The Handmaid's Tale Chapters 31–40: Summary and Analysis
by Margaret Atwood

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Chapters 31–40: Summary and Analysis

Chapter 31 Summary

It is July fifth, and Offred now has a lighter-weight version of the Handmaid gown. On another shopping trip she and Ofglen find two new corpses hung on the Wall, one a Catholic wearing a placard with an upside-down cross, the other marked with the letter J. Since Jewish corpses bear a yellow star, Offred wonders what this J stands for: Jehovah’s Witness, perhaps, or Jesuit. All religions except Gilead’s official one are banned.

They pass what once was Memorial Hall, where undergraduates ate in the early days of the university. Moira had told her that women were forbidden to enter; if they did, they were pelted with buns. She doesn’t like Moira’s holding a grudge over something that happened in the past.

Pausing there, Ofglen tells Offred what “us” means: it refers to Mayday, the underground network. She says it is highly compartmentalized, so if anyone is interrogated, she will know only a few other members.

Back home, Offred sees Nick’s signal that the Commander wants to see her that night. On her way to the back door, Offred is called over by Serena Joy, who says she can sit and offers her a cushion. Serena Joy asks if there is any sign yet of pregnancy and, when Offred says no, remarks, “Your time is running out.” She adds: “Maybe he can’t.... Maybe you should try it another way.” She adds that Ofwarren was made pregnant by a doctor, and suggests Offred try this, but with Nick.

Offred agrees, and Serena Joy promises her a bribe: a current picture of her daughter. She gives Offred a cigarette and tells her to get a match from the Marthas.

Chapter 31 Analysis

Serena Joy’s comment, “Your time is running out,” could mean Offred’s term at this posting is nearly done and she’ll be reposted. But more likely it seems she has little time left as a Handmaid, since this is her third posting. So her life is running out.

Serena Joy’s suggestion that the Commander can’t father a child and that Offred will have to look elsewhere is a real shock. It’s forbidden in Gilead to suggest that a man can’t produce viable sperm. In Gilead, only women are infertile; if there is no child, it is the woman’s fault. Serena’s suggestion is treasonous.

That she knows how Ofwarren got pregnant suggests there is a Wives’ conspiracy to break Gilead’s laws. How could she know this unless the other Wife told her?

Her suggestion that Offred allow Nick to impregnate her, thus making her a co-conspirator to adultery, shows how far she is willing to go to get what she wants.

Perhaps Serena Joy, with only her gardening and scarf-knitting, is so desperate for a child to fill the void in her life that she is sincere in what she proposes. Yet, Offred knows how deeply Serena Joy dislikes her, so she must suspect that this is a trap with fatal consequences. Yet, bearing a child is her only means of staying alive, so that she eventually can escape Gilead and be reunited with Luke and her daughter.

The cigarette bribe is nothing compared to the offer of a photograph of her daughter as she is today, a bribe impossible to resist.

Chapter 32 Summary

As Serena Joy told her, Offred asks Rita for a match. After much persuading, an irritated Rita gets one from the locked cupboard and warns Offred not to set fire to her room. Then she pops an ice cube in her mouth and offers one to Offred, her first act of kindness.

Upstairs, Offred doesn’t know what to do. She would enjoy the cigarette, but enjoys owning the match even more. As Rita said, it could start a fire and burn the house down.

She thinks about having spent the last evening with the Commander, who has begun to drink in her presence. Sometimes, when a little drunk, he plays Radio Free America’s uncensored news for a few minutes. Ofglen has told her he is one of the regime’s top men but, alone with him, Offred finds this hard to believe.

He is increasingly open with her, telling her, for instance, that one of the reasons for Gilead was that women had become just too...

(The entire section is 3,981 words.)