Chapters 19–24: Summary and Analysis

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Last Updated on June 19, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2494

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...

(The entire section contains 2494 words.)

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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 Cora’s rooms.

Then, another bland breakfast arrives. While Offred eats, the Birthmobile van arrives, and Cora summons her. Seated in the Birthmobile, she asks who is to give birth. It is Ofwarren—Janine.

Offred remembers that the chances of a healthy baby are only one in four. Radiation, toxicity of air and water, and chemicals in food have taken their toll on human reproduction. Offred remembers the school desk at the Center where she sat during Aunt Lydia’s talks on the fertility problem. It was etched with messages, “J.H. loves B.P.”, for example, which summoned up the world of adolescent dating and love, things that ceased to exist years ago. Now there is no love, and sex is regulated by the state.

The red Birthmobile van arrives at Ofwarren’s house, and Offred notes the Emerge van parked down the street, in which doctors wait. Doctors are not allowed at births in Gilead unless there is risk.

Another vehicle arrives, a blue Birthmobile, reserved for Wives, much more comfortable than the Handmaids’ one.

Offred wonders how Ofwarren was treated during her pregnancy and what she was thinking as she awaited the birth of the child that would earn her a favored place in Gilead. But if the child isn’t viable, she could become an Unwoman and be exiled to the Colonies to die. It is a crapshoot with bad odds—one to four—and Janine’s life is the stake.

Chapter 19 Analysis

Offred’s temptation to see her happy dreams of the past as reality and her present situation as nightmare shows she is beginning to lose her grip and must steel herself not to slide any further into despair or madness. If she loses her sanity, Gilead has won.

The cushion, with its word FAITH, may once have been part of a set of three. In Corinthians the Apostle Paul speaks of faith, hope, and charity as the heart of religious life, ending this letter to Christians in Corinth: “And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.”

If this cushion was part of a trio, FAITH, HOPE and CHARITY, it is very significant that the others have disappeared. As Offred has shown, there is no hope in Gilead, and the regime shows no charity, and no compassion. So Gilead has gutted Christianity.

The gathering of Handmaids and Wives, via their two classes of Birthmobiles, shows a new side of Gilead’s women’s world. Birth is celebrated only by women; men are excluded. The doctors, parked a discreet distance away, as if they were stamped “For emergency use only,” are a vivid statement.

Certainly, as far as sisterhood goes, though, the two classes of women are hardly united. The Wives’ treat the woman giving birth as they might treat something that is not quite a household pet, but rather a necessary evil (“Little whores, all of them,” Offred imagines a Wife saying).

Aunt Lydia’s lectures on the falling birthrate (apparently only among Caucasians) due to increasing levels of pollution, are pretty accurate predictions of the future. Since the novel was published, there have been many reports of a dramatic drop in sperm counts among men throughout the world.

Chapter 20 Summary

Inside Ofwarren’s house, Offred notices a splendid array of food laid out for the Wives—pastries, fruit, coffee, and wine—while the Handmaids will make do with sandwiches and milk.

In the master bedroom, the Handmaids gather in a circle around an old-fashioned birthing stool. But this one is different: it has a second, raised seat attached behind it, obviously for the Wife to sit in while Ofwarren sits in the lower stool to give birth.

Offred remembers Aunt Lydia’s saying, “From each according to her ability; to each according to his need.” She also recalls cautionary movies shown at the Red Center, vicious pornography from earlier times and one film about Unwomen and their revolutionary feminism (although Aunt Lydia remarks, “some of their ideas were sound enough”). In that film Offred glimpsed her own mother holding a sign saying “TAKE BACK THE NIGHT,” while others carried pro-choice signs. She is startled at how young her mother looked.

This reminds her of the way her mother used to criticize her for being “just a backlash” and how she used to goad Luke. Offred thinks, “She expected me to vindicate her life for her,” but Offred wanted to live her own life and make her own choices. All the same, she misses her mother deeply.

Chapter 20 Analysis

The birthing stool is an ancient device that has long since been replaced by the hospital maternity table. In recent times, there has been a movement to replace the obstetrician with the once honored midwife in all except complicated births, with the woman delivering her baby in her own home, in her own bed, often with her family present.

Gilead is turning its back on modern medicine (ultrasound is now illegal) to feminize the birth process and to return to ancient ways. As in so much else, Gilead picks and chooses from past and present almost at whim.

The extra seat on the birthing stool fits in with the Ceremony: Wife and Handmaid symbolically are one—though we have learned that, far from being united, they really are enemies.

Aunt Lydia’s “from each according to her ability” is not from the Bible, as she says, but from the 1848 Communist Manifesto of Marx and Engels. It’s another example of Gilead’s fiddling with the Bible.

The Red Center films that link the vilest pornography with pro-choice feminists are part of Gilead’s brainwashing process.

Offred’s insistence despite her mother’s wishes that she go her own way and choose her own life perhaps bodes well for her managing to hold out against Gilead.

Chapter 21 Summary

With the bedroom full of women—25 or so—and with its windows closed despite the heat of early summer, Offred feels oppressed as she and the others coach Janine with her breathing. Janine is having trouble with the delivery. She is restless and does not seem to know where she is or what she is doing.

Finally, it’s time. Janine is placed on the stool and the Wife hurries to sit behind her. The baby is born, and Aunt Elizabeth from the Center inspects it: it is apparently a healthy girl, not a “shredder.” Relief and happiness engulf the room, and the wall between Wives and Handmaids is lowered briefly. The Wife chooses the baby’s name: Angela.

As for Janine, whether she has another child or not, she is safe from doom in the Colonies, if Angela proves to be healthy.

Offred feels exhausted, and her breasts ache and leak in sympathy with Janine.

Yet, the chapter ends with a wry note as Offred thinks, regarding her mother, “You wanted a women’s culture. Well, now there is one. It isn’t what you meant, but it exists.”

Chapter 21 Analysis

Although the Wife shares the birthing stool with Janine, there is no doubt who is in charge: the Wife is the one who names her baby. Although Janine will nurse the child for the next few months, she will not be allowed to mother it.

Offred’s comments that Gilead’s emphasis on birthing has created “a woman’s culture.” This is something feminists like her mother called for, though they certainly would have condemned this particular form of culture. It is deeply ironic that the exclusionary tactics taken by radical feminists in the formulation of their agenda are echoed in the state-regulated structure of Gilead.

Chapter 22 Summary

Again at home, Offred says she is too exhausted to continue her story. Instead, she muses about the illicit grapevine, messages passed from one Handmaid to another and the fact that, even in Gilead, there are alliances.

This reminds her of Moira’s escape from the Red Center. Moira blocked a toilet so it overflowed, and reported the overflow to Aunt Elizabeth, who went with Moira to inspect it. In the stall, Moira poked Aunt Elizabeth from behind with something sharp, telling her to be quiet or die. She swapped clothes with Aunt Elizabeth and tied her up. Then she marched out the front door, past the Angels, to freedom. Her weapon was the metal lever inside the toilet, hardly lethal. Her real weapon was bluff.

The escape excited the other Handmaids enormously: the idea that the system could be beaten had only been a theory until then.

Chapter 22 Analysis

Moira has often criticized Offred for being too timid and passive. The story of Moira’s escape bolsters this idea: Moira achieves liberty while Offred stays a prisoner. And it isn’t Moira’s physical strength that gets her out; it’s her nerve. For the moment, that seems to be the message: dare!

Chapter 23 Summary

Offred states, “I intend to get out of here,” adding that others have, but hinting that many of them escaped only through suicide.

She complains of the difficulty of keeping her story straight, keeping things in their right order, and getting them accurate, since, after all, she can’t write it down. She muses on what the whole struggle of Gilead is really about.

When she wakes the morning after the birth, she is told by Cora that the baby is indeed a keeper, and Cora shyly suggests, “Maybe we have one soon.” Offred thinks Cora wants a birth in the house because of the festivity and the chance to take care of a child.

Just after nine that evening, Offred anxiously goes downstairs toward the Commander’s office, wondering what awaits her. She knocks at the door and is told to enter.

What lies inside is so ordinary—desk, chair, fireplace—that it is an anticlimax. The Commander leans his elbow on the mantel, again reminding Offred of a picture in a glossy men’s magazine. His casualness is too fake. He tells her to sit down, then seats himself in the leather chair behind the desk. He says he wants them to play Scrabble together. Offred holds herself rigid and expressionless, but shows she’s willing to play.

She thinks, though, that Scrabble is a game for old people, or for rainy days at the summer cottage. She realizes now that it is forbidden fruit, requiring a capacity not merely to read and write, but to remember the most difficult words. She wins the first game with words like “larynx,” “valance,” “quince,” and “zygote,” but lets the Commander win the second. Before she leaves, the Commander asks her to kiss him.

Surprise, pity, and rage boil up in her. She is his victim, his possession, yet he has also shown a weakness in wanting her, and she feels sorry for him. But she realizes that she is powerless in this situation so she kisses him, then leaves.

Chapter 23 Analysis

Newborn babies in this society are referred to as “keepers” or “shredders,” depending on their viability. This terminology makes them sound more like fish or files of paper, than human beings. It also indicates the number of malformed babies.

This game of Scrabble is a subversive act. This word game is illegal for Offred; being alone with the Commander, unchaperoned, is illegal; even her being downstairs at night breaks rules. So why has he had her do this and risk her life? And why does she agree to it?

Since the Commander has helped write Gilead’s laws, he, above all, should obey them. Perhaps he is merely a hypocrite, or perhaps he likes the risk of living on the edge.

Offred, with her pity for him, seems to think that he, too, is a victim, another lonely person desperate to reach out and make human contact. It seems everybody in Gilead, from top to bottom, is a victim of this society. To endure it, people have to break the rules sometimes.

It is ironic that the Commander, who regularly has intercourse with Offred, should shyly ask for a kiss. But the sex is a ritual dictated by the state; the kiss is a private act between individuals. What complicates this kiss, however, is that it is not based on mutual desire; one individual still has power over the other.

Chapter 24 Summary

Back in her room, still in her Handmaid gown, Offred sits in the dark trying to get perspective on what has just happened, and on her whole present life. She tells herself she must live in the present, not in memories or hope for the future. But her experience with the Commander has changed things.

Aunt Lydia used to imply that men are just sex machines, so women must learn to manipulate them. Yet the Commander’s vulnerability confounds her.

She remembers a television documentary about a Nazi death camp, composed of interviews with survivors from both sides. One was the camp Commander’s mistress. Dying of emphysema, yet carefully made up, she insisted that the Commander was human, a decent man. According to the program, she committed suicide soon after the interview.

Preparing for bed, Offred has an irresistible urge to laugh, so she crawls into the closet with her hands against her mouth to hold back the laughter.

Chapter 24 Analysis

Obviously, Offred identifies with the woman in the documentary who finds excuses for the death-camp commander as she is seeking to explain the Commander’s behavior. Both men have

committed evil, both are commanders, yet both are human. Denying either their evil or their humanity is false. Yet, it is hard to accept that these exist in the same person. How do you fight someone who is evil and human?

Perhaps it is this absurd conflict of emotions that prompts her laughing fit. Or perhaps it is the absurdity of the Scrabble game, the two of them playing like naughty children fooling their parents.

Offred feels that her life has been changed, for her involvement with the Commander allows her some small degree of choice and power. While she knows she cannot refuse him his bizarre requests, she also realizes she can manipulate the situation to ask for something in return.

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