The Handmaid's Tale Chapters 19–24: Summary and Analysis
by Margaret Atwood

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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.

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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...

(The entire section is 2,494 words.)