Section 12: Jezebel's - Chapter thirty-one

Synopsis of chapter thirty-one

It is still summer. Nothing seems to have changed. Offred goes shopping with Ofglen, and they pass the Wall where two bodies are hanging – both from religious sects disapproved of in Gilead. As they go past what used to be the University, Ofglen tells Offred that those who are opposed to the régime in Gilead have a password: ‘Mayday'.

When Offred returns to the house, Nick signals that the Commander wants to see her. Serena Joy is in the garden and suggests to Offred that, in case the Commander is infertile, Offred should have sexual intercourse with Nick. Although this would be a capital offence, both Serena Joy and Offred want Offred to conceive a child. Once Offred has agreed, Serena Joy then says she may be able to get a photograph of Offred's lost child.

Offred is torn between delight at the hope of this and outrage because it means that Serena Joy has known all the time the whereabouts of Offred's child. As Offred goes into the house, Serena Joy gives her a cigarette (a forbidden luxury) and tells her to ask Rita for a match.

Commentary on chapter thirty-one

JezebelJezebel'sJezebel is the name of a depraved queen of Israel, described in 1 Kings in the Bible. In The Handmaid's Tale it is the name of a nightclub-cum-brothel, where the women who offer sexual pleasure are seen as corrupt ‘Jezebels'. This is ironic, as they are effectually prisoners and sex-slaves who are used by the supposedly pure men of Gilead and also by foreign tourists.

September First will be Labour Day – This is a holiday in America celebrating the role of workers. Atwood puns on the idea of a ‘Labour Day' celebrating women giving birth.

I tell the time by the moon - The moon's cycle is twenty-eight days – the same as a woman's menstrual cycle. Offred's life is circumscribed by her desperation to conceive a child before she is sent to the ‘Colonies' for her failure.

The danger is greyout - Offred is aware that she is in danger of having her emotions deadened by her situation, and recognises how precious is the ability to interact with others, especially loved ones, using a range of language.

All things white and circular – As Offred gazes at the ceiling, she puns on the line of a famous hymn celebrating the creation, which begins, ‘All things bright and beautiful'. There is nothing beautiful about the bleakness of her room. Atwood describes the circular plasterwork on the ceiling using imagery like: frozen halo, zero, ring on water. See also Imagery and symbolism.

Jewish yellow Star of David, photo by David Ullrichs, available through Creative CommonsJewish … yellow stars - Atwood suggests that Gilead, like Nazi Germany in the 1930s, makes Jews wear a distinguishing star-shaped piece of yellow material sewn to their clothing as a sign of their so-called ignominy. (See Social / political context > Political satire > Hitler and the Nazis.)

Torahs, talliths, Mogen Davids – These are all important parts of Jewish religious ritual:

they'd throw buns at her – Moira is referring to an earlier time when all the undergraduates were male and found it hard to accept a female scholar. Offred is surprised to hear this as, in her youth, women were just as much accepted at University as men. Moira reveals that Gilead has returned women to the situation where they cannot be educated. Ironically, the University has closed altogether, denying anyone that sort of education.

Mayday – Offred remembers how Ofglen had used this word some time before, on an earlier walk, when Offred remembered associating it with ‘M'aidez' – the French for ‘Help me'. See chapter 8.

her stubbornness, not altogether despicable – Although Offred is subject to the whims and unpleasantness of Serena Joy, she is also aware that both of them are having to endure the wretched constraints of their situation.

It's only women who can't – The male-oriented attitude of Gilead assumes that failure to conceive is always the fault of the woman.

For this moment … cronies – Serena Joy wants a child in the household so that she no longer has to endure the presence of a Handmaid. Offred needs to produce a child if she is to escape being sent to the Colonies as an ‘Unwoman'. In this way, Offred and Serena Joy are, if only temporarily, ‘doubles'. See also Themes and significant ideas > Doubling.)

Something chokes in my throat - Offred's temporary sense of ‘collusion' with Serena Joy vanishes in her horrified realisation that Serena Joy has ‘known all along' where her missing child is. Offred feels that no one with human feelings could have kept a mother in ignorance: Serena Joy ‘can't imagine' the horror of losing one's child.

Investigating chapter thirty-one

  • Offred says at one point of herself and Serena Joy that ‘There's not much common ground', but also ‘For the moment at least we are cronies.'
    • Consider in what ways throughout the novel there are similarities between the situations of Serena Joy and Offred.

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