Chapter XII: Jezebels is the 12th chapter of The Handmaid's Tale (Novel). It contains section 31-39.
Section 31 Edit
Summer drags on—with no hope of release from the horror of life in Gilead, the passage of time is unbearable. During a shopping trip one day, Ofglen and Offred find two new bodies on the Wall. One is a Catholic, and another is marked with J, which the women do not understand. If he were Jewish, he would be marked with a yellow star. In the early days of Gilead, Jews were accorded special status as “Sons of Jacob,” and they had the choice of converting or emigrating to Israel. Some people pretended to be Jewish and escaped Gilead that way. Many Jews left, but others pretended to convert or refused to convert; now those who did not truly convert are hanged when caught.
Ofglen tells Offred that subversives in Gilead use “mayday” as a password, but she warns Offred not to use it often. If she is caught and tortured, she should not know names of other subversives. When Offred reaches the house, she notes that Nick’s hat is askew. Serena calls Offred over and asks her to hold the wool while she knits. She asks if there is any sign of pregnancy. When Offred indicates there is not, Serena suggests that the Commander may be sterile. After a moment of hesitation, Offred agrees that it is possible. Serena suggests she try another man, since Offred’s time is running out. Serena says Nick would be the safest possibility, and then offers to let Offred see a picture of her daughter if she agrees. Blinded by sudden hate for Serena, Offred nonetheless agrees, and Serena gives her a cigarette as a reward and instructs her to ask Rita for a match.
Section 32 Edit
Offred considers eating the cigarette little by little for the nicotine rush and saving the match to burn down the house. The Commander has taken to drinking during his evenings with Offred. Ofglen says Offred’s Commander is high in the chain of power. One night he explains that in the old world, before Gilead, there was nothing for men to do with women anymore—nothing to struggle for, nothing to hold their interest. Men used to complain that they felt nothing. He asks what she thinks of Gilead. Offred tries to empty her mind; she cannot give her real opinion. She does not answer, but he can feel her unhappiness. “You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs,” he says. “We thought we could do better.”
Section 33 Edit
Ofglen and Offred attend a “Prayvaganza” with the other women of their district, held in what used to be a university building. The Wives sit in one section with their daughters, the Marthas and Econowives sit in another, and the Handmaids kneel in a section cordoned off by ropes. Janine walks in with a new Wife, and Ofglen whispers that Janine’s baby was deformed, a “shredder” after all. She adds that Janine slept with a doctor to get pregnant. Offred remembers a strange episode in the Red Center when Janine sat on her bed staring off into space, speaking to an invisible customer in a restaurant where she worked before Gilead. Moira slapped Janine and shouted until Janine came back to her senses.
Section 34 Edit
Women’s Prayvaganzas are weddings for the Wives’ daughters, mass ceremonies in which girls as young as fourteen get married. In a few years, the brides will be girls who do not remember life before Gilead. Offred remembers a conversation with the Commander, in which he insisted that while Gilead has taken away some freedom, it has guaranteed women safety and dignity. Now all women have spouses, and they are not left alone to care for children, beaten, or forced to work if they do not want to. They can “fulfill their biological destinies in peace.” Offred noted that they do not allow love, but the Commander replied that arranged marriages work better than falling in love.
Although women’s Prayvaganzas usually celebrate group weddings and men’s celebrate military victories, sometimes the Prayvaganzas celebrate Catholic nuns who convert to the state religion. When the authorities of Gilead catches Catholic nuns, they torture them. They send old ones directly to the Colonies, but young ones may choose between the Colonies and conversion. If they convert, the nuns become Handmaids, but many choose the Colonies.
The wedding ceremony goes on, and Offred remembers how Aunt Lydia always said that the real goal of Gilead is to create camaraderie between women. After the services, Ofglen whispers that the subversives know she sees the Commander in private. She urges Offred to find out everything she can.
Section 35 Edit
Offred’s thoughts return, against her will, to the day she and Luke tried to escape Gilead. They reached the border and gave the guard their passports, which said that Luke had never been divorced. Luke saw the guard pick up the phone. They sped away in the car, and then got out and tried to run through the woods. Offred shakes off these memories and tries to remember love and how it felt to be in love—how hard it was, and how precious, and how people defined their lives around it. Thinking that Luke must be dead, she begins to cry. Later that night, Serena shows Offred a photograph of her daughter. In the photo, she wears a white dress and smiles. Offred senses that her daughter hardly remembers her. This tears at her heart.
Section 36 Edit
When Offred goes to see the Commander that night, he seems drunk. He speaks playfully with her and gives her a skimpy outfit decorated with feathers and sequins. He wants to take her out, he claims, using an expression from pre-Gilead days; she agrees to go. She dons the costume and puts cheap makeup on her face. She wears one of Serena’s blue winter cloaks when he escorts her out of the house. Nick is waiting for them in the car, and they drive through darkened city streets. Offred hides on the floor when they pass the gateway. Offred finds herself worrying about Nick’s opinion of her. The car stops in an alley, and the Commander helps Offred out of the robe. He opens a door with a key and slips a purple tag around Offred’s wrist, instructing her to tell anyone who asks that she is an “evening rental.” As Offred enters the building, she imagines Moira calling her an idiot for going along with this.
Section 37 Edit
The Commander takes Offred to an old hotel that Offred remembers from pre-Gilead days, when she often met Luke there. In the central courtyard, Offred sees women dressed in gaudy and revealing clothing from the past. The women mingle with important, powerful men. Offred realizes she should stay quiet and look dumb. She senses that the Commander likes showing her off and enjoys showing off for her. He explains that “the club” is officially forbidden, but that everyone knows that to be satisfied, men require a variety of women. Some of the women were prostitutes before Gilead. Others, once lawyers, sociologists, and businesswomen, prefer turning tricks in the club to a life in the Colonies or as a Handmaid. Suddenly Offred spots Moira in the crowd. Moira wears an ill--fitting Playboy bunny costume. She turns and sees Offred. They pretend not to recognize one another, and then Moira gives the old signal to meet her in the washroom.
Section 38 Edit
Five minutes later, Offred makes her way to the washroom. A dressed-up Aunt standing guard with a cattle prod tells her she has fifteen minutes. Offred meets Moira inside and explains that the Commander smuggled her into the club just for the night. Moira tells her own story. After escaping from the Red Center, she made her way to the center of town in Aunt Elizabeth’s clothes and went to the home of a Quaker couple involved in the resistance. She says at that time the general public did not know about the Red Center because the authorities of Gilead feared people would object at first. The Quakers put her on the Underground Femaleroad, a system for getting women to safety. They tried to smuggle her out of the country, but just as Moira was leaving the final safe house to slip across the border in a boat, she was caught. The Eyes tortured her and showed her movies of the Colonies, where old women and subversives clean up radioactive spills and dead bodies from the war, and the life expectancy is three years. Moira chose to work as a prostitute in the club, which is nicknamed “Jezebel’s,” rather than go to the Colonies. Offred is disappointed to hear the fatalism in Moira’s voice—Moira resignedly tells Offred she should try to work at the club, where they get three or four years to live, and face cream. Offred misses the old Moira who was so spirited and full of rebellion. After she leaves the club, she never sees Moira again.
Section 39 Edit
The Commander takes Offred to a hotel room, which reminds her of her affair with Luke. She excuses herself to go to the bathroom. She hears toilets flushing in other rooms and feels comforted, thinking of the universality of bodily functions. She thinks about Moira and her mother. In the washroom, Moira said that she saw Offred’s mother in one of the films about the Colonies. Offred had assumed her mother was dead. Offred remembers going to her mother’s apartment with Luke during the early days of Gilead; she found the place in disarray and her mother gone. Luke told her not to call the police, saying it wouldn’t do any good. She remembers how much spirit her mother used to have, but she realizes that the Colonies must have stripped it away. The Commander is lying on the bed waiting for her when she exits the bathroom. He seems disappointed that she is not excited about a real sexual encounter. He looks smaller and older without his clothing. Offred feels no excitement and silently orders herself to fake it.
- "SparkNote on The Handmaid’s Tale." http://www.sparknotes.com/lit/handmaid/.
- Chapter transcript: