Section 6: Household - Chapter fifteen

Synopsis of chapter fifteen

The Commander knocks and enters the sitting-room. Offred observes him carefully and describes him in detail. As he unlocks a Bible from a box, Offred assesses him, wondering what it must be like to be in his situation. The Commander reads from Genesis, about God's commands to his people to bear children.

Meanwhile, Offred recalls Bible readings at the Red Centre, and remembers how Moira managed to tell her of a plan to escape. But although Moira got out, her plan failed: she was brought back and brutally punished.

Commentary on chapter fifteen

an incendiary device - Books are forbidden in Gilead, and have been restricted in many totalitarian régimes. (See, for example, Social and political context > Political satire.) In Europe in the Middle Ages the Church opposed the translation of the Bible into the vernacular, thus preventing laymen from reading it. Offred knows the Gilead authorities would feel threatened by the people having access to the words, which they use for their own ends. Atwood's readers, if they have knowledge of the Bible, would realise it is being mis-used and perverted to justify evil purposes.

can't do it … he won't do it … have to do - Offred's pun on ‘do' contrasts a man's power in the approaching sexual act with the fact that he may be seen as merely ‘all there is available'.

Stub ... tentacle … stalked slug's eye - Offred's series of unflattering phallic images undermines the idea of male physical power.

One false move and I'm dead - In wry humour, Offred plays on a clichéd phrase from cowboy and spy films – ‘One false move and you're dead.' She is well aware that the lives of the women in this household depend on the Commander's privileged position in the state: ‘If he were to falter, fail or die, what would become of us?'

It must be hell ... It must be just fine - Offred is aware of the complexity of the situation: the Commander is as much a victim of Gilead as are those he ostensibly controls.

He has the word. How we squandered it once – Offred's comment is, as are many of her observations, multi-layered. At one level, ‘the word' may refer to the Bible, the Word of God. But she is also thinking of words more widely, as the medium of free communication, which she once took for granted. Not only are women severely restricted in Gilead, and Handmaids in particular are expected to be largely silent, but writing and reading are forbidden to them. Atwood is warning us to be conscious of our freedoms, and not to take them for granted.

the usual stories - The Commander reads from Genesis 1:27-8, the story of Adam and Eve, of Noah and the ark Genesis 8:13-17, and of Rachel from Genesis 30:1-6 (this last story is the one Atwood uses in her epigraph). All concern the need to ‘be fruitful and multiply' - to have children.

the Beatitudes – The Beatitudes are a series of statements by Christ, recorded in Matthew 5:1-12, in which he describes those whose behaviour and beliefs make them blessed.

Blessed are the silent … they made that up... left things out – Gilead's additions to – and omissions from – the biblical text has already been seen in Aunt Lydia's manipulation of the beatitudes for her own purposes (ch 12).

they used steel cables, frayed at the ends - The horrifically brutal beating of Moira's feet leaves us in no doubt that Gilead is a vicious and repressive régime, a far cry from the Christianity it claims to promote.

For the eyes of the Lord run to and fro throughout the whole earth - The Commander ends prayers with a reminder that they are all constantly being watched by state spies - the Eyes. His quotation is from Zechariah 4:10.

Investigating chapter fifteen

  • Throughout this chapter Atwood uses imagery to describe the Commander and his behaviour.
  • Re-read the chapter, making a list of any images you find - both similes and metaphors
    • Try to assess the picture of the Commander that emerges.

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