The Handmaids Tale Chapter Summaries
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The narrator, whose name we learn later is Offred, describes how she and other women slept on army cots in a gymnasium. Aunt Sara and Aunt Elizabeth patrol with electric cattle prods hanging from their leather belts, and the women, forbidden to speak aloud, whisper without attracting attention. Twice daily, the women walk in the former football field, which is surrounded by a chain-link fence topped with barbed wire. Armed guards called Angels patrol outside. While the women take their walks, the Angels stand outside the fence with their backs to the women. The women long for the Angels to turn and see them. They imagine that if the men looked at them or talked to them, they could use their bodies to make a deal. The narrator describes lying in bed at night, quietly exchanging names with the other women.
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.
On her way out, Offred looks around for the Commander's Wife but does not see her. The Commander's Wife has a garden, and she knits constantly. All the Wives knit scarves "for the Angels at the front lines," but the Commander's Wife is a particularly skilled knitter. Offred wonders if the scarves actually get used, or if they just give the Wives something to do. She remembers arriving at the Commander's house for the first time, after the two couples to which she was previously assigned "didn't work out." One of the Wives in an earlier posting secluded herself in the bedroom, purportedly drinking, and Offred hoped the new Commander's Wife would be different. On the first day, her new mistress told her to stay out of her sight as much as possible, and to avoid making trouble. As she talked, the Wife smoked a cigarette, a black-market item. Handmaids, Offred notes, are forbidden coffee, cigarettes, and alcohol. Then the Wife reminded Offred that the Commander is her husband, permanently and forever. "It's one of the things we fought for," she said, looking away. Suddenly, Offred recognized her mistress as Serena Joy, the lead soprano from Growing Souls Gospel Hour, a Sunday-morning religious program that aired when Offred was a child.
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.
As they return from shopping, Ofglen suggests they take the long way and pass by the church. It is an old building, decorated inside with paintings of what seem to be Puritans from the colonial era. Now the former church is kept as a museum. Offred describes a nearby boathouse, old dormitories, a football stadium, and redbrick sidewalks. Atwood implies that Offred is walking across what used to be the campus of Harvard University. Across the street from the church sits the Wall, where the authorities hang the bodies of executed criminals as examples to the rest of the Republic of Gilead. The authorities cover the men's heads with bags. One of the bags looks painted with a red smile where the blood has seeped through. All of the six corpses wear signs around their necks picturing fetuses, signaling that they were executed for performing abortions before Gilead came into existence. Although their actions were legal at the time, their crimes are being punished retroactively. Offred feels relieved that none of the bodies could be Luke's, since he was not a doctor. As she stares at the bodies, Offred thinks of Aunt Lydia telling them that soon their new life would seem ordinary.
At night, Offred likes to remember her former life. She recalls talking to her college friend, Moira, in her dorm room. She remembers being a child and going to a park with her mother, where they saw a group of women and a few men burning pornographic magazines. Offred has forgotten a large chunk of time, which she thinks might be the fault of an injection or pill the authorities gave her. She remembers waking up somewhere and screaming, demanding to know what they had done with her daughter. The authorities told Offred she was unfit, and her daughter was with those fit to care for her. They showed her a photograph of her child wearing a white dress, holding the hand of a strange woman. As she recounts these events, Offred imagines she is telling her story to someone, telling things that she cannot write down, because writing is forbidden.
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.
Offred remembers renting hotel rooms and waiting for Luke to meet her, before they were married, when he was cheating on his first wife. She regrets that she did not fully appreciate the freedom to have her own space when she wanted it. Thinking of the problems she and Luke thought they had, she realizes they were truly happy, although they did not know it. She remembers examining her room in the Commander's house little by little after she first arrived. She saw stains on the mattress, left over from long-ago sex, and she discovered a Latin phrase freshly scratched into the floor of the closet: Nolite te bastardes carborundorum. Offred does not understand Latin. It pleases her to imagine that this message allows her to commune with the woman who wrote it. She pictures this woman as freckly and irreverent, someone like Moira. Later, she asks Rita who stayed in her room before her. Rita tells her to specify which one, implying that there were a number of Handmaids before her. Offred says, guessing, "[t]he lively one . . . with freckles." Rita asks how Offred knew about her, but she refuses to tell Offred anything about the previous Handmaid beyond a vague statement that she did not work out.
Offred often sings songs in her head—"Amazing Grace" or songs by Elvis. Most music is forbidden in Gilead, and there is little of it in the Commander's home. Sometimes she hears Serena humming and listening to a recording of herself from the time when she was a famous gospel singer. Summer is approaching, and the house grows hot. Soon the Handmaids will be allowed to wear their summer dresses. Offred thinks about how Aunt Lydia would describe the terrible things that used to happen to women in the old days, before Gilead, when they sunbathed wearing next to nothing. Offred remembers Moira throwing an "underwhore" party to sell sexy lingerie. She remembers reading stories in the papers about women who were murdered and raped, but even in the old days it seemed distant from her life and unrelated to her. Offred sits at the window, beside a cushion embroidered with the word Faith. It is the only word they have given her to read, and she spends many minutes looking at it. From her window, she watches the Commander get into his car and drive away.
Offred says that yesterday she went to the doctor. Every month, a Guardian accompanies Offred to a doctor, who tests her for pregnancy and disease. At the doctor's office, Offred undresses, pulling a sheet over her body. A sheet hangs down from the ceiling, cutting off the doctor's view of her face. The doctor is not supposed to see her face or speak to her if he can help it. On this visit, though, he chatters cheerfully and then offers to help her. He says many of the Commanders are either too old to produce a child or are sterile, and he suggests that he could have sex with her and impregnate her. His use of the word "sterile" shocks Offred, for officially sterile men no longer exist. In Gilead, there are only fruitful women and barren women. Offred thinks him genuinely sympathetic to her plight, but she also realizes he enjoys his own empathy and his position of power. After a moment, she declines, saying it is too dangerous. If they are caught, they will both receive the death penalty. She tries to sound casual and grateful as she refuses, but she feels frightened. To revenge her refusal, the doctor could falsely report that she has a health problem, and then she would be sent to the Colonies with the "Unwomen." Offred also feels frightened, she realizes, because she has been given a way out.
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.
After bathing and eating, Offred must attend the Ceremony with the rest of the household. The Commander is always late for the Ceremony. Serena sits while Offred kneels on the floor. Rita, Cora, and Nick stand behind Offred. Nick's shoe touches Offred's. She shifts her foot away, but he moves his foot so it touches hers again. As usual, Serena allows them to watch the news while they wait. Television stations from Canada are blocked, and most of the programming is religious. The news reports that spies were caught smuggling "national resources" across the border, and that five Quakers have been arrested. The newscaster declares that the "resettlement of the Children of Ham" is proceeding, with thousands of people forced to resettle in the Dakotas.
Offred remembers how she and Luke purchased fake passports when they decided to escape. They told their daughter they were going on a picnic and planned to give her a sleeping pill when they crossed the border so that she would not be questioned or give them away. They packed nothing in their car because they did not want to arouse suspicion.
The Commander arrives and proceeds to unlock an ornate box. He takes out a Bible and reads to everyone. Offred wonders what it is like to be a man like him, surrounded by women who watch his every move. The Commander reads passages that emphasize childbearing. As the Commander reads, his Wife begins to sob softly. The Commander reads the story of Rachel and Leah from the book of Genesis. Rachel was barren, so she urged her husband to have a child by her maid, Bilhah. At the Red Center, this story was drilled into the Handmaids. During lunch, they played recordings of a male voice reciting the Beatitudes, so the Aunts would not have to commit the sin of reading. Offred remembers the time when Moira decided to fake an illness, hoping to escape by bribing one of the men in the ambulance with sex. When she tried it on an Angel, he reported her. The Aunts tortured Moira by beating her feet with steel cables, the punishment for a first offense. The -punishment for a second offense was beating the hands. Aunt Lydia reminded the women that hands and feet did not matter for their purpose.
After the prayers and Bible reading, the Ceremony continues as usual. In the bedroom, Offred lies on her back between Serena's legs, her head resting on Serena's pubic bone. Serena is fully clothed, while Offred's skirt is hiked up and her underwear is off. The two women hold hands, and Serena's rings dig into Offred's fingers. The Commander has sex with Offred in a brisk, impersonal fashion, then zips himself up and leaves the room promptly. Serena orders Offred to leave, even though Offred is supposed to rest for ten minutes to improve her chances of getting pregnant.
Once Offred is safely alone in her bedroom, she removes the butter from her shoe and uses it as lotion for her skin because lotion and beauty products are forbidden to the Handmaids. Offred cannot sleep, so she decides to steal something. She sneaks downstairs and decides to take a daffodil from a flower arrangement. She wants to press it under her mattress and leave it for the next Handmaid to find. As she stands in the sitting room, she senses the presence of someone behind her in the room. It is Nick. Neither of them are supposed to be downstairs. Wordlessly, they kiss, and she longs to have sex with him right there. She thinks of Luke, telling him he would understand, then thinking he wouldn't. Sex is too dangerous, and Nick and Offred separate. Nick whispers that the Commander sent him to find her. The Commander wants to see her in his office tomorrow.
After returning to her room, Offred lies in her bed, remembering making love to Luke while her baby kicked inside her womb. She imagines Luke dead, his body lying in the thickets where they were caught trying to escape. She imagines that he is in prison. She also imagines that he made it safely across the border and that one day a message from him will come to her in some unexpected way. She believes in these three scenarios simultaneously, so that nothing will surprise 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.
While Ofwarren gives birth, the Wife lies in the sitting room as if she is giving birth. Janine lies in the master bedroom, and the Handmaids gather around the bed to watch. Offred remembers how the Aunts used to show the Handmaids pornographic movies in which men practiced violent sex on women. Aunt Lydia said that was how men thought of women in the old days. One movie was about "Unwomen," feminists from the days before Gilead. The Aunts did not play the soundtrack, because they did not want the Handmaids to hear what the women said. In one of these movies, Offred saw her mother as a young woman, marching in a feminist rally. Her mother gave birth to Offred in her late thirties and chose to be a single mother. Offred and her mother used to fight, because her mother thought Offred did not appreciate the sacrifices early feminists made in order to help the next generation of women. Offred wishes she could have her mother back, fights and all.
The Handmaids chant to help Janine give birth. One Handmaid asks Offred if she is looking for someone. Offred describes Moira, and the woman tells her she will keep an eye out for a woman of that description. The woman is looking for someone named Alma. She asks Offred what her real name is, but before Offred can reply, their conversation is cut short by a suspicious glance from an Aunt who heard the break in the chant. Just before the child is born, Janine (Ofwarren) and the Wife of Warren sit on the Birthing Stool together. The Wife sits above Janine. The baby is born: a girl with no visible defects. Everyone rejoices. The Wife climbs into bed, and the baby is given to her. The other Wives crowd around, pushing the Handmaids aside, and the Wife announces she will name the baby Angela. After the birth, Janine will nurse the baby for a few months, and then she will transfer to a new Commander. Since she has produced a child, she will never be declared an Unwoman and sent to the colonies.
Driving back from the birth, Offred remembers Moira's escape from the Red Center. Moira caused a toilet to overflow, and while Aunt Elizabeth tried to fix it, Moira jabbed a metal object into Aunt Elizabeth's ribs and forced her into the furnace room. The object was a long lever from the toilet, but Aunt Elizabeth thought it was a knife. After exchanging clothing with Aunt Elizabeth and tying her up, Moira boldly walked out of the center using Aunt Elizabeth's pass. No one has seen Moira or heard from her since then.
At home, Offred tells Cora about the child, and the Martha expresses her hope that "they" (meaning Offred) will have a child soon. That night, Offred sneaks out of her room and meets the Commander in his office. She braces herself for a forced physical advance. If Serena were to discover that Offred was with the Commander in his study, she could be sent to the Colonies as an Unwoman. But if she were to refuse the Commander, there could be even more dire consequences, because he has the real power in the household. Offred eyes the walls of the study, which are filled with books. The Commander greets her in the old way, by saying "Hello," and Offred doesn't know how to reply. To her surprise, the Commander merely asks her to play a game of Scrabble. This is forbidden, since any kind of reading is forbidden to women. They play two games, and the game feels luxurious to Offred. As she is about to leave, the Commander asks her for a kiss. She imagines coming to his study again with a piece of metal from the toilet, as Moira did, putting her arms around him and killing him. She kisses him, and he says sadly he wanted her to kiss him "'as if [she] meant it.'"
After leaving the Commander and returning to her room, Offred decides she has to forget her old name and her past; she needs to live in the present and work within its rules. The Commander's unorthodox behavior allows her a chance to get something from him. She remembers that underneath all of Aunt Lydia's speeches, the real message seemed to be that men are "sex machines" and should be manipulated with sex.
Offred recalls a documentary about the Holocaust in which the former mistress of one of the Nazi guards was interviewed. Offred's mother liked to watch such historical programs, and always explained them carefully to Offred, even when she was too young to understand. The guard's mistress denied knowing about the death camps and maintained that the guard, her lover, was not a monster. Offred remembers that the woman committed suicide just days after the interview.
Suddenly, sitting on her bed and undressing, Offred finds the events of the night incredibly funny. Laughter threatens to erupt, and she struggles to keep it down. In the dark, she stumbles into the closet (she also calls it a cupboard), where the Latin phrase nolite te bastardes carborundorum is written. She falls asleep on the floor with her head resting in the closet.
In the morning, Cora finds Offred sleeping on the floor, and she screams and drops the breakfast tray, shattering the dishes. Offred tells Cora she fainted. Cora covers for her and tells Rita that she dropped the tray by accident.
Spring gives way to summer, and Offred continues to meet the Commander in his office at night. They develop a system of signals so that Serena will not realize what is going on. If Nick is polishing the car hatless, or hat askew, the Commander wants Offred to come see him. Sometimes she cannot go because Serena is knitting in the sitting room. Other times, Serena goes out to visit other Wives when they are sick, or feigning illness. The Wives take turns being sick; Offred thinks it adds interest to their lives. Other women, the Marthas and the Handmaids, cannot afford to be sick, because the sick and old might be sent away to the Colonies. Offred says that she sees no old women, although no one really knows where they go.
The Commander does not make any further physical advances toward Offred. They play Scrabble, and he allows her to look at an old copy of Vogue. The women in the magazine remind her of princes or pirates. On the third night she asks the Commander for some hand lotion. He laughs when Offred tells him the Handmaids use butter to keep their skin moist, which infuriates her. She leaves the lotion in his office so that it will not be found in her room.
Now that Offred has a friendship with the Commander, she feels embarrassed about having sex with him during the Ceremony. Offred still hates Serena, but she also feels jealous of her, and guilty, since she realizes that she is now the Commander's mistress despite the absence of any covert sexual activity between them. If Serena were to find out what was going on, she could expel Offred. Once, the Commander almost touches Offred's face during the Ceremony, and she later tells him never to touch her because Serena could transfer her to the Colonies. He says he finds sex impersonal, and she asks him how long it took him to figure that out. She is becoming more comfortable with him. Offred remembers Aunt Lydia telling the Handmaids that the population would eventually reach an acceptable level, at which point the Handmaids would live in only one household, instead of getting transferred, and Handmaids would become like daughters to the Wives.
Ofglen and Offred, now more comfortable with one another, continue to make their shopping trips. The fish store, Loaves and Fishes, rarely opens now, because the seas have become so polluted that few fish still live in them. They continue to visit the Wall, and Offred wonders if Luke is imprisoned behind the Wall in the place that used to be a university and now serves as a detention center. On one of their return trips, Ofglen and Offred stop at a store called Soul Scrolls. Inside, humming machines print prayers. Many of the Wives phone in orders for prayers in order to signal their piety. After the prayers are printed, the paper is recycled and used again.
Suddenly, Ofglen whispers to Offred, asking her whether she believes God actually listens to the machines. Ofglen's question is treasonous, but Offred decides to trust Ofglen and answers, "No." The two women realize they can trust one another. Offred is tremendously excited. She learns that Ofglen is part of a group of subversives. As they walk home, a dark black van painted with a white-winged eye, the symbol of the Eyes, stops abruptly. Offred thinks perhaps her conversation with Ofglen was recorded, but the two Eyes who jump out grab a man carrying a briefcase. They drag him into the vehicle and drive away, and Offred feels tremendous relief.
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.
The Commander and Offred have become more informal with one another. After a game of Scrabble, he offers her a magazine as usual, but she wants to talk instead. She tries to get information about him, but he gives her vague answers. Then she asks him what the Latin phrase in her room means. The Commander translates it as "don't let the bastards grind you down," and explains that the phrase is a schoolboy joke. Offred guesses that the former Handmaid must have learned the phrase from him and scratched it into the floor. She asks what happened to that Handmaid. The Commander replies that Serena discovered their nighttime liaisons, and the Handmaid hanged herself. Suddenly, Offred realizes that the Commander summons her to his office because he wants her life to be bearable: he feels guilty. She knows that his guilt is a weapon she can use. The Commander asks her what would make her life better. Offred asks for knowledge about "what's going on."
Later that night, Offred stares through her window and catches sight of Nick. She senses the charge of sexual desire in the glance they exchange before she pulls the curtains closed. She remembers the day she and Luke tried to escape from Gilead. They did not pack anything because they did not want to look as if they were leaving permanently. Luke killed their pet cat because they did not want to leave her to starve, and leaving her to meow outside would arouse suspicion. Someone must have reported their plans, because the escape attempt failed. It could have been a neighbor or the man who forged their passports. Offred wonders if the Eyes sometimes posed as forgers in order to catch people trying to escape. Lying in the dark, she prays in a confused fashion and thinks about suicide.
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.
Offred considers eating the cigarette little by little for the nicotine rush and saving the match to burn down the house. The Commander has taken to drinking during his evenings with Offred. Ofglen says Offred's Commander is high in the chain of power. One night he explains that in the old world, before Gilead, there was nothing for men to do with women anymore—nothing to struggle for, nothing to hold their interest. Men used to complain that they felt nothing. He asks what she thinks of Gilead. Offred tries to empty her mind; she cannot give her real opinion. She does not answer, but he can feel her unhappiness. "You can't make an omelette without breaking eggs," he says. "We thought we could do better."
Ofglen and Offred attend a "Prayvaganza" with the other women of their district, held in what used to be a university building. The Wives sit in one section with their daughters, the Marthas and Econowives sit in another, and the Handmaids kneel in a section cordoned off by ropes. Janine walks in with a new Wife, and Ofglen whispers that Janine's baby was deformed, a "shredder" after all. She adds that Janine slept with a doctor to get pregnant. Offred remembers a strange episode in the Red Center when Janine sat on her bed staring off into space, speaking to an invisible customer in a restaurant where she worked before Gilead. Moira slapped Janine and shouted until Janine came back to her senses
Women's Prayvaganzas are weddings for the Wives' daughters, mass ceremonies in which girls as young as fourteen get married. In a few years, the brides will be girls who do not remember life before Gilead. Offred remembers a conversation with the Commander, in which he insisted that while Gilead has taken away some freedom, it has guaranteed women safety and dignity. Now all women have spouses, and they are not left alone to care for children, beaten, or forced to work if they do not want to. They can "fulfill their -biological destinies in peace." Offred noted that they do not allow love, but the Commander replied that arranged marriages work better than falling in love.
Although women's Prayvaganzas usually celebrate group weddings and men's celebrate military victories, sometimes the Prayvaganzas celebrate Catholic nuns who convert to the state religion. When the authorities of Gilead catches Catholic nuns, they torture them. They send old ones directly to the Colonies, but young ones may choose between the Colonies and conversion. If they convert, the nuns become Handmaids, but many choose the Colonies.
The wedding ceremony goes on, and Offred remembers how Aunt Lydia always said that the real goal of Gilead is to create camaraderie between women. After the services, Ofglen whispers that the subversives know she sees the Commander in private. She urges Offred to find out everything she can.
Offred's thoughts return, against her will, to the day she and Luke tried to escape Gilead. They reached the border and gave the guard their passports, which said that Luke had never been divorced. Luke saw the guard pick up the phone. They sped away in the car, and then got out and tried to run through the woods. Offred shakes off these memories and tries to remember love and how it felt to be in love—how hard it was, and how precious, and how people defined their lives around it. Thinking that Luke must be dead, she begins to cry. Later that night, Serena shows Offred a photograph of her daughter. In the photo, she wears a white dress and smiles. Offred senses that her daughter hardly remembers her. This tears at her heart.
When Offred goes to see the Commander that night, he seems drunk. He speaks playfully with her and gives her a skimpy outfit decorated with feathers and sequins. He wants to take her out, he claims, using an expression from pre-Gilead days; she agrees to go. She dons the costume and puts cheap makeup on her face. She wears one of Serena's blue winter cloaks when he escorts her out of the house. Nick is waiting for them in the car, and they drive through darkened city streets. Offred hides on the floor when they pass the gateway. Offred finds herself worrying about Nick's opinion of her. The car stops in an alley, and the Commander helps Offred out of the robe. He opens a door with a key and slips a purple tag around Offred's wrist, instructing her to tell anyone who asks that she is an "evening rental." As Offred enters the building, she imagines Moira calling her an idiot for going along with this.
The Commander takes Offred to an old hotel that Offred remembers from pre-Gilead days, when she often met Luke there. In the central courtyard, Offred sees women dressed in gaudy and revealing clothing from the past. The women mingle with important, powerful men. Offred realizes she should stay quiet and look dumb. She senses that the Commander likes showing her off and enjoys showing off for her. He explains that "the club" is officially forbidden, but that everyone knows that to be satisfied, men require a variety of women. Some of the women were prostitutes before Gilead. Others, once lawyers, sociologists, and businesswomen, prefer turning tricks in the club to a life in the Colonies or as a Handmaid. Suddenly Offred spots Moira in the crowd. Moira wears an ill--fitting Playboy bunny costume. She turns and sees Offred. They pretend not to recognize one another, and then Moira gives the old signal to meet her in the washroom.
Five minutes later, Offred makes her way to the washroom. A dressed-up Aunt standing guard with a cattle prod tells her she has fifteen minutes. Offred meets Moira inside and explains that the Commander smuggled her into the club just for the night. Moira tells her own story. After escaping from the Red Center, she made her way to the center of town in Aunt Elizabeth's clothes and went to the home of a Quaker couple involved in the resistance. She says at that time the general public did not know about the Red Center because the authorities of Gilead feared people would object at first. The Quakers put her on the Underground Femaleroad, a system for getting women to safety. They tried to smuggle her out of the country, but just as Moira was leaving the final safe house to slip across the border in a boat, she was caught. The Eyes tortured her and showed her movies of the Colonies, where old women and subversives clean up radioactive spills and dead bodies from the war, and the life expectancy is three years. Moira chose to work as a prostitute in the club, which is nicknamed "Jezebel's," rather than go to the Colonies. Offred is disappointed to hear the fatalism in Moira's voice—Moira resignedly tells Offred she should try to work at the club, where they get three or four years to live, and face cream. Offred misses the old Moira who was so spirited and full of rebellion. After she leaves the club, she never sees Moira again.
The Commander takes Offred to a hotel room, which reminds her of her affair with Luke. She excuses herself to go to the bathroom. She hears toilets flushing in other rooms and feels comforted, thinking of the universality of bodily functions. She thinks about Moira and her mother. In the washroom, Moira said that she saw Offred's mother in one of the films about the Colonies. Offred had assumed her mother was dead. Offred remembers going to her mother's apartment with Luke during the early days of Gilead; she found the place in disarray and her mother gone. Luke told her not to call the police, saying it wouldn't do any good. She remembers how much spirit her mother used to have, but she realizes that the Colonies must have stripped it away. The Commander is lying on the bed waiting for her when she exits the bathroom. He seems disappointed that she is not excited about a real sexual encounter. He looks smaller and older without his clothing. Offred feels no excitement and silently orders herself to fake it.
Back in her room at the Commander's house, Offred has removed her makeup and put on her Handmaid clothes. Serena plans to meet her at midnight to take her to Nick so that Offred and Nick can have sex. In the middle of the night, Serena comes and tells Offred to go to Nick's apartment. Serena will wait for Offred to return.
Offred twice tells the story of what happens next. The first story, thick with passion and desire, is told in the breathy language of a romance novel. The second, probably more accurate, is awkward, uncertain, and full of sadness for the lost courtship rituals of the pre-Gilead world. "No romance . . . okay?" Nick says before they begin. Offred takes pleasure in the act this time. Offred says that neither of the versions is completely accurate, that every story is by nature a reconstruction. After sleeping with Nick, she feels ashamed. She feels she betrayed Luke and wonders if she would feel differently if she knew Luke was dead.
Offred tells her imagined listener that her story is almost too painful to bear, but that she needs to go on telling it because it wills her listener into being. She may be addressing the reader, or she may be addressing Luke; she says she wants to hear her listener's story too, if her listener escapes. Offred says she continues to see Nick at night without Serena's knowledge. She feels thankful each time he opens the door to her. He never says much, but she finds herself telling him about Moira and Ofglen. She tells him her real name. She never mentions Luke. Eventually, she tells him she thinks she is pregnant, although privately she feels this is wishful thinking. During their shopping trips, Ofglen pressures Offred to break into the Commander's office. She wants Offred to find out what he really does, what responsibilities he has. But Offred now tunes out Ofglen and spends her time thinking about Nick.
A women's "Salvaging," or large-scale execution, is held in what used to be Harvard Yard. All the women in the district must attend. On the lawn in front of the former library sits a stage like the one used for commencement in pre-Gilead days. Aunt Lydia sits on the stage, supervising the hangings. It is the first time Offred has seen Aunt Lydia since leaving the Red Center. Aunt Lydia announces that they have decided to discontinue announcing the crimes of the convicted because it sparks copycat crimes. The Handmaids are dismayed; the crimes give them hope by showing them that women can still resist. Three women are hanged, two Handmaids and one Wife. Offred speculates that the Handmaid tried to kill her Commander's Wife. She says Wives get salvaged for only three things: killing a Handmaid, adultery, or attempted escape. The Handmaids must place their hands on a long rope as the women hang, in order to show their consent to the salvaging.
After the hanging, Aunt Lydia instructs the Handmaids to form a circle. A few of the other women leave, but most Wives and daughters stay to watch. Then two Guardians drag a third Guardian to the front. He is disheveled and smells of excrement. He looks drunk or drugged. Aunt Lydia announces that he and another Guardian have been convicted of rape. His partner was shot already, but this man has been saved for the Handmaids, who will take part in what is called a "Particicution." Aunt Lydia adds that one of the two Handmaids involved was pregnant and lost the baby in the attack. A wave of raw fury courses through the crowd; Offred feels bloodlust along with the others. Aunt Lydia blows a whistle, and the Handmaids close in on the man, kicking and beating him to a bloody pulp. Ofglen dashes in first and kicks his head several times. Afterward, disgusted with her friend, Offred asks Ofglen why she did it. Ofglen whispers that the supposed rapist was part of the underground rebellion, and she wanted to put him out of his misery quickly. Offred sees Janine carrying a bloody clump of hair. Her eyes look vacant, and she babbles some cheerful greetings from the time before Gilead. Offred admits, ashamed, that she feels great hunger.
Soon after the Salvaging, Offred goes out for a shopping trip, comforted by the ordinariness of the routine. To her dismay, the Handmaid who meets her is not Ofglen. When Offred asks her where Ofglen went, the woman replies, "I am Ofglen." Since this new Handmaid now lives with the Commander named Glen, her name becomes Ofglen. Offred realizes how women get lost in this ocean of fluctuating names. Trying to see if the new woman belongs to the resistance, Offred suggests they go to the Wall. As they walk there, Offred works the password "Mayday" into the conversation by mentioning the old holiday of "May Day." The new Ofglen looks at her coolly and tells her that she should forget such "echoes" from the old world. Terrified, Offred realizes that the new Ofglen knows about the resistance and does not belong to it. She suddenly imagines herself found out and arrested. She thinks that perhaps they will torture her daughter until she tells them everything she knows. She and the new, treacherous Ofglen walk home. As they part, the new Ofglen suddenly whispers that the old Ofglen hanged herself when she saw the van coming to arrest her. "'It was better,'" she says, and then walks quickly away.
Offred feels great relief when she hears that Ofglen has committed suicide, for now Ofglen will not give her name to the Eyes while being tortured. For the first time, Offred feels completely within the power of the authorities. She feels she will do anything necessary to live—stop wanting control of her body, stop resisting, stop seeing Nick. From the porch, Serena calls to Offred. When Offred comes in, she holds out her winter cloak and the sequined outfit Offred wore to the club. She asks Offred how she could be so vulgar, and then tells Offred she is a slut like the other Handmaid and will come to the same end. Nick stops whistling, but Offred does not look at him. She manages to remain calm and composed as she retreats to her room
After her confrontation with Serena, Offred waits in her room. She feels peaceful. Night creeps in, and she wonders if she could use her hidden match and start a fire. She might die from smoke inhalation, although the fire would be subdued quickly. Or she could hang herself in her room from the hooks in the closet, she thinks. Or she could wait for Serena and kill her when she opens the door to her room. Nothing seems to matter. In the twilight, she hears the van coming for her, and she regrets not doing something while she had the chance. As the van pulls into the driveway, she sees the Eyes painted on its sides.
The van pulls in, and Nick opens the door of Offred's room. Offred thinks he has betrayed her, but he whispers that she should go with the Eyes. He tells her they are in Mayday and have come to save her. Offred knows that he might be an Eye, because the Eyes probably know all about Mayday, but this is her last chance. She walks down the stairs to meet the men waiting for her. Serena demands to know Offred's crime, and Offred realizes Serena was not the one to call these men. The men say they cannot tell her. The Commander demands to see a warrant, and the Eyes—or the men from Mayday, perhaps—say that she is being arrested for "violation of state secrets." As Serena curses her, Offred follows the Eyes to the van waiting outside.
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.