Study Guide

The Handmaid's Tale

by Margaret Atwood

The Handmaid's Tale Summary

Overview

The Handmaid

Summary of the Novel
A revolution has replaced the government of the United States with the Bible-based Republic of Gilead, a theocracy. The novel is narrated by a woman of 30 or so who has been separated from her husband and young daughter, then sent to a brainwashing center. She is trained to be a Handmaid, obliged to serve any member of the hierarchy as birth-mother of his children.

She is now on her third assignment, having failed to become pregnant in her previous two, so her time is running out. If she does not have a child soon, she will become an Unwoman, exiled to clean up toxic waste in one of the Colonies until she dies in two or three years. Unwomen, like Jews, African Americans, Catholics, and other groups considered undesirable by the Gilead regime are not allowed in Gilead.

As Offred, the narrator is a “walking womb” whose only duty is to help maintain the declining white population. She spends most of her time alone in her bare room remembering her previous life, and desperately seeking some means of escape from her new one, including suicide.

Although everyone in Gilead is a potential informer, Offred does establish a bond with another Handmaid, Ofglen, and with her master’s chauffeur, Nick, with whom she has a secret affair. He arranges her escape via the Underground Femaleroad, which
supposedly can help her get to freedom in Canada. In the last chapter two men come for her and take her from her master’s house.

However, neither Offred nor the reader is sure if she is actually being rescued. Instead, she may be under arrest as an enemy of the state, and doomed to death.

This mystery is not cleared up in the “Historical Notes” that end the novel. These are concerned with a group of scholars in 2195 whose main interest is the study of Gilead as a historical phenomenon, not in the person Offred.

Estimated Reading Time
The Handmaid’s Tale is divided into 46 short chapters plus a postscript. It is also divided into 15 numbered and named sections (e.g., “Shopping” and “Waiting Room”). Except for the postscript chapter, the novel is told in everyday speech, although the narrator does use a number of new terms invented by the new regime (e.g., “Unwoman” and “Prayvaganza”). The narrator also frequently uses irony and sarcasm, so sometimes she clearly means the opposite of what she says.

Parts I, II - 1 hour
Parts III, IV - 1 hour
Parts V, VI, VII - 1 1/2 hours
Parts VIII, IX - 1 1/2 hours
Parts X, XI - 1 1/2 hours
Part XII - 2 hours
Parts XIII, XIV, XV, - 2 1/2 hours
The total reading time is approximately 11 hours.

The Life and Work of Margaret Atwood
The 1960s opened the most dynamic period in Canadian writing, much as the 1920s did for American literature. One factor behind this upsurge was a sense that during World War II, 1939–1941, Canada had come of age and played a major role in defeating the Axis powers. Also, the Canada Council of the Arts, started at the end of the 1950s, provided grants that allowed young writers (many of whom grew up during the war) the time to research and write their books. Meanwhile, the explosion of post-war immigration, primarily from Europe, gave Canadian authors a much increased body of sophisticated readers.

Born in Ottawa, Canada’s capital, in 1939, Margaret Atwood was part of this new wave of writers. She published her first book, The Circle Game, a collection of her poetry, in 1966, which won that year’s Governor General’s Award for poetry (these awards, affectionately called the GeeGees, are like the American Pulitzer Prize). The next year, Atwood was named writer-in-residence at Montréal’s Sir George Williams University, the first of a series of such posts that allowed her to work almost full-time at her craft.

Because her father was an entomologist studying the insect life of Canada’s forests, Atwood spent her childhood in a variety of places in northern Ontario and Québec before studying for her B.A. at the University of Toronto and her M.A. at Harvard’s Radcliffe College. For the next few years, with her series of writer-in-residence posts, Atwood continued to live a semi-nomadic life. She seems to have thrived on it as a writer, publishing roughly a book a year since that time, although she and her partner, novelist Graeme Gibson, and their daughter Jess have lived north of Toronto since the 1980s.

Atwood published her first novel, The Edible Woman, in 1969, and has become far more widely read as a novelist than as a poet. She continued to publish poetry, however, as well as two studies of Canadian writing, a book of history, and a number of children’s books. In addition, she was one of the founders of the Writers Union of Canada, a lobby group, and served a term as its president.

Her childhood experience of northern Canada’s long, harsh winters and enormous spaces, and her own rootlessness during those years, are themes that appear in virtually all of her novels and in much of her other writing . These themes are evident in her literary study, Survival (1972) and her poetry book The Journals of Susanna Moodie (1970). (Moodie, whose 1852 book Roughing It in the Bush is a Canadian classic of pioneer life in what was then a British colony, dwelt on the isolation and loneliness of settler life.) Atwood’s female protagonists, who frequently narrate their novels, live lonely and sometimes fearful lives in hostile environments, struggling to discover their identities and to assert themselves, with mixed results. They usually have to make some compromise with the world around them, rather than winning a clear victory, but they survive.

Most of Atwood’s novels are set in the contemporary world. However, in Alias Grace (1996) her title character is a very young woman accused of aiding in the murder of her employer in mid-Nineteenth-Century Ontario. Alias Grace is based on an actual murder in 1843 and the subsequent trial. In The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) Atwood projects a futuristic world of reaction and repression—and of virtual enslavement for women.

The Handmaid's Tale Summary (Critical Guide to British Fiction)

In the late years of the twentieth century, Protestant Fundamentalists, with the tacit approval of the military, have assassinated the president and the Congress, suspended the Constitution, and established the Republic of Gilead. Under the new regime, women have no rights: They cannot hold jobs, they are not permitted to have money or property, and they have no public role. Since the birthrate has fallen, men in high positions, if their own wives are barren or are past childbearing, are assigned “Handmaids” from a pool of trained women who have already borne children. The only function of a Handmaid is to conceive and bear her master’s child, based upon Rachel’s command to Jacob in the Bible: “Behold my maid Bilhah, go in unto her; and she shall bear upon my knees, that I may also have children by her.” Fertile women who refuse to become Handmaids are killed, sent to illegal but officially tolerated brothels, or sent to the “Colonies,” to work on toxic-waste disposal. Handmaids are deprived of their names and are known only “of” their masters’ names: Offred, Ofglen, Ofwarren, and so on.

Offred’s story covers a spring and summer during which she fails to conceive a child by the Commander. Her only duties during this period are to shop daily for groceries in state-controlled stores and to present her body at regular intervals for nonerotic sexual intercourse with her master; in these episodes the Commander’s wife, Serena Joy, is present, holding Offred between her knees. In the Republic of Gilead, sex is officially sanctioned only for the purpose of reproduction. Handmaids are required to wear long, red dresses, veils, and wimples; they can communicate with one another or with other people only about the necessities of life.

Because there is so little to occupy her time, Offred has plenty of opportunity to think about her past life, especially about the daughter who was taken from her and given to an official’s family to be reared, and about Luke, who was probably killed when they unsuccessfully tried to escape to Canada. On her shopping trips, she and Ofglen must go together; a Handmaid cannot pass the frequent checkpoints alone. They make a regular practice of passing “The Wall,” where the bodies of those hanged for crimes against public morality or the state are suspended from hooks as warnings and examples; Offred looks for Luke on “The Wall,” but she has not found him. Because of the boredom and degradation of their lives, Handmaids are tempted to attempt suicide and are therefore denied access to sharp objects or any other possible means of ending their own lives; if they misbehave, however, they may be hanged by the state.

Serena Joy hates Offred for usurping part of her wifely role, although she remains ignorant, for a time, of the illegal private meetings between Offred and the Commander, during which they play Scrabble or other games, and during which the Commander allows Offred to read forbidden magazines from earlier times such as Vogue, Mademoiselle, or Ms. Anxious that there be a child, Serena Joy arranges a single clandestine and illegal meeting between Offred and Nick, the Commander’s chauffeur, hoping that this will result in the conception of a baby. Offred continues to go to Nick’s room, in secret; although she believes that she is betraying Luke, she cannot resist her reawakened sexuality. In the end, Nick helps her try to escape.

Escape has become a necessity. With Ofglen, Offred has attended a required public ritual, a “Salvaging,” at which two Handmaids and a Commander’s wife have been hanged for unspecified crimes. This ritual has been followed by another, a “Particicution,” in which the gathered Handmaids are encouraged to tear limb from limb a man they are told is guilty of rape. Ofglen is observed kicking him in the head to render him unconscious before the other women get to him; she whispers to Offred that he was a member of the underground. Ofglen hangs herself before she can be arrested, but as her companion, Offred is sure to be suspected and questioned. Nick arranges for what he tells her is a false arrest by men who will help her escape. The narrative ends as they take her away.

The Handmaid's Tale Summary (Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Dire explorations of future societies, dystopias, have usually been written by and about men. What future hell awaits women? Margaret Atwood asked, after surveying major news stories of the early 1980’s: industrial pollution, surrogate parenthood, AIDS, conservative backlash, televangelism, and oppressive regimes in Argentina and Iran. The Handmaid’s Tale is her imaginative answer. In this bleak narrative, the government of the United States has been overthrown by the Republic of Gilead, a theocracy based on total conformity and reactionary Christianity. With human fertility reduced, by toxic pollution, to crisis point, the fecund womb is now Gilead’s most valuable resource. Consequently, it has been nationalized. A Puritan polygamy, inspired by the Old Testament and by Mormon pioneers in Utah, has been imposed as the norm.

Offred, who tells her story, is an official womb, a red-clad handmaid. Once she had a family identity, but now even her personal name is unknown. She is simply “of-Fred,” bearing the name of the Commander to whom she is assigned. Her chief duty is regular participation in the “Ceremony,” during which Fred, in the presence of his wife and servants, must attempt to impregnate Offred. If he should succeed, her offspring, like those of handmaids of old, will become the possession of his wife, Serena Joy, once a televangelist known for her tears and songs.

Daily life in the Republic of Gilead is detailed. Handmaids purchase necessities from shops called All Flesh, Loaves and Fishes, and Milk and Honey; there are no luxuries. Women are forced to attend brutal ceremonies in which wrongdoers are punished. Routinely, handmaids visit the wall—once apparently a part of Harvard campus—where criminals are impaled on hooks as examples for all.

Offred’s passive acceptance of her lot is only temporary. Eventually she communicates with the underground, indulges in an illicit affair of passion, and even visits a forbidden brothel with the Commander. Then the account of her increasingly dangerous life abruptly ends. Why was she silenced? Was she whisked away to Canadian sanctuary or was she betrayed?

Like captives before her, this handmaid has managed to leave behind her narrative, which is scrutinized by the Twelfth Symposium of Gileadean Studies, meeting in 2195. Atwood records conference proceedings, noting satirically how the chilling records of the defunct theocracy are now the primary sources for academic study far removed from the pain of those who lived in Gilead.

Like Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932), Atwood’s novel combines dire prediction with considerable satire. Atwood’s skill at character development, atmospheric description, and narrative structure give her book a virtue other dystopic novels rarely possess.

The Handmaid's Tale Summary (Masterpieces of American Literature)

The Handmaid’s Tale begins near Boston in the mid-1980’s. A faction of right-wing Christians establishes a dictatorship after killing members of the United States government. The result is Gilead, an ultraconservative country that denies women power. Women are unable to hold jobs, use credit cards, or seek education. Also, massive pollution exists due to nuclear and biological warfare. Radioactive territory, known as the Colonies, becomes the home of Jews and of other minorities, because the new government wants only to propagate members of their own sect. Essentially, Atwood has created a dystopia which stands in direct opposition to an ideal world or utopia. Atwood drew upon research about present-day trends in environmental degradation and diseases to create an authentic setting.

Due to massive pollution and to the spread of sexually transmitted diseases, reproduction is difficult for women. Many babies are miscarried or born with defects. Women who cannot reproduce, as well as homosexuals, are considered worthless and are banished to the Colonies. Women are divided up into classes; colored clothing is used to separate the classes. The government establishes a secret police force to arrest fertile women, who become Handmaids. These Handmaids are breeders who must participate in sexual acts in order to create more members of the white race.

The women are given names that represent the men who control their lives; these names signify that women have lost their identities and that they are victimized by men. One such woman, named “Offred” is ripped away from her family. She is forced to be a Handmaid and is relocated to a center to receive the proper training for her new vocation. The Re-education Center is enclosed by barbed wire, and the conditions are rudimentary. Offred maintains her individuality, while acting as if she is conforming to the ways of the center and to the demands of her overseers, matrons such as Aunt Lydia and Aunt Elizabeth, who attempt to control the thoughts of their prisoners.

In secret, the Handmaids attempt to maintain relationships with one another and to maintain their morale. However, others adapt to the robotic ways and mental states required of them by their restrictive daily lives. Offred finishes her training at the center and is made a member of Gilead’s Handmaids. Her first attempt at conception is fruitless, so she is sent to Commander Fred, for whom she is named. Her new routine consists of food shopping and seclusion in a protected room. Her only exposure to others consists of prayer sessions, birthing, medical procedures, and executions. In a monthly ceremony, Offred mates with the commander after a Bible reading in front of his wife, Serena.

While Offred is being inseminated by the commander, she lies on Serena’s thighs. Although the commanders are considered high-ranking in the regime, they do not have much power over the household, for their aging wives govern the homes. This irony reinforces that the rigid nature of the government results in a lack of freedom for the commanders, too.

Unbeknownst to Serena, the commander develops a fondness for Offred beyond the ritualistic mating, and he calls Offred for evening visits. On such visits, they play forbidden games, such as Scrabble, and he allows her to look at his fashion magazines. Fred even gives Offred snippets of information about the world beyond her confinement. One particular evening, Fred gives her an ornate outfit of glitter and feathers to wear. Dressed provocatively, Offred accompanies him to an illegal nightclub where women of ill repute and lesbians work. The women at this club are also subject to the oppressive forces of men.

Serena learns about Offred’s illicit relationship with her husband and confronts the Handmaid. As Offred is weighing her options—for Serena is accusing her of treason—a van appears. Offred meets the operatives of an underground group called “The Eyes.” Although the commander objects, the two agents charge Offred with divulging the state’s secret information, and she leaves in the van.

The reader learns more about Offred’s fate in a speech delivered by an archivist in 2195, although the ending is ambiguous. The professor offers information about Offred’s experiences, as found on cassette tapes. The professor suggests that the Handmaid escaped her fate. He believes that she made the tapes before she escaped the country and that she lived her life in isolation in order to save her family from repercussions. Offred’s survival conveys the strength of the human spirit regardless of oppressive forces. In conclusion, Atwood refuses to call the novel a warning, even though she has alluded to current events; she says she has no political agenda of that sort.

The Handmaid's Tale Summary (Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Set in the near future, a time just prior to the year 2000, The Handmaid’s Tale is science fiction but also an indictment of the present, since Atwood’s future is the reader’s present. It is an atypical Atwood novel, her only novel not rooted in Canada and the only one to be so blatantly propagandistic. In it, she fulfills the promise of her narrator protagonist in Lady Oracle (1976): “I won’t write any more Costume Gothics. . . . But maybe I’ll try some science fiction.” Atwood prefers the term “speculative fiction” because of the blending of future and present and maintains that all the events in the novel have a “corresponding reality, either in contemporary conditions or historical fact.” Since the novel is set in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Atwood also indicts the American culture, which contains the “corresponding reality.”

The novel begins with a quotation from the book of Genesis about a barren Rachel encouraging her husband Jacob to have children by her maid, Bilhah. In the aftermath of nuclear war, a new North American republic called Gilead (another biblical reference to fertility) attempts to correct a declining birthrate, caused by nuclear radiation and pollutants, by relegating fertile women to the role of Bilhah-like Handmaids, the breeders of society. (In fact, all Gilead women are assigned to one of eight roles, each distinguished by its own uniform.) In such a patriarchal society where religion, state, and military are combined, women’s identities are controlled by men. Offred, the narrator, has lost her real name; she is “of Fred,” in reference to the commander whom she services in a perverse, impersonal sexual coupling with his wife, Serena Joy, at the head of the bed. At the beginning of the novel, Offred recounts her training under the aunts—also a perverse parody of the training that nuns and sisters undergo; Offred’s uniform, though red, resembles a nun’s habit.

Despite her indoctrination, Offred chafes under the repressive regime, and, when her commander gives her access to his library, a male preserve—reading is dangerous for women—she becomes even more rebellious. She meets Moira, an old friend, at a brothel where the males circumvent their own repressive sexual roles and discovers that there is a revolutionary organization named Mayday, which suggests fertility and anarchy. Her rebellion is fueled by her illegal affair with Nick, the chauffeur, who restores her identity (she tells him her real name), liberates her sexually, and ultimately aids in her escape via the Underground Femaleroad, reflecting, through its parody of the slave underground railroad, the slavish position of women in Gilead.

Offred survives to tell her tale, not in traditional epistolary form but in tapes that have been edited by scholars in the year 2195. Atwood’s account of the tapes, similar to traditional accounts about finding ancient manuscripts, is appended as “Historical Notes on The Handmaid’s Tale” to the text of the novel, but, in suggesting that two centuries have not altered female/male relationships, the notes continue the novel’s indictment of current culture. In keeping with utopian tradition, Atwood’s site for the scholarly proceedings is the University of Denay, Nunavit (or the university of deny, none of it). Atwood’s wry denial of the validity of the proceedings calls into question the male editing of female discourse; Professors Pieixoto and Wade have arranged “the blocks of speech in the order in which they appeared to go.” Since Offred frequently alludes to the problem of articulating her feelings and experiences, the professors’ presumptuous efforts are open to question.

While the proceedings are chaired by a woman, Professor Maryann Crescent Moon (perhaps a criticism of academic tokenism), the keynote speaker is a man, Professor Pieixoto, whose comments hardly represent an improvement over current male chauvinism. In his opening remarks, he alludes to “enjoying” Crescent Moon, “the Arctic Chair.” His further comments about the title of the book (the “tale”/“tail” being a deliberate pun by his male colleague) and his joke about the “Underground Frail-road” reveal the same chauvinistic condescension that characterizes current academic discourse. His unwillingness to pass moral judgments on the Gileadean society, because such judgments would be “culture-specific,” reflects not scientific objectivity, which he already has violated by his editing, but his moral bankruptcy.

The Handmaid’s Tale does survive, however, despite the male editing, as a “report” on the present/future; similarly, in Bodily Harm, the radicalized protagonist becomes a “subversive,” who vows to “report” on the repressive society. The novel, like Brave New World (1932) and Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), serves as an anatomy, an indictment, and a warning about current society. Among Atwood’s targets are religious fanaticism, nuclear energy, environmental waste, and antifeminist practices. Like other utopian novels, however, The Handmaid’s Tale is weakened by its political agenda, which creates one-dimensional characters and somewhat implausible events; the propaganda, however, also gives the novel its power, relevance, and appeal. Because of its popularity, it was adapted to film in 1990.

The Handmaid's Tale Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Sometime in the past, Protestant fundamentalists assassinate the U.S. president and the Congress and set up a theocratic regime called the Republic of Gilead. In this totalitarian state, women are under the domination of men. They cannot hold jobs, own property, or have bank accounts in their own names. Nor are they allowed to read or write. Forced into the role of Handmaid, Offred is stripped of her own name and called by her master’s name, Fred, preceded by “of.”

Pollution and nuclear accidents make sterility a problem in Gilead (though officially only women could be sterile). Fertile women who are political dissidents or who are in marriages considered outside the law of the church, such as second marriages after divorce, are conscripted to serve as concubines to the political leaders of Gilead, whose wives are often sterile or past the age of childbearing.

Offred is obliged to endure an act of copulation with the Commander once a month in the hope that she will have a child. During the act, she rests between the legs of the Commander’s wife in a ritual believed to be sanctioned by biblical precedent. In the Old Testament, Rachel commands Jacob to sleep with her maid Billah: “Go in unto her, and she shall bear upon my knees, that I may have children by her.” Offred hopes to conceive because it is her only safeguard against being sent to the “colonies,” where women viewed as expendable are sent to clean up battlefields or nuclear waste sites.

Besides her monthly sexual obligations to the Commander, Offred’s only duty is to walk out once a day to do the shopping for the household. She has to wear a prescribed costume consisting of a bright red ankle-length dress that conceals her body and a white headdress with wide wings that constricts her vision. In her shopping excursions, Offred has a partner, another Handmaid named Ofglen. After making their purchases, Ofglen and Offred almost always walk to the “the wall.” On the wall, the hooded bodies of recently executed traitors to the regime are displayed. On these occasions, Offred looks for the body of her husband, Luke. Although Offred hopes that Luke is still alive, the likeliest possibility is that he had been killed when the family made an escape attempt to Canada. It was during this attempt that Offred had been captured, along with her daughter, who was taken from her and given to a family with high connections in Gilead.

In her daily life, Offred has little to do, but she has ample time for reminiscence and reflection on her past and present life. She thinks about her upbringing by her mother, a single parent by choice and a feminist of the 1970’s, and her friendship with Moira, a strong individual who has the courage to defy authority. She thinks about her life with Luke and her daughter and wishes she could bring back the freedom she took for granted.

Although the Commander is not supposed to have any personal relationship with his Handmaid, he sends a message to her to arrange a clandestine meeting in his study. In a series of subsequent visits, Offred and the Commander play Scrabble and talk, and the Commander allows her to read books and magazines officially forbidden in Gilead. The Commander wants Offred to like him because he feels misunderstood by his wife, and on several occasions he asks Offred to kiss him.

The Commander’s wife, Serena Joy, dislikes Offred because she feels that Offred is encroaching on her role. In spite of her jealousy, however, Serena Joy wants Offred to have a child, which she could raise. Because she fears that her husband might be sterile, Serena Joy arranges secret meetings between Offred and Nick, an employee of the household. Offred cooperates in this scheme, in spite of the danger involved in unsanctioned sexual acts, because she needs to have a child to save her own life. As time passes, however, Offred becomes deeply attracted to Nick and their meetings become the central focus of her life.

On their walks, Offred and Ofglen reveal to each other their hatred of the regime. Ofglen is a member of an underground organization working to overthrow the regime. Offred and Ofglen are required to take part in a public ritual called a Salvaging, in which several women are hanged as traitors. On this same occasion, they are expected to participate in a Particicution, in which a rapist is torn limb from limb by Handmaids. Ofglen recognizes the man as a member of the underground and strikes him on the head with her shoe to render him unconscious and spare him more pain. Knowing that she has been observed and is about to be arrested, Ofglen kills herself so that she cannot be forced under torture to confess and name others in the underground.

Because of her association with Ofglen, Offred expects to be arrested. However, Nick, acting on behalf of the underground resistance, arranges for a mock arrest, which he tells her will ensure her safety. Unsure of the truth of the matter, she feels she has no choice but to trust Nick. An epilogue set almost two hundred years in the future reveals that tapes are discovered containing the narrative just read. Offred must certainly have made it to freedom, but it is unclear whether she lives her subsequent life in freedom or is recaptured.

The Handmaid's Tale Chapter Summary and Analysis

Chapters 1-6: Summary and Analysis

Chapter 1 - Summary
New Characters:
Offred: a newly assigned Handmaid, and the narrator
Aunt Elizabeth and Aunt Sara: guards at the Re-Education Center, armed with electric cattle prods

It is night at the Rachel and Leah Re-education (Red) Center in the heartland of the Republic of Gilead. The Center, housed in a former high school, is where young white women are prepared for their role as replenishers of the population, Handmaids. On her army cot in the dormitory, once the school gym, Offred muses about what the room must have been like before Gilead.

She thinks about the basketball games played here, and how it must have looked decorated for school dances: the excitement, the...

(The entire section is 3210 words.)

Chapters 7-12: Summary and Analysis

Chapter 7 - Summary
New Characters:
Moira: Offred's feminist friend from college
Offred's mother: single mother and ardent feminist
Offred's unnamed daughter

Offred lies on her bed, feeling this time is her own; there are no signal bells, nothing to stop her reveries. She can let her thoughts drift back to the happier past.

She recalls working on a term paper, and Moira suggesting they go for a beer, which they do, with Offred’s money.

Then she remembers a demonstration her mother took her to as a child. A crowd of mostly women was throwing magazines on a bonfire. A woman urged Offred to throw a magazine on the fire and she did. She glimpsed at some of the...

(The entire section is 2682 words.)

Chapters 13-18: Summary and Analysis

Chapter 13 - Summary
Remembering when she could walk through art galleries, Offred recalls certain nineteenth-century paintings of Oriental harems, calling them pictures of “suspended animation, about waiting,” precisely what her life is now.

This reminds her of reading about “pig balls,” toys made for pigs to play with, to overcome their boredom as they are fattened for the slaughter. She also remembers learning in a college psychology course about rats that would give themselves electric shocks to have something to do. Clearly, she can relate to both of these.

She wonders if the Handmaid-trainees at the Red Center were drugged to make them so lethargic. How else could they have endured...

(The entire section is 2324 words.)

Chapters 19-24: Summary and Analysis

Chapter 19 - Summary
Offred dreams that she awakens in her former home and opens the bedroom door to find her daughter running toward her, open-armed. She wonders if this, and dreams like it, are just dreams, or if perhaps it’s her present life that is the dream, a nightmare from which she’ll soon awaken. But she fights the temptation to believe her present life is the unreal one, for her sanity tells her otherwise, and her sanity is the one thing she still possesses.

Awake, she sees the FAITH cushion and speculates that there must have been companions embroidered with HOPE and CHARITY, but what has become of them? Perhaps Serena Joy, ever neat and thrifty, has put them in Rita’s and...

(The entire section is 2507 words.)

Chapters 25-30: Summary and Analysis

Chapter 25 - Summary
Offred is awakened by a scream and a crash. Finding Offred asleep on the floor, half in the closet, Cora had thought her dead, a suicide, and in her shock has dropped the breakfast tray. If she brings a second breakfast, she will have to explain what happened, so Offred says she wasn’t really hungry and will make do with the toast, still edible. Cora says she will pretend she dropped the tray and broke the dishes on the way out of Offred’s room; Offred is pleased that Cora will lie for her.

Soon Offred visits the Commander two or three nights a week, whenever she is signalled by Nick. On the second visit, they again play Scrabble, then he offers her a treat: a glimpse at an old copy...

(The entire section is 2331 words.)

Chapters 31-40: Summary and Analysis

Chapter 31 - Summary
It is July fifth, and Offred now has a lighter-weight version of the Handmaid gown. On another shopping trip she and Ofglen find two new corpses hung on the Wall, one a Catholic wearing a placard with an upside-down cross, the other marked with the letter J. Since Jewish corpses bear a yellow star, Offred wonders what this J stands for: Jehovah’s Witness, perhaps, or Jesuit. All religions except Gilead’s official one are banned.

They pass what once was Memorial Hall, where undergraduates ate in the early days of the university. Moira had told her that women were forbidden to enter; if they did, they were pelted with buns. She doesn’t like Moira’s holding a grudge over something...

(The entire section is 4021 words.)

Chapters 41-46 and Historical Notes: Summary and Analysis

Chapter 41 - Summary
Offred apologizes for her story’s fragmentary nature, its pain, and lack of resolution. She says how hard it is having to relive these events and suffer her devastating boredom, but she is determined to hide nothing. She is even determined to honestly relate the part of her story in which she claims she does not behave well.

She says she chooses to return to Nick’s room on many evenings. Although their affair is very dangerous, she still views his apartment as a haven of safety “where we huddle together while the storm goes on outside.” She tells him her real name and confides in him about everything except Luke and the previous Offred. Nick tells her little about himself.

...

(The entire section is 3688 words.)