Section 8: Birth Day - Chapter twenty-two

Synopsis of chapter twenty-two

Back in her room, Offred is very tired and lies down on her bed. She reconstructs, from things she has heard from others at the Red Centre, the story of what happened to Moira, who managed, on her second attempt, to escape. Janine was told about it by Aunt Lydia, who wanted Janine to ‘keep her ears open', to find out if the other trainee Handmaids knew anything. Moira had enticed Aunt Elizabeth into the toilet cubicle by asking her to fix an overflowing lavatory. Then Moira had threatened her with a weapon and forced her to change clothes before tying her up and using her pass to escape. The Handmaids have heard nothing about her since then.

Commentary on chapter twenty-two

a different story, a better one - Atwood wants us to be constantly aware that all stories are constructs and reconstructions. She underlines the fact that the story in this chapter is a ‘reconstruction' by reiterating the point at the beginning of the next chapter. (See Structure and methods of narration.)

Alma...Dolores... Janine - Since Offred has heard the story about Moira from these three others, we may deduce, if we wish, that Offred's real name is June. (See chapter 1.)

Aunts … allowed to read and write - Literacy is seen as too dangerous a weapon to allow to other women, and reading is a very restricted activity. Even the Commander is allowed no books except the Bible (see, for example, chapter 23.) (See also Social / political context > Political satire > Linguistic repression.)

voice of raw egg white - Another of Atwood's unusual images; see also Imagery and symbolism.

Moira … used to fix her own car - Moira is extremely unlike the subservient, domestic woman enforced by Gilead.

Moira … a loose woman - Offred's pun is significant; Moira has given herself power and is loose. In her rejection of Gilead's sexual repression, she may also be a ‘loose woman' in the sense of ‘sexually uninhibited'. Later we discover that Moira is a lesbian.

Moira was our fantasy - For the other Handmaids, Moira's audacity offers hope. So, when Offred discovers what has happened to Moira, and what she has become (see chapters 37 and 38) she is severely shocked and deeply disappointed.

Moira didn't reappear. She hasn't yet - The change from past to present, with implications of the future (‘yet'), reminds us that Offred's story constantly shifts through time-periods. (By the time we get to the Historical Notes, we have moved on more than two hundred years.) 

Investigating chapter twenty-two

  • ‘All of it is a reconstruction' Offred says at the start of the next chapter. Atwood could have told the story of Moira's escape from the Red Centre in various ways and from different viewpoints, even using different chronology.
    • Make a list of some of the possible ways in which the story of Moira's escape could have been told.
      • Note that in chapter 38, when Moira tells her own story of the escape, she begins it from the end of the events outlined in chapter 22, and in any case Offred again ‘reconstructs' only what she can remember. (See also Structure and methods of narration.)

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