What is the significance of the words Offred spells in her scrabble games with the commander and the images that they relate to the novel?

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When playing Scrabble with the Commander, Offred feels a sense of transgression since women are forbidden to read in Gilead society. She chooses to spell strange words that sound almost foreign, but they all relate to her plight as a woman in a misogynist world.

A valance is a...

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When playing Scrabble with the Commander, Offred feels a sense of transgression since women are forbidden to read in Gilead society. She chooses to spell strange words that sound almost foreign, but they all relate to her plight as a woman in a misogynist world.

A valance is a drape that covers the uppermost part of a window. The word can also apply to decorative drape for a bed frame. In Offred's world, her social role is restricted to the bedroom, and the word valance recalls the canopy she looks up at during the ceremony when the Commander tries to impregnate her.

Quince is a fruit. The quince is sometimes considered to be the unnamed fruit taken by Eve in the Garden of Eden, linking it with transgressiveness. This is a perfect word for Offred to use since playing Scrabble is itself a transgressive act for a woman in Gilead.

A zygote is a cell that forms when the sperm and egg unite. That Offred, whose whole purpose in this society is to breed, should choose such a word makes sense and needs no explanation.

Limp refers to a feeling of fatigue and a lack of potency. The use of the term here could refer to Offred's erosion of spirit and hope in the face of her dire circumstances. However, the word also has sexual connotations relating to erectile dysfunction and could similarly describe the Commander's inability to father a child.

When Offred spells crisp, she mentions the term "delicious" in response. She likely chooses this word for many reasons. For one, crisp recalls the so-called forbidden fruit, and Offred finds the forbidden fruit of playing Scrabble delicious. Also, she mentions that crisp makes her think of "acid on the tongue," which hints that she is regaining a sense of power just through the mental stimulation of spelling out exotic words.

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Offred calls herself one of the "ladies in reduced circumstances." She finds herself objectified; she is a breeder. 

She is washed, brushed, and fed "like a prize pig," Offred feels. Then, too, she must spend a lot of "blank time." She tells herself that she must be patient as Luke will find her sooner or later. She longs for the small talk and companionship that she always had with her friends. Now she is treated very impersonally as she is meant only for childbirth.

But after she gives birth to a healthy girl, the Commander begins to treat her with some personal attention, and Offred feels like a person again. Then, although it is against the rules, the Commander invites Offred to play Scrabble with him. "So that's what's in the forbidden room," Offred surmises. She controls her emotions as she answers, "All right."

They play two games, and Offred spells these words: Valance, Quinze, Zygote, Limp, and Gorge.

  • Valance

Since windows only open part-way and there is no escape, Offred may think of a valance, a partial covering for a window, as a similar concept. She can see through the window, but part of the view is blocked just as escape is blocked through such a window.

  • Quince

Quince is a pome fruit related to the pear and apple. Some scholars think that the quince was the forbidden fruit that Eve ate and gave to Adam. Also, Greek legend has it that Paris gave Aphrodite a quince as a prize in a beauty contest, an action that began the Trojan War.

Offred feels herself involved in a power conflict and a war of the spirit.

  • Zygote

A zygote is a cell that is formed when a sperm and an egg combine, thus forming a fertilized egg. It therefore contains the genetic information needed to form a new individual. This word is relevant to the very recent birth of Offred's daughter.

  • Limp

Perhaps Offred feels that her spirit has become limp, without energy, in her forced position in life.

  • Crisp

Offred narrates that she has the letter C and spells Crisp, "slightly acid on the tongue, delicious."

Playing this game, using her mind, and being treated as an equal to the Commander is a "delicious" and delightful experience. So often Offred now has "blank time," and she misses intellectual stimulation.

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Playing Scrabble is like forbidden fruit to Offred, delicious.  The wooden tiles are "like candies, made up of peppermint, cool like that" molding them into exotic words:  Larynx, valance, zygote, quince" (Atwood 180). Forbidden to read or write, Offred finds the illicit Scrabble games an opportunity to relive her past. 

Larynx--This word could have significance in terms of Offred's forced silent role in Gilead.  Since the larynx is thevoice box, Offred finds herself longing to find her own voice under an oppressive regime.

Zygote--Another word choice laden with signifance to the plot, a zygote is another name for a fertilized female egg.  Offred is clearly worried about the demands put upon her for successful reproduction.

Valance-- A valance is a partial window covering.  Offred wishes for privacy in a totalitarian society which offers none. 

 

 

Miner, Madonne.  “Trust Me:  Reading the Romance Plot Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.”  Twentieth Century Literature  Summer 1991; 148-168.

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