Section 8: Birth Day - Chapter nineteen

Synopsis of chapter nineteen

Offred dreams about her child, and then about her mother, and wakes up in tears. She is brought her breakfast, but as she is eating it she hears a siren - the sound of a Birthmobile collecting Handmaids to witness a birth. Offred rushes downstairs to join the other Handmaids in the Birthmobile, who tell her that the woman giving birth is Ofwarren (formerly Janine, from the Red Centre).

Offred wonders what Ofwarren's child will be like. Because of the pollution of the atmosphere in previous years the Handmaids are all too only aware that there is a one-in-four chance of giving birth to an Unbaby, also known as a shredder - that is, a deformed child (who will be disposed of). Offred also remembers Aunt Lydia telling them about the many causes of increased infertility which has lowered Gilead's birth-rate to dangerously low levels.

As they reach the house where Ofwarren is, they see a blue Birthmobile arriving, bringing the Wives of other Commanders to witness the birth. Offred imagines how critically the Wives must discuss the Handmaids.

Commentary on chapter nineteen

Birth Day - Although we usually refer to someone's ‘birthday', Atwood separates the two words to stress the significance for the Handmaids of a day when one of them gives birth.

She's running to meet me ... my mother comes in - By including Offred's recollections of her own child and her mother as well as the significance of pregnancy, Atwood explores different facets of motherhood. (See Themes and significant ideas > Mothers and children.)

curtains … like drowned hair - An unusual and disturbing image. (See Imagery and symbolism.)

the other two cushions - See chapter 10 for Offred's first comments on the cushion.

I ... think about the word chair - Another of Offred's meditations on words and their meaning.

shell … smooth but also grained... - This paragraph is a good example of Offred's sensitive response to texture, smell and colour. She is acutely alive to the details of the world around her. Atwood also makes us very aware of the symbolic significance of eggs in Gilead.

The gravid smell of earth and grass - The natural world is full of the possibilities of reproduction: ‘gravid' means ‘pregnant'.

locks the double doors - Although this is called a Birthmobile it resembles a prison van.

You can't have them taken out - In Gilead abortion is banned. Atwood is alert to the pro-abortion / pro-life debates which have bitterly divided communities in many countries, including America. (See Social / political context > Social satire.)

Chemicals ... exploding atomic power plants - Atwood is very alert to environmental issues: her other dystopian novels, Oryx and Crake, and The Year of the Flood (see Social / political context > Atwood's use of actual historical events) look at what human technology may do to humanity and to the natural world. (See Social / political context > Social satire.)

pearls ... congealed oyster spit ... lick you into shape - In her head Offred plays with the absurdity of Aunt Lydia's analogy; it is one small way in which Offred can rebel.

No anaesthetics … I will greatly multiply thy sorrow - The lack of pain relief for the Handmaids is justified by Gilead on the grounds of fundamentalist belief in the Bible, where in Genesis 3:16 God punishes Eve for her disobedience by making childbirth painful.

Little whores, all of them - The hierarchical system in Gilead creates divisions between women, increasing and emphasising their powerlessness.

Investigating chapter nineteen

  • In this chapter the idea of an egg is focussed on in great detail, though it adds nothing to the immediate plot. Why?
  • Re-read from ‘In front of me is a tray' to ‘eat the contents'
    • Consider the implications of all the thoughts which Atwood creates in Offred's mind about eggs.

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