lllustration of six women wearing long, loose red dresses

The Handmaid's Tale

by Margaret Atwood

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Chapters 13–18: Summary

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Last Updated on February 27, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1461

Chapter 13 

Offred reminisces about the days she spent strolling through art galleries. She remembers nineteenth-century artwork featuring Oriental harems, whom she describes as trapped in "suspended animation.” The memory pains her, as these works depicted women waiting, forced to set their lives aside just as she has.

This reminds Offred of a concept she read about long ago; "pig balls," she explains, are toys designed to entertain pigs and alleviate their boredom as they are fattened up for eventual slaughter. Additionally, she recollects an odd phenomenon discussed in the psychology course she took in college: rats, when kept captive and deprived of entertainment, would intentionally shock themselves as a form of stimulation. It is apparent that she understands and empathizes with these situations.

She ponders whether the Handmaids in training at the Red Center were given drugs to induce their lethargy, as she cannot imagine how else they endured the dullness and endless waiting.

Thinking of the Red Center triggers Offred’s memory, and she walks herself through the day Moira appeared there. It was a few weeks after Offred first arrived, and Moira’s unexpected presence improved the awful experience. For once, she was able to speak to someone, as they had a few covert conversations in the restrooms. 

As she reclines on the rug, she contemplates her body once more. She used to control it, directing its movements and actions, and viewing it as a tool to enact her desires and dreams. However, she no longer feels this way; it is as if her body is the only aspect of herself that holds any purpose and definition, not her mind.

In a drowsy state, Offred dreams about Luke. In the dream, he refuses to acknowledge her presence and does not seem to hear her when she speaks to him. When she awakens, she has to remind herself that there is a strong possibility that Luke is no longer alive.

Afterward, she slips into another dream, this time about her daughter. They run through the forest, but their pace is slow because she has sedated her daughter to prevent her from crying out. Gunshots ring out behind them, and they fall to the ground. Offred covers the child with her own body in an attempt to protect her, but her efforts are ultimately useless, and the dream ends as she watches, helpless, as their captors rip her daughter from her arms.

A bell chimes, and she awakens.

Chapter 14

Upon hearing the bell, Offred is called to the living room. It is well-appointed and opulent, furnished with luxurious carpets and paintings, and exudes an aura of wealth. Serena Joy prefers high-end items with sentimental value, so it is obvious that the room was designed by her. Offred contemplates stealing something to gain a small semblance of control and show defiance to those holding her captive but ultimately decides not to.

Two Marthas join her in the living room. They are followed by Nick, who stands in such close proximity to her that the toe of his boot touches her foot. Subsequently, Serena Joy descends the stairs, using her cane to tap her way through, enters the room where they are gathered, and takes a seat. She is the only one allowed to sit.

Serena Joy flicks through various television channels—most of which are blank—until she finds a news channel that shows a conflict taking place in the Appalachians. Two Angels detain a slumped prisoner, and the scene reminds Offred that Gilead TV only broadcasts stories of triumph, which makes her question if the prisoner is a genuine captive or an actor. 

The news anchor reports on the apprehension of Quaker members who helped smuggle refugees to Canada, showing a picture of a terrified man and woman. The subsequent news segment, which comes from Detroit, displays large groups of African Americans as they are forcibly transported to National Homeland One in North Dakota. Serena Joy switches off the television, and they await the Commander.

As she watches these awful sights, Offred clings silently to her true name, treating it like a valuable secret, and recalls her and Luke’s desperate attempt to flee to Canada.

Chapter 15

The Commander arrives at the living room door. He knows it is Serena Joy's designated area but proceeds to enter without waiting for her permission to enter.

Offred observes that the Commander has the appearance of a retired banker from the Midwest or a man who, if not for his black uniform. could have been featured in a vodka advertisement. She is surprised by his calm and absentminded demeanor, speculating about what it must be like to be in his position: Is it pleasurable? Is it torturous?

The Commander opens a box covered in leather and retrieves a Bible. He recites the words spoken by God to Adam in the Book of Genesis: "Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth..." He proceeds to read the tale of Rachel and Leah, a story that was read to the Handmaids in training every morning while they were at the Center.

During lunch at the Red Center, the Beatitudes were read to the Handmaids, but an additional statement—"Blessed are the silent" —was included among them. As the Commander reads, a flurry of thoughts flits through Offred’s mind. She recalls the details of Moira's plan to escape from the Red Center, which involved deliberately contracting scurvy, then notices that Serena Joy is weeping and notes that this is a regular occurrence on "the night of the Ceremony." 

She remembers, too, when Moira was taken away by ambulance from the Center, initiating her plan to escape. However, later that same evening, she was brought back to the Center by two Aunts, who had beaten her with steel cables on the bottom of her feet, making it impossible for her to walk for a week. Aunt Lydia had commented that Handmaids did not need their hands and feet.

The Commander clears his throat and rises, indicating that the meeting has ended.

Chapter 16

Following the Bible session, the Commander, Serena Joy, and Offred adjourn to the Commander and Serena Joy's bedroom for the ritual known as the Ceremony. Offred lies on the bed between Serena Joy's legs with her head on the other woman’s abdomen, and the Commander tries to impregnate her. 

During the Ceremony, Offred disassociates, disconnecting her mind from her body, and notices dryly that the current Commander doesn't have as unpleasant of an odor as the former one.

After the Ceremony comes to a close, the Commander leaves the room. Serena Joy releases Offred's hands and tells her to leave. However, according to regulations, the Handmaid should lie down for ten minutes after the Ceremony to increase the chances of getting pregnant.

Chapter 17 

After the Ceremony, Offred sits alone in her room. She takes out the pat of butter from her shoe and applies it to her face in place of skin cream, which the Wives have forbidden to Handmaids. For Offred, using the butter as a replacement for skin cream is a sign of optimism, expressing the belief that her confinement will eventually come to an end, and she will be able to care for her appearance once again.

Offred longs for Luke, wishing she could be in his embrace and feel loved. Eventually, she decides to go down to the living room uninvited, which is forbidden. She intends to steal something, anything, to express her defiance and contempt toward the Ceremony. She decides to steal a dying daffodil as her act of rebellion.

Out of nowhere, she becomes aware of Nick's presence in the dark. He kisses her, then reveals that the Commander needs to meet with her in his office the following night but does not give her more information. She feels uneasy and confused as she walks back to her room.

Chapter 18

Offred crawls into bed and recalls a time when she was pregnant. Lying beside Luke, with his hands on her stomach, they felt their baby growing inside her. She recalls feeling full of love and contentment; now, all she feels is a profound sense of deprivation. She misses her previous life, Luke, their child, and the love they shared, explaining that she feels like a "missing person" in every sense of the word.

Offred imagines what might have happened to Luke. She envisions him dead in the woods where they were discovered, sees him sick and imprisoned, and wonders if he might even be free and planning her escape from Gilead. She contemplates all three possibilities, believing they all could all be true. She recalls seeing a gravestone at the Commander’s house, with the phrase “In hope” carved on it, and ponders whether Luke also has hope.

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Chapters 7–12: Summary


Chapters 19–24: Summary