Summary and Analysis
Chapter 12 - Jezebeus
Whispering cautiously, Ofglen and Offred make their daily trek past the Wall toward the park. Ofglen divulges that "Mayday" is the password of an underground network. On Offred's return to the Commander's house, Serena asks assistance with a skein of wool and reminds Offred that she must soon conceive. Serena suggests that the Commander is sterile and that Offred should emulate Ofwarren and copulate with a surrogate father. Serena proposes that Offred mate with Nick. Offred, who deduces that Serena is sincerely eager for a child, accepts the proposal as a last-ditch effort to conceive. As payment for her role in the conspiracy, Serena hands Offred a cigarette and promises to try to procure a photo of her daughter.
During Offred's nights with the Commander, he grows bolder about drinking and smoking in front of her. He explains the revolution that produced the misogynist state of Gilead: men enslaved women because they had nothing to work for. His explanation is simplistic and patronizing to a woman of Offred's intelligence: "We thought we could do better. . . . Better never means better for everyone. . . . It always means worse, for some."
At a televised Prayvaganza, Offred and Ofglen pass between guards armed with machine guns and enter a covered courtyard. Above the cordoned-off contingent of Handmaids, higher-ranking females file into gallery seats. Ofglen points out Janine, newly paired with another family because baby Angela was a "shredder." The ritual group wedding begins with a Commander leading the group in prayers of thanksgiving as twenty white-clad Daughters in their early teens are pledged to twenty Angels, decorated for service at the front. The Commander justifies this method of distributing women as victory prizes — it is an improvement over the "meat market" atmosphere of the old days, when people met in singles' bars or on blind dates. On the way home from the Prayvaganza, Ofglen divulges that she knows about Offred's night sessions with the Commander.
Offred returns to her room and thinks over a melange of whirling thoughts: about Luke and the old way of "falling in love," about the Latin inscription in the closet, about former times, when women locked their doors to protect themselves from sexual predators. She weeps, "[oozing] like a sponge." Serena enters with a tray of food and a Polaroid picture of Offred's daughter, who is dressed in the white uniform of a Daughter. The likeness of the child, thriving without a mother, saddens Offred, who feels "erased." She eats her creamed corn and contemplates spoon, fork, but no knife.
During a night with the Commander, Offred finds him already well into his evening drinks. He affectionately presents her with a used, sequined, feathered evening garment, high heels, and makeup. Cloaked and hidden on the floor of his Whirlwind car, she accompanies him through checkpoints to the alley behind a former hotel, now a nightclub called Jezebel's. The Commander slips her a purple wrist tag to indicate that she is a paid escort. They enter a room filled with garishly dressed women in bizarre costumes and excessive makeup. The Commander shows her off to club regulars. Offred grows annoyed with his chauvinism.
Among the varied females is Moira, who signals Offred to meet her in the washroom in five minutes. During two visits, Moira fills in details of her escape from the Red Center to the safe house of a Quaker couple, whose names were among those on an underground press list. Refitted in civilian dress, Moira left the house, which was a station of the Underground Femaleroad, hid in a mail sack, and was driven into Boston and on to Salem, where she transferred to a chicken truck bound for Maine. The Quakers intended to move her across the Canadian border by boat. A contingent of "Eyes" ended the escape before Moira got to the dock.
Following torture, Moira viewed a movie on life in the Colonies, where three types of female drays — infertile Handmaids, elderly women, and incorrigibles — and some male "Gender Traitors" disposed of bodies and cleaned toxic dumps and radiation spills. The dangerous work with lethal substances usually kills these outcasts within three years. After a sterilization operation, Moira was allowed a place at Jezebel's, where she works nights and receives good food, drinks, drugs, and face cream as well as the attentions of other lesbians.
Alone with the Commander in an upstairs room, Offred tarries in the bathroom while remembering her mother's disappearance. Wearied, sad, and nearly inert, Offred stretches out beside her lover, who appears old and shrunken after he removes his clothes. He is disappointed by her lack of enthusiasm for illicit sex that is free of the constraints of their monthly ceremonial copulation, which is due to take place the next night. To improve their lovemaking, he proposes turning out the lights. They must return home by midnight.
This segment is rich with death images. The unexplained J on the cadaver at the Wall leaves Offred in doubt about which group the corpse represents, possibly Jesuits or Jehovah's Witnesses. The tenor of this passage depicts the intolerance of religious fanatics, who root out all but those who share their dogma. The connection between this scene and the history of the Jewish Diaspora links Gilead with Hitler's Germany, from which Jews escaped, if possible, or stubbornly hid themselves and evidence of their faith from night raiders. In a parallel situation to religious dissidents, Offred identifies with her predecessor, whom she envisions as safe in death, "protected altogether." Like the doomed Handmaid who hanged herself on the chandelier, Offred feels "buried."
The nightclub scene, a stark contrast to the privations of Gilead, delineates the hypocrisy of the double standard. For men, physically appealing women from the "old days" become sex toys and bargaining points in trade relations with Arabs and Japanese. To earn the right to serve men, nightclub regulars must keep trim, dress in absurdly scanty garments and push-up bras, smile, dance, and play dumb. Moira's outfit — a parody of a Playboy bunny — recalls the risqué aura of Playboy Clubs of the 1960s, a carry-over from the era of naughty sex, the titillating fantasy atmosphere that preceded the more open and equalized sexual revolution of the 1970s. To Moira, the Commander's decision to bring Offred to the club is "just another crummy power trip."
I tell time by the moon that is, by her menstrual periods, which parallel the 28-day lunar cycle.
yellow stars symbols of Judaism selected by Hitler's forces as required badges to identify Jews.
Sons of Jacob In Genesis 32:28, after wrestling with God's messenger, Jacob changes his name to Israel, thus establishing his tribe as the Israelites, God's chosen people.
torahs, talliths, Magen Davids symbols of Judaism — the five books of Moses, prayer shawls, and the superimposed triangles that form the hexagrammatic shield of David, a feature of the flag of Israel.
M'aidez French for "Help me," which is pronounced in English like "Mayday," a universal radio code indicating extreme distress.
Aztec hearts The ancient Aztecs worshipped at stone altars, where priests used obsidian knives to cut the hearts from sacrificial human victims.
Balm in Gilead the concluding question in Jeremiah, chapter 8, in which the prophet mourns Judah's slide into wickedness and depravity.
Whore of Babylon a slang insult found in Shakespeare's Henry V (II, iii, 37) and derived from Jeremiah's concern that God's people had taken up Babylonian excesses of bawdy dress, idol worship, and immoral behavior.