'The Handmaid's Tale' Analysis: Chapters 9-11
"We would lie in those afternoon beds, afterwards, hands on each other, talking it over. Possible, impossible. What could be done? We thought we had such problems. How were we to know we were happy?"
Offred acknowledges the room as hers, which is a possible sign that her indoctrination is winning over her desire to rebel. She characterizes the room as different parts of a house based off the function the room is currently serving. For example, when she is waiting, it is a waiting room. When she’s sleeping, it’s a bedroom. She suspects that someone has lived in the room before her, due to the empty facet in the ceiling where a light fixture would hang.
She remembers hotel rooms, how she would examine them carelessly because they were mundane aspects of her normal life, before the regime. She and Luke would pay for hotel rooms to avoid confrontation from Luke’s first wife. She characterizes herself as imaginary for Luke in those moments, for she was the mistress, hidden away from the public eye. She remembered her clothes and the perfume she wore each time they met in the room. “Why did we ever say just? Thought at that time men and women tried each other on, casually, like suits, rejecting whatever did not fit.” Back in those days, casual sex was still allowed (or at least, it wasn’t subject to governmental interference). Though she describes her affair with Luke as more than sex, she was still guilty about being the “other woman”. She admits to missing those rooms, even with their gauche paintings. She reminisces over the freedom she had to order room service.
There’s one bit of symbolism in this memory that you might skate over. She mentions that were Bibles in the drawers of hotel rooms, “Though probably no one read them very much.” If you could see hotel rooms as the place were many illicit activities took place, ignoring the Bibles in the drawers, hidden away. This could be dramatic irony to display how much society was progressing and leaving behind the “traditional” roles touted by conservatives in those days.
Offred now explores her room in the Gilead house slowly and carefully. She’s had to find entertainment in the minute details because the broader forms of entertainment are now banned. She also wants to find clues of previous inhabitants, of people who’ve owned the furniture before her. She notes that there are stains on the mattress under the covers, which would disgust most people, but she embraces it as “old love.” She lies back and desperately misses her husband, wanting to feel him next to her. She describes her memories as “attacks of the past” because the only real respite she has is her memories. Quite possibly, her mental anguish is causing her to dissociate, preferring to regress back to a time when things made sense to her and weren’t so debilitating to her well-being. She wavers back and forth in between suicidal ideation, as indicated by her monologue shifting between the shatterproof window and the removed chandelier and the memory of her husband.
She examines the cupboard one day, noting that the brass hooks for clothing were still there. Notice that she’s now equating objects to not their practical use, but for methods of committing suicide. She sees a scratched message on the wall, in Latin: “Nolite te bastardes carborundorum.” (Latin for "don't let the bastards keep you down"). She doesn’t know what it means, but it brings her hope and alights within her a spark of rebellion. Those words mean that she’s not alone, meaning that in a sense that she was also a handmaid, but also an Offred within that same house. She turns her into a friend, imagining Moira from her past. She tries asking Rita as non-conspicuously as she could. Rita indirectly reveals that there’s been one since the narrator.
It’s interesting to note that Offred is merely guessing at the previous Offred’s appearance, yet she seems to convince Rita, though this might be merely confirmation bias. Rita says that the previous Offred “didn’t work out” and she refuses to elaborate. The last phrase of the chapter is poignant, however: “What you don’t know won’t hurt you.” Yet, it’s in the nature of Gilead to propose that just because they’re limiting Handmaids and women to means of education, doesn’t mean that they’ve eradicated all possibilities of obtaining news and delivering messages.
Offred admits to singing to herself in her head, outlawed songs. The totalitarian policies of Gilead go so far as to outlaw songs belonging to other sects. Even benign lyrics containing the word “free” are considered “dangerous”. Music after all can inspire people to rebel and incite revolutions. She also sings an Elvis song, remembering it from a cassette tape her mother owned. This is a possible clue of when the takeover happens in this timeline, maybe in the late 1980s or early 1990s. It’s been deliberated that Gilead happened because in this timeline, the conservative backlash against second-wave feminism becomes a nation-wide phenomenon, comparative to how the Nazi Party grew and grew until one-third of the population of Germany were supporters of the regime.
She remarks on how music, like everything else, has been taken away from households. She comments on how she hears Rita humming sometimes and the recordings of Serena Joy singing gospel songs. It’s how she hangs onto her past, like Offred with her memories. She comments on how the seasons are changing, or at least the weather patterns. It’s revealed that the Handmaids have summer dresses, presumably made of thinner fabric, but still obscuring Handmaids head to toe. Offred notes that they still sweat in them, subtly showing that the regime cares more about conservative dress than practicality.
She recalls Aunt Lydia’s ravings about how women would lie out in the sun and put on oils, comparing them to the practice of basting meats. She equates such spectacles as to why sexual assault would happen so often. This still an abundantly controversial opinion of the religious right that women’s clothing choices mean that they were “asking for it”, even though women in head to toe burkas in Saudi Arabia are being raped. Sure enough, according to Women’s Stats, Saudi Arabia is considered to be the most prevalent countries in which sexual abuse and rape is committed and also unreported because it is illegal to do so. The hypocrisy of Aunt Lydia’s sob story about decency is also greatly ironic, considering Gilead’s practice of forcibly impregnating women through a state-sanctioned rape ceremony, which we will get to later on in this chunk of analysis.
Aunt Lydia often starts crying through her speeches about she’s trying to give the Handmaid’s “the best chance [they] can have.” Whether that means survival or getting them pregnant is left ambiguous. Offred is bored by her melodrama, equating her overbite to the mice her cat would bring home. This paragraph can be confusing, because the narrator doesn’t use quotation marks when having flashbacks. This could be representative of how Gilead’s teachings are bleeding into her memories, corrupting them, which can happen in indoctrination and brainwashing. The phrase “If only she wouldn’t eat half of them first” is meant to describe the cat, but it can indirectly describe Aunt Lydia as well, because the whole relationship of the Aunts and Handmaids is a cat and mouse game.
She switches to a memory of Moira and how she once hosted an “underwhore” party which would be like Tupperware parties, but with lingerie. This shows that in times before Gilead, it used to be a sex-positive society, perhaps too much. Moira describes something called a Pornomart, which can be presumed to be widely available pornography stores, not as illicitly hidden backrooms in video stores. The narrator muses over those days, not believing that life used to be like that. She’s gotten use to the rigidly sexless façade Gilead promotes on the surface.
The next two paragraphs are iconic quotations from the novel. The first is “We lived, as usual, by ignoring. Ignoring isn’t the same as ignorance, you have to work at it.” Think of politics today and how we tend to push headlines into the background of our daily lives. We become complacent, thinking other people are going to fight for us. I challenge any readers of this to ask a conservative person if they know about The Handmaid’s Tale and what it’s about. Explain how Gilead happened, how fundamentalist Christians overturned the government and made it a tyrannical theocracy. I guarantee you, you’ll get some connotation of “That can’t happen here.” Christians today are defensive about their beliefs, whether progressive or conservative, so tread lightly and don’t be rude, that’s not what I’m asking you to do. This isn’t meant to serve an agenda, it’s meant to highlight the possible future of what would happen to America if extremists took over. However, it also highlights how it might happen, what might be a catalyst to such an event. In this novel, it’s an infertility plague caused by severe climate change and environmental disasters, two things that are not so fictional in our world today. Gilead is a reactionary movement spurned by desperation and the historical cycle of religious backlash, so elements of its regime do not make logical sense if you read too much into it, but that’s just it, it’s not a sensible society, it’s one born out of desperation and possibly even opportunism.
The next quotation of note is the next few lines: “Nothing changes instantaneously: in a gradually heating bathtub, you’d be boiled to death before you knew it.” It’s taken nearly a hundred years for feminists to achieve equality and it’s still a process. Racism in America has been an issue since its inception and there are still white nationalists today craving ethnostates. Today, we’re dealing with the inhumane treatment of migrants and America’s very own President calling to massacre them just because they want to cross the border. People think that certain policies and instated laws are going to change society immediately, but it depends on the reaction and how the government deals with the protests that’s going to ultimately change things for the better… Or worse. “We were the people who were not in the papers. We lived in the blank white spaces at the edges of print. It gave us more freedom. We lived in the gaps between the stories.” Meaning, it’s not happening to me, why do I have to care? That may seem selfish, but you have to admit that we think like that sometimes.
Offred examines a pillow with the word “FAITH” embroidered on it, which is illegal because women aren’t allowed to read in Gilead. She also notices the Commander coming out of the house to get in the car. Offred imagines throwing something at him or spitting out the window. She already shows animosity toward him because she is literally his sex slave. The urge to throw something out of the window triggers a memory of her and Moira throwing water bombs at boys who were trying to climb up and steal their underwear. This was back then when women could refuse the advances of men, even splashing them with water bombs to stop them stealing their things. Now Offred can’t throw things at the Commander to keep him out, because she’d be punished for doing so. She acknowledges that she “ought to feel hatred for this man”, which is certainly a reasonable attitude to have. Her feelings are complicated. Quite possibly, she’s experiencing Stockholm Syndrome or trying to humanize him in order to make her predicament better.
She begins the chapter by recounting a doctor’s appointment. Every aspect of Gilead has been changed including medicine and doctor/patient relationships. She notes that the doctor is a specialist, which could mean an OB/GYN. Such a profession used to be dominated by women, but now women who seek higher education are criminalized and women are not allowed to work for pay. The nurses are male and monthly exams are required. When Offred is called back, she notices symbols on the folding divider that the Handmaid’s have to hide their face while being examined. The folding screen is red cloth with a gold eye and a snake-twined sword underneath. The red obviously represents the Handmaid, the gold eye representing Gilead’s ever-watchful surveillance, and the snake-twined sword can be considered a warning. The snake could represent the serpent in the Garden of Eden of the Biblical myth which is widely believed to be the purveyor of the first act of sin. Again, the sword can be taken as a threat, like it’s saying the “wage of sin is death”. She says the snake and sword are “bits of broken symbolism from the time before”. She could mean the traditional medical symbol called the caduccus that means “healing”, so by saying this is broken symbolism means that Gilead’s medical professionals are not healers. Gilead could have also adapted the symbol and subverted it to mean something else more relevant to their doctrine.
It’s ironic that some classes of men are not allowed to look at a Handmaid’s face while they are to obscure their faces with a divider and leave their breasts and genitals uncovered for the examination. Doctor’s visits have become as impersonal as car inspections because Handmaids are not valued for being people, they have been reduced to breeding slaves. Offred undresses, fills a bottle for a urine sample, and climbs on the table, pulling the divider down. There is no rapport between doctor and patient, when the doctor enters, he immediately performs a pelvic exam without informing her of him doing so or even his name, which would be massively unethical in previous times. The doctor then gets creepier by offering his “services”. Offred is shocked, thinking he might be with the resistance, but he’s actually propositioning her. He starts touching her in her genitals without the glove, offering to try to impregnate her. Offred finds his offer sincere but he’s also opportunistic. Sex for pleasure is a crime in Gilead, so quite possibly sexual solicitation happens even more than it used to, which is ironic.
He reveals another twisted irony: Most of the Commanders are sterile. You know, the only ones who get to have Handmaids? This a huge part of why Gilead is ineffective, because it’s corrupt and hypocritical at its base. That’s a large part of why it fails as explained in the Epilogue. On the surface, Gilead is delivering propaganda of a godly nation that is striving to bring up the Caucasian birth rates (remember in the novel, that Gilead is also white supremacist which we’ll touch on later), but it’s really a smokescreen for bureaucrat misogynists to have a Biblical reason for concubines. Unlike what’s happening today. (At least, not the concubine part. I would hope, anyway.)
She remarks more on the fact that the doctor has said a forbidden word: sterile. Part of the lie is that Gilead doesn’t allow for men to be called sterile: “There are only women who are fruitful, and women who are barren, that’s the law.” Yes, Gilead, saying what you want to be true will make it true. But this is unfortunately the case for the women in Gilead, being blamed for the fertility crisis. To say a man is sterile is emasculating to some so they made it a law to make it illegal. Yeah, that’ll work. That’s how science works, right?
Jokes aside, Offred delivers a wham line after the doctor asks her if she wants a baby, “It’s true and I don’t ask why, because I know. Give me children or else I die. There’s more than one meaning to it.” Meaning that if Handmaids don’t give their Households children in due time, they’ll be killed. She lingers on the fact that the doctor calls her “honey”, which she wonders if he called his wife that and then figures it’s just a generic term. Calling women names like “darling”, “sugar”, and “honey” might be endearing to some, but it’s harassment in some connotations, like a doctor to a patient. He seems genuine to Offred in his offer, but she’s paranoid that it’s a trap. He points out that her time is running out to conceive. Offred is refusing out of the fear of both being caught and the idea of freedom. She’s become comfortable going along with Gilead’s rules but only because rebellion would mean far worse for her than the short-lived freedom. She’s become conditioned like a rat to stay where it’s safe and the thought of freedom scares her. “Why am I frightened? I’ve crossed no boundaries, I’ve given no trust, taken no risk, all is safe. It’s the choice that terrifies me. A way out, salvation.” In some respects, Gilead has successfully brainwashed her.