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The Handmaid's Tale: Novel Summary: Chapters 33-36

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Offred and Ofglen go to a district women's Prayvaganza. The Handmaids all sit in an area cordoned off from the other women. They see Janine enter, paired with a new Wife; they realize she has been posted to a new household. Ofglen tells Offred that Janine's baby turned out to have been deformed, and was destroyed. Janine believes it was her fault. Offred recalls one morning at the Center when Janine was clearly on the edge of mental collapse, and Moira had to snap her out of it.
The Commander in charge of the service enters and announces that it is a day of thanksgiving and praise. The occasion is a group wedding. Twenty men known as Angels are to be married, and twenty white-veiled girls enter. The marriages are all arranged.
Offred thinks of how her Commander speaks of how the lives of women have improved over former times. They have been given more than has been taken away from them. They are now protected, and can fulfil their destinies, which is to have children. Offred points out that what has been overlooked is love, to which he responds that arranged marriages have always worked out just as well, if not better.
The Commander continues the service, making reference to women being saved by child-bearing. If the new Wives to do not produce babies, the Angels will qualify for Handmaids.
As they leave the service, Ofglen tells Offred that the resistance network knows that she is seeing the Commander alone. She tells her to find out anything she can.
Offred recalls how her attempt, with Luke and their daughter, to cross the border failed. As their passports were being examined, Luke saw one of the officials pick up the telephone, and he knew something was wrong. He started up the car and drove fast down a dirt road to some woods, where they jumped out and ran.
Offred then thinks about love, and how relationships between men and women used to be, how women would move from one relationship to another in search of something that worked. She thinks again of Luke.
Serena Joy comes to her room with the photograph she mentioned. It is a Polaroid print of Offred's daughter. She says she has to return it in a minute, before the owner misses it. Offred is upset by the photo, because it reminds her of the fact that her daughter will have forgotten her by now. She would have preferred not to have seen it.
In his office one evening, the Commander tells Offred that he has a surprise for her. He produces a gaudy dress with feathers and sequins, that she assumes must once have been a theatrical costume. The Commander says it will act as a disguise; he is taking her out somewhere. Offred puts the dress on and adds some make-up that the Commander supplies. He then gives her a blue cloak with a hood, which is for getting through checkpoints. They are driven out by Nick. At the last checkpoint, Offred has to get down on the floor of the car, since Wives are not allowed at this destination. After passing through the checkpoint, the Commander takes her into the building through a back entrance.
In chapter 34, the points the Commander makes about women's lives in "the time before" are surprisingly similar to arguments made by feminists, both then and now. The argument was that women were valued only for their appearance, how sexually attractive they were. They were manipulated into trying to make their appearance conform to a male-defined idea, conveyed through the mass media, of what they should look like. If they got married, their husbands would fail them, either by leaving them or mistreating them. The women would then have to go out to work and leave their kids in daycare, which they could barely afford because of their low-paying jobs. This is the kind of situation that Offred's feminist mother was fighting against.
The Commander argues that women are now protected from all the problems they experienced before, although the type of protection they have is not one that feminists had in mind. And of course, like anyone who tries to justify an unjust system, the Commander leaves a great deal out, since in Gilead, "protection" in fact means oppression, and even then, not all women are protected (Unwomen, for example, are shipped off to the colonies).
The Commander's comment that women are now free to fulfil their biological destinies is Atwood's swipe at political and religious conservatives, who were strongly asserting their views in America in the mid-1980s, when the novel was written. They argued that women should stay at home and raise children because this was what God intended them to do. In the novel, Serena Joy is an example of someone who promoted this ideal in the "time before." But now that she has what she thought she wanted, she is an unhappy woman.
At the Prayvaganza service, the Commander's words beginning "I will that women adorn themselves in modest apparel" are taken verbatim from the First Letter of Timothy, ch. 2, Verses 9-15, in the New Testament. It is easy to see how the ideology of Gilead was built on this Biblical foundation of patriarchy and the subordination of women. The quoted passage emphasizes the importance of child-bearing, which is presented as a woman's salvation-exactly as the ideology of Gilead proclaims.


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