Section 12: Jezebel's - Chapter thirty-six

Synopsis of chapter thirty-six

It is evening and time for Offred to go to the Commander's study. When she gets there, he has clearly been drinking and is excited about something. He produces a brief, revealing costume with feathers decorating it, and asks Offred to put it on. He tells her that he is taking her out, gives her an old lipstick to use and wraps Serena Joy's blue cloak around her. Nick then drives them past checkouts to an alleyway where the Commander takes Offred in through a locked doorway to which he has a key.

Commentary on chapter thirty-six

He wishes to diminish – Offred is aware (as she has been when playing Scrabble) of the significance of language choices. It is possible to sound patronising merely by the choice of epithet.

Twenty questions‘Animal, vegetable, or mineral?' – This is a reference to a mid-twentieth century panel-game called ‘Twenty questions', popular at first on radio, and later on television, where a panel of celebrities had to guess the identity of an object by asking a series of questions. They were told whether the object was ‘animal, vegetable or mineral'.

A handful of feathers … cups … covered in purple sequins – This kind of costume is also featured in Atwood's later dystopian novel, The Year of the Flood, worn by the women who work in ‘Scales and Tails' – a nightclub-cum-brothel.
The exploitation of women in such places in her own time, as well as in her dystopian novels, is clearly a matter of concern to Atwood. However, she also makes us aware of the ambivalence of the situation. Not all the women feel exploited: some really enjoy their sexual activities, as we see in the ambiguous comment below.

throwing their arms up thankfully … when they felt the cameras on them – Are the women only reacting when the cameras are on them because they want to ensure that their delight at the destruction of such exploitative costumes is fully and publicly registered - or are they not necessarily delighted at all, but feel that they must appear to be so?

Some other woman's sweat – As we discover in chapter 45, the Commander has made the same illicit excursion with at least one former Offred.

Freedom … is relative – Given Offred's situation as a Handmaid and prisoner, the chance to do anything which would effectively be a ‘sneer at the Aunts' gives her a small sense of freedom.

Pull the hood down … Try not to smear the make-up. It's for getting through the checkpoints – ‘It's' here refers to the cloak, not the make-up, which is now banned (which is why the Commander can only produce an old, runny lipstick, and no eye-shadow or blusher) but which Offred will need if she is to look like a genuine sex-worker at the place where he is taking her (known, as we discover in chapter 38, by the nickname ‘Jezebel's'). Offred has to pretend to be a Wife if she is to pass the checkpoints with the Commander, but her made-up face must not be seen.

both of us are supposed to be invisible … functionaries – As she realised about Serena Joy in chapter 31, Offred has moments where she sees that even those who appear to have some power are actually victims of the regime in Gilead.

Wives aren't allowed – We see the hypocrisy of Gilead, which allows such organised prostitution as is found at ‘Jezebel's'.

On the hour, as usual – The reader realises not only that the Commander has done this before, but that it must be a fairly regular occurrence with the Commander's Offreds.

He slips around my wrist a tag … ‘an evening rental' – Women are supposedly revered in Gilead, according to the Aunts, but ironically they may well be treated as commodities, to be bought and sold for the sexual gratification of men.

Idiot, says Moira – Offred imagines Moira's disbelieving reaction if she saw Offred dressed in this ridiculous costume and with garish make-up. She does not know yet that Moira has been forced to work as a prostitute at ‘Jezebel's', and is wearing a ‘bunny-girl' costume (see chapter 37).

Investigating chapter thirty-six

  • In this chapter Atwood describes the imagined shaming of men who sold titillating clothing for women. She says they were made to wear ‘conical paper hats like dunce hats'. For different reasons, public shaming has taken place in various regimes
    • Investigate the public shaming of those seen as defaulters, such as those whom the Red Guards wished to humiliate under the Cultural Revelation in China
    • Look at the novel The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne, which describes the public humiliation of an adulteress in Puritan America in the seventeenth century, who is made to wear a scarlet letter ‘A' on her dress.
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