Section 12: Jezebel's - Chapter thirty-seven

Synopsis of chapter thirty-seven

The Commander takes Offred into a building which she recognises as having once been a hotel where she used to go with Luke, when they were having an affair before they were married. It is full of women in provocative costumes and their male clients. The men choose women and then go up to the bedrooms to have sex.

The Commander calls the place a ‘club' for officers and senior officials of the Gilead regime, and also for members of visiting trade delegations. He explains that the women are a mixture of prostitutes from pre-Gilead days and also women who were professional career-women in, for example, law or commerce, who have been made to work at Jezebel's to avoid ‘alternatives' – such as ‘The Colonies'.

Suddenly Offred sees Moira, who is wearing a ‘bunny-girl' costume. Eventually Moira notices and recognises Offred, and gives her a signal to meet in the washroom in five minutes' time.

Commentary on chapter thirty-seven

Laughter – Gilead expects sober, restrained behaviour, and women who are silent. There is no joy in this puritanical regime.

Dandelion, photo by Fastily, available through Creative Commonsa dandelion gone to seed ... elevators ... like giant molluscs – An example of Atwood's fondness for natural imagery. See Imagery and symbolism.

I've been here before, with Luke, in the afternoons – Offred recognises this as the hotel where she and Luke used to meet for sexual encounters before his divorce and their marriage. This is hugely ironic: it is because Luke was divorced that his marriage to Offred is seen as illicit by the supposedly puritanical regime in Gilead, which led to their arrest and her being designated a Handmaid. Yet the hotel has been turned into a brothel where the régime allows women to be subjugated to debased male fantasies.

The women ... in … bright festive gear – Although Atwood at first describes the costumes as ‘festive', her comments throughout this paragraph on the women's appearance makes them sound garish and bizarre, especially when she describes their mouths as ‘too red, too wet, blood-dipped … clownish'.

Is there joy in this? … You can't tell by looking – Offred is aware that the superficial contrast to the joylessness of the Gilead she knows may merely be an appearance, not the reality. As she comments to herself, ‘A movie about the past is not the same as the past'.

here they are. That is at least something – Offred feels that any sign which runs counter to the official line of belief and behaviour promoted by the rulers of Gilead must be positive and desirable.

It's a juvenile display … I understand – The Commander behaves like a young man showing off a new girlfriend, completely unlike the sober, sombre behaviour expected of him in Gilead. Offred can relate to this, and does not really despise him for it.

strictly forbidden … everyone's human, after all – At first the Commander's comment seems to offer hope – that even people in power in Gilead recognise the need for forgiveness and understanding. However, as the Commander continues his explanation, it emerges that he is justifying male infidelity and exploitation of women.

‘Who are these people?'… ‘It's only for officers' … ‘I mean the women' – To the Commander, the only ‘people' in the room are the men. The women have no importance for him except as sexual toys. (See Themes and significant ideas > Gender significance and feminism.)

Quite a collection ... a sociologist … a lawyer – The women forced into prostitution are like a ‘collection' in a zoo. The fact that these were highly educated, professional women, makes their situation all the more demeaning, but the Commander seems to have accepted the way Gilead makes all women subservient and denies them education and careers – as does the Taliban in Afghanistan. (See Social / political context > Political satire > Islamic groups and régimes.)

They prefer it ... to the alternatives – The Commander does not appear to see anything ironic in the idea that the women ‘prefer' their life at Jezebel's to ‘the alternatives', when the only alternatives are, as far as we know from elsewhere in the novel, death, life as an ‘Unwoman' in the Colonies, or, at best, existence as a Handmaid.

Then I see Moira - This is a defining moment in the novel, and a defining moment too for Offred. Until now she (and the reader) has seen Moira as a rebel, and, she hopes, someone whose daring escape has shown that it is possible to get away from Gilead. Now she finds that Moira, who was educated, rebellious and a lesbian, has been forced to accept a role which denies all of these characteristics (though Offred's later conversation with Moira, in chapter 38, shows her still exhibiting some of her former attitudes). (See Characterisation > Moira.)

Investigating chapter thirty-seven

  • Re-read the paragraph in which Atwood describes the women's costumes (beginning: ‘The women are sitting..')
    • Look carefully at Atwood's choice of vocabulary. How does she make
      • These superficially ‘festive' costumes sound so tawdry?
      • The supposedly attractive women wearing them seem so unappealing?
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