The Handmaids Tale Chapter Summaries

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The scene changes, and the story shifts from the past to the present tense. Offred now lives in a room fitted out with curtains, a pillow, a framed picture, and a braided rug. There is no glass in the room, not even over the framed picture. The window does not open completely, and the windowpane is shatterproof. There is nothing in the room from which one could hang a rope, and the door does not lock or even shut completely. Looking around, Offred remembers how Aunt Lydia told her to consider her circumstances a privilege, not a prison.


Handmaids, to which group the narrator belongs, dress entirely in red, except for the white wings framing their faces. Household servants, called "Marthas," wear green uniforms. "Wives" wear blue uniforms. Offred often secretly listens to Rita and Cora, the Marthas who work in the house where she lives. Once, she hears Rita state that she would never debase herself as someone in Offred's position must. Cora replies that Offred works for all the women, and that if she (Cora) were younger and had not gotten her tubes tied, she could have been in Offred's situation. Offred wishes she could talk to them, but Marthas are not supposed to develop relationships with Handmaids. She wishes that she could share gossip like they do—gossip about how one Handmaid gave birth to a stillborn, how a Wife stabbed a Handmaid with a knitting needle out of jealousy, how someone poisoned her Commander with toilet cleaner. Offred dresses for a shopping trip. She collects from Rita the tokens that serve as currency. Each token bears an image of what it will purchase: twelve eggs, cheese, and a steak.
As she leaves the house to go shopping, Offred notices Nick, a Guardian of the Faith, washing the Commander's car. Nick lives above the garage. He winks at Offred—an offense against -decorum— but she ignores him, fearing that he may be an Eye, a spy assigned to test her. She waits at the corner for Ofglen, another Handmaid with whom Offred will do her shopping. The Handmaids always travel in pairs when outside.


Ofglen arrives, and they exchange greetings, careful not to say anything that isn't strictly orthodox. Ofglen says that she has heard the war is going well, and that the army recently defeated a group of Baptist rebels. "Praise be," Offred responds. They reach a checkpoint manned by two young Guardians. The Guardians serve as a routine police force and do menial labor. They are men too young, too old, or just generally unfit for the army. Young Guardians, such as these, can be dangerous because they are frequently more fanatical or nervous than older guards. These young Guardians recently shot a Martha as she fumbled for her pass, because they thought she was a man in disguise carrying a bomb. Offred heard Rita and Cora talking about the shooting. Rita was angry, but Cora seemed to accept the shooting as the price one pays for safety.


At the checkpoint, Offred subtly flirts with one of the Guardians by making eye contact, cherishing this small infraction against the rules. She considers how sex-starved the young men must be, since they cannot marry without permission, masturbation is a sin, and pornographic magazines and films are now forbidden. The Guardians can only hope to become Angels, when they will be allowed to take a wife and perhaps eventually get a Handmaid. This marks the first time in the novel we hear the word "Handmaid" used.
In town, Ofglen and Offred wait in line at the shops. We learn the name of this new society: "The Republic of Gilead." Offred remembers the pre-Gilead days, when women were not protected: they had to keep their doors closed to strangers and ignore catcalls on the street. Now no one whistles at women as they walk; no one touches them or talks to them. She remembers Aunt Lydia explaining that more than one kind of freedom exists, and that "[i]n the days of anarchy, it was freedom to. Now you are being given freedom from."

The women shop at stores known by names like All Flesh and Milk and Honey. Pictures of meat or fruit mark the stores, rather than lettered signs, because "they decided that even the names of shops were too much temptation for us." A Handmaid in the late stages of pregnancy enters the store and raises a flurry of excitement. Offred recognizes her from the Red Center. She used to be known as Janine, and she was one of Aunt Lydia's favorites. Now her name is Ofwarren. Offred senses that Janine went shopping just so she could show off her pregnancy.

Offred thinks of her husband, Luke, and their daughter, and the life they led before Gilead existed. She remembers a prosaic detail from their everyday life together: she used to store plastic shopping bags under the sink, which annoyed Luke, who worried that their daughter would get one of the bags caught over her head. She remembers feeling guilty for her carelessness. Offred and Ofglen finish their shopping and go out to the sidewalk, where they encounter a group of Japanese tourists and their interpreter. The tourists want to take a photograph, but Offred says no. Many of the interpreters are Eyes, and Handmaids must not appear immodest. Offred and Ofglen marvel at the women's exposed legs, high heels, and polished toenails. The tourists ask if they are happy, and since Ofglen does not answer, Offred replies that they are very happy.
Returning from another shopping trip, Ofglen and Offred notice three new bodies on the Wall. One is a Catholic priest and two are Guardians who bear placards around their necks that read "Gender Treachery." This means they were hanged for committing homosexual acts. After looking at the bodies for a while, Offred tells Ofglen that they should continue walking home. They meet a funeral procession of Econowives, the wives of poorer men. One Econowife carries a small black jar. From the size of the jar, Offred can tell that it contains a dead embryo from an early miscarriage—one that came too early to know whether it was an "Unbaby." The Econowives do not like the Handmaids. One woman scowls, and another spits at the Handmaids as they pass.

At the corner near the Commander's home, Ofglen says "Under His Eye," the orthodox good-bye, hesitating as if she wants to say more but then continuing on her way. When Offred reaches the Commander's driveway she passes Nick, who breaks the rules by asking her about her walk. She says nothing and goes into the house. She sees Serena Joy out in the garden and recalls how after Serena's singing career ended, she became a spokesperson for respecting the "sanctity of the home" and for women staying at home instead of working. Serena herself never stayed at home, because she was always out giving speeches. Once, Offred remembers, someone tried to assassinate Serena but killed her secretary instead. Offred wonders if Serena is angry that she can no longer be a public figure, now that what she advocated has come to pass and all women, including her, are confined to the home.

In the kitchen, Rita fusses over the quality of the purchases as she always does. Offred retreats upstairs and notices the Commander standing outside her room. He is not supposed to be there. He nods at her and retreats.
It is one of Offred's required bath days. The bathroom has no mirror, no razors, and no lock on the door. Cora sits outside, waiting for Offred. Offred's own naked body seems strange to her, and she finds it hard to believe that she once wore bathing suits, letting people see her thighs and arms, her breasts and buttocks. Lying in the bath, she thinks of her daughter and remembers the time when a crazy woman tried to kidnap the little girl in the supermarket. The authorities in Gilead took Offred's then-five-year-old child from her, and three years have passed since then. Offred has no mementos of her daughter. She remembers Aunt Lydia saying women should not get attached to things, and should "cultivate poverty of spirit." Aunt Lydia cited the biblical sentiment "Blessed are the meek," but she did not go on, as the Bible does, to add "for they shall inherit the earth."

Sometimes Offred thinks of her daughter as a ghost. She muses that the authorities were right: it is easier to think of your stolen children as dead. Cora, impatient, calls to her, and Offred gets out the bath. She looks down at her ankle, and sees the tattoo that Gilead places on all Handmaids. After the bath, she eats dinner, even though she does not feel hungry. The food is bland. Offred remembers Aunt Lydia saying that Handmaids are not allowed coffee, alcohol, or nicotine. She thinks of Serena and the Commander, eating below her, and wonders if the Commander ever notices his Wife. Handmaids are not allowed to keep uneaten food, but Offred wraps a pat of butter in a piece of the napkin and hides it in her shoe.
After dinner, Offred feels bored. She remembers paintings of harems: she used to think they were about eroticism but now realizes they depicted the boredom of the women. She wonders if men find bored women erotic. She thinks of the Red Center, and how Moira was brought there three weeks after her own arrival. Moira and Offred pretended not to know one another because friendships aroused suspicion. They arranged to meet in the restroom to exchange a few words, which made Offred feel terribly happy. At the Center everyone had to "Testify" about their past lives. Janine testified that she was gang-raped at fourteen. After she finished speaking, the Aunts asked the group whose fault the rape was, and the rest of the Handmaids chanted in unison that it was Janine's fault because she led them on. When she cried, they called her a crybaby.


Offred says she used to think of her body as an instrument of pleasure or of transportation, an instrument she controlled. Now, others define her body as nothing more than a uterus. She hates facing menstruation every month because it means failure. Her only function is childbearing. Offred remembers running through the woods, trying to escape with her daughter. She could not run very fast, because her child slowed her down. She remembers hearing shots. She and her daughter fell to the ground, hiding; Offred begged her daughter to be quiet, but she was too young to understand. She remembers being physically restrained and watching her daughter get dragged away from her.
Offred dreams of catching her daughter in a hug, but a wave of sorrow overtakes her because she knows that she is dreaming. She dreams of waking up to her mother carrying in a tray a food and taking care of her. At breakfast, Offred contemplates the beauty of a boiled egg in sunlight. The sound of sirens interrupt her breakfast; it is a Birthmobile, coming to collect Offred and take her to a birth. Janine, now known as Ofwarren, is about to have her baby.

During the ride to Commander Warren's house, Offred wonders if Janine will give birth to a deformed child, an Unbaby. One in four women have been poisoned by toxins and other environmental pollution, which leads to birth deformities in their children. She recalls Aunt Lydia saying that women who did not want to have babies poisoned their own bodies or got their tubes tied. She calls these women Jezebels, scorners of God's gifts. In an old classroom, Aunt Lydia showed them a graph of how the birthrate had fallen over the course of history, eventually falling below the "line of replacement." Aunt Lydia said that women who did not want to breed were lazy sluts. She explains how much better childbirth is in Gilead in contrast to the old days, because birth is entirely natural. Women are not even allowed drugs to soothe their pain, because it is better for the baby, and because God wants women to suffer during childbirth.

The Birthmobile arrives at the home of Ofwarren's Commander, and the Handmaids file in. Then another Birthmobile pulls up, the one that carries the Wives. Offred imagines the Wives sitting around and talking about their Handmaids, calling them sluts, complaining about how unclean they are.
Offred recalls how Moira disapproved of her affair with Luke, saying that Offred was poaching on another woman's property. We learn that Moira was a lesbian. Offred accused Moira of poaching women, and Moira says it is different with women. It is hot in Offred's room, and she has been given a fan. She muses that if she were Moira, she would know how to take the fan apart and use the blades as a weapon. She thinks of how strange it now seems to her that women used to have jobs.

Offred remembers the fall of the United States and the creation of Gilead. First, the president was shot and Congress was machine-gunned; then the army declared a state of emergency, telling everyone to remain calm. Islamic fanatics were falsely blamed for the -execution of the entire government. The Constitution was suspended. In shock, people stayed at home and watched their televisions. At this point, Moira warned Offred that something terrible was going to happen. Slowly, the newspapers were censored and roadblocks appeared, and soon everyone had to carry an Identipass. There was a crackdown on smut of all kinds: the "Pornomarts" shut down, and the "Feels-on-Wheels vans" and "Bun-dle Buggies" disappeared.

In Offred's pre-Gilead days, paper money had been replaced by Compucards that accessed bank accounts directly. One day after the fall of the government, Offred tried to use her Compucard in the local store, and her number was declared invalid. She went to her job at the library, phoned her bank, and got a recording stating that the lines were overloaded. Later that afternoon, her boss appeared looking disheveled and distraught. He told Offred and her female coworkers that he had to fire them, because it was the law. The women had to leave within ten minutes. Two men wearing army uniforms and carrying machine guns watched over the procedure.
Summer drags on—with no hope of release from the horror of life in Gilead, the passage of time is unbearable. During a shopping trip one day, Ofglen and Offred find two new bodies on the Wall. One is a Catholic, and another is marked with J, which the women do not understand. If he were Jewish, he would be marked with a yellow star. In the early days of Gilead, Jews were accorded special status as "Sons of Jacob," and they had the choice of converting or emigrating to Israel. Some people pretended to be Jewish and escaped Gilead that way. Many Jews left, but others pretended to convert or refused to convert; now those who did not truly convert are hanged when caught.

Ofglen tells Offred that subversives in Gilead use "mayday" as a password, but she warns Offred not to use it often. If she is caught and tortured, she should not know names of other subversives. When Offred reaches the house, she notes that Nick's hat is askew. Serena calls Offred over and asks her to hold the wool while she knits. She asks if there is any sign of pregnancy. When Offred indicates there is not, Serena suggests that the Commander may be sterile. After a moment of hesitation, Offred agrees that it is possible. Serena suggests she try another man, since Offred's time is running out. Serena says Nick would be the safest possibility, and then offers to let Offred see a picture of her daughter if she agrees. Blinded by sudden hate for Serena, Offred nonetheless agrees, and Serena gives her a cigarette as a reward and instructs her to ask Rita for a match.
The epilogue is a transcript of a symposium held in 2195, in a university in the Arctic. Gilead is long gone, and Offred's story has been published as a manuscript titled The Handmaid's Tale. Her story was found recorded on a set of cassette tapes locked in an army foot locker in Bangor, Maine. The main part of the epilogue is a speech by an expert on Gilead named Professor Pieixoto. He talks about authenticating the cassette tapes. He says tapes like these would be very difficult to fake. The first section of each tape contains a few songs from the pre-Gileadean period, probably to camouflage the actual purpose of the tapes. The same voice speaks on all the tapes, and they are not numbered, nor are they arranged in any particular order, so the professors who transcribed the story had to guess at the intended chronology of the tapes.

Pieixoto warns his audience against judging Gilead too harshly, because such judgments are culturally biased, and he points out that the Gilead regime was under a good deal of pressure from the falling birthrate and environmental degradation. He says the birthrate declined for a variety of reasons, including birth control, abortions, AIDS, syphilis, and deformities and miscarriages resulting from nuclear plant disasters and toxic waste. The professor explains how Gilead created a group of fertile women by criminalizing all second marriages and nonmarital relationships, confiscating children of those marriages and partnerships, and using the women as reproductive vessels. Using the Bible as justification, they replaced what he calls "serial polygamy" with "simultaneous polygamy." He explains that like all new systems, Gilead drew on the past in creating its ideology. In particular, he mentions the racial tensions that plagued pre-Gilead, which Gilead incorporated in its doctrine.

He discusses the identity of the narrator. They tried to discover it using a variety of methods, but failed. Pieixoto notes that historical details are scanty because so many records were destroyed in purges and civil war. Some tapes, however, were smuggled to Save the Women societies in England. He says the names Offred used to describe her relatives were likely pseudonyms employed to protect the identities of her loved ones. The Commander was likely either Frederick Waterford or B. Frederick Judd. Both men were leaders in the early years of Gilead, and both were probably instrumental in building the society's basic structure. Judd devised the Particicution, realizing that it would release the pent-up anger of the Handmaids. Pieixoto says that Particicutions became so popular that in Gilead's "Middle Period" they occurred four times a year. Judd also came up with the notion that women should control other women. Pieixoto says that no empire lacks this "control of the indigenous by members of their own group." Pieixoto explains that both Waterford and Judd likely came into contact with a virus that caused sterility in men. He says the evidence suggests that Waterford was the Commander of Offred's story; records show that in "one of the earliest purges" Waterford was killed for owning pictures and books, and for indulging "liberal tendencies." Pieixoto remarks that many early Commanders felt themselves above the rules, safe from any attack, and that in the Middle Period Commanders behaved more cautiously.
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