Chapters 31–40: Summary and Analysis

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Last Updated on June 19, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3981

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....

(The entire section contains 3981 words.)

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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 easily available, so men were turned off, thus causing the birthrate to fall. “We thought we could do better,” he says, and there is a hint that he realizes they have failed to do so.

Later, in bed, Offred looks at the ceiling’s circle of plaster flowers, where a chandelier used to be, the chandelier from which the previous Offred hung herself.

Chapter 32 Analysis

Offred probably knows the match is not power, merely the illusion of it. It could fail, or whatever she tried to set on fire might not burn. But the illusion is better than nothing.

The Commander’s drinking and wistfulness are further evidence that Gilead may be crumbling at the top. Of course, this does not mean that the leadership can admit its mistakes and allow the former America to be restored. Too many people would want vengeance. The leaders would be tried, imprisoned, perhaps executed. They are on a wild horse they dare not try to get off, but their pleasure in the ride has clearly vanished.

Chapter 33 Summary

One July afternoon, Offred and Ofglen are summoned to a women’s Prayvaganza in a courtyard of the university, passing through a checkpoint manned by armed Guardians. A section of the courtyard has been roped off for Handmaids, and chairs are set out for Wives. Ofglen urges Offred to head for the back, where there will be a better chance to talk. As they kneel, they notice Ofwarren enter the courtyard.

Offred wonders why Ofwarren is there so soon after her delivery. But Ofglen informs her the baby was a shredder after all, the second one Ofwarren has had, significantly increasing her chances of being sent to the Colonies. Ofwarren looks thin and dazed as she kneels with the others.

Offred remembers when she and Moira saw Ofwarren at the Red Center, round-eyed and with a grimace of a smile, saying to no one, “My name’s Janine. I’m your waitperson for this morning. Can I get you some coffee to begin with?” Moira had slapped her hard, and Janine had returned to reality. Had she fallen into insanity, she would have been killed. It looks now as if Ofwarren is again close to the breaking point.

Chapter 33 Analysis

Gilead is by no means the first society to have special women’s religious festivals. Among others, the Greeks and Romans had women’s temples and goddesses, and the men had theirs. The temples of Aphrodite, Vesta, and others were forbidden to men, and the penalties for trespassing were severe. The rationale was that men and women had different needs; therefore, they had their special gods and goddesses to attend to those needs.

But Gilead segregates the sexes and its social classes not to suit their needs, but to maintain control. The fear and jealousy the different groups feel toward each other prevents the creation of alliances that might threaten the regime.

That Ofwarren is in danger of exile is frightening, since no Handmaid has been so subservient to the Aunts as she has, and she has done her best to be a good Handmaid. Such loyalty to Gilead really counts for nothing in the long run, if healthy children are not produced.

Chapter 34 Summary

Still at the Prayvaganza, Offred watches a Commander open the proceedings, then they sing the old hymn, “There Is a Balm in Gilead.” Offred remembers Moira’s version: “There Is a Bomb in Gilead.” Next, 20 Angels, newly returned from the front, enter for their marriage ceremony. They are joined by 20 veiled young women in white with their mothers. These marriages have been arranged by the authorities.

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

The couples kneel and the Commander leads them through their vows, which remind the brides of their secondary place as servants to their husbands, and the ceremony is done.

As they leave, Ofglen tells Offred that “we” (Mayday) know of her evenings with the Commander, and asks Offred what happens. Offred answers ambiguously. Before parting, Ofglen tells her to find out anything she can from the Commander, anything at all about Gilead.

Chapter 34 Analysis

As mentioned in the analysis of Chapter 3, the biblical Gilead was the land east of the Jordan River, home of the state of Jordan today. It was famous for the wound-healing balm made from the sap of its trees. The hymn speaks of a metaphorical balm: “There is a balm in Gilead to heal the sin-sick soul.”

But there is nothing soothing, restful, and uplifting in the Republic of Gilead. So Moira’s “There Is a Bomb in Gilead” is true; in fact, Gilead is a country full of bombs—time bombs—just waiting to explode in revolution. Now, with Mayday, these bombs are combining their explosive force.

Chapter 35 Summary

Offred recalls her escape attempt with Luke and the false passports they carried because Gilead had nullified all divorces, and Luke had been married before. At the border, Luke panicked when a guard went inside to check out the passports. He reversed the car and sped down a dirt road into the woods. When the road ended, he, Offred, and their daughter raced for Canada.

Abruptly, she returns to her conversation with the Commander, their talk about love. “Falling” in love, she thinks, is a free fall, easy but scary. She thinks of the frightening side of sex: attack, rape, fear of walking along streets at night, all things Gilead has eliminated. Things should feel better, but they don’t.

She weeps at the emptiness of her life, but is interrupted by a knock at the door. It is Serena Joy, and she has brought the picture of Offred’s daughter. She is tall, dressed in white, changed, showing what the past three years have done to her. Offred realizes that she must be just a dim shadow in her daughter’s mind. So, although she is relieved to see that her daughter is alive and well, she feels tremendous grief, too. Offred wishes she had not seen the picture.

As she sits down to her lunch of creamed corn and diced meat, equipped with only a fork and spoon, she longs for a knife.

Chapter 35 Analysis

Gilead’s elimination of divorce, even those that took place before the revolution, is one more elimination of choice. The same is true of its arranged marriages: total strangers linked for life. But since Gilead is concerned about population growth, not human happiness, these marriages are appropriate.

Given that Luke and Offred were heading from the Boston area, they would have gone through Vermont to Québec, or through Maine to New Brunswick. Either way, the forests have many logging roads they could have used, just as bootleggers did during Prohibition in the 1920s. They probably would have been wiser to use them instead of trying to brazen it out on a main highway. They would have had a better chance.

Offred’s misery after seeing her daughter’s picture and her longing to get hold of a knife are bad signs. It seems likely she wants the knife for a suicide attempt rather than to help her escape. Her increasing sense of empowerment seems to have been destroyed by the photograph.

Chapter 36 Summary

At Offred’s next visit to the Commander, he greets her with the words, “How is the fair little one this evening?” He has a surprise for her, but she must try to guess what it is. When she can’t, he holds out to her a pink and mauve showgirl outfit with sequined bodice and feathers. She remembers news clips of such things being destroyed in Gilead’s early days. He tells her to put it on and to “paint your face too.”

He turns his back while she strips off her Handmaid rig and dons this skimpy, tacky outfit and the high-heeled shoes that go with it, as ill-fitting as the costume. The make-up he offers is cheap lipstick and mascara. She is so unused to it that she makes a mess and must redo it.

They drive off in his Whirlwind. At one point the Commander tells her to get down on the floor. They pass through a checkpoint, then drive on to their destination. Offred desperately wants a mirror, to see if her lipstick is on straight.

Chapter 36 Analysis

The Commander’s coyness makes him seem like a teenager rather than one of the powers of Gilead. That he’s had several drinks suggests he is trying to add some zest to his life.

The costume he gives Offred is just another indication of his readiness to flout Gilead’s rules. It is a costume intended to turn a woman into a sex object.

Offred knows that the Commander’s proposal is extremely risky for her, but apparently she is just as anxious as he is to enjoy a real break from the dullness of her life.

Chapter 37 Summary

Passing through two doors, Offred and the Commander enter a softly lit, carpeted hallway lined with numbered doors, apparently a former hotel. Beyond is a central atrium, several stories high, capped with a vast skylight. Its fountain, glass-walled elevators, and vine-hung balconies remind Offred that she was here once with Luke.

Many older men, some in Commander’s uniforms, are seated on the chairs and sofas: these are the movers and shakers of Gilead. But the women are the real surprise. All are dressed scantily in short nightgowns, bathing suits, old cheerleader uniforms, etc. “It’s like walking into the past,” says the Commander, but Offred thinks it’s more like some sad children’s masquerade party.

He takes her around the room to show her off, then seats her on a sofa. She asks what all this means and he says, “It means you can’t cheat Nature. Nature demands variety, for men.” Then he points out certain women: one used to be a sociologist, another a lawyer, a third a business executive. Now they are prostitutes, but amusing to talk to. He offers to get Offred a drink; she asks for a weak gin and tonic.

When he leaves, Offred suffers her biggest shock: she sees Moira by the fountain, clad in a Playboy bunny outfit, its ears bedraggled. Moira here? Then Moira sees her, too. They stare at each other, then Moira gives her their Red Center signal that means they must meet in the washroom.

When the Commander returns with the drinks, Offred asks where the washroom is. Walking awkwardly in her new high heels, she heads for her secret meeting with Moira.

Chapter 37 Analysis

Jezebel’s is named for the wife of the biblical King Ahab, who seduced her husband into abandoning Jehovah. When Ahab was overthrown for this, she was killed, and her body thrown into the street and eaten by dogs. This secret nightclub for Gilead’s elite is named in her honor, which is symbolic.

Offred’s spotting of Moira shocks Offred and the reader. Moira was supposed to have made it to freedom. Offred needed to believe that because it gave her hope for herself. But if a bold, inventive person like Moira can’t get free, what chance is there for her?

And why is Moira here? She was a strident feminist, with contempt for men, and a lesbian. That she should be working as a prostitute for Gilead’s elite males, wearing a worn-out bunny costume, is utterly perverse. Has she surrendered? Is there no way out of Gilead?

Chapter 38 Summary

Inside the washroom Offred finds a huge mirror of real glass. The two rooms are still their original pink, including the sinks. Several women sit on the sofa and chairs, with their shoes off, smoking and unsmiling. Then Moira emerges from a toilet cubicle. They kiss, then look each other over in their ridiculous costumes. They sit down and Moira asks Offred what has brought her here to Jezebel’s.

Moira tells what happened to her after she strode out of the Red Center, leaving Aunt Elizabeth “tied up like a Christmas turkey.” She had walked through town, head high, shoulders back, as if she were on a duty mission. She went to an address she remembered from the women’s collective days, people who had a Q beside their names, for Quaker. This proved successful, and she was taken in, fed, and passed on to another Quaker home, part of the Underground Femaleroad spiriting fugitive women out of the country. It was very well organized, she assures Offred. This, she says, was while Gilead was going after Jews, African Americans, and other minorities, but before it began arresting members of other Christian denominations.

She was taken as far as Maine, but someone must have snitched. As she was coming out of the house where she was hidden to begin the last leg of her journey, she and the couple hiding her were arrested.

After her arrest Moira was shown a film of women’s life in the Colonies, cleaning up toxic waste and burning bodies after battles. Three years, Moira tells Offred, is the longest one can stay alive in the Colonies. Most of the women are older, some very old, which is why there are so few of them on the streets anymore.

Moira was shown the film to pressure her: either she became a state prostitute or she would be shipped to some Colony as a slave and die. “I’m not a martyr,” she explains.

Offred cannot accept this. She needed to believe that people like Moira would never surrender, that Moira would die rather than give in.

Moira refers to Jezebel’s as “butch paradise,” since none of the women there like men. This meeting in the bathroom is the last time Offred ever sees Moira.

She adds that she would like to think that Moira escaped again, or blew up Jezebel’s, killing 50 Commanders. But she knows this isn’t true.

Chapter 38 Analysis

Moira’s good words about the Underground Femaleroad are more than offset by the fact that she was caught while using it. It may be organized, but it isn’t safe. Vastly more daunting to Offred, though, is the fact that Moira has settled for life at Jezebel’s, which is only a brief reprieve before exile and death. Offred’s role model has given up.

That the Underground Femaleroad is largely Quaker-run echoes the Underground Railroad that smuggled slaves out of the South through the northern states and into Canada. Great numbers of Quaker volunteers operated the Underground Railroad at considerable risk.

The Quaker movement, (or, to give it its official name, the Society of Friends) began with George Fox, a shoemaker in Nottingham, England, who broke with the formalism of the Church of England in 1646. He stressed divine inspiration—“the inner light”—rather than dogma. The movement’s beliefs include active humanitarianism and renunciation of violence. Their belief in human equality made them ardent abolitionists and gave them a key role in the Underground Railroad.

Chapter 39 Summary

When Offred returns from the washroom, the Commander takes her to one of the private rooms. Offred hides in the bathroom, washing her face and savoring the smell of good soap, then sits on the bathtub’s side, unwilling to return to the Commander.

Moira told her that her mother was sent to the Colonies; Moira recognized her in the film she was shown. Offred remembers trying to telephone her mother when things began to get oppressive in Gilead. When she repeatedly got no answer, she drove with Luke to her mother’s apartment building. Her mother’s apartment was in chaos: the mattress was cut open, the bureau drawers were dumped. Offred had wanted to call the police, but Luke hadn’t let her. She could find no trace of her mother.

She remembers that at college, Moira had called her mother “neat,” which had surprised Offred. Now she thinks of her mother cleaning up deadly spills in the Colonies.

Finally she emerges from the bathroom to find the Commander lying on the king-size bed, his shoes off. Offred thinks that if she must have sex with him, she would rather it be at the impersonal Ceremony. When he reaches for her, she feels rage, contempt, and even pity—but she cannot respond to him.

Chapter 39 Analysis

While the Commander waits on the king-size bed in lustful anticipation, Offred sits in the bathroom, mourning her mother but unable to tell him so. This shows that this is no real relationship, not even a kind of friendship, just an empty arrangement of strangers.

Moira has told Offred, in effect, that her mother is dead, since exiles in the Colonies have three years of life at most. It is more than three years since Offred’s mother disappeared (when she disappeared, Offred obviously had not yet made her escape attempt, and that was more than three years ago). So her mother can’t still be alive.

For all that they disagreed, Offred loved her mother, and should have a right to mourn her properly, rather than being locked in a bathroom with her memories for a few minutes while a randy stranger waits in the next room to take her to bed.

Chapter 40 Summary

Having returned from Jezebel’s, Offred waits, dressed, on her bed. At midnight there is a soft tapping at her door. It is Serena Joy. She leads Offred downstairs to the back door. Offred makes her way outside to the door that leads to Nick’s apartment over the garage.

Offred offers two different versions of her encounter with Nick. In the first version, they immediately make passionate love. In the second version, she climbs the stairs and knocks at the apartment door. Nick lets her in and offers her his cigarette. They stand looking at each other awkwardly. Then Offred says, “I know it’s hard for you.” Nick responds, “I get paid.” The tension is broken when each of them throws out a corny old pickup line. Soon after—for it is extremely dangerous for her to be here—they make love on Nick’s spartan bed.

Afterwards, Offred feels guilty about her unfaithfulness to Luke, who may still be alive, and about being so sexually responsive to Nick.

Chapter 40 Analysis

Offred doesn’t explain how Serena Joy has negotiated Offred’s tryst with Nick, or does she repeat reassurances Serena Joy may have made. So from Offred’s point of view, this may be like stepping into a minefield. All Serena Joy has to do is pick up the telephone, call the Eyes, have them break into Nick’s apartment, and Nick and Offred are doomed. Apparently, though, her desire for a baby is stronger than her other feelings, so the two are safe.

Offred and Nick’s meeting is like a blind date, full of awkwardness. But their mutual need overcomes this. It is the first time in years that Offred has been held by someone she doesn’t pity or hate, and being held is something she can scarcely exist without. For a brief time she can erase Gilead, Moira, her mother, and the fate of her husband and daughter, even her own potential fate. It’s worth the risk.

And if she does become pregnant by Nick, she no longer will be living on borrowed time, facing the same fate as her mother.

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