Section 10: Soul scrolls - Chapter twenty-nine

Synopsis of chapter twenty-nine

That night, Offred asks the Commander about himself. He is hesitant and gives little away. Offred then asks him the meaning of the phrase ‘Nolite te bastardes carborundorum.' He tells her that it is a schoolboy joke in inaccurate Latin, meaning ‘Don't let the bastards grind you down.'

Offred realises that the previous Handmaid must have come to the Commander's study. Offred asks him about this previous Offred, and he tells her that his wife found out about the visits to the study. Offred realises that as a result the previous Handmaid's life must have become even more unbearable, and she killed herself. She also perceives that the Commander feels some guilt about the Handmaids' lives, and wants her existence to be bearable.

Commentary on chapter twenty-nine

My red shoes are off - The red shoes are not simply part of the uniform, but a symbol of male oppression. See Themes and significant ideas > Gender significance and feminism and Imagery and symbolism.)

The terse whispered exchange ... hardly counts - The exchange of ideas is a significant part of human relationships, and Offred has been aware of the need of real exchange from the start of her story.

Women can't add ... for them, one and one and one and one don't make four - The Commander jokes that women lack mathematical ability, but in chapter 13 we are told that his words are much more significant than he thinks: for Offred, it is vital that each person, each one, remains an individual. (See also Themes and significant ideas > Individualism and identity.)

in this context - Offred has already commented that ‘Context is all'; see chapter 24. She will make the same observation in chapter 30.

Edward Bulwer-Lyttonthe power of the words it contains - As a writer, Atwood is very aware of the power of words and language, as stated by English novelist Edward Bulwer-Lytton: ‘The pen is mightier than the sword'.

Pen Is Envy - A pun on the phrase ‘penis envy' which the psychoanalyst Freud suggested to explain jealousy which girls might feel towards males. For Aunt Lydia, however, it is the pen which is the more dangerous object of desire. (See also Themes and significant ideas > Gender significance and feminism.)

‘Did you know her somehow?' ‘Somehow' I say - Offred knows only too well the woman who was there before her, since both are called Offred and lead the same constrained lives.

‘Serena found out,' ... if your dog dies, get another - Offred is well aware how even more wretched her life could become if Serena Joy decided to torment and punish her. She is also aware that, for both Serena Joy and the Commander, she is expendable.

If my life is bearable … right after all - Offred is aware that the Commander feels some guilt (which he would like to be able to put aside) about her position in his household. He would like her to be complicit in the system.

Investigating chapter twenty-nine

  • Consider the expression, ‘The pen is mightier than the sword'. In what ways is Atwood using the pen as a weapon?
  • Make a list of the topics or issues which Atwood is using this dystopian novel to investigate or attack.
  • Read also Seamus Heaney's poem Digging in which he compares his pen to the spade used by his father: both implements are used to look beneath the surface of Irish life and history.

Related material
Scan and go

Scan on your mobile for direct link.