The Handmaid's Tale By Margaret Atwood Summary and Analysis Chapter 6 - Household

Summary

At the bell's summons, Offred descends to the sitting room and kneels. Cora, Rita, Nick, and Serena arrive, waiting for the Commander, who will complete the "household." As in earlier scenes, Offred disengages her mind and returns to a crucial flashback of her family's attempt to escape oppression. By faking visas, packing a picnic, and drugging their daughter, they emulate nonchalance and drive expectantly toward the Canadian border. Offred's flashback memories are interrupted by the Commander's abrupt entry into the parlor, a violation of house protocol.

Exerting a privilege of the man of the house, the Commander unlocks a box and withdraws a Bible, which is off-limits to females. The women stare at him as he calls for a drink of water and dons reading glasses. As he indifferently reads passages from Genesis, Offred recalls reading from the Beatitudes at the Red Center and Moira's failed attempt to feign illness. Offred remembers how Moira was hauled out to the Science Lab and beaten on the soles of her feet, a devious form of torture, leaving no readily visual evidence, administered with frayed steel cables by the darkly menacing Angels. The Handmaids could do little for her except make small gestures of complicity — steal packets of sugar from the cafeteria and pass them to her during the night.

Chapter 16 details the mating ceremony, the central event in Gilead's struggle to survive nuclear havoc. The ritual takes place in a genteel canopied bed. As Offred, robed and veiled, lies between Serena's outspread thighs and clutches her hands, the Commander, also in uniform, mounts Offred and ejaculates. Serena then coldly dispatches the Handmaid from the scene. Offred returns to her room, a setting medieval and nun-like in its innocence and purity. She yearns for Luke's embrace, for worth, for the sound of her real name.

Frenziedly repeating "I want," Offred obeys her urges and gets out of bed. In her zigzag longings for an undelineated assuagement of emotional unrest, she sets out to steal something. Once down the stairs and into the darkened sitting room, she hopes for a knife but, instead, pinches off a fading daffodil bloom to leave in her room for the next Handmaid to discover. A click signals the approach of another person. Nick slides into view and pulls her to him for a kiss. He passes on a message: the Commander wants to see her in his office the next day.

Analysis

Exuding sexuality, the prelude to the mating scene blends details and images into a sensual, pre-coital symphony: Nick twice nudges Offred with his foot, flowers become "the genital organs of plants," and a televised male choir punctuates the refrain of "The Little Brown Church in the Vale" with the bass counterpoint, "Come, come, come, come," an obvious reference to ejaculation. Truncated by a switch to televised video clips of religious warfare in Detroit, the news concludes with a benevolent, grandfatherly anchorman — a fictional version of Walter Cronkite — who convinces the audience that All Is Well in Gilead. After the appearance of the Commander, the sexual overlay intensifies with phallic images ("his extra, sensitive thumb, his tentacle, his delicate, stalked slug's eye, which extrudes, expands, winces, and shrivels back into himself") and copulative metaphors ("this journey into a darkness while he himself strains blindly forward"). Offred, who is simultaneously amused and compromised by the Commander's power, quips, "I've got my eye on you. One false move and I'm dead," a snippet of black humor that captures the potential for tragedy in their unproductive copulation.

The mating scene contains, literally and figuratively, the novel's climax. This central tableau, like a religious sacrament from the Middle Ages, exalts Serena as a madonna figure at the same time that it demeans Offred, the Handmaid. Contrasting the red and white of Offred in her upstairs quarters, the subtler apricot-hued, tufted carpet and leather upholstery set against dusky rose velvet curtains provide a fashionably domestic ambience for the room's focus — a cloyingly cliché white china Cupid leaning its arm on a lamb and flanked by two pairs of silver candlesticks. The enigma of dried arrangements alongside "real daffodils on the polished marquetry end table" epitomizes the paradox that is Serena-wizened, but alive; brittle, yet feminine; hard, but sentimental. Over the visual images floats the sickly-sweet scent of lily of the valley, a fragrance that Offred connects with "the innocence of female flesh."

As living proof of the Latin saying, Post coitum omne animal triste, Offred's response to intercourse is an amplified version of post-coital sadness, the after-effects of anticipation and exploitation. In the arms of Nick, her fantasy figure, she exults in the taste of his skin and exonerates her greed for touch and guilt-laden lust by addressing Luke, "It's you here, in another body." Nick's covert message underscores the Handmaid's pawn-like helplessness-the Commander expects her the next day for a private interview. In response to the summons, Offred clutches the doorknob and acknowledges her impotence: "It's all I can do."

Glossary

a parlor, the kind with a spider and flies an allusion to the nursery rhyme that begins with "Come into my parlor, said the spider to the fly." The parallel between the sticky web and Serena's sitting room echoes the theme of entrapment and powerlessness.

Lily of the Valley In the Song of Solomon 2: 1, the chaste bride refers to herself as "rose of Sharon" and "lily of the valley." This seemingly erotic verse was allowed to remain in the canon works of the Bible after interpreters saw a parallel between Christ, the bridegroom, and his beloved, the Church. In gospel lyrics, the genders are reversed so that Christ becomes the "lily of the valley, the bright and morning star, the fairest of ten thousand."

"Come to the Church in the Wildwood" an enticingly idyllic gospel 'hymn that depicts worship as bucoYic, innocent, and inviting.

Angels of the Apocalypse, Baptist guerrillas, Angels of Light satiric parodies of holy war in which euphemistic names deflect the murderous intent of religious sects fighting for supremacy. The biblical vision of an Apocalypse, when the powers of darkness challenge the powers of light, appears in Revelation 8:2-11:19.

national resources figuratively, fertile women.

Quakers a pacifist religious sect that masterminded much of the Underground Railroad and helped escaped slaves elude patrollers as they followed the trail north to New England or Canada.

Children of Ham a reference to black-skinned nations in Genesis 10:6, a passage that bigoted religious groups use as justification for racism.

National Homeland One a parallel to schemes by Marcus Garvey and others who sought to resettle African slaves in their native land.

"Whispering Hope" a familiar gospel hymn suggesting the fleeting hopes of Handmaids who may remain alive only if they conceive.

Compucount a parody of modern credit cards.

Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth the second half of Genesis 9: 1, God's injunction to Noah and his family after the ark survived the flooding of the world to rid it of wickedness.

Beatitudes a reference to the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5:311, a lyrical passage written in tight parallelism. Manipulative propagandists add "Blessed are the silent," which Offred recognizes as a spurious interpolation.

"And Leah said, God hath given me my hire, because I have given my maiden to my husband" Leah's comment at the birth of Issachar, Jacob's fifth son, Genesis 30:18.

papier poudre a sheaf of thin paper sheets permeated with face powder. At the turn of the century, these matchbook-sized leaves of make-do cosmetics fit easily into a purse for a quick, surreptitious repair of a shiny nose or face.

"For the eyes of the Lord run to and fro throughout the whole earth, to know himself strong in the behalf of them whose heart is perfect towards him" II Chronicles 16:9, an analysis of military victory, which occurs through human dependence on God. The passage, as interpreted by Gilead's cabal, justifies the use of the Eyes to spy on citizens.

"The moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow" an evocative line from Clement Moore's A Visit from St. Nicholas (1823). Offred's recitation of a verse from children's poetry suggests a female breast, purity, her fall from innocence, vulnerability, and the cycles of the moon, symbolic of fertility.

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