lllustration of six women wearing long, loose red dresses

The Handmaid's Tale

by Margaret Atwood

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Chapters 31–40: Summary

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Last Updated February 27, 2023.

Chapter 31

It is the fifth of July, and Offred has received a new, less heavy version of the Handmaid gown. During a shopping trip, she and Ofglen notice two fresh corpses hanging on the Wall. One of them is a Catholic wearing an inverted cross sign around their neck; the other was marked with the letter J. Offred is perplexed as to what the J signifies but imagines it stands for Jehovah's Witness or Jesuit since all other religions besides Gilead's official one are prohibited. 

As they walk by Memorial Hall—a dining area for undergraduates in the early years of the university—Offred recalls Moira telling her that women were prohibited from entering it. Moira also mentioned that any woman who dared to enter would have food thrown at her. Offred remembers finding Moira's resentment towards this incident that occurred in the past to be unpleasant.

While taking a break, Ofglen explains to Offred the meaning of "us." It refers to Mayday, a secret organization. Ofglen clarifies that the organization is extremely private, so if any member is interrogated, they will only have knowledge of a few other members.

When Offred returns home, Nick indicates that the Commander wants to meet her that evening. As she makes her way to the back door, Serena Joy stops her and invites her to sit, even offering her a cushion. After inquiring if Offred is pregnant, which Offred denies, Serena Joy warns her that time is running out. She suggests that perhaps the Commander is unable to impregnate her and suggests she try another method. She shares that Ofwarren was impregnated by a doctor and recommends that Offred should try the same but with Nick.

Offred consents to the proposal, and in response, Serena Joy offers her a reward: a recent photograph of her daughter. She hands Offred a cigarette and instructs her to request a match from the Marthas.

Chapter 32

Following Serena Joy's instructions, Offred requests a match from Rita. Rita reluctantly retrieves one from the locked cupboard and cautions Offred not to set her room on fire. Rita then puts an ice cube in her mouth and offers one to Offred, which is the first time she has shown any kindness towards her.

Offred is uncertain of how to proceed with the match Serena Joy gave her. While she would like to smoke the cigarette, she is more interested in possessing the match. The possibility of starting a fire and burning down the house gives Offred a sense of control and power.

Offred reflects on the previous night when she spent time with the Commander, who has started drinking in front of her. He occasionally plays uncensored news from Radio Free America for a brief period when he is drunk. Despite Ofglen's claims that the Commander is one of the regime's key figures, Offred finds this difficult to accept the more the Commander reveals about his true self.

The Commander becomes more candid with Offred, shares his beliefs, and explains the ideology that led to the creation of Gilead. He believes that the ease of access to women in the former United States caused men to lose interest in them and led to a decline in the birthrate. He admits that they had hoped to improve the situation, but his tone hints that he recognizes their failure to do so.

Later, when Offred is in bed, she gazes up at the ceiling and its round decoration of plaster flowers where the chandelier used to be. This was the same chandelier where the previous Offred, who held the same position as her, hung herself.

Chapter 33

Offred and Ofglen are called to attend a women’s Prayvaganza at the university, where they have to pass through a security checkpoint staffed with armed Guardians. They find a designated area in the courtyard, where chairs are set up for Wives, and a section has been roped off for Handmaids. Ofglen suggests they go to the back where they might be able to have a conversation. While kneeling, they notice Ofwarren joining the gathering in the courtyard.

Offred wonders why Ofwarren is at the Prayvaganza so soon after delivering her baby. However, Ofglen tells Offred that the baby did not survive, making it the second such incident for Ofwarren and increasing her likelihood of being sent to the Colonies. Ofwarren does not look well and appears weak and confused as she joins the group.

Offred recalls a past incident when she and Moira had encountered Ofwarren at the Red Center; Ofwarren had introduced herself as Janine and offered to serve them coffee. Moira slapped her, causing her to snap out of her delusion. Offred fears that Ofwarren may be nearing a mental breakdown again following the recent loss of her second baby. 

Chapter 34

In the courtyard, Offred observes as a Commander begins the event and the attendees sing the hymn "There Is a Balm in Gilead." She recalls Moira's alternate version of the song, "There Is a Bomb in Gilead." The ceremony continues as twenty recently returned Angels participate in a marriage ceremony with twenty veiled young women in white, who have been matched with them by the authorities. 

Offred remembers her discussion with the Commander regarding what is missing in Gilead. When she asks him about love, he replies that arranged marriages work out better because then nobody is left out.

The pairs kneel, and the Commander guides them through their marriage promises, which emphasize the brides' inferior position as subordinates to their husbands, and the ceremony concludes.

After leaving the ceremony, Ofglen informs Offred that Mayday is aware of her secret meetings with the Commander and inquires about the details. Offred responds vaguely. Before parting ways, Ofglen urges Offred to try and gather any information she can from the Commander.

Chapter 35

Offred remembers when she tried to escape with Luke. They had to use false passports because Luke had previously been married, and all divorces were rendered invalid under the Gilead regime. While crossing the border, a guard carefully inspected their passports, causing Luke to panic and drive away into the woods. Eventually, they reached the end of the road, so they had to abandon it and race on foot toward Canada.

Suddenly, Offred’s thoughts return to her discussion with the Commander regarding love. She ponders on the concept of "falling" in love, which can feel like a thrilling but dangerous plunge. She reflects on the fear and violence associated with sex and remembers the Gilead regime’s claim that it has made the streets safe for women. Despite the supposed improvement in safety, things still do not feel safe or improved.

Offred is overwhelmed by the emptiness of her life and starts to cry. Suddenly, there is a knock at the door; upon opening the door, she is faced with Serena Joy, who has brought a picture of Offred's daughter. Her daughter is dressed in white and looks different, as if the past three years have changed her. Offred realizes that her daughter probably does not remember her well; while she is relieved to see that her daughter is alive, she also feels a great deal of sorrow and somewhat regrets having seen the picture.

While eating yet another bland lunch of creamed corn and diced meat, she wishes for a knife. 

Chapter 36 

During Offred's next visit to the Commander, he greets her by asking about her well-being and presents her with a surprise but asks her to guess what it is. She is unsure what it might be and is surprised when he presents her with a pink showgirl outfit with a sequined bodice and feathers. Offred remembers watching similar outfits burn on the news and wonders where the Commander found it. He instructs her to wear the outfit and put on makeup.

The Commander turns away, and Offred changes out of her Handmaid uniform into the skimpy and gaudy showgirl outfit and ill-fitting high-heeled shoes. She applies cheap lipstick and mascara, which she is unaccustomed to wearing, and must redo her makeup because she does it poorly.

The Commander and Offred leave in his car; after some time, he instructs her to lie down on the car floor. They pass through a security checkpoint and continue to their destination. During the journey, Offred feels a strong desire to check her lipstick in a mirror.

Chapter 37 

Offred and the Commander walk through a softly-illuminated, carpeted hallway with numbered doors, which seems to have been a hotel in the past. They pass through two doors to get there. There's a central atrium beyond the hallway that's several stories high, and it has a large skylight at the top. The atrium features a fountain, glass-walled elevators, and balconies draped with vines, which trigger Offred's memory of being there before with Luke.

A group of influential men, some of whom are dressed in Commander's uniforms, sit on chairs and sofas. The presence of women all dressed in revealing clothing, such as short nightgowns, bathing suits, and old cheerleader uniforms, is the biggest surprise to Offred. The Commander remarks that it feels like a throwback to the past, but Offred thinks it is more like a depressing party for children.

He walks her around the room to display her to others and then sits her on a couch. She inquires about the situation, and he responds that men must have a diverse range of partners because that is what nature demands. He then draws her attention to specific women who used to have successful professions as lawyers and business executives but are now forced to work as prostitutes. Despite their current occupations, they are pleasant conversationalists. He suggests that she has a drink, and she requests a gin and tonic.

After he departs to fetch her drink, Offred experiences her most significant surprise: she spots Moira next to the fountain, dressed in a costume of a Playboy bunny with worn-out ears. Upon seeing Offred, Moira also notices her and they gaze at each other before Moira signals their Red Center sign, indicating that they meet in the restroom.

After the Commander returns with their drinks, Offred asks for the location of the bathroom and walks clumsily in her new high heels to meet with Moira.

Chapter 38

Offred enters the bathroom and discovers an enormous mirror made of glass. The room remains its original shade of pink, including the sinks. A few women are sitting on chairs and a sofa, barefoot and smoking while appearing unamused. Suddenly, Moira exits one of the toilet cubicles. They embrace and then take a moment to scrutinize each other's outfits. They settle down and Moira questions Offred regarding her reasons for visiting Jezebel's.

Moira recounts her experience after she boldly walked out of the Red Center, leaving Aunt Elizabeth tied up. She strode through the town with her head held high and shoulders back, as if she were on a mission. She went to a location she remembered from her days with the women's collective, where she met people who had a Q next to their names, indicating they were Quakers. This choice proved successful; the group happily took her in, provided her with food, and sent her to another Quaker home that was also part of the Underground Femaleroad, an organized network helping women flee the country. Moira assures Offred that the network was well-coordinated. She notes that this occurred while Gilead was targeting Jews, African Americans, and other minority groups, but before it started arresting members of other Christian denominations, so it is no longer a safe alternative.

Moira traveled to Maine but was captured after someone informed the authorities of her whereabouts. Following her apprehension, Moira was presented with a movie depicting the lives of women in the Colonies, who are tasked with cleaning up hazardous waste and incinerating the corpses after conflicts. According to Moira, the maximum duration a person can survive in the Colonies is three years. 

Moira was forced to view the movie as a way of coercing her to become a government-sanctioned sex worker; otherwise, they would have sent her to one of the Colonies to be enslaved and ultimately perish. "I'm not a martyr," she clarifies, indicating that she is not willing to endure severe punishment for her beliefs.

Offred finds it difficult to come to terms with this reality. She wants to believe that Moira and those like her would never give in and would rather perish than surrender. Moira tells Offred that Jezebel's is a place mostly full of women that are not interested in men. Tragically, their brief encounter in the restroom marks the final occasion Offred encounters Moira. Offred expresses her desire to believe that Moira managed to escape once more or that she destroyed Jezebel's and killed all the Commanders in her path. However, she acknowledges that this is not a realistic scenario and mourns her friend, whose fate remains unknown.

Chapter 39

After using the washroom, the Commander escorts Offred to a private room. Upon reaching the room, Offred retreats to the bathroom, where she washes her face and enjoys the scent of the soap. She then sits on the edge of the bathtub, unwilling to go back to the Commander.

As she sits at the corner of the bathtub, she considers the details of her conversation with Moira. She informed Offred that her mother had been sent to the Colonies, which she knows because Offred’s mother appeared in the film about the Colonies she was forced to watch. 

Offred recalls attempting to call her mother during the early days of Gilead and receiving no answer. Worried, she and Luke drove to her mother's apartment building and discovered the apartment in disarray; the mattress was cut open, and the bureau drawers were emptied. Although Offred wished to contact the police, Luke prevented her from doing so, and she was unable to locate her mother.

After some time, she exits the bathroom and discovers the Commander reclining on the large bed with his shoes removed. She believes that if she is obligated to engage in sexual activity with him, it's better to do so at the unfeeling Ceremony. As he tries to touch her, she experiences anger, disdain, and even sympathy but cannot react to him.

Chapter 40 

After returning from Jezebel's, Offred sits on her bed, dressed and waiting. At midnight, she hears a gentle knock on her door and finds Serena Joy there. Serena Joy takes Offred downstairs to the back door; Offred goes outside and heads to the door leading to Nick's apartment over the garage.

Offred recounts her encounter with Nick in two different ways. In the first version, they make love. In the second version, Offred goes up the stairs and knocks on Nick's apartment door. Nick lets her in and offers her a cigarette. They both feel awkward and stand in silence for a moment, and Offred acknowledges that it must be difficult for him. Nick replies that he is getting paid for it. They break the tension with cheesy pick-up lines and proceed to have sex shortly after.

After the encounter, Offred experiences feelings of guilt for betraying Luke, who might still be alive, and for being so sexually aroused by Nick.

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Chapters 41–46 and Historical Notes: Summary