Section 13: Night - Chapter forty

Synopsis of chapter forty

After returning with the Commander, Offred waits in her room. At midnight, Serena Joy arrives to take her to a secret assignation with Nick, as they had arranged. Offred goes up to Nick's room above the garage and they make love - or at least have sexual intercourse; Offred gives two different versions of this encounter, and then tells us that neither is accurate.

Commentary on chapter forty

a blue shape, a red shape ... Myself, my obverse - as before (for example, see chapter 31) Offred at such moments sees Serena Joy as a kind of double, or counterpart, of herself. (See also Themes and significant ideas > Doubling.)

The blanket … says U.S. – This is an exact parallel of Offred's bed at the Rachel and Leah Centre - see chapter 1. It reminds us that Nick, although apparently a person with much more freedom than Offred, is also trapped by the régime. Clearly the Republic of Gilead exists in what was once the United States of America.

Already … I'm alive in my skin - In the first of her versions of her sexual encounter with Nick, Offred suggests the joyful sensation of being lovingly touched and a sense of real emotional exchange. (See Themes and significant ideas > Human relationships.)

I made that up. It didn't happen that way - Although similar in some ways to the first account, this version suggests a much more tentative encounter, where emotion does not really enter into the physical negotiation between them.

some acknowledgement that he too is human - As with the Commander at Jezebel's, Offred is aware that the sexual act without emotion is dehumanising. By juxtaposing the two encounters with the Commander and Nick Atwood makes us even more aware of this.

You come here often? ... And what's a nice girl like you doing - As Offred goes on to say, ‘We're quoting from late movies, from the time before.' In the absence of real emotion, ‘this corny and falsely gay sexual banter' is the best they can do. However, she is also aware that such clichés are no substitute for real feeling, and are in fact only trying to cover up the sadness of lack of love.

Abstinence makes the heart grow fonder - a pun on the actual cliché, ‘Absence makes the heart grow fonder'.

It didn't happen that way either - Offred has given another version but even that is not a ‘real' account. This reminds us that the whole novel is a construction on various levels: not only is it all Atwood's invention but, within that framework, she makes it clear that Offred's story is very much a re-constructed account. (see especially the last section of the novel: Historical Notes). Now, within that re-construction, Offred reminds us that her narrative is not reliable, since it is not possible to know, or to explain, exactly how love feels.

All I can hope for is a reconstruction - ironic, since at the end of the novel this takes on a second meaning: Offred herself is ‘reconstructed' by Professors Wade and Pieixoto.

Investigating chapter forty

  • Atwood is always alert to nuances of language and the importance of being aware of shades of meaning. Here Offred says that using the clichéd language of romance, such as that used in old movies, was a way ‘to keep the core of yourself out of reach'. The same has been noted of the use of euphemism in journalism and politics, where language may conceal the real significance or horror of events.
    • Look at some current stories in magazines and newspapers, deciding where real meaning is obscured by the use of cliché and euphemism
    • If you prefer, look up these terms on the internet and note the examples given.

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