Serena Joy

An object of fear and guilt

To begin with, Serena Joy seems a hostile figure, speaking brusquely to Offred (chapter 3). Her Handmaid is convinced that even in:

‘another time and place ... I wouldn't have liked her, nor she me.'

And at the end of the novel (chapter 46), Offred's fear of what Serena Joy will do to her makes her consider suicide. After all, that is what happened to the previous Offred who, the Commander tells Offred in chapter 29, ‘hanged herself' when ‘Serena found out.'

Yet there are moments when Offred's relationship with Serena is more complex. Aunt Lydia has already pointed out that ‘it isn't easy' for the Commanders' Wives, and once she starts her surreptitious visits to the Commander's office, Offred feels ‘guilty about her' (chapter 26):

‘I felt I was an intruder, in a territory that ought to have been hers... I was taking something away from her, although she didn't know it.‘

Overall, however, Serena appears an unpleasant figure.

Physical appearance

Serena Joy is first described (chapter 3) as having a thickened waist, thin lips and knuckly fingers with ‘large diamonds' on her ring finger. She has blonde hair and eyes which are a ‘flat hostile blue ... a blue that shuts you out'. Her face is ‘not fat but ... large'. Atwood further suggests her nature with:

‘Two lines led downwards from the corners of her mouth; between them was her chin, clenched like a fist.'

Later (chapter 8) we learn that her real name was Pam, and that she had been a singer, the ‘lead soprano' on a television show called the Growing Souls Gospel Hour. After that, she gave speeches as a television personality who promoted an anti-feminist view ‘about the sanctity of the home, about how women should stay home.' Offred and Luke had watched her, noting her:

‘sprayed hair and hysteria, and the tears she could still produce at will'.

Luke had found her funny, but Offred thought she was ‘a little frightening. She was in earnest.'

Serena's current life

Now Serena Joy, crippled with arthritis, occupies herself in the garden which is her ‘domain'. She seems to enjoy ‘tying the flowers into place' and ‘snipping off the seed pods with a pair of shears'. A garden for her is something to control, to ‘order and maintain'. She also spends her time endlessly knitting scarves with elaborate patterns. Offred fantasises (chapter 3) that perhaps:

‘these scarves aren't sent to the Angels at all, but unravelled and turned back into balls of yarn'

simply providing something to keep Serena Joy busy. Her frequent employment of knitting needles adds to the picture of Serena as sharp and potentially dangerous.

Serena seems, unsurprisingly, particularly hostile to Offred at the time of the Ceremony, when Offred has to lie in her lap, emulating the phrase from Genesis 30:3 (which Atwood reproduces as an epigraph) that the handmaid ‘shall bear upon my knees'. Offred relates how Serena Joy has to hold Offred's hands, and how:

‘the rings of her left hand cut into my fingers. It may or may not be revenge.'

A manipulative woman

Serena Joy from the 1990 film from Offred fails to conceive, Serena becomes conspiratorial, suggesting to Offred (chapter 31) that someone other than the Commander should try to inseminate her, and arranging that it should be Nick. At first Offred feels that, ‘for this moment at least we are cronies.' However, when Serena Joy offers a reward - ‘Maybe I could get something for you' - and says she could bring a photograph of Offred's missing child, Offred realises just how heartless the Commander's Wife really is:

‘She's known all along... The bitch, not to tell me... She's made of wood, or iron, she can't imagine.'

At this point any sympathy we or Offred have for Serena Joy vanishes.

Serena defeated?

Our last glimpse of Serena Joy is as her face turns ‘white' when Offred is apparently arrested. She realises that her husband may now be viewed as a security risk, and become a victim of one of Gilead's purges of its Commanders. The last words spoken aloud in the novel, before the Historical Notes, are those of Serena Joy, who, with no apparent awareness of irony, says to Offred, ‘Bitch. After all he did for you.'

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