Section 8: Birth Day - Chapter twenty-three

Synopsis of chapter twenty-three

Offred thinks about Moira's story and her own, and how impossible it is to give a full and unbiased account of anything. Cora brings up Offred's dinner tray, asking about Ofwarren's baby, and Offred realises that Cora would like to have a child in the house to look after.

Offred remembers that Nick had told her the Commander wanted to see her tonight. She creeps down to his study and is amazed to find it is full of books, which are forbidden. Offred is also amazed to find that what the Commander wants to do is to play the word-game Scrabble. They play two games, and then he tells her that it is time for her to go, but first he wants her to kiss him. She does, tentatively, but he says she should kiss him ‘as if she meant it'.

Commentary on chapter twenty-three

All of it is a reconstruction - By putting this comment here, rather than at the end of the previous chapter, Atwood increases its significance. It no longer means simply that Offred's account of Moira's escape is a reconstruction, but reminds us that ‘This' - i.e. the whole book - is one. (See Structure and methods of narration.)

nuances ... which could mean this or that - Atwood's frequent use of punning language for Offred reminds us of the ‘slipperiness' of language and meaning.

a man … in the future - A comment we should particularly remember when we come across the speech given by Professor Pieixoto in ‘Historical Notes'.

forgiveness too is a power - Offred draws a distinction between two very different kinds of power: the power of oppression, and the power of love and forgiveness.

two-legged wombs - In Gilead sexual activity is merely about procreation (although later, in the section ‘Jezebel's', we may revise this impression).

looks like normal life - That is, life as Offred remembers it before Gilead.

Books … an oasis of the forbidden – This links with other science fiction worlds where reading is forbidden or severely restricted, as in George Orwell's 1984 or Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 - or in real-life situations such as in China during the Cultural Revolution.(See Social / political context > Political satire.)

mother uses. Used - Offred accepts that her mother is probably dead. (In contrast, in chapter 6 she corrected herself when she used the past tense about Luke.)

exchanged - The idea of ‘exchange' as a basis of human relationships is one Atwood has foregrounded right from chapter 1.

He who does not hesitate is lost - Proverbially, the expression is ‘He who hesitates is lost', but Offred knows that in Gilead one should always think carefully before making any indication of a response.

Scrabble ... forbidden - Scrabble seems a remarkably innocuous game, but Scrabble pieces, photo by Taro Taylor, available through Creative Commonsas it is all to do with words, with thinking about their shapes and meanings, it is seen as dangerously subversive in Gilead. Atwood's choice of such an unlikely activity for the Commander to indulge in as a secret vice foregrounds most effectively the power of language and the recognition of its power, not only by repressive régimes but by all governments and media moguls.

Larynx ... Valance ... Quince ... Zygote - As some counters, such as X, V, Q and Z, score more highly when included in words in Scrabble, these example show us that Offred is adept at the game. However, as zygote is also the cell produced by the union of two sexual reproductive cells (gametes), Offred clearly also has her mind on her and the Commander's function in the Ceremony.

The letter C. Crisp, slightly acid on the tongue - Words have a sensuous appeal for Offred.

I think about how … a reconstruction - Atwood and Offred remind us that all narrative is a construct.

Sad ... a reconstruction, too - Offred implies that she has no sense of the Commander's feelings. She would, however, have liked to think that he was lonely and wanted human affection as much as she did.

Investigating chapter twenty-three

  • The banning of language or of books is a frequently-used political tool.
    • Read, or read a synopsis of, the one-act play Mountain Language by Harold Pinter, or the play Translations by Brian Friel, both of which examine the repression of a native language.
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