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Module One: LTA 1: The Modern Novel

Q.4 In the following extract, Offred meets Moira at Jezebels. Consider the presentation of this episode and its importance in the novel.

This extract occurs towards the end of the novel. Offred and the Commander are deep into their strange, illicit relationship, and he has required her to dress in a titillating feathered costume, and has taken her to a 'club', which the women within it label 'Jezebels'. This is, of course, absolutely against the rules of Gilead's society.

The most important thing about this incident for Offred is that she meets Moira again. Moira was her best friend in pre-Gilead days, and is for various reasons extremely important to the narrator. in their first encounter at the Rachel and Leah Centre ('Red Centre'), they were able to re-establish their intimacy despite the restrictions placed upon handmaidens-in-training, and the fact that Moira was there filled the narrator with happiness.

The language used by Moira in this extract shows a great deal about her character. She is forthright and rather salty, with expressions like 'Godawful' and 'the Whore of Babylon'. (Strangely, the latter is something the appalling Aunt Lydia might say, but she would not mean it in a humorous spirit.) Moira's frankness has always been part of her character—she used to upbraid her friend for the extra-marital relationship with Like, and to assure her she had her head in the sand. Here, it contrasts strongly with the narrator's own hesitancy, and brings out the liveliness that Offred usually has to hide behind a demure, obedient facade.

Moira's costume is that of a Playboy bunny, with a tail; it is rather too large. It is appropriate that such a costume should not fit Moira, who was, in 'the time before', an ardent and committed feminist. She scorned the usual feminine trappings of fashiong—Offred remarks on her unfashionably short hair when she turns up at the Red Centre—and to dress her as a man's plaything is ludicrously incongruous, as Moira herself recognises. As a lesbian, Moira has no use for men. Moreover, she expressed distinct contempt for the male of the species before the radical take-over of society—she used to save up incidents of misogyny and bad behaviour with a kind of bitter satisfactoin. She was, as far as she was able, quite separate from men in her chosen life, and worked for a reminist publishing collective. it is horriby ironic to find her installed here as a prostitute—although with typically black humour, Moira describes Jezebels as "Butch heaven". The male-pleasing costume is far less inappropriate for Offred, who was never a committed feminist, and for whom men have always been important.

Moira's appearance here at Jezebels is gratifying for Offred, who is always happy to see her, but also disappointing. It shows that, despite the magnificently daring escape from the Red Centre—"shanghaiing" Aunt Elizabeth in a toilet and stealing her costume (Moira is obviously adaptable, and can wear any costume without violating her own identity, unlike Offred, whose attitude to her clothes and body has changed considerably since she donned the red habit)—Moira failed to achieve freedom. Offred discovers, to her dismay, that Moira has lost the essential heroism which led her to rebel against Gilead. Moira has settled for the safety of Jezebels, and even suggests that Offred would like it there, as it is freer and more interesting than any other option open to them. But Offred needs Moira to be the talismanic rebellious hero, not a passive victim.

The Commander is not mentioned in this extract, but it is he who brought Offred to the 'club' and put her into the feathered costume. Moira is contemptuous of his motives, and Offred does not understand them. His later attempt to have exciting sex with her—as opposed to the entirely unerotic monthy Ceremony, with his Wife present—suggests that a lot of his motivations is sexual. But he is largely a mystery to Offred, and so to the reader—who may well be surprised, despite hints that he is really high up in Gilead's hierarchy—to find that this Commander was so instrumental in creating the forms and requirements of this society. He does appear to believe that the rules do not apply to him, and considers the existence of the 'club' as quite a natural thing, in that men require a variety of women.

The rules are strictly applied to women within Gilead, of course, and the suspicion and passive hostility of the other women in the rest room is more normal, by Gileadan standards. (The Marthas are mostly hostile to Offred, despite Cora's occasional kindnesses; the Econowives are said to hate Handmaids; the Wives certainly do not treat them as beloved members of the family; the Aunts are brutal collaborators and oppressors. Even handmaids do not really trust one another. Such is the female society.) However, when Moira vouches for Offred, the atmosphere relaxes, and the other women smile. In this, they are more open and relaxed than the other women in rigidly structured Gilead.

Moira is to some extent correct in suggesting that Jezebels is a place of greater freedom than anywhere else in Gilead—though even here, there is a guard at the rest-room door whom Moira recognises as an 'Aunt' despite her lack of uniform. Still, Jezebels is just one more facet in the oppression of women which is enshrined in this new society. The tarts are not really better off than the Wives: they all rely on the favour of men.

However, Jezebels may be seen as a symbol of the constant rule-breaking that actually goes on in Gilead. It is of course necessary for human beings to break rules if they are to survive as individuals—witness Janine, or 'Ofwarren', who keeps to the rules. Only once does she break the rule, by having sex with her doctor in order to produce the baby that is required of her. her attempts to live within the rules produce a breakdown—Moira has to slap her out of it for her own sake.

Offred and Moira are almost certainly breaking the rules by being friends. The Commander is breaking them by having a relationship with his Handmaid, as well as by taking her to Jezebels. His Wife breaks the rules in small ways—smoking cigarettes, listening to recordings of her own singing—and large, by encouraging Offred to copulate with Nick. Ofglen breaks the rules heroically in an attempt to fight against the system.

Mostly, the rule-breaking is disguised by the costumes the women (and men) must wear, in their symbolic colours of red, blue, green and white (and black). In this extract, however, there are more colours, Someone has a trimming of orange fake fur. The toilet cubicle door is pink. These details signify the change and the out-of-bounds nature of the place in which Offred finds herself.

The first paragraph might, indeed, be a tableau from the time before Gilead was established. As Offred says, it is like backstage. Behind the orderly scenes of carefully colour-coded society there is this chaos and corruption.

'The materials of illusion' is a telling phrase when applied to the novel as a whole. We are presented with a story which, by narrative convention, the reader accepts as an account of what is happening to the narrator as it is told. But the Historical Notes demonstrate the layers of illusion. We are not sitting on Offred's shoulder, seeing what she perceives and privy to her thoughts as she thinks them: in fact the incidents are being recounted to us an indeterminable time later, by someone who actually admits at times that this is a reconstruction. Even the details of chronology may be an illusion imposed by Pieixoto and his colleague. Offred's brief illusion of happiness in her meeting with Moira may never be repeated—but we are left in doubt of her veracity in many other ways, so perhaps this is all illusion.

Any extract from this novel is replete with allusion to the remainder, because layers of truth and reference are contained in almost every sentence.

 

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