Section 12: Jezebel's - Chapter thirty-eight

Synopsis of chapter thirty-eight

Offred goes to the ‘ladies' room' to meet Moira, who tells her how she escaped from the Red Centre dressed in Aunt Elizabeth's uniform. Moira describes how she had walked for many miles, wondering where to go. She then remembered the address of a Quaker couple from her days with an underground press, and they took her in. They arranged for her to be smuggled north, but on the final stage of her escape route to Canada she was caught, and taken to an interrogation centre where she was tortured. Finally she was given the choice of being sent to the Colonies, where she would die from sorting toxic waste, or to Jezebel's, as a sex worker. She seems resigned to her situation at Jezebel's, and this attitude from the formerly rebellious Moira shocks and saddens Offred, who had looked to Moira as an example of someone daring and resistant to the régime.

Commentary on chapter thirty-eight

Cattle prodan Aunt. The cattle prod's on the table - a reminder of the brutality - and hypocrisy - of the régime in Gilead. The Aunts tell the women at the Red Centre of the evils of promiscuous sex, yet they use force to keep the women at Jezebel's as sex workers.

they haven't removed the mirror - The Handmaids have no access to mirrors, partly because they are not supposed to be vain about their appearance but also because they could use splintered glass as a weapon or to commit suicide.

You look like the Whore of Babylon - The Whore of Babylon is a figure depicted in the last book of the Bible, Revelation. Some commentators connect her with the figure of Anti-Christ, the enemy of Christ. Revelation 17:4-5 depicts her as a harlot, dressed in scarlet:

4The woman was dressed in purple and scarlet, and was glittering with gold, precious stones and pearls. She held a golden cup in her hand, filled with abominable things and the filth of her adulteries. 5 The name written on her forehead was a mystery:

It is ironic that the Handmaids, who are supposed to be sexually pure (except with their Commanders) are dressed by the Republic in scarlet - traditionally, as with the Whore of Babylon, the colour of prostitution.

What'd you do wrong? - Moira makes it very clear that being sent to work at Jezebels' is a punishment, and that the women there are prisoners.

I can't remember exactly - Offred's comment reminds us that her account is a construct, and that she may be an unreliable narrator, whilst simultaneously sounding as if she is a ‘real' person attempting to produce an accurate memoir. (See Structure and methods of narration.)

You do that, when they use the electrodes - Gilead's régime uses appalling tortures. Moira says later, ‘when they're doing it you'll say anything.'

Especially anyone gay - In Gilead ‘Gender Treachery' - i.e. homosexuality - is punishable by death.

Quaker - The Quakers (see chapter 14) are a particularly peaceful Christian group. They believe in non-violence and have been especially active in opposing the slave trade, and in promoting the rights of women and prisoners. It is ironic that such a group should be singled out for persecution by the régime in Gilead.

they busted the press - This is the printing press organised by a women's collective, for which Moira was working before her arrest. (See chapter 28.)

Zip code - The American equivalent of the British postcode.

Mass Ave - A shortened version of Massachusetts Avenue, probably the one in Boston (there is also one in Washington D.C.). The exact location of The Handmaid's Tale is unspecified, but may well be Cambridge, Massachusetts, where there is an important University such as depicted in, for example, chapters 5 and 6. Massachusetts Avenue runs from Cambridge - an outlying district of Boston - into the main part of the city. Cambridge and that area of Massachusetts were centres of Puritan theology in the seventeenth century.

Paydirt - An American expression meaning ‘gold', referring to earth with gold ore in it. Moira means that, because this couple had access to an escape route for her, they were a wonderful discovery.

Underground Femaleroad - Atwood is here playing on the name of the Underground Railroad, an organisation which, in the middle of the nineteenth century, smuggled escaped slaves from America into Canada. (See Social / political context > Political satire > Slavery.)

risking their lives for you … for religious reasons - It is ironic that the Quakers are prepared to take such risks ‘for religious reasons', when Gilead itself is supposed to be a religious régime. But as Moira says, when comparing their prayers with the ‘shit' - i.e. the religious hypocrisy - at the Red Centre, ‘this was a whole other thing.'

The Salem Martyn by Thomas Slatterwhite-Noble, available through Creative CommonsThey got me up as far as Salem - Salem is a city noted for its fundamentalist Puritan beliefs and régime in the seventeenth century, especially its witch trials (as depicted in the play The Crucible by Arthur Miller, which is also an attack on the McCarthyist anti-Communist interrogations of the nineteen-fifties in America.). Salem is north of Boston, and Moira was well on her way towards the Canadian border.

The other Colonies are the worst … radiation spills - Atwood is depicting a world in which man-made environmental disasters have spoilt the natural world and led to fertility problems. Those who are seen as useless by the régime in Gilead - for example the elderly and infertile - are sent to the Colonies as a punishment and to die.

long dresses ... to demoralize the men - Gilead deals not only in torture and death, but in deliberate humiliation.

indifference, a lack of volition ... I don't want her to be like me - Offred has shown that she is determined to survive, but she has looked up to Moira as a more pro-active revolutionary. It is a shock for Offred to sense that Moira has lost her will to fight.

I don't know how she ended ... because I never saw her again - Moira's is an unfinished story; the reader has to imagine what happens to her. However, this is even more true of Offred herself, as we find when we read the final section, ‘Historical Notes'.

Investigating chapter thirty-eight

  • Use the Internet to find out more about the Underground Railroad, which helped escaped slaves in nineteenth-century America
  • Or read Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe, a nineteenth-century American novel which shocked its readers with a depiction of the lives of slaves and their attempts to escape.

Related material
Scan and go

Scan on your mobile for direct link.