Section 12: Jezebel's - Chapter thirty-four

Synopsis of chapter thirty-four

A Commander comes onto the platform where the Prayvaganza is being held and speaks to the crowd about thanksgiving for Gilead's victories. Then twenty Angels (members of Gilead's army) and twenty young girls go through the ceremony of an arranged marriage. Offred remembers her Commander arguing that young women are better off under such a system in Gilead, scorning the necessity of love.

Offred thinks about another ceremony that sometimes takes place at a Prayvaganza, in which a former nun, after being tortured, might give up her vows and become a Handmaid.

As this current Prayvaganza continues, the Commander leading it reads words from the Bible about the need for modesty in women and their subservient role. In contrast, Offred remembers Moira's deliberately outrageous attitude to the Aunts and feels that only by such derision can the powers-that-be in Gilead be deflated (mentally if not actively).

As they leave the Prayvaganza, Ofglen tells Offred that it is known to the anti-Gilead rebels that Offred makes secret visits to the Commander, and tells Offred to use the occasions to glean any information.

Commentary on chapter thirty-four

hard not to be impressed, but I make an effort - Offred is determined to keep her mental freedom. Mocking the régime in one's own head is a vital way of refusing to give in to it. (Atwood herself demonstrates this by her use of satire in her writings.)

There is a Balm in Gilead - this is a traditional African-American spiritual hymn, which refers to the power of Christ and the Holy Spirit to heal. The phrase ‘balm in Gilead' refers to Jeremiah 8:22.

The hymn begins:

Sometimes I feel discouraged and think my work's in vain,
But then the Holy Spirit revives my soul again.
There is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole;
There is a balm in Gilead to heal the sin-sick soul.

The rulers in Gilead think that they know who are sinners and who is spiritually ‘whole'.

There is a bomb in Gilead - Moira sees only too clearly the violence by which the rulers of Gilead enforce their ideas, and she mocks them by substituting the word ‘bomb' for ‘balm'.

The arrangement of the marriages. The marriages are of course arranged - Offred puns on the word ‘arranged'. The mothers do the organising e.g. of clothing, and the weddings are also ‘arranged' in the sense that the mothers decide whom the girl is to marry. The girl herself will have no choice.

Are they old enough … after that they won't - Offred knows that in a short time this way of life will seem normal to future teenagers, and the chance of girls rebelling against it will therefore be much less.

We've given them more than we've taken away - Offred's Commander makes the same point as Aunt Lydia does in chapter 5, when she says that ‘freedom from' the miseries of the previous way of life are more significant than the loss of ‘freedom to'. The Commander echoes Job 1:21, demonstrating how the ruling elite has usurped the authority attributed to God

What did we overlook? Love, I said - this is one of the most important messages of Atwood's novel - that love between humans is essential to our well-being. She is here reinforcing the comment made by Offred in chapter 18: ‘It's lack of love we die from.' See Themes and significant ideas > Human relationships.

No mooning and June-ing around her - Aunt Lydia is referring to sentimental love-songs where ‘moon' and ‘June' were stereotypically rhymed. However, may there be an additional pun here? Is ‘June' Offred's real name? (See the commentary on chapter 1.

the … welts on their feet … in Solitary - Clearly the nuns who ‘recant' do not do so from conviction, but after torture.

The Commander continues with the service - The words quoted by the Commander come from one of the epistles of Saint Paul1 Timothy 2:9-15, in the King James, or Authorised Version of the Bible. As often in Gilead, those in power take passages out of context or quote only partially; immediately before this extract Paul had written about the standards of behaviour expected of men, who must ‘pray, lifting up holy hands without anger or disputing.'

Just don't move - women in Gilead are not supposed to enjoy sexual intercourse.

something powerful in the whispering of obscenitiestaboo language is often seen as powerful, because it is shocking. Moira was right that those in command can be undermined by language, especially deflating and mocking language. Throughout The Handmaid's Tale, Atwood makes her readers aware of the significance and power of language choices.

Find out and tell us - Ofglen's comment again suggests the presence in Gilead of resistance groups.

Investigating chapter thirty-four

  • ‘There's nothing in the book that hasn't already happened'. Use the internet to:
    • Investigate the mass weddings of the ‘Moonies'
    • View online pictures of these events which Atwood's ‘prayvaganza' seems to recreate.
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