Chapters 13–18: Summary and Analysis

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Last Updated on June 19, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2307

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.

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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 boredom, all that waiting?

This reminds her of Moira’s arrival at the Red Center, three weeks after Offred’s arrival, and the boost it had given her. They had managed several secret, whispered conversations in the toilets, Offred’s first real communication since her capture.

Lying down on the hooked rug to nap, she thinks again about her body, which she once commanded: what to do, where to go, etc. Now it defines her: only it, not she, has purpose.

Half-asleep, she dreams of Luke, but he won’t look at her and doesn’t seem to hear her. She reminds herself that he may be dead.

Then she dreams about her daughter and the two of them fleeing through underbrush with the child drugged so she will not cry out. There are sounds of shots behind them and they fall to the ground, and Offred shelters the child with her own body. But the dream grows dark, and she is watching her daughter being carried away.

Then a bell wakes her.

Chapter 13 Analysis

Moira’s appearance at the Red Center is surprising. Such an ardent feminist seems like a prime candidate for exile to the Colonies.

Moira brings Offred hope for two reasons, first as solid contact with Offred’s past life, and second, because she is a habitual rebel, so perhaps she will find a way to resist—or better yet, escape from—the Center, with Offred. Offred wants nothing more than to escape from the Center so she can try again to find her daughter and husband.

Offred’s dreams of her husband and child, and her obsession with her loss of control over her body and of her life’s direction, show how central these are to her. But there are no “pig balls” for Handmaids, only boredom and waiting.

Chapter 14 Summary

Summoned by the bell, Offred reports to the living room. The furniture reeks of money—rugs, paintings, for example—that reflect Serena Joy’s insistence on quality mixed with sentimentality. Offred thinks she would like to steal something from this room, to give her a small sense of power, and to thumb her nose at her jailers.

The two Marthas join her, then Nick, who stands so close behind her that the toe of his boot touches her foot. Serena Joy hobbles slowly down the stairs, her cane tapping; she enters and sits down, the only one who may sit.

Serena Joy clicks the television from one channel to another, most of them blank, one of them a jammed broadcast from Montréal, until she finds the news, which shows a battle in the Appalachians, and a prisoner held by two Angels. Gilead TV, Offred reminds herself, only shows victories. She wonders if this is a real prisoner or merely an actor. The TV anchor tells of the capture of members of a Quaker ring smuggling refugees to Canada. Two Quakers, a man and a woman, are shown, looking terrified. The next news item is from Detroit and shows African Americans who are being shipped to National Homeland One in North Dakota. Then Serena Joy turns off the set and they wait for the Commander.

Waiting, Offred holds her real name in her mind like a secret treasure, and remembers how she and Luke attempted to escape to Canada, pretending to their daughter that they were merely going for a picnic in the country.

Chapter 14 Analysis

Offred’s suspicions that the television news may be fake, and displayed prisoners may be actors, show what can take place where there is no free press. News becomes so one-sided that it is no longer believed. Her comment on the jammed signal from Montréal bears this out: only regimes that fear the truth will block signals from other countries.

The Appalachian battle shows that Gilead has enemies far closer to its New England heartland than those in Florida and California, while the Quaker prisoners are a clear sign that a new underground railroad, like that of slavery times, truly exists—another means of undermining Gilead.

The evacuation of the “Children of Ham” from Detroit and elsewhere to “homelands” in North Dakota is particularly chilling. Noah cursed his son Ham and all his line, to be “hewers of wood and drawers of water”—servants and slaves. Tradition has these Children of Ham as Africans, and South Africa’s former Apartheid regime used this to justify depriving non-white South Africans of their rights. Many American racists also have used this biblical text to justify their abuse of African-Americans. That Gilead has revived this term is a clear sign that this is a racist regime.

The deportation to “homelands” is also reminiscent of Apartheid South Africa’s exiling many black citizens to “Bantustans”: agricultural wastelands, with too many people crowded onto arid land, without proper health care or other facilities.

The Nazis spoke of “relocating” Jews, Slavs, and other unwanted peoples to new locations for their own peace and prosperity. But, in fact, they were “resettled” as slave laborers or ex- terminated.

Nick’s placing himself so close behind Offred that their feet touch is another sign that he ignores Gilead’s rules. Or is he trying to provoke her? Her safest course is to say nothing.

Chapter 15 Summary

The Commander knocks at the living room door, for this officially is Serena Joy’s territory, but he enters without waiting for permission.

Offred remarks that he looks like a retired Midwestern banker or a man who might have appeared in a vodka ad, except for his black uniform. His mild and distracted air is surprising. She wonders what it is like to be in his position: Fine? Hellish?

The Commander unlocks a leather-covered box, taking out a Bible. He reads God’s words to Adam in Genesis: “Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth . . . .” Then he reads the story of Rachel and Leah, which was read to the Handmaid-trainees every morning at the Center.

At the Center, the Beatitudes were read to them during lunch, but a significant addition, “Blessed are the silent,” is slipped in among the Beatitudes.

And she remembers Moira’s plans for escaping the Red Center by inducing a case of scurvy, as she told Offred.

Now Offred notices that Serena Joy is crying and remarks that she always does this on “the night of the Ceremony.”

She recalls Moira being carried out of the Center to an ambulance, the first step in her escape attempt. But that evening Moira was dragged into the Center by two Aunts. She had been beaten with steel cables on the soles of her feet and could not walk for a week. As Aunt Lydia remarked, Handmaids don’t need their hands and feet.

The Commander clears his throat and stands, signaling that the session is over.

Chapter 15 Analysis

Serena Joy’s “ruling” the living room is another example of how Gilead divides its people. Locking up the Bible between the sessions is reminiscent of pre-Reformation days when only the clergy had access to the Bible, lest the laity read it and give it their own interpretations. It is ironic that access to the Bible is so limited, since Gilead pretends to be based entirely on it.

Offred’s memory of Bible readings at the Center shows again that Gilead tinkers with the Scriptures whenever it suits its purpose.

Moira’s beating demonstrates Gilead’s brutal side, especially towards women. That hands and feet can be savaged, even permanently crippled, is evidence that a Handmaid is merely a walking womb, and wombs don’t need to walk.

The Commander’s rather bland appearance bears out the idea that evil need not appear horrible. The social critic Hannah Arendt, in her study of Nazism, wrote of “the banality of evil,” the idea that the most ordinary-seeming people may be capable of brutal and inhuman acts. This bland-looking Commander has helped create a society in which, among other things, women are beaten mercilessly and “enemies” are executed and hung out for public display.

Chapter 16 Summary

After the Bible session, the Commander, Serena Joy, and Offred retire to the Commander and Serena Joy’s bedroom. Serena Joy lies on the four-poster bed, and Offred lies between her legs, her head on Serena Joy’s abdomen, and her raised arms held with her skirt raised to her waist. Then the Commander attempts to inseminate her. This is the Ceremony.

Offred feels as if her mind and body are no longer linked. At least this Commander, she muses, does not smell as bad as her previous one.

Once the Commander ejaculates, he leaves the room and Serena Joy, releasing Offred’s hands, tells her to go, though regulations require that after the Ceremony the Handmaid remain lying down for 10 minutes to increase the chances of pregnancy.

Chapter 16 Analysis

The Ceremony, with its fake “togetherness” of Handmaid and Wife, is at the center of Gilead life: “Be fruitful and multiply.” It is humiliating to all three participants. While the Commander and Offred endure it by letting their minds drift away, apparently Serena Joy is filled with hatred; she cannot bear the sight of Offred.

Offred claims that the act could not be called a rape since she chose to become a Handmaid rather than being shipped out to the Colonies. But since that was really not a legitimate choice and since the sex act is clearly not consensual, it can be regarded as a ritual rape.

Chapter 17 Summary

In her room after the Ceremony, Offred takes the pat of butter from her shoe and rubs it into her face as a substitute for skin cream, which the Wives have outlawed for Handmaids. Offred regards using this substitute skin cream as a gesture of hope, a statement that this captivity will end and she will want to feel attractive again.

She lies on her bed, desperately missing Luke, wishing she could be in his arms and feel loved. Then she quietly goes down to the living room, a forbidden act. What she wants is to steal something, anything, as an act of defiance, a way of thumbing her nose at the Ceremony. She will steal one of the dying daffodils, she thinks.

Suddenly she realizes she is not alone. Nick is there in the dark, which is also forbidden. He pulls her to him and kisses her. Then they draw apart and he tells her the Commander wants to see her in his office the next night. When she asks him why, he doesn’t say. Troubled, she returns to her room.

Chapter 17 Analysis

Although the Ceremony is distasteful to all three participants, the Commander has helped set the rules for it, so he has some control of things, while his Wife will gain a baby if it is successful. But Offred is a total victim of the Ceremony.

Afterwards she needs to commit some act of defiance to recover some sense of self. But she is not ready to accept meaningless martyrdom. Stealing a wilted flower is defiant, but safe.

Nick’s presence in the living room and his kissing her add to his mystery. Is he tempting Offred in order to betray her? Or is he a kindred soul, a fellow rebel? Offred’s desire to go beyond just a kiss is perhaps because she needs to expunge the ritual rape of the Ceremony with a sexual act that she chooses.

Nick’s message that the Commander wants to see her the following night, though, is startling, and Offred is thrown into confusion again.

Chapter 18 Summary

In bed, Offred remembers lying pregnant beside Luke, with him feeling the movements of their unborn child. She is overwhelmed now by the absence of love in her life; it is the ultimate deprivation. She is a “missing person” in both senses: missing from the people and place she belongs to, and filled with a sense of missing—Luke, their child, and love.

She wonders about Luke’s fate and sees one vision after another: Luke lying dead in the woods where they were discovered; Luke ill in some wretched prison; Luke having escaped, involved in a government in exile, and planning her escape from Gilead. Which one is true, she wonders. She believes in all three simultaneously.

She remembers a gravestone she has seen since first coming to the Commander’s house, with the words “In hope” inscribed on it. Does Luke hope, she wonders.

Chapter 18 Analysis

Of the three versions of Luke she conjures up, the worst for Offred is that of him in prison—beaten, ill, the youth knocked out of him. She would prefer him dead. The best version is of him free and planning her rescue. Yet it seems the least concrete. She sees him dead, right down to the number of bullet holes; she sees him in prison, even to a cut on his neck. But she does not see him safe, among friends, planning her escape.

So while Offred tells herself to hope, it seems her hope is running out, at least as far as Luke is concerned. Perhaps her summons to the Commander’s office has weakened her hope.

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Chapters 7–12: Summary and Analysis

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Chapters 19–24: Summary and Analysis

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