Section 10: Soul scrolls - Chapter twenty-five

Synopsis of chapter twenty-five

Offred has fallen asleep on the floor with her head inside the wardrobe. Cora, bringing Offred's breakfast, sees what she thinks is a dead body and screams, dropping the tray. She is very relieved to find that Offred is alive, and offers to say simply that she dropped the tray, without explaining what she saw.

Offred tells us that that incident happened in May, but that time has now passed. She recalls watching Serena Joy cutting off the seed-pods of the tulips.

Offred now visits the Commander's office on two or three nights a week. Nick signals to her when she is required, by the angle at which he wears his hat. Offred and the Commander play Scrabble each time and, when she leaves, the Commander asks for a kiss. He has also taken to letting Offred look at women's magazines from ‘the time before', which he has hidden away in his study, against all Gilead's rules.

After three visits, Offred feels that she could ask the Commander for something, and she requests some hand-lotion, which he manages to get. She has to leave it in his study as she has nowhere to hide it.

Commentary on chapter twenty-five

could not be salvaged - The word ‘salvaged' is later to have a much more sinister meaning when Offred attends a ‘salvaging' (see chapter 42).

That was in May - We suddenly realise that all the previous section took place some time before.

Tulip, photo by Gretaz, available through Creative CommonsSnipping off the seed pods ... the swelling genitalia of the flowers - This gives the reader an image of Serena Joy as a destructive power, attacking the flowers which have the fertility she lacks. (See also Imagery and symbolism > The garden.)

something subversive about this garden ... It breathes - The garden represents life which cannot be repressed, however much Serena Joy tries to control it. In this way the red tulips and the red-dressed Offred have much in common. (See also Imagery and symbolism > The garden.)

The willow ... the air suffuses with desire - Language is strictly controlled in Gilead, but Offred is acutely aware of it, and of the sensuous power of words. As with the flowers, the willow communicates to Offred an awareness of life and of desire. (See also Imagery and symbolism > The garden.)

Prohibited by law and punishable by amputation - Former ‘peccadilloes' (small sins) are now viewed very seriously in Gilead. The punishment of having hands amputated still exists in some countries - see Social / political context > Political satire > Punishment and human rights.

terms of exchange - The word ‘exchange' (see chapter 1) suggests the importance of human relationships. (See also Themes and significant ideas > Human relationships.)

His motives ... had not yet reached the level of words - Atwood reflects on the problem of communicating fully - even with oneself.

My tongue felt thick - Atwood is indicating that words have sensuous connections, summoning up senses and images which Offred has now ceased to experience. Notice how Offred, though outwardly silent, reveals how sharply detailed and observant her responses are to words - those she spells and those she reads in the magazines (see below).

Transformations ... rejuvenation - Although Offred is aware that these women's magazines offer the impossible, and therefore deceive, they nevertheless represent a tantalising promise of womanhood which Offred desires.

bold, striding... No quailing - The women in these magazines appear to have the confidence and power which is now denied to all women in Gilead.

dangerous in the hands of the multitudes - Atwood presents here the moral dilemma of censorship: who is to decide what is ‘safe' to be seen by others and who has the right to control material for the ‘benefit' of others? (See Social / political context > Social satire.)

truly ignorant of the real conditions - As in many oppressive régimes, those in power prefer to remain ignorant of the effects of their tyranny.

For him … I am only a whim - Offred knows that the Commander does not value her individuality. (See Themes and significant ideas > Individualism and identity.)

Investigating chapter twenty-five

  • Look at a women's magazine. What impression of early 21st century women do you think it would give to:
    • Someone a century from now?
    • Someone a century before now?
    • How would this impression be created?
    • In your opinion, does your magazine provide an accurate impression?
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