Section 5: Nap - Chapter thirteen

Synopsis of chapter thirteen

Again, although Offred is outwardly under the control of the Commander and his wife, her inner life of thoughts is her own. Physically, she practises pelvic muscle exercises as prescribed by Aunt Lydia, but this is only to give herself something to do. In her mind she goes back to the time when the anarchic Moira arrived at the Red Centre.

Offred remembers how they were expected to ‘testify' about their supposedly immoral behaviour in previous times. She also remembers how they were brutally punished for any lapses of discipline. In spite of this, Moira and Offred managed to meet and talk in the lavatories.

Back in the present, Offred is only too acutely aware of her own body and its monthly cycle of fertility. She dozes and thinks of being with Luke in the first apartment they shared together. Then she dreams of their attempted escape from Gilead, when she ran as fast as she could with her child and heard shots. She is not sure if Luke was hit. She remembers her child being dragged away from her and wakes up with her face wet from crying.

Commentary on chapter thirteen

HaremHarems … paintings about suspended animation - Atwood reminds us of the times when Eastern women were condemned to unfulfilled lives in harems, but also of nineteenth century Western art where such women were the subjects of erotic paintings. She sees such unfulfilled lives as being like those of animals in cages, and her own present existence as being equally vapid.

a bruise on her left cheek - The implication is that Moira has been hit, presumably resisting her arrest.

loony bin - Moira's speech is typically frank and anarchic. Loony bin is slang for lunatic asylum, the archaic term for a mental hospital

It makes me feel safer … Moira is here - Atwood now uses the present tense, even though Offred is recalling past events. Offred's memories consequently become more vivid.

Janine ... Dolores - Moira, Janine and Dolores are all mentioned here as other women in the Red Centre. In chapter 15 Alma is also mentioned as someone Offred knew at the Red Centre. This perhaps means that Offred's real name is June (the fifth name mentioned in chapter 1) but Atwood does not reveal this. Offred has ‘composed herself' (see the end of chapter 12) just as she is also Atwood's composition.

Janine … gang-raped... whose fault …? - Atwood here raises the issue, often discussed in the press, about whether women can be held responsible for arousing male sexual appetites leading to crimes of rape. In 2005 an Amnesty International survey, as part of a campaign to stop violence against women, found that many people thought a woman was responsible for being raped if she wore revealing clothing or was drunk. (See also Social and political context > Social attitudes.)

Dolores wet the floor... moaning - The brutality of punishment for an unintentional offence arriving from Dolores' fear shows us that there is nothing tender about the so-called ‘Aunts'.

like babies' coffins - This sad and somewhat shocking image reminds us that these women are here to produce babies.

God, do I need a cigarette - Moira's short, sharp comments, as well as her flouting of the system, characterise her.

my body... my own territory - Atwood shows Offred's awareness of her own bodily functions as a way in which she still has individuality - though ‘the expectations of others' about what is happening inside her body have ‘become (her) own'. (See Themes and significant ideas > Individualism and identity.)

the flesh arranges itself - This sensual and sensitive paragraph describing Offred's awareness of monthly ovulation, of her own womb, and of her monthly disappointment when she fails to conceive, is in sharp contrast to the way in which she is simply an object to be used by the powers-that-be in Gilead.

Luke's wife ... crying, accusing - This sudden revelation that Luke's first wife was distraught by his leaving her adds a different dimension to Offred's past and perhaps raises new questions about her relationship with Luke.

I'm running, with her, holding her hand - This vivid account, written in the present tense, makes the reader re-live the terror of Offred's attempted escape with Luke and their daughter. Her breathless panic is re-created especially strongly at the end of the second paragraph (from ‘She's too young' to ‘carried away') where the nine lines are one long sentence, with short phrases and repetitions adding to the sense of panic.

this is the worst - The chapter ends with the terrible nightmare of Offred's memory of the loss of her child, ironically just as she is about to be taken for (hopefully) the creation of a new child by the Commander.

Investigating chapter thirteen

  • Throughout the novel Atwood shifts the action between past and present. She also changes her use of tense.
    • Notice where and why she does this.
  • Try re-writing in the past tense part of Atwood's present tense account of Offred's attempted escape with Luke and their daughter.
    • Observe carefully the changes you had to make and the difference the tense change made to the impact of the account.

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