Section 4: Waiting room - Chapter twelve

Synopsis of chapter twelve

Offred has a bath as a preamble to the once-a-month ritual where the Commander attempts to inseminate her. The smell of the bath soap reminds Offred very powerfully of her child, then aged five, who was taken away from her after their abortive attempt at escape, three years before.

Offred dresses herself in a bath-robe and goes back to her room, where Cora brings her supper on a tray. Offred does not have much appetite, but knows that she is expected to eat, to keep healthy. She thinks about the Commander's wife, who will also be expected to participate in the ceremony, and assumes that she too will have little appetite. Offred saves some butter to use as face cream later.

Commentary on chapter twelve

no razors - Again we are reminded that the Handmaids have such a repressed life that they may want to commit suicide, but they are carefully prevented.

Saint Paul said it's either that or a close shave - A reference to 1 Corinthians 11:5-6 where Paul advised women to cover their hair when worshipping, since an uncovered head Sikh man in a turbansignified loose morals and promiscuity in the Corinthian culture of the day. Aunt Lydia, however, is also punning on the idea of ‘a close shave' as a situation where one only narrowly escapes disaster. She is implying that women who flaunt their hair may find themselves in compromising sexual situations. The covering of the hair for modesty or as part of one's faith is, of course, a feature of several religions, and in some, such as Sikhism, is also mandatory for men.

crotch-rot, Moira used to say - Moira is always depicted as acting and speaking in a way which is the opposite of the ultra-modest behaviour required of the Handmaids.

something that determines me so completely - Offred is aware that, for Gilead, she now functions merely as a body and is not expected to have the feelings of a complete person.

She's there with me - As with the kitchen smells in chapter 8, bathroom smells are powerful reminders of her past life and instantly evoke for Offred her lost child.

just an isolated incident - As Offred thinks back to the time when her baby was snatched, she realises how common it is in Gilead for children to be taken from their parents and re-assigned to others.

cultivate poverty of spirit - Aunt Lydia equates loss of material things with an increase in spiritual awareness. She is alluding to the famous teachings of Jesus known as the Beatitudes (although, in Matthew 5:3, Jesus is actually talking about the blessings that accrue to those who are humbled and suffering). Atwood makes us question Lydia's view, as Offred's lost mementoes stand for deep human attachment and affection.

Blessed are the meek - Again, Aunt Lydia manipulates biblical quotations for her own purposes, here suggesting that the Handmaids should be submissive. She does not continue the quotation from Matthew 5:5 which, as Offred knows, goes on to say that ‘the meek ... shall inherit the earth'.

tattoo ... a passport in reverse - As in Nazi concentration camps, victims are tattooed to identify them and to prevent escape. (See Social and political context > Political satire.)

the women ... their hair falling in clumps? - Offred recalls seeing a film, probably about the treatment at the end of the Second World War of women in France who had fraternised with German soldiers, and who were publicly humiliated by having their heads shaved. Atwood reminds us of the way in which women have often been subjected to such male punishment, and also of the way in which female hair has often been used as a symbol of expectations of female behaviour. (Ironically, as Luke has reminded us in chapter 2, ‘fraternising' means ‘to behave like a brother' and should therefore suggest human kindness.)

I will use the butter - Handmaids are not supposed to think of their own facial features - as Offred said in chapter 11, she is seen as ‘a torso only'. However, her tiny act of rebellion in stealing butter as a makeshift facial cream is one way in which she can assert her own ideas of self. (See also Themes and significant ideas > Individualism and identity.)

I compose myself … a made thing - The pun on ‘compose' (‘make myself calm' and ‘create myself') reminds us that Offred has two identities - the outer one, known only as Offred, and the inner one whose thoughts and feelings we are being allowed to share. It is ironic that, as she goes to an encounter where the Commander hopes to ‘compose' a child with Offred, her own individual humanity is being repressed, as if she is ‘a made thing, not something born.' (See also Themes and significant ideas > Individualism and identity.)

Investigating chapter twelve

  • Use the internet to look up the incidents at the end of World War II which Atwood may have been referring to, in which women had their heads shaved as punishment for fraternisation.
  • Or look up Seamus Heaney's poem Punishment which refers to the head-shaving and execution of a girl two thousand years ago in Germany and compares this to the head-shaving and tarring of girls in late 20th century Northern Ireland who were thought to have fraternized with British troops.

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