Chapters 7–12: Summary and Analysis

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Last Updated on June 19, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2638

Chapter 7 Summary

Offred lies on her bed, feeling this time is her own; there are no signal bells, nothing to stop her reveries. She can let her thoughts drift back to the happier past.

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She recalls working on a term paper, and Moira suggesting they go for a beer, which they do, with Offred’s money.

Then she remembers a demonstration her mother took her to as a child. A crowd of mostly women was throwing magazines on a bonfire. A woman urged Offred to throw a magazine on the fire and she did. She glimpsed at some of the magazine’s contents—pornography—but she was too young to know what it meant.

Her next recollection is much more painful: the time her daughter was taken from her. Offred appears to have been sedated and not really aware of what was happening. Although she was told her daughter would be well cared for, she believed the girl had been killed.

Returning to the present, she says she wishes this were only a made-up story she is telling. Then she would have some control over its events and outcome. She wonders if the story is truth or fiction. She knows it is both the truth and a story she is telling in her head. Telling a story implies an audience, she thinks. She thinks it would be comforting to imagine someone reading her story, thus forging a link with another person.

Chapter 7 Analysis

Her memory of Moira is important to Offred, for it shows her experiencing the comradeship she now misses so desperately. And it shows she once had freedom to choose: to finish her term paper or go for a beer with Moira. Last, it shows she once could think and write and make her own future.

The memory of the pornography burning implies the idea of women as sexual prey, and shows people trying to reject these images.

Offred’s memory of losing her daughter shows that Gilead managed the abduction by drugging her so that she couldn’t resist. The statement that the child “will be in good hands” probably is true; she likely has been given to some childless Wife, one of the perks of rank.

Offred’s confusion about the truth of her story shows the toll her life is taking on her. Inability to distinguish fact from fiction is generally a sign of mental illness. Perhaps Offred is close to losing her grip on reality.

Chapter 8 Summary

On another shopping trip, Ofglen and Offred again pass the Wall, which bears three new corpses, one in a Roman Catholic priest’s black cassock. The other two bear purple placards that signify “Gender Treachery” (homosexuality), and are wearing Guardian uniforms.

Later Ofglen remarks, “It’s a beautiful May day.” While agreeing with Ofglen, Offred recalls that Mayday used to be a distress call. Luke once told her it came from the French phrase M'aidez, and this detail causes her to remember sharing coffee and the papers with him on lazy Sunday mornings.

They pass a funeral procession of Econowives, one bearing a black jar carrying a dead embryo from a stillbirth. Econowives, Offred reminds herself, dislike Handmaids.

Back home, Offred passes Nick, who is polishing the car. Nick asks her, “Nice walk?” and Offred nods. She says nothing since they are not allowed to talk to each other. She remembers Aunt Lydia’s contemptuous remark about men and their sexuality: “They can’t help it.”

At the back of the house, Offred sees Serena Joy. She recalls how Serena Joy once made speeches about how women’s proper place was in the home. Luke and Offred used to watch her on television, weeping, mascara running down her cheeks. Offred wonders if Serena Joy appreciates the irony that she was taken at her word and now is just another woman stuck at home.

She remembers one of Aunt Lydia’s lessons: that Wives will resent Handmaids because Wives are unable to have children, but Handmaids can. Aunt Lydia urges the Handmaids to be patient and sympathetic if the Wives are unkind.

In the kitchen, Offred finds Rita peeling carrots, and she envies the sharp knife she uses, remarking to herself that this house is full of envy. Rita reminds her that this is bath day.

Upstairs in the hall, Offred is surprised to find a man standing there, his back turned. She recognizes him as the Commander, standing by her door, where he is not allowed to be. She wonders what he’s doing there. Has he been in her room? What does this breaking of the rules mean?

Chapter 8 Analysis

The three new corpses on the Wall show that Gilead’s enemies include Roman Catholics and homosexuals, and the two dead Guardians show that even Gilead’s own police cannot be trusted to obey its laws.

It is not surprising that Gilead hates homosexuality, since its principal aim is to breed new white babies. But it is surprising that it also targets Catholic priests. Clearly Gilead tolerates no deviation from its own state religion.

Ofglen’s comment, “It’s a beautiful May day,” seems innocuous, for Offred has already remarked to herself what a nice day it is. It’s surprising that Ofglen says it at all, though, since Handmaids are supposed to converse only when necessary. But Offred’s linking that remark with the idea that Mayday is a distress signal will later prove to be significant.

The funeral of the Econowife’s stillborn child is another reminder of the problems with fertility in Gilead. And Offred’s comment that Econowives resent Handmaids refers to the divisions that permeate Gilead society.

Nick’s “Nice walk?” verifies Offred’s earlier feeling that he is not a typical Guardian. Is he dangerous, trying to provoke her into breaking the rules so he can report her, or is he a bit of a rebel? She will have to be very wary of him.

Offred’s fascination with Rita’s knife shows Offred’s desperation. Perhaps she would use it to commit suicide; perhaps she would wield it to slash at her oppressors, the Commander and Serena Joy; perhaps she wants it as a means of escape to Canada. In any case, it would give her a sense of power and choice, the things that Gilead has done its best to strip from her.

The wordless encounter with the Commander outside her bedroom suggests that even Commanders are unhappy with the rules they themselves have put in place. But she doesn’t know why he was there.

Chapter 9 Summary

Offred tells of her first exploration of her room after she moved in. It reminds her of motel rooms she and Luke shared before they were married. She remembers killing time waiting for Luke to arrive. She explores her room as slowly as possible, because it is the only excitement in her life.

In a corner of the closet floor some words are scratched: Nolite te bastardes carborundorum. Although she has no idea what this means, merely the fact that it is there is enough to excite her. It links her with the room’s previous tenant, another Offred. Her predecessor had scratched those words to communicate with her, to establish a bond.

After finding this message, Offred muses on what this other Offred was like, and envisions her as vital as Moira. She even imagines her with freckles. Later she asks Rita about “the one with freckles.” Rita replies, “She didn’t work out,” but will say nothing more. Still, Offred has the pleasure of knowing that her wild guess was right.

Chapter 9 Analysis

Offred’s slow, careful search of her room, spinning it out as long as possible, demonstrates just how empty and boring a Handmaid’s life is. Finding that message is the first sign she has seen since her capture that someone cares about her, not just her reproductive capacity, and wanted to communicate with her so much that she went to considerable risk to scratch out this message.

Offred’s depiction of her predecessor shows how much this link means to her: she has to give form and character to a woman whom she will never see and who, indeed, may even be dead. But any companionship is better than none.

Rita’s curt response to Offred’s question may be her ordinary manner with Handmaids, or may mean that what happened to the other Handmaid is too awful to talk about.

Chapter 10 Summary

Singing to herself, Offred remembers the first lines of the hymn “Amazing Grace,” especially the fourth line, “Was bound, but now am free.” She thinks about the word “free,” and of other words now banned in Gilead. She also remembers an old song from a tape of her mother’s with the line, “I feel so lonely I could die,” which is precisely what she feels now: death is far more preferable to this emptiness and idleness. And she remarks that there isn’t much music in this household.

It’s a sunny, warm day in May, which makes her remember how she and her friends would peel down to tan as much of their bodies as possible, and how, later, Aunt Lydia said how awful it was that young women had once slathered themselves with oil, like basted meat.

This reminds her of college and Moira’s decision to throw a party to sell slinky underwear. Offred was shocked at the idea, but Moira said older women liked it, to beat the competition of the Pornomarts.

Offred tries to understand what life was like back then. She remembers it as a combination of the ordinary and the grotesque, with stories in the papers about sexual attacks and murders. But people back then tended to ignore the grotesque; those stories were about women in the papers, not ordinary lives.

She remarks on the neighborhood’s quietness and goes to sit on the window seat. It has a cushion embroidered with the word FAITH, the only word she has to read. Outside she sees Nick open the car door for the Commander. If she could spit, she thinks, or drop something from the window, she could hit the Commander’s head. This reminds her of how Moira and she once dropped water bombs from the window of their college dorm. As the Commander leaves in the car, Offred realizes she doesn’t feel hatred for this man, but rather an emotion far more complicated.

Chapter 10 Analysis

Offred’s recollection of Moira’s underwhore party and of the Pornomarts suggest that the pre-Gilead society had become increasingly sexually permissive. In addition, sexual violence against women had become almost commonplace. Her memories of reading about this violence in the papers is a reminder of why many people accepted the Republic of Gilead at its start. Things had gotten out of hand, and many were willing to accept limits to their freedom if it meant they would be safe. But Gilead’s executions show that its people’s surrender of their freedoms did not end violence; Gilead has merely made violence a tool of the state.

Offred’s realization that she doesn’t hate the Commander echoes her ambiguous feelings for the Guardians. She doesn’t know how to label her complicated feelings for him, although she’s certain it is not love.

Chapter 11 Summary

Offred tells of her latest monthly visit to her doctor. It is his job to make sure his Handmaid patients are in good health so they can bear children. During the examination, he whispers, “I can help you,” adding, “I’ve helped others.” Clearly he is telling Offred that he can get her pregnant. He adds that most Commanders are sterile, so if she really wants a baby, his way is the only real one.

Offred is shocked, since in Gilead it is forbidden to suggest that males may be sterile; only women may be sterile or infertile. She’s shocked, too, because what the doctor proposes could mean death for both of them if they are caught.

Yet, she is aware of the doctor’s power over her: he could declare her sterile, which would mean she would become a doomed Unwoman. No one would question the doctor’s verdict.

She also is terrified simply by the idea of choice. It has been so long since she was faced with choices; at the Red Center the whole idea of choice was supposed to have been erased from Handmaids’ lives. She backs away from the opportunity, claiming “It’s too dangerous.” But the doctor encourages her to think about it and to accept the offer the next month.

Chapter 11 Analysis

The fact that the doctor’s nurse carries a gun in a shoulder holster in the office shows that the population program involving the Handmaids is important to the regime and therefore well protected. The doctor is likely a key player in Gilead’s forces, but his subversive words to Offred—that most Commanders are sterile so why not let him get her pregnant?—shows how the rules and beliefs of the society are easily dismissed by those in power.

That male sterility is a taboo subject, and that only women can be infertile, shows Gilead’s misogyny: only women are at fault; they deserve to be treated as they are.

Chapter 12 Summary

Preparing for her bath, Offred is uncomfortable with her nakedness because she is not used to the sight of her own body, and because that is what Gilead has reduced her to: just a body, whose only purpose is as a womb for Commanders’ babies.

Lying in the bath, she remembers when her infant daughter, in the child’s seat of a grocery cart, was stolen by a desperate, childless woman while Offred was at the cat food section. The woman was arrested and the baby restored. That kidnapping was an act of madness; the second kidnapping was an act of Gilead law.

She remembers her daughter at age five, when they were separated, and the photographs and other mementos she once had of the little girl, who would be eight now, she thinks.

She looks at the tattoo on her ankle—four numbers and the picture of an eye—the symbol of Gilead’s secret police. Clearly this is her permanent ID number.

Then she emerges from her bath and dresses. Her wet hair reminds her of old news footage of women having their heads shaved, kneeling in the center of an angry crowd.

Cora brings her supper tray, the usual nutritious but boring food, and she eats methodically, without enjoyment. She saves the pat of butter, hiding it in the toe of a shoe. Then she composes herself and waits.

Chapter 12 Analysis

The theft of Offred’s baby in the store by a deranged woman probably stemmed from the scarcity of children in pre-Gilead society, which helped prompt the revolution.

Offred’s sense of alienation from her body shows the effectiveness of her indoctrination. Denied the companionship of others and forced to wear garments that hide her face and body, she cannot even feel comfortable with her own body. The tattoo on her ankle, both her ID and a means of preventing her escape, echoes the Nazi practice of tattooing its concentration camp inmates with ID numbers, again linking Gilead with the worst examples of inhumanity.

Her memory of the women whose heads were shaven must be from an old TV documentary. During 1944 and 1945, in newly liberated cities in Western Europe, women who had consorted with German troops were marched to public squares, forced to kneel, and had their heads shaved. Since the fashion for women of the time was to have long hair, this head shaving was humiliating for women and marked them for months afterward as outcasts and collaborators with the Nazi enemy.

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Chapters 1–6: Summary and Analysis

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Chapters 13–18: Summary and Analysis

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