children, or else I die.’ Am I in God’s stead, who hath withheld thee from thee the fruit of the womb? Behold my maid, Bilhah. She shall bear upon my knees, that I may also have children by her.”
This Biblical verse reminds the Narrator of her Red Center days, when they had the Bible verses read to them. She mentions that many of the verses are wrong, illuminating that Gilead warps the scripture to their own advantage in order to teach their own propaganda. She remembers a time in which her and Moira meet in the restroom to talk through the stalls. Moira pledges to stop taking her vitamins so she can escape Aunt Lydia’s preaching during her time at the hospital. The Narrator doesn’t want to be alone, pleading with Moira not to do this. Moira deliberates on the Guardians and how she could escape by exchanging sexual favors with them. This desperation is typical of people having to live constantly in survival mode, willing to do things they wouldn’t in normal circumstances for little liberties or to keep their captors from hurting them.
Offred comes out of her reverie. This switching back and forth from current happenings to memories is intentional because Offred is dissociating, another psychological effect that happens during personal traumas. The Commander finishes reading and Serena Joy is crying. Not only is she crying because she desperately wants a child, she will also have to participate in the rape ritual while Offred lies in her lap, which she sees as a crime of infidelity rather than rape. Gilead propagates the belief that rape is the woman’s fault because she “lead them on” by dressing promiscuously and living ungodly lives. Serena Joy also doesn’t value Offred as a person, merely a vessel to contain “her” future child.
While the Commander leads group prayer, the Narrator remembers the outcome of Moira’s plan. She remembers Aunts dragging Moira in, as Moira was having trouble walking, and to the Science Lab. For her rebellion, she had her feet whipped by steel cables. We get the chilling line by Aunt Lydia: “Remember…for our purposes, your feet and your hands are not essential.”
Offred prays, asking God if this is what he wanted. The Commander then ends the prayer, bringing Offred back to the present.
Offred describes the Ceremony very bluntly. “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.” She deliberates on what else this action could be called, besides very obviously being raped. She implies that it isn’t rape, because this is the life she chose. Though I would personally argue that if the choices were either dying slowly in the radioactive Colony work camps or being a sex slave to an elite family, that’s not really a choice.
Serena Joy is gripping her wrists, which signifies them being “as one flesh.” Offred’s description of the Commander’s rutting implies that all pleasure, joy, and reciprocal satisfaction has been eliminated, sexual intercourse restricted to only procreation. This type of joyless sex has become mundane for the Commander and Offred tries to distance herself from her body during the rape by focusing on her surroundings and memories of better times. “This is not recreation, even for the Commander. This is serious business. The Commander, too, is doing his duty.”
Finally, the Commander finishes, redresses, and leaves the room. Serena Joy immediately dismisses Offred. Surprisingly, Offred feels the slightest bit of empathy for her. In a way, Serena Joy is being violated, too. She’s being forced to participate in the systematic rape of another woman, though she won’t consciously admit it. By becoming one flesh with Offred, she’s also being raped. “Which of us it is worse for, her or me?” Seems like a silly question. Of course, Offred has it worse. But consider Serena Joy’s lot in life. She sacrificed her career, her marriage, and her personal freedoms just for this to be the outcome. You might say she deserves it, being a perpetrator of misogyny and rape, but she was fooled into believing she would have more liberties as a Wife.
Offred returns to her room and retrieves the butter she stored away earlier. Handmaids use butter as makeshift lotion because they aren’t allowed any beauty products, a decree put forward by the Wives. Commander’s Wives hate having to share their husbands so they make sure the Handmaids don’t get any advantages over them. “As long as we do this, butter our skin to keep it soft, we can believe that we will some day get out, that we will be touched again, in love or desire. We have ceremonies of our own, private ones.”
Offred lies back on her bed, appreciating the view of the moon outside her bedroom window. She laments her husband, mourning the loss of both him and being valued as more than a portable womb. She gets the urge to steal something, to exercise any form of free will. She sneaks downstairs and steals a single withering daffodil. This could be interpreted as Offred taking something from Serena Joy sense she (Serena) had taken all her freedoms. Offred then realizes that she’s not alone. It’s Nick and after a brief conversation, he kisses her.
Offred tries to assuage her guilt for wanting sex with Nick. “Luke, you’d know, you’d understand. It’s you here, in another body. Bullshit.” Her loneliness has her desperate for any kind of companionship and also any possible agency over her own body. By entertaining the thought of having sex with Nick, she’s taking control of her own life, if just for a couple hours. But thinking of her husband and the consequences of if they were caught stops her.
Nick explains why he was searching for Offred. The Commander wants to see Offred in his office the following night. She deliberates on why he would want this: “Hasn’t he had enough of me?” This pronouncement grounds her, reminds her of where she is and what she has to lose. She pulls away from Nick and opens the parlor door for fresh air. Notably, she doesn’t try to escape because she knows it would be pointless.