The Handmaid's Tale Part 8: Birth Day
A bell wakens Offred from dreams of her daughter. She eats an egg for breakfast and finds pleasure in its perfect shape and grain. A siren interrupts her breakfast, and a red Birthmobile pulls into the driveway. Offred runs downstairs and gets into the van where three other Handmaids sit. One of them tells her Ofwarren, Janine, is giving birth today. Offred wonders if it will be an Unbaby, mutated. The chances are one in four because of environmental pollution. Births are no longer supervised by doctors, though they wait outside in case of an emergency. Natural birthing is standard because it is the best for the baby. Anesthetics are not used because the Bible said women would suffer giving birth. Handmaids and Wives are present at birth days. Offred imagines the Wives admiring Janine and spoiling her with sweets, but calling her a whore behind her back. There is a banquet prepared for the Wives to follow the birth. The Wives massage the Wife of Warren's belly as if she is going to have the baby. Janine sits in the master bedroom, eyes squeezed shut and surrounded by Handmaids and Aunt Elizabeth who taught Gyn Ed at the Red Center. Offred remembers the weekly movies shown at the Center. A limited variety of movies were shown: movies showing men struggling to conquer problems easily solved in modern society, porn films depicting women being brutalized, or films showing Unwomen, doing the work of men. In one documentary, Offred recognized her mother carrying a sign of protest. The sign read "Take Back the Night." "Take Back the Night" originated as the slogan of Women Against Pornography, but developed into an anti-rape slogan. This image engenders a wealth of images in Offred's mind. She remembers her spunky graying mother defending her decision to be a single mother. She would come over to Offred's and Luke's apartment and explain the uselessness of men. She wanted Offred to follow her path, to vindicate her sacrifices. Offred admired her mother, but did not want to live her mother's life. Now she just wants her mother back.
The room is hot and noisy with the chanting of the Handmaids. Grape juice is passed around. It has been spiked. Offred and the others begin to feel sympathetic birth pangs. Janine is restless and panting. She paces and then sits. When the time comes, the Wife of the Commander is led in to sit above Janine in the ceremonial Birthing Stool. Janine gives birth to a healthy baby girl below her. Aunt Elizabeth washes the baby and puts her in the arms of the Wife of the Commander. She names her Angela. Janine will nurse her child for the first few months, but then she will be transferred to another household in order to give another family the chance for a child. She will never be sent to the Colonies, which is her reward.
Offred returns home and her room. She thinks of Moira. She found out what happened to Moira from Alma, who was told by Dolores, who was told by Janine, who was told by Aunt Lydia. Aunt Lydia told Janine that Moira had escaped from the Red Center. Moira had asked to go to the bathroom and then lured Aunt Elizabeth in with the complaint that the toilet was overflowing. She then threatened Aunt Elizabeth with a metal pole she took out of a toilet and hurried Aunt Elizabeth down into the basement. There she switched outfits with the Aunt and gagged and bound her behind a furnace. Moira, dressed as Aunt Elizabeth and bearing her identification cards, escaped the Red Center. Aunt Lydia told this all to Janine in order to get her to spy on the other Handmaids to see if they were involved. When the rest of the Handmaids heard this story they were both excited and frightened by it. "Moira had power now, she'd been set loose, she'd set herself loose. She was now a loose woman." Chapter 22, pg. 133 Moira has yet to reappear.
The narrator explains that her story is an inexact reconstruction of events. She is not sure what it is about even. "Maybe none of this is about control. Maybe it isn't really about who can own whom, who can do what to whom and get away with it, even as far as death. Maybe it isn't about who can sit can who has to kneel or stand or lie down, legs spread open. Maybe it's about who can do what to whom and be forgiven for it. Never tell me it amounts to the same thing." Chapter 23, pg. 135
Cora wakes Offred from her nap and inquires about the birth day. Cora wants a baby for their home. Offred eats dinner and thinks about the coming meeting with the Commander. At nine she goes down to his study, where all women are normally banned. She speculates about what he wants from her. His want is a weakness that may give her power. She enters and finds the Commander leaning on the mantel of his fireplace. His study is lined with books. It is an oasis of the forbidden. He asks her to play a game of Scrabble with him. She wants to laugh, but simply assents. The words she spells are like delicious candies to her senses. After two games he tells her to leave and asks for a kiss. She places her lips on his and he draws away. He says he wants her to kiss him like she means it.