Section 6: Household - Chapter seventeen

Synopsis of chapter seventeen

Back in her own room, Offred rubs over her face the butter she had saved earlier. It is the closest she can get to a face-cream. She decides she wants to assert her own will, even if only in a tiny way, by stealing something. She creeps down to the sitting-room, and decides to take a dead daffodil, because it is something that will not be missed. Then she realises that there is someone else in the room. It is Nick, who comes up to her and kisses her, before telling her that the Commander wants to see her in his office the next day. Puzzled, Offred goes back to her room.

Commentary on chapter seventeen

no … face cream ... a decree of the Wives - The Handmaids are universally resented by the Wives rather than being seen as a help to the state.

Rachel and LeahThe Rachel and Leah Centre ... Red Centre - Red is the colour of the Handmaids because it represents the womb and fertility. The training centre is actually called the Rachel and Leah Centre because both Rachel and Leah gave their maids to their husband Jacob to bear his children (see Genesis 30:3-11).

touched again, in love or desire - Once more Offred shows the importance of warm human physical contact of which she feels so deprived. Although the cushions ‘Hope' and ‘Love' have been removed from her room (see chapter 10) the feelings still exist in Offred. (See also Themes and significant ideas > Human relationships.)

I want to be held and told my name - Offred longs to be valued again as an individual. (See Themes and significant ideas > Individualism and identity.)

I want to steal something - Offred's identity, her husband, her child and indeed her whole life have been stolen from her. She wants to assert, even in a small way, her own will and power.

The active, is it a tense? Tensed - Offred again shows her awareness of words by punning on the idea of the active voice of a verb and the idea of action, and also on the idea of a verb tense and of being ‘tense' in the sense of ‘ taut'.

In the wood at midnight - Offred is aware of her situation as being like a child lost in a dark wood, in fairy tale. Atwood has been much influenced by the idea of myth and fairy tale. (See also Themes and significant ideas > Myth and fairy tale.)

we're mirrors - Just as Offred had earlier seen Ofglen as her double, now she recognises that she and Nick are in parallel situations. (See Themes and significant ideas > Doubling.)

so good to be touched - Again Offred stresses the need to be touched, to feel the warmth of human relationships.

Is this what I would die for? - Offred's priority is to survive; her rebellious actions are tiny, and, she hopes, unnoticed. She is no overt rebel as Moira is.

Investigating chapter seventeen

  • Consider the importance of names
    • How far do they help to define one's identity?
  • Which characters in fiction have aptronyms (names which are appropriate to their character, such as Mrs. Malaprop from the play The Rivals) or names which suggest something of their qualities (such as Jane Eyre)?
  • Why might Atwood choose not to reveal explicitly the real name of Offred?

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