Section 8: Birth Day - Chapter twenty

Synopsis of chapter twenty

The Handmaids go upstairs to the bedroom where Ofwarren is to give birth. They are aware of the Wives gathered for a party in another room.

Offred remembers being shown pornographic movies, involving violent acts against women, when she was at the Red Centre, where Aunt Lydia tells the trainee Handmaids that they are lucky; times have changed, and women will not be treated like that in Gilead.

Aunt Lydia also shows films of early feminists, whom she calls Unwomen, and in one of them Offred recognises her own mother campaigning:

  • for greater safety for women
  • For a clamp-down on pornography
  • For a woman's right to choose to have an abortion.

Offred then remembers her mother telling her about her own birth and also disagreeing with Luke about the struggles of early feminists. Offred used to argue with her mother who, she felt, wanted her to carry on the feminist fight. However, Offred longs to have her mother back.

Commentary on chapter twenty

Birthing stool, photo from elenagreene.comThe birthing stool, with its double seat - Such a seat was used by Puritans in seventeenth century New England and was described in one of his books by Perry Miller, Atwood's Director of American Studies at Harvard, to whom she dedicated The Handmaid's Tale.

From each, says the slogan, according to her ability; to each according to his needs ... from the Bible – This is a very good example of how Gilead manipulates language and uses it to deceive. The statement is actually by Karl Marx, the nineteenth century German economist and Communist. Gilead has changed the pronoun of the original so that the female gives and the man receives. In Marx's slogan, both halves of the comment used the generic masculine ‘his'.

sacrifices … men revile you - Another Gilead re-working of the Bible: the original quotation from Matthew 5:11 (the Beatitudes) tells the followers of Jesus to be glad when they are persecuted for the sake of their Christian beliefs, as they will be rewarded in heaven.

what they thought of women, then - Aunt Lydia implies that the only alternative to the way women now live in Gilead is to be abused like women in violent pornographic films. She does not suggest that there might be other, better possibilities, nor does she define who ‘they' are.

An Unwoman documentary - The film Offred is shown could well be of a march of American feminists in San Francisco in 1974, organised by Women Against Violence in Pornography and Media. (See Religious / philosophical context > Feminism and The Handmaid's Tale.)

Every baby a wanted baby - Aunt Lydia has pointed out that some of the Unwomen's ideas would be condoned by Gilead - for example the attack on pornography - but while she would agree that every baby should be a wanted baby, she would certainly not agree with the idea of the right to choose abortion implied in the slogan ‘Recapture Our Bodies'.

deformed - Atwood draws interesting and thought-provoking parallels between Offred and her own mother. As she waits to see if Ofwarren's baby is deformed as a result of the toxic pollution described in chapter 19, Offred ironically recalls her mother being warned that ‘the birth defect rate went zooming up after thirty-five'.

I don't want a man ... what use are they - Offred is only required for breeding purposes, not because she is loved and wanted by her sexual partner. In an ironic parallel, her mother had felt the same about Offred's father in the 1970s: ‘Just do the job, then you can bugger off.'

I was so lonely - Offred's mother acted as she did out of political conviction, but, like her daughter, actually felt the urgent need of human companionship.

Investigating chapter twenty

  • Use the internet to investigate the (still continuing) ‘Take Back the Night' campaign.
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