Section 10: Soul scrolls - Chapter twenty-eight

Synopsis of chapter twenty-eight

Back in her room, Offred thinks about Moira, and what her reaction might be to Offred's secret meetings with the Commander. Moira had disapproved of Offred's affair with Luke, because he was already married to someone else. Moira herself had decided she was a lesbian. Offred and Moira had argued about men-women relationships, but they remained close friends.

Offred remembers her previous job and thinks about how strange it is now to contemplate women having jobs. She also recalls how, about four years after marrying Luke and having his child, everything in their lives changed:

  • After the assassination of the President, there was an attack on Congress, blamed on Islamic extremists
  • The Constitution was suspended and a state of emergency was declared by a military group which took control of the state
  • Further measures of control were introduced, culminating in all women's bank accounts being frozen, so that they could only get money via a male relative
  • In addition, all women were sacked from paid employment and forbidden from holding property
  • Some women tried to protest, organising marches, but were instantly fired on by the police or army.

Offred remembers when her mother took part in earlier feminist, pro-abortion rallies. She then looks out of the window and sees Nick with his cap on at an angle, signalling to Offred that the Commander wants her to go to his study that night.

The night she lost her old job, Offred felt that she was no longer a free person, but that the state had made her Luke's property.

Commentary on chapter twenty-eight

I'm not Moira - Not only does Offred not have Moira's skills with tools and machinery, she is no overt rebel like Moira.

Plinyliving with my head in the sand - Moira uses a proverbial idiom (from the Roman writer Pliny) about Offred refusing to face attack. She was aware that, even before the takeover of power and establishment of Gilead, women did not have equality of power with men. (See Religious / philosophical context > Feminism and The Handmaid's Tale.)

If Moira thought … to go away - Atwood shows that the issues of feminism and the feminist movement are not simple and clear-cut. Later, in the section ‘Jezebel's', we also see the irony of this comment: Moira is shut up in a women-only enclave, but it is a state-run brothel for the pleasure of the men in power.

pry himself loose - Offred's choice of phrase shows that she sees Luke as being keen to end his first marriage, although his first wife was not. Atwood shows her awareness that moral issues in human relationships are complex.

books ... supposed to go to the shredderIronically, that is now the term used in Gilead for disposing of malformed babies.

Having a job ... do a jobbie ... the Book of Job - Offred plays with words and meanings (it is not simply something she does when playing Scrabble). Linking employment with the slang term for defecation belittles its importance, whilst referring to Job links it with unfair suffering. Job (usually pronounced ‘Jobe', Dollar noterhyming with ‘robe') is an Old Testament exploration of suffering, its causes and consequences

Some old man in a wig and on the other side a pyramid with an eye above it - Offred is describing an American dollar bill or note.

They blamed it on the Islamic fanatics, at the time - Atwood's phrase ‘at the time' implies that people took a different view, later on, probably deciding that this had been used as the excuse for the new régime to take over. 

More on conspiracy theories: Conspiracy theories often suggest that the régime in power has orchestrated a disaster so that they can clamp down on their opponents. Examples include:
  • The Gunpowder Plot in England in 1605, which led to stronger anti-Catholic action
  • The Popish Plot in late seventeenth century England, which had the same effect
  • The Reichstag fire in Germany in 1933, which Hitler blamed on Communists
  • Reaction to the destruction of the Twin Towers in 2001 in America, which some conspiracy theorists claim was arranged by the US government to justify the attacks on Iraq and Afghanistan. (See Social / political context > Political satire > Islamic groups and régimes.)

Everything is under control – This sinister pun could mean ‘everything is all right' or ‘all freedoms are now being clamped down on.'

The Pornomarts were shut... a nuisance – Atwood makes us question at what point does keeping order tip over into oppression? How far should we allow our liberties to be eroded for the sake of avoiding anarchy or exploitation?

I have to let you go … We're being fired? - The director uses the euphemism ‘let you go', but Offred is direct in her question. However, she soon realises he is being forced into this because ‘there were two men standing there, in uniforms, with machine guns.'

we deserved it? - Atwood raises the question, ‘How far are we complicit in such oppression? Do we get the governments we deserve?' Were young women like Offred too complacent, as Moira had suggested earlier in this chapter?

Women can't hold property any more - Atwood reflects the situation in Britain for married women until the Married Women's Property Act of 1882. Before that, the property of a married woman became her husband's unless specified in a pre-nuptial agreement. In Saudi Arabia today, women cannot have a separate bank account without permission from their husbands. (See Social / political context > Political satire > Islamic groups and régimes.)

some other army - In other words, it wasn't the usual USA army which took over and established the state of Gilead. It was another, unidentified military group, which staged a coup d'état and imposed the tyrannical theocracy.

I wanted from her a life more ceremonious - Offred wanted her mother to give up her feminist protests and to have a more conventional life, for which Offred chooses the word ‘ceremonious'. Atwood is perhaps echoing W.B.Yeats' Prayer for my daughter, where he asks: 

… may her bridegroom bring her to a house
Where all's accustomed, ceremonious;
For arrogance and hatred are the wares
Peddled in the thoroughfares.
How but in custom and in ceremony
Are innocence and beauty born? …

Ironically Offred now has to undergo the ‘Ceremony' with the Commander every month.

prodigal breeding - The garden represents abundant fertility and sensuous life. (See Imagery and symbolism > The garden.)

Eat those words - An expression meaning ‘take back what you have just said'. Here Atwood puns on the idea of swallowing secret messages to prevent their being discovered - literally ‘eating words', as if one could swallow the small tiles used for playing Scrabble.

Instead, I am his - Offred feels that if there is not equality of choice, the nature of the whole relationship changes. She does not want to think that Luke may have enjoyed having power over her, but has not dared to ask him.

Investigating chapter twenty-eight

  • Look up recent examples of states where a coup d'état overthrew a democratically elected régime, such as that in Chile in 1973.
    • Consider how morally valid a coup d' état is against a democratically elected totalitarian régime, such as Hitler's National Socialist government, elected in Germany in 1933.

Scan and go

Scan on your mobile for direct link.