lllustration of six women wearing long, loose red dresses

The Handmaid's Tale

by Margaret Atwood

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Chapters 7–12: Summary

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Last Updated March 8, 2023.

Chapter 7

Offred reclines in her bed, appreciating the moment of solitude between bells. With nothing to distract her, she wanders back to happier memories from her past. She reminisces about a time when she was working on a term paper and Moira suggested they take a break and go grab a beer. 

The happier memories lead to less happy ones. Offred remembers a protest her mother took her to when she was a child. Groups of women tossed pornographic magazines into a bonfire, and some encouraged Offred to do the same; however, she was too young to understand the significance of her actions. This confusing memory sparks another, and she recalls the moment her daughter was taken from her. Offred’s memory is fogged by the sedatives forced upon her, leaving her uncertain about how the events unfolded; although she was assured that her daughter would be properly looked after, she fears that the girl was actually murdered.

Willing herself back into the present, Offred expresses a desire for these memories to simply be a fabricated tale that she is narrating. This way, she would have some control over its events and outcome. She ponders if the story is based on reality or simply a figment of her imagination. She realizes that it is both the truth and a story that she is constructing in her mind. She also realizes that telling a story implies that there is a listener and imagines it would be comforting to think of someone reading her story, thereby creating a connection with another person—something she so desperately lacks.

Chapter 8

During another shopping excursion, Ofglen and Offred come across the Wall once more, which now displays three new bodies. One of them is dressed in the black garment of a Roman Catholic priest, while the other two wear Guardian uniforms with purple placards on them indicating that they were accused of "Gender Treachery," the Gilead term for homosexuality.

Later, Ofglen comments that it is a "beautiful May day." Offred concurs but recalls that the term "Mayday" used to be a distress signal. She remembers Luke telling her that it originated from the French phrase M'aidez, which brings back memories of the lazy Sunday mornings they would spend drinking coffee and reading the newspaper.

As they walk, they pass a funeral procession of Econowives. One of them carries a black jar containing a deceased embryo from a stillbirth. As she gazes at the mournful women, Offred reminds herself that Econowives do not view Handmaids favorably.

Upon returning home, Offred encounters Nick, who is once again tending to the car. Nick asks her if her walk was pleasant, and she offers only a bare nod in response. She refrains from speaking to him, as they are not permitted to communicate. She thinks back to Aunt Lydia's disdainful comment about men and their sexual nature: "they can't help it."

At the rear of the house, Offred spots Serena Joy and reflects on how the once-famous woman used to give speeches advocating for women to stay in the home. Offred and Luke would watch her on television as she cried, her mascara smudging down her face. Offred wonders if Serena Joy realizes the irony of the situation, having pushed for women to stay at home and now finding herself unhappy in that exact position.

Offred recalls a lesson taught by Aunt Lydia: Wives will feel animosity towards Handmaids because Wives are infertile while Handmaids are capable of having children. Aunt Lydia implores the Handmaids to be understanding and patient if the Wives treat them poorly.

In the kitchen, Offred comes across Rita who is peeling carrots; she covets the sharp knife Rita uses. The feeling gives her pause, and she thinks to herself that this house is filled with feelings of envy. Rita reminds her that it is designated bath day.

While walking toward her room, Offred is shocked to see a man at her door. Although he is facing away from her, she recognizes him as the Commander. He should not be at her door, and she wonders at the significance of his presence, curious if he has entered her room, and questions his reasoning for violating the rules.

Chapter 9 

Entering her room, Offred is reminded of the first time she did so; the new space brought back memories of the motel rooms she and Luke stayed in prior to their marriage. She recalls killing time waiting for Luke to arrive. She savored the exploration of the new space in the same way she used to in those motels. Then, the slow exploration was out of boredom and impatience; now, it is the only source of excitement in her dull life.

Offred describes discovering an inscription in the closet of her room after she moved in; the previous inhabitant had scratched the words "Nolite te bastardes carborundorum" into the floor. Even though she does not understand their meaning, the mere presence of the words brings her joy and connects her to the previous woman who occupied the room, who was, eerily, also named Offred. The inscription is a way for the previous tenant to not only reach out and form a bond with her successor but also ensure that her memory lives on, defiant to the last.

After discovering the message, Offred tries to imagine what her predecessor might have been like. She visualizes the unknown woman as energetic like her old friend Moira and covered with freckles. She asks Rita about "the one with freckles"; Rita answers ominously, telling Offred that "she didn't work out" and refusing to provide further details. Despite the dissatisfying answer, Offred is happy that her assumption was correct and feels even closer to the previous Offred. 

Chapter 10

Offred hums the beginning of the hymn "Amazing Grace" to herself, focusing on the line "was bound, but now am free." The word “free” leads her to consider the words and concepts that Gilead has banned; as she thinks of these lost ideas, she remembers a song from one of her mother's tapes. The singer declares, "I feel so lonely I could die,” a sentiment that Offred feels attached to; to her, death is preferable to desperation and isolation. The memory of music depresses her, and she wishes that it was permitted in the house. 

The warm, sunny May day reminds Offred of how she and her friends would strip bare and sunbathe, tanning as much of their skin as they could. The memory is followed by a later memory of Aunt Lydia’s criticism of such behavior, calling it unacceptable for young women to cover themselves in oil like a roasted piece of meat. This memory sparks another, and she thinks about her and Moira's plan to host a party to sell lingerie. Though Offred was initially taken aback by the proposal, Moira explained that older women enjoyed it as a way to outperform the Pornomarts.

Offred ponders the reality of life during that time. She recalls it as a blend of mundane and horrifying things and remembers the news reporting rampant sexual assault and homicide rates. However, the general population during that era tended to overlook the disturbing stories; those narratives were only about women and therefore irrelevant to them. 

As Offred sits on the window bench and gazes absentmindedly outside, she sees Nick open the car door for the Commander. From above, she imagines spitting out the window or dropping something heavy on the Commander’s head; this act brings back yet another memory of her and Moira’s college-era hijinks and reminds her of dropping water balloons on unsuspecting passersby from their dorm window. However, as the Commander departs, Offred realizes that her feelings towards him are not hatred but rather a much more complex emotion.

Chapter 11

Offred recounts her recent monthly visit to the physician. In these mandated visits, doctors ensure that the Handmaids under his care are in good physical condition for conception. During the examination, the doctor whispers to Offred, telling her that not only can he assist her in becoming pregnant but he has also done the same for others. He implies that most Commanders are infertile, so if she desires a child, his may be the only viable method. 

The doctor’s frank comments stun Offred. The laws of Gilead forbid the suggestion of male infertility, as well as unapproved liaisons between men and women, yet the doctor has just committed both. His proposal terrifies her, as it could result in both their deaths if they were discovered. Yet, she fears rejecting him because he has immense authority over her. If she offends him, he could label her infertile and make her an “Unwoman.” No one would challenge his decision, and she would be forced into a life of back-breaking and ultimately deadly labor.

Facing this choice frightens her; it has been a long time since she was faced with any. At the Red Center, the concept of choice was removed from the lives of Handmaids. She claims his proposal is too risky and rejects him, but he encourages her to reconsider and accept his offer next month. 

Chapter 12 

As Offred prepares for her bath, her nudity makes her uncomfortable. She is unaccustomed to seeing her own body, so the sight of it leaves her uneasy. This disassociation from her body appears to be a defense mechanism, as her body is no longer hers; instead, it is a commodity and reduced to little more than a vessel for bearing children. Offred’s body makes her uncomfortable because it is a reminder of her lost identity and dehumanization.

Lying in the bath, Offred remembers when her daughter was stolen from her by a childless woman; although the woman was arrested and Offred’s daughter returned, the experience was devastating. The first kidnapping, she thinks to herself, was a product of the woman's madness, but the second kidnapping was sanctioned by the laws of Gilead.

Offred recalls her daughter as five years old, the age she was when they were separated. She thinks about the photos and keepsakes she had of her little girl, who is now eight years old—if she was not murdered. Still in the bath, Offred examines the tattoo on her ankle: a series of four numbers and an illustrated eye. The marking is the symbol of Gilead’s secret police and serves as her permanent identification number,

Following her bath, Offred gets dressed. The feeling of her wet hair conjures up memories of old news footage where women were shown having their heads shaved and kneeling in the midst of an angry mob.

Cora arrives with her dinner tray, which contains the typical bland but healthy food. She eats mechanically without pleasure and saves a small piece of butter by hiding it in her shoe. After finishing her meal, she composes herself and prepares to wait.

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Chapters 1–6: Summary

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Chapters 13–18: Summary