lllustration of six women wearing long, loose red dresses

The Handmaid's Tale

by Margaret Atwood

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Chapters 19–24: Summary

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Chapter 19

In a dream sequence, Offred wakes up in her previous house. She opens the bedroom door to see her daughter running towards her with open arms. She ponders whether this and other similar dreams are figments of her imagination or if her current life is the real dream, a dreadful experience from which she will soon awaken. The thought is tempting, but she resists it because her sanity is the only thing she has left, and it tells her otherwise.

After waking up, she notices the cushion with the word FAITH embroidered on it and wonders if there were other cushions with the words HOPE and CHARITY on them, and if so, what happened to them. She considers the possibility that Serena Joy, who is known for being tidy and economical, may have placed them in the rooms of Rita and Cora.

Offred eats another uninteresting breakfast but is interrupted by the arrival of the Birthmobile. Cora exits the van and fetches Offred. Inside the Birthmobile, Offred inquires about who will be giving birth and discovers that it is Ofwarren, also known as Janine.

Due to the damaging effects of radiation, polluted air and water, and chemical additives in food, Offred knows that the chances of having a healthy child are slim. She remembers a school desk in the Red Center, where she attended Aunt Lydia's lectures on fertility and the need for Handmaids. The desk was covered in inscriptions like "J.H. loves B.P.," and evoked memories of a time when adolescent romance and love were still prevalent, though they have since disappeared. In the present time, love no longer exists, and Gilead regulates all sexual activity.

Offred observes the arrival of the red van used for births, which has come to Ofwarren's residence, and also notices an Emerge van parked further down the street, in which doctors are present and waiting. However, in Gilead, doctors are only permitted at childbirth when there is a likelihood of danger.

A different automobile, a blue Birthmobile designated for the use of the Wives, appears; it is considerably more comfortable than the one assigned to the Handmaids.

Offred contemplates how Ofwarren was treated during her pregnancy. She ponders the other woman’s thoughts, wondering what occupied her mind as she anticipated the birth of a child that might result in a preferred position in Gilead. However, if the baby is not healthy, Ofwarren could be designated as an Unwoman and banished to the Colonies to die. The situation is precarious and the prospects are poor because the chances of a successful birth are only one in four. Birth might invite greater privilege into Janine's life, but it also places her at risk.

Chapter 20

When inside Ofwarren's home, Offred observes the magnificent selection of food arranged for the Wives, including pastries, fruit, coffee, and wine. Meanwhile, the Handmaids settle for sandwiches and milk.

The Handmaids congregate in a circle around an old-fashioned birthing stool in the master bedroom; however, this particular stool has a distinguishing feature: there is a second, elevated stool attached to the lower stool, which is evidently intended for the Wife to sit in as Ofwarren labors.

Offred recollects Aunt Lydia's quote: "From each according to her ability; to each according to his need." She also recalls some of the cautionary films that were shown at the Red Center. Some of these films depicted violent pornography from earlier eras, while others focused on the revolutionary feminism of the Unwomen, with Aunt Lydia even acknowledging that some of their ideas were reasonable. In one of these films, Offred catches a glimpse of her own mother holding a sign that read "TAKE BACK THE NIGHT," while others carried posters advocating for pro-choice rights. Offred is surprised by how young her mother appeared in the footage.

This brings to mind how Offred's mother used to reproach her for being merely a reaction and how she would provoke Luke. Offred reflects that her mother wanted her to justify her own life for her, but Offred desired to live her own life and make her own decisions. Nevertheless, Offred feels a strong sense of longing for her mother.

Chapter 21

In the bedroom, there are around twenty-five women; the windows are shut despite the early summer heat. Offred feels stifled as she and the other women guide Janine through her breathing during delivery. Janine appears to be struggling with the delivery, as she is agitated and seems disoriented.

At last, the moment arrives. Janine cries out on the stool, and the Wife quickly takes her place behind her. After she delivers the baby, Aunt Elizabeth from the Red Center examines it to confirm that it is a healthy child and not a "shredder". The room is filled with a sense of relief and joy, and the division between the Wives and Handmaids momentarily diminishes. The Wife decides to name the baby Angela.

If Angela, Janine's baby, remains healthy, then Janine won't be sent to the Colonies to die even if she doesn't have another child. At the end of the chapter, Offred reflects on her mother's desire for a women's culture and notes that such a culture now exists in the form of the oppressive society of Gilead. She remarks on the irony of her mother's wish, as this society is not what she had in mind.

Chapter 22

After returning home, Offred expresses her fatigue and decides to stop telling her story for the time being. She reflects on the methods of covert communication among Handmaids and the reality that, even in the oppressive regime of Gilead, connections and associations still form.

Offred reflects on the topic of alliances, which reminds her of Moira's escape from the Red Center. Moira used a simple but effective tactic to overpower Aunt Elizabeth, the guardian assigned to watch over her. She blocked the toilet, causing an overflow, and then reported it to Aunt Elizabeth. When Aunt Elizabeth came to inspect it, Moira poked her from behind with something sharp and threatened her. Moira then swapped clothes with the other woman and tied her up before making her escape past the Angels. Offred notes that Moira's real weapon was not the metal lever inside the toilet, which was hardly lethal, but rather her ability to bluff her way out of the situation.

The other Handmaids were greatly thrilled by the escape, as it demonstrated for the first time that the system could actually be defeated.

Chapter 23 

Offred declares her intention to escape from her current situation. She mentions that other people have successfully done so but suggests that suicide was the only option for some of them. As she ruminates on defiance, she expresses her frustration about the challenge of maintaining the accuracy of her narrative; she cannot write it down, and it is difficult to recall events in their right order. She ponders the true nature of the struggle within Gilead.

The next morning after the birth, Cora confirms the baby’s health, commenting that it is a valuable addition. Shyly, Cora suggests that Offred could have a child, too. Offred assumes that Cora desires a birth in the household to enjoy the celebrations and the opportunity to care for a child.

Anxiously, Offred goes downstairs to the Commander's office, wondering what is waiting for her. Upon knocking on the door, he instructs her to come in.

The room inside the Commander's office is very ordinary, furnished with only a desk, chair, and a fireplace; Offred finds it underwhelming. The Commander leans his elbow on the mantel, which reminds Offred of a picture in a men's magazine. She feels that the Commander is trying too hard to act casually. He asks her to sit down and suggests they play Scrabble together. Offred tries to keep her expression neutral but agrees to play.

Offred thinks that Scrabble is a game typically played by older individuals or during gloomy days at a summer retreat. She realizes that the game is now a forbidden pleasure, which demands not only the ability to read and write but also to recollect the most difficult words. In the first game, she uses words like "larynx," "valance," "quince," and "zygote" to win, but she purposely lets the Commander win the second game. As she is about to leave, the Commander requests a kiss from her.

The situation elicits conflicting emotions from Offred, including surprise, pity, and anger. She acknowledges that she is under the control of the Commander but is also aware that he desires her. This vulnerability triggers feelings of empathy toward him, but she ultimately understands that she is helpless, kisses him as he requested, and leaves.

Chapter 24

After returning to her room, Offred, who is still wearing her Handmaid gown, sits alone in the darkness trying to comprehend the events that just occurred, and the life she currently leads. She reminds herself that she needs to focus on the present instead of dwelling on the past or hoping for a better future. However, her encounter with the Commander has had an impact on her and has altered her perspective on her situation.

Aunt Lydia previously suggested that men were desperate for sexual gratification; therefore, women needed to know how to control them. However, the fact that the Commander appears emotionally vulnerable has left Offred perplexed.

Offred recalls watching a TV program about a death camp run by the Nazis, which featured interviews with survivors from different perspectives. Among them was the mistress of the camp commander who, despite suffering from emphysema, asserted that the commander was a humane and respectable person. The program stated that she took her own life shortly after the interview.

As Offred prepares for bed, she is overcome by an uncontrollable desire to laugh. To suppress the laughter, she goes into the closet and covers her mouth with her hands.

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Chapters 13–18: Summary


Chapters 25–30: Summary