Section 6: Household - Chapter fourteen

Synopsis of chapter fourteen

A bell rings to summon Offred downstairs to the sitting-room. No-one else is yet there, but Offred knows her place: she kneels by Serena Joy's footstool. Other members of the household arrive: Cora, Rita and Nick.

Serena Joy then arrives, and turns on the television while they wait for the Commander. The television news shows them pictures of the war Gilead is fighting against other religious groups. It also reports the re-settlement of black people into separate communes.

As they continue to wait for the Commander, Offred thinks again about the unsuccessful escape which she and Luke made with their daughter.

Commentary on chapter fourteen

neat red shoes - Again we are reminded (see chapter 2) about the story of the red shoes and their symbolism as part of the repression of female ambition (see also Themes and significant ideas > Gender significance and feminism.)

parlour … spider and flies - Atwood is referring to the poem for children, The Spider and the Fly, written by Mary Howitt in the early nineteenth century. It is a cautionary tale warning against being deceived by those who intend to harm you, and begins, ‘ “Will you walk into my parlour?” said the Spider to the Fly.'

A sitting room ... standing room only - Offred frequently plays with language, with satirical intent, as she does here. Only the Commander and his wife will sit in the ‘sitting room'; for others there is, as if on a crowded bus, ‘standing room only'.

the shapes money takes when it freezes - Although those in power in Gilead profess Christianity, they value material possessions and the ability to display them.

Two paintings, both of women ... their faces pinched, their caps starched - These appear to be paintings of earlier, possibly seventeenth century Puritan women, whose narrow views are reflected in their ‘pinched' faces. Atwood said in an interview in 1986 that her ancestors were ‘nagging Puritans' and that ‘the mind-set of Gilead' is like theirs.

Lily of the valley - A strong, often rather sickly perfume, but which Atwood may have chosen for Serena Joy because of its association with the biblical Song of Songs 2:1 - ‘I am a rose of Sharon, and a lily of the valleys.'

The house is what he holds. To have and to hold, till death do us part. The hold of a ship - A good example of Offred's sensitivity to language, and her interest in language-play, as she examines in her head the different meanings and resonances of the word ‘hold'. ‘To have and to hold' comes from the wedding vows in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer (Solemnisation of matrimony:The vows).

We are touching - Offred's first physical contact with Nick, even though it is only their shoes, stresses the importance of touch.

Flowers ... the genital organs of plants - Like the tulips in the garden, flowers are associated in Offred's mind with sexual power and reproduction.

A preacher ... businessmen - Popular American television evangelists, also known as televangelists, have sometimes been criticised for seeking power and money rather than having purely religious motives. (c.f. also the 1927 satirical novel Elmer Gantry by Sinclair Lewis and Philip Larkin's poem Faith Healing, published 1964.)

news … who knows if any of it is true - Atwood explores, through the cynicism of Offred, the view that all media organisations select what they wish to disseminate and that governments constantly use propaganda. In Orwell's dystopian novel 1984, a huge government department is organised to manipulate and alter ‘news' material.

Angels of the Apocalypse, Fourth Division ... the Battalion of the Angels of Light - Again we see Gilead using (and mis-using) biblical names for their soldiers. The Apocalypse is another name for the end times described in the book of Revelation, the last book in the Bible, in which the angels carry out the judgement of God.

Over the border into Canada - Atwood herself is a Canadian writer and is also well aware that Canada has often been the first place of refuge for Americans wanting to escape. This was the case with black slaves in the nineteenth century and those wishing to avoid being drafted to the Vietnam War in the twentieth century. (See Social and political context > Political satire > Slavery)

Heretical sect of QuakersQuakers, a nonconformist Christian group which broke away from the Puritan movement, were seen as heretical in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. However, they are today noted for their role campaigning against the slave trade, their pacifism and for their support of minority groups - including women, which would make them unacceptable in the eyes of Gilead. (See Religious and philosophical context.)

Resettlement of the Children of Ham ... National Homeland One - Traditionally, the children of Ham (one of the sons of Noah) were Africans and black. Atwood here depicts the rulers of Gilead as racists who believe in apartheid. (See also Social and political context > Social satire.)

It's a Saturday morning in September - This happens in Offred's head, as once again she re-lives her family's failed escape attempt (see chapter 13).

My name isn't Offred, I have another name ... it does matter - Identity does matter, and Offred guards her real identity carefully. Gilead has attempted to remove it, giving her a generic, male-oriented name, but Offred's fight for survival is not merely physical - it also concerns her innate being. (See Themes and significant ideas > Individualism and identity.) 

Investigating chapter fourteen

  • Use the internet to explore further some of the areas which Atwood touches on in this chapter, such as:
    • Apartheid
    • Quakers
    • Televangelism
    • Puritanism.

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