Section 6: Household - Chapter sixteen

Synopsis of chapter sixteen

The Ceremony takes place. This involves Offred lying against Serena Joy's lap, on Serena Joy's bed, while the Commander tries to impregnate her.

Commentary on chapter sixteen

Her legs are apart, I lie between them - The ceremony follows the description in Genesis 30:1-3 - ‘and she shall bear upon my knees, that I may also have children by her' AV.

rings … cut … revenge - Offred wonders whether the Commander's wife is using her wedding and engagement rings to deliberately remind her that Serena Joy is the Wife and Offred only the Handmaid.

Below it the Commander is... - Atwood's deliberately shocking choice of what is usually an unacceptable term carefully distinguishes the nature of what is happening. As Offred goes on to say, ‘It has nothing to do with passion or love or romance' - it is merely a physical action for the purpose of fertilisation.

This is not recreation - the Commander is not there to enjoy himself; he is trying to re-create the species because Gilead is short of children to carry on the state. ‘The Commander, too, is doing his duty.' However, although Offred says that this is not ‘recreation' in the sense of ‘enjoyment', Atwood may be conscious of punning on ‘recreation' as ‘sport' and ‘re-creation' as ‘remaking'.

an improvement on the previous one, who smelled - Atwood makes us aware of the awful situations imposed on women who have no choice in their sexual partners.

Which is it worst for; her or me? - Just as in the previous chapter Offred had had sufficient sympathy and humanity to see the Commander as a sort of victim of the régime in Gilead, so now she can empathise with Serena Joy.

Investigating chapter sixteen

  • Try re-writing the first four paragraphs of this chapter (from ‘The Ceremony goes on' to ‘may not be revenge' ) from the point of view of Serena Joy.
    • What differences in both physical and emotional viewpoint do you notice?
    • Would you expect Serena Joy to feel any sympathy for Offred?

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