Study Guide

The Handmaid's Tale

The Handmaid's Tale Summary

When the book begins, the narrator—whose real name we never learn—is being held with other women in an old school gym. We later find out this is called the Women's Center. When we see her again, she's been working for five weeks as a Handmaid.

The house where she works is run by a married Commander, whom the narrator must have sex with on a regular basis (in a standard Ceremony) in an attempt to become pregnant and provide the household with a child. The narrator has one uniform, assigned tasks, and very little freedom. She's confined to her room except for the times where she can go out, supervised, to do shopping or go to prescribed events. She frequently thinks about the Handmaid who preceded her, who killed herself.

The book's "present" action is the story of the narrator's time in this house, but throughout the book she has frequent flashbacks to various times in her life: her relationship with her husband Luke, their daughter, and her mother; the escape attempt she and Luke made; her friendship with Moira, the rebel; and her time at the Women's Center, where she is when the book starts.

Flashbacks to life before the Center: Before the narrator arrives at the Center, she is happily married to Luke (as his second wife) and they have a small daughter. She works at a library. Her best friend, Moira, and her mother are both active feminists concerned about changes that are happening: fewer children are being born, there's lots of disease, and the world is rapidly becoming polluted.

When a coup happens and the government collapses, the narrator loses her job and access to money, as do all women. Her life becomes more and more restricted, and her mother disappears. She and Luke decide to take their daughter and try to cross the border and run away. They get fake papers and almost make it across the border when they realize someone's onto them and have to make a run for it. The narrator and her daughter are captured and separated, and the narrator is drugged. When she wakes up people tell her she's not a good mother and take her to the Center. She doesn't know what's happened to Luke.

Flashbacks to the Center: At the Center, the women are stripped of their real names, their voices, and their rights. They're indoctrinated into the religious-based ideas of this new society, where they will be Handmaids. Their roles will be to have emotionless, non-erotic sex with high-powered men in order to provide society with children. Some women, like one called Janine, are totally broken by this demeaning experience. The narrator is happy when her friend Moira is brought in, just so she'll have an ally. But Moira tries to escape twice. The first time, she is unsuccessful and is brought back by force and beaten severely. The second time, it seems like she makes it... at least for a while.

As the narrator's memories and flashbacks take up more and more of her mental space, she slowly becomes more reckless and eager to act out, even if it means the end for her. This is her third, final position as a Handmaid. If she doesn't have a child by this Commander she'll meet a tragic fate. On her daily walks with another Handmaid, Ofglen, the two women slowly open up to each other.

As the women's relationship develops they attend different events, such as a Prayvaganza (with marriage ceremonies) and the birth of a daughter to a Handmaid's household by Ofwarren (called Janine at the Center). The narrator eventually learns that Ofglen is working for the resistance. Ofglen tells the narrator the resistance's secret password, which is Mayday.

The Commander the narrator works for asks her to start meeting him secretly, and she does, even though it's super dangerous. At first he just wants to play Scrabble, but eventually he ends up smuggling the narrator to a brothel, Jezebel's, where she runs into her old friend Moira. Before the Commander makes the narrator sleep with him at Jezebel's (and therefore outside their Ceremony), the narrator gets to hear Moira's story.

Moira's story: Moira escapes from the Center a second time by turning a piece of a toilet into a weapon and holding a female guard hostage. Then she dresses like the guard and walks out without suspicion. She makes it to a Quaker safe house, and the people there smuggle her around from house to house for almost nine months. She almost gets to safety, but at the last stage of her journey something goes wrong and she's captured. We don't know exactly what happens to her after that, except that it's really, really bad. She chooses to end up working at Jezebel's rather than the alternative, which is to go work in the Colonies (which are completely radioactive and poisonous).

After the narrator and the Commander go to Jezebel's, things start to slip out of control. The Commander's Wife arranges for her to have sex with their chauffeur, Nick, in the hope that she'll get pregnant and bring a child into the house. In exchange, the Commander's Wife shows the narrator a picture of her abducted daughter. The narrator starts having sex with Nick first out of duty, then begins to have feelings for him. She tells him secrets about her past and starts to think that she may be pregnant.

One day the narrator and Ofglen have to go to a Women's Salvaging, a public execution where only women are present. While they are there, the narrator finds out Janine's baby didn't make it. The execution is run by Aunt Lydia, one of the people who ran the Center. Three women, two Handmaids and a Wife, are executed. Then Aunt Lydia brings out a man, accuses him of rape, and tells the women they are going to have a Particicution. Basically, this means the women can rip this man to shreds. The narrator is horrified, but Ofglen rushes in and kicks the man in the head. Afterward, she explains to the narrator that she was helping the man, because he was on the side of the resistance. They leave.

When the narrator goes to meet Ofglen later for their standard walk, she isn't there. Another woman like Ofglen is there in her place. The narrator tries out the password and this new Ofglen rebuffs her before telling her that the first Ofglen killed herself. Shocked, the narrator goes home, where the Commander's Wife has found out that the narrator was secretly seeing the Commander and chews her out.

The narrator goes to her room to await the punishment she knows is coming. She sees a black van coming—which is the sign you're about to get arrested or killed. Before the van arrives, Nick comes in and tells her that it's the resistance coming to get her out. The narrator doesn't know whether to trust him or not, and when the men come in to get her she can't tell if they're on her side. They escort her out of the Commander's house, her fate uncertain.

While the narrator's story has concluded, the book has one more chapter. In this section, called "Historical Notes," we hear from a professor who has done research on the narrator's story and tries to figure out what happened to her. He reveals that the story was actually recorded onto tapes, which he and another professor transcribed and edited into a single narrative.

He says the tapes are probably legitimate, but he can't identify who the narrator or any of the other characters really were—with the exception of the Commander, whom he provides a potential alias for. The professor doesn't know how the narrator's story ended. He guesses she made it at least partially to safety, long enough to record these tapes, even if she was recaptured afterward.

  • Chapter 1

    Night

    • The narrator and several other women are sleeping in a high school's gymnasium. Speaking for all of them, the narrator says they are thinking about the events that used to take place there and the romances that transpired. They think about what's to come and what has passed, while they sleep on army cots.
    • Two women, called Aunt Sara and Aunt Elizabeth, act as guards to keep them from talking or rising up. They use cattle prods, while the other guards have guns.
    • The women have to stay inside except for their twice-daily walks. Outside, the school's football field has been turned into a fort guarded by barbed wire and people called Angels. The women think about trying to seduce the Angels, but the Angels never even see them.
    • Since the women aren't allowed to talk, they use lip-reading to tell each other their names.
  • Chapter 2

    Shopping

    • The narrator describes a room, minimally furnished and white. It's decorated in an old-fashioned feminine style and has one chair.
    • The room has a picture of flowers, but there's nothing in it that could be used as a weapon. A woman called Aunt Lydia said it was like being in the army. The narrator thinks that despite her situation, she wants to stay alive.
    • A bell rings and the narrator gets dressed in a red outfit that covers her whole body, including her hands, and shades her face. She takes her shopping basket and goes downstairs.
    • The house is big enough for a family, but there are no children. The narrator passes a mirror and umbrella stand and thinks of the Commander's Wife.
    • She goes to the kitchen and sees Rita, the cook, who's a "Martha." She wears an outfit that's similar to the narrator's, but it's green. When the narrator goes outside no one's supposed to see her face. Rita gives her some tokens.
    • The narrator thinks about how she eavesdropped on Rita and Cora, the cleaner, once. They were talking about the narrator and how they'd never do what she was doing—they would rather be Unwomen.
    • The narrator thinks she'd like to stay and talk with them, have coffee—which is now a luxury—and chat. She knows the Marthas chat to each other about dreadful things—children that don't make it, poison, death. But Rita won't talk to her; the Marthas aren't supposed to talk to the narrator and her kind.
    • She thinks about what this would be called, and about a man named Luke, who loved words.
    • She accepts the tokens, which have pictures of food on them, and on Rita's orders goes to the market.
  • Chapter 3

    Shopping

    • The narrator passes through the nice garden, which belongs to the Commander's Wife. She thinks about the garden she used to have and about the Commander's Wife, who spends a lot of time knitting.
    • She met the Commander's Wife five weeks earlier, when she arrived from a prior, similar situation. Someone called a Guardian dropped her off.
    • She came in the front door but now she uses the back. The Commander's Wife, not a Martha, let her in grudgingly.
    • The narrator doesn't speak to the Commander's Wife, but watches her smoke. Smoking is illegal and the narrator isn't supposed to have alcohol or coffee either.
    • The Commander's Wife and the narrator talk. We learn that this is the narrator's third assignment; the first two didn't work out. The Commander's Wife lays down the ground rules: stay out of the way, treat this as just business, and leave her husband alone.
    • The narrator thinks they wouldn't have liked each other in the life before. She recognizes the Commander's Wife as a woman called Serena Joy, who was on a Gospel TV show the narrator watched when she was little.
  • Chapter 4

    Shopping

    • The narrator leaves the house, passing the driveway, where a Guardian named Nick is washing the Commander's fancy car. Nick has a cigarette. He lives there and works for them but has a little bit of an attitude. The narrator is suspicious of him.
    • Their eyes meet and he winks at her. She's not sure what this means. He could be an Eye (a spy).
    • She gets to the street corner and waits, thinking of Aunt Lydia.
    • Another woman arrives, dressed the same as the narrator. They greet each other and go into town. They have to travel in twos to keep tabs on each other.
    • This woman, Ofglen, has been meeting the narrator for two weeks. Before that, she met another woman, and she doesn't know what happened to her.
    • Their chat reveals they are Handmaids and their country is at war. As they walk, they pass some men called Guardians of the Faith, who are like policemen-spies. They are overzealous and killed a woman the previous week.
    • Rita and Cora talked about this, criticizing it.
    • The women show the guards their passes to get through a barrier, and one tries to look at the narrator. This is forbidden but she enjoys it. She thinks of forbidden actions.
    • As they walk away, she sways her hips to taunt the men, who have no outlets for their sexual urges.
  • Chapter 5

    Shopping

    • They are now in the city of Gilead. This used to be a normal city, but now it looks eerily quiet and clean. There aren't any kids.
    • The narrator thinks about how she used to talk with Luke about buying a house and having a family, a freedom that's now a thing of the past.
    • They pass other women, Marthas and Econowives. She remembers how women used to be free to do things like go to laundromats. Now they are safeguarded and imprisoned.
    • They pass a store called Lilies, where they get their dresses, or habits. There aren't any words on the signs anymore because the society doesn't think women should read.
    • They wait in line to make purchases at Milk and Honey. The store has oranges, but the narrator can't buy them because she doesn't have the right tokens. Shopping is one of the only times when she might be able to see someone from her past life. She thinks of her friend Moira.
    • Two handmaids enter, one of whom is pregnant. Everyone in the store is focused on her. She's lucky but in danger; children are rare commodities.
    • Ofglen and the narrator pay for their food with tokens. As they leave, the narrator recognizes the pregnant woman. People called her Ofwarren, but her name was Janine.
    • The narrator and Ofglen go to All Flesh, where they get chicken and steak. They don't get shopping bags, which the narrator used to save. This memory makes her think of Luke and a small girl who was seemingly their daughter. The memory hurts her and she forces herself to stop thinking about it.
    • Outside some Japanese tourists pass by and gawk at them. The women are wearing short skirts and high heels, which are forbidden in the narrator's society.
    • The narrator and Ofglen refuse to let their picture be taken, and the narrator tells them they are happy.
  • Chapter 6

    Shopping

    • On the way home they walk past the church because it will take longer.
    • Their headdresses keep them from seeing very much, but they get peeks of the natural world. They pass by buildings that have been repurposed, a subway they can't use, and the church, which is now a museum. They stop at the Wall, where you can't go in or out.
    • On the Wall there are six dead bodies—men who have been hanged. The narrator calls this a Men's Salvaging. The men have bags over their heads, but their faces are somewhat visible. They're wearing white coats, which means they were doctors who practiced abortions before the war. Although abortion used to be legal, they've been tracked down and punished as a warning.
    • The narrator is relieved because Luke wasn't a doctor, so he might be safe.
    • The narrator focuses on one face, which has blood on it. She and Ofglen don't look at each other.
  • Chapter 7

    Night

    • At night, the narrator gets to be by herself. She has to be very still but at least she can think.
    • She remembers hanging out with her friend Moira when they were in college, wearing makeup, getting to go out, and drinking.
    • Then she thinks of going to a park with her mother to watch people burn magazines. The narrator gets to help, even though she's little. The magazines are porn.
    • Then she has a memory blank. What happened? She was restrained, screaming. Someone told her she was not suitable. She saw a young girl with a strange woman in strange clothes taken away.
    • The narrator says she wishes this were a story so she could change the outcome. She has to tell it, not write it, because that's too dangerous. She has no audience, so she'll invent one.
  • Chapter 8

    Waiting Room

    • More bodies appear on the Wall: a priest and two Gender Treachery practitioners. The narrator tells Ofglen they should leave.
    • Ofglen says, "It's a beautiful May day" (8.7). The narrator responds abstractly while remembering talking with Luke about the origin of the word Mayday. It's something ships called for, for help. He said it was from the French m'aidez, or "help me."
    • Ofglen and the narrator pass a funeral march of three women, all Econowives. They are conducting a funeral for a fetus that died at just a few months.
    • They keep walking and part ways. It seems like Ofglen's about to say something when they part, but she doesn't.
    • The narrator pauses by Nick on her way inside. He asks her a question, but she just nods.
    • She goes inside and thinks about Serena Joy. She doesn't like the name and knows it's fake. She also knows there was an assassination attempt on Serena Joy, who used to be famous years ago. She preached about women staying in the home. Luke found her amusing but the narrator thought she was frightening.
    • Serena Joy is becoming less and less beautiful and doesn't greet the narrator at all when she passes.
    • The narrator recalls how Aunt Lydia said the Wives were more dangerous than the husbands, and that Handmaids should feel for them. Aunt Lydia said the future was "in [their] hands."
    • The narrator takes her basket into the kitchen, where Rita is chopping carrots. Its smells remind her of her own kitchen and motherhood. She tells Rita about the oranges.
    • Rita takes her to the kitchen and says it's bath day. Cora comes in. They talk about the chicken and the chores, including giving the narrator her bath.
    • The narrator leaves, passing through the hallway on her way to her room.
    • She sees the Commander. He's out of context and shouldn't be there; she doesn't know how to respond or what to do.
    • She thinks he was in her room, unused to thinking of it as hers.
  • Chapter 9

    Waiting Room

    • So the narrator accepts the room as her own, although it's obviously not where she would choose to be.
    • She thinks of how another woman lived there before her. When she arrived, she explored the room as slowly as she could. She thinks of hotel rooms, how she used to meet Luke at them before they got married, when he was with his first wife. They loved each other.
    • She can't think about him too much, so she thinks about the rooms, where they were free to do as they liked.
    • The narrator divides the room into sections, and each day she looks at a new one. One day she finds sex stains on the mattress. This proof of love (or at least sex) made her think of Luke. The room is supposed to be suicide-proof.
    • When she explores the cupboard, she notices hooks you could hang yourself on and some writing scratched on the floor, maybe in Latin: Nolite te bastardes carborundorum. She savors this piece of text from the past and imagines the woman who wrote it to be like her friend Moira from before the war.
    • After the narrator discovers the message, she asks Rita what happened to the woman before her. Rita doesn't reveal much, just that there'd been a few women there before her, and not all of them had stayed for the two years they were supposed to. Rita won't say what happened to the last woman... just that "she didn't work out" (9.26).
  • Chapter 10

    Waiting Room

    • The narrator sings little songs to herself in her head—"Amazing Grace" and so on—although they're forbidden now. Very little music exists in the current world.
    • It's really hot. Soon she'll be able to wear the summer version of her outfit but still be covered up. She thinks of Aunt Lydia's lectures and about how she should behave.
    • The narrator flashes back to Moira, who wanted to have an "underwhore" party when they were young, where they'd trade cheap lingerie. They laughed and smoked and were free.
    • The narrator recalls how they acted like things were normal then, just as everybody acts like things are normal now. They ignored crimes that didn't happen to them.
    • She hears a car outside. She sits on a pillow embroidered with the word "FAITH." This is all she has to read.
    • She looks out and sees Nick followed by the Commander. She's close enough that she could throw something at him. She remembers throwing water bombs at boys with Moira back in college. She watches the Commander's car drive away and tries to define her feelings about him.
  • Chapter 11

    Waiting Room

    • The narrator thinks about how she went to the doctor the previous day. It's the only activity she gets to do by herself, and even then she's not alone. A Guardian drives her there.
    • She has to visit the doctor each month to have her fertility and health checked. In the waiting room, all the other women are dressed in red too.
    • When it's the narrator's turn, she goes into a white room and gives a urine sample. Then she undresses and gets under a sheet. A second sheet covers her face so the doctor won't see it.
    • The doctor comes in to examine her. He speaks to her, even though he shouldn't. While he performs his invasive examination, he offers to help her. He lifts up the sheet and looks at her face.
    • At first she thinks he means help her with news of Luke. But he's offering to have sex with her so maybe she'll get pregnant. He insinuates that the man she works for is sterile and that he could help her—he's done it for other people.
    • It's dangerous to say that men are sterile, because the society blames infertility exclusively on women.
    • The narrator thinks vaguely that if she can't have children, she might die.
    • The doctor seems genuine, but it's hard to tell. He could be a spy, and if they got caught, it would mean death. The narrator has to be cautious, though, because he could report her if she doesn't give him what he wants.
    • He leaves and she feels anxious but isn't sure why. The memory ends.
  • Chapter 12

    Waiting Room

    • Back at the Commander's the narrator describes the bathroom. It's all blue and has been safety-proofed, just like the bedroom. Cora waits outside like a guard while the narrator bathes.
    • The narrator feels weird in what's a "luxury" (12.2) and strange being naked. She feels stranger still that the way she used to dress would be immodest now.
    • She relaxes in the bath and imagines her daughter is there. She refuses to believe her daughter could be dead and thinks back to how someone tried to adopt her when she was a baby. They were in a supermarket when a crazy woman grabbed the girl and tried to run away, saying it was her baby. The narrator called for help and they got the baby back. At the time, she says, it seemed out of the ordinary.
    • The memory of the little girl vanishes, and the narrator thinks back to the mother she used to be. All their possessions are gone, too.
    • Aunt Lydia had told her to treasure being poor and having nothing. The narrator worries that her daughter will think she is dead. She thinks her daughter would be about eight now, which means it's been three years since she was taken.
    • Cora asks the narrator to hurry up. She cleans herself and notices that her ankle has been marked with a tattoo. She gets dressed again and goes back to her room.
    • Cora brings the narrator dinner in her room. The food is nutritious but bland. The narrator knows she's lucky to have this food, but it makes her feel nauseous. She might get in trouble if she doesn't eat, so she forces herself to.
    • She thinks about the polite meal going on downstairs, where the Commander's Wife doesn't have to eat her whole meal if she doesn't want to.
    • The narrator steals a bit of butter off the plate and hides it in one of her shoes.
  • Chapter 13

    Nap

    • The narrator is bored. She sits in her room, waiting, and thinks about 19th-century paintings of harem women, about how women waiting is or isn't sexy. She compares herself to a pig getting fattened or a caged rat.
    • Lying on the rug, she does pelvic exercises and thinks of the training she got from Aunt Lydia.
    • When she was being held in the gymnasium, they had naps for an hour every afternoon. Lots of the women slept. The narrator thinks they might have been drugged.
    • After she'd been there a couple weeks, her friend Moira arrived. She'd been captured, beaten, and brought to the Center with the other women. She and the narrator couldn't speak to one another, but they managed to make plans to meet in the bathroom one afternoon.
    • The narrator experiences the next memory in the present tense. They wait. Their meeting time is during Testifying in front of Aunt Helena and Aunt Lydia that afternoon.
    • Janine testifies about being raped and having an abortion. The narrator's not sure if it's true or not. Aunt Helena encourages them to all blame Janine and say it was her fault.
    • Janine had testified the same story the previous week and cried. The other women made fun of her, and the narrator was ashamed.
    • After Janine is done talking, the narrator asks to go to the bathroom. This has to be timed just right. Dolores was forbidden when she asked once, then she wet the bed and was punished. The Aunts hurt her but the other captives don't know what happened.
    • The narrator makes it to meet Moira in the bathroom that used to be for men. She is "ridiculously happy" (13.43).
    • The memory ends and the narrator is back in her body. She worries about getting her period, because that means she's failed. Previously, she'd been able to think of her body in different ways and to own it. Now it's just a uterus encased in flesh. Each month she feels awful.
    • The narrator sees herself in the apartment she used to share with Luke. It's completely empty except for the closet, which is full of clothes that don't belong to her. She sees Luke but he can't hear her. She worries that he's dead.
    • Then the narrator flashes to another memory, where she and her daughter are running away. The daughter is tired and sad, and she doesn't understand what they're doing. Someone shoots at them and they hide. The narrator tries to protect her daughter but can't.
    • People are upon them. They grab the narrator and she watches as her daughter is carried away.
    • A bell rings and the narrator wakes up, hearing Cora at the door.
  • Chapter 14

    Household

    • The bell keeps ringing and the narrator goes into the sitting room, which she describes as weirdly, domestically furnished and reflecting a great deal of wealth.
    • The room's smells remind her of young girls, and she wishes she could take something secretly to hide in her own room.
    • She sits in her assigned position and waits for other people to come in.
    • Rita and Cora come in grudgingly. The narrator thinks it's her fault. Nick enters too. The narrator thinks his foot touches hers but isn't sure. Then Serena Joy comes in.
    • While they're waiting, Serena Joy turns on the TV. The narrator is excited by the rare opportunity to watch the news. She reveals that it's the only positive aspect of nights like this, which have Ceremonies.
    • The news program reveals the war is still going, but only shows wins for the side in charge. In the Appalachians, Baptists are being persecuted and a prisoner has been caught.
    • The narrator tries not to believe the news anchor, who looks like a nice old man. He says a spy ring has been cracked and Quakers have been captured. This is followed by an image of Detroit, where over 3,000 people are being resettled—the narrator doesn't know why.
    • Serena Joy turns off the TV, and the narrator has a flashback.
    • In the flashback the narrator has a real name. She doesn't reveal what it is, but it's not the same as her name in this household, which is Offred. She treasures her old name and hopes to have it back someday.
    • The narrator tries not to cry while she remembers herself and Luke trying to escape with their daughter. They said they were going on a picnic, but actually they had forged papers and were trying to cross the border... which is illegal and very dangerous.
    • On their way to the border, they get through the first inspection without a problem. As they keep going, the narrator worries, even though Moira would have told her not to. Luke seems happy and relieved, which makes the narrator even more concerned.
  • Chapter 15

    Household

    • The flashback is over and the Commander comes into the room after knocking first. He nods to them, and then gets out the Bible, which is usually locked away. He's going to read it to the others, who are not allowed to read. He asks for some water before beginning.
    • While they wait for someone to get water, the narrator watches the Commander and thinks about what it means for a man to be watched by women rather than the reverse.
    • After the water comes, the Commander reads to them from Genesis, about Adam, Noah, Rachel, and Leah. The narrator is familiar with these stories from the Center, where they heard them every day.
    • In another flashback, the narrator remembers the Center, where they had to listen to Genesis at breakfast and the Beatitudes at lunch. Since women aren't supposed to read, they play a recorded version of a man reading. This version has been altered, the narrator thinks, to include "Blessed are the silent."
    • On this particular day in the narrator's memory, she meets Moira in the bathroom during lunch. The two argue. Moira is going to fake being sick so she can get out of the center, but the narrator doesn't want her to—she's afraid of the consequences. Before they can finish their conversation an Aunt interrupts them, and they touch fingers through a hole in the wall before separating.
    • The memory ends and the narrator listens to the Commander finish reading about Leah, while Serena Joy cries quietly. The Commander says they should all pray.
    • The narrator prays with the Latin words she found in her closet. She imagines the woman who wrote them looks like Moira and returns to her flashback.
    • She watches Moira get taken out of the Center on a stretcher. That night Moira is brought back by force. The narrator watches as Moira is taken into a scary room. It's not clear whether the narrator ever went in the room herself or just knows what happened there from watching others go in. When Moira is brought out of the room, her feet have been beaten to a bloody pulp.
    • To try to help, the narrator and some other women steal sugar to give to her; it's the best they can do.
    • The narrator ends her flashback but is still thinking about Moira while she prays.
    • The Commander finishes his prayer and this part of the Ceremony concludes.
  • Chapter 16

    Household

    • In the next part of the Ceremony, the narrator, Serena Joy, and the Commander are in a bedroom. The narrator has on all her clothes except her underwear, while the other two are basically fully clothed, and she is lying between Serena Joy's legs. The two women are holding hands while the Commander has sexual intercourse with the narrator.
    • The narrator states that she is not in control, but that the Commander is not raping her, because she was offered a choice and she chose this over the alternative.
    • The narrator thinks that it's ironic how this ménage a trois, which in prewar time would have been a male fantasy, is completely without love, passion, or pleasure. Everyone is just uncomfortably doing his or her job, and they check out until it's over.
    • The narrator wonders if she'd have a better time if the Commander were more attractive, and reflects that he's better than the Commander she had before, who smelled bad.
    • The Commander finishes and leaves. Serena Joy tells the narrator to leave too. The narrator wonders who is worse off in this whole process.
  • Chapter 17

    Household

    • Back in her room, such as it is, the narrator gets ready for bed. She takes the butter out of her shoe and uses it as a moisturizer. She says she does this whenever she gets the chance; it's a strategy she learned at the Center. By doing this, she keeps alive the hope that she might become free and reclaim her body.
    • She lies on her bed but cannot fall asleep, so she goes to look out the window. She thinks about how much she misses Luke. She misses her old self and decides to steal something to remind herself of who she was.
    • The narrator goes downstairs, even though this is breaking all kinds of rules. She is about to steal a flower from one of the vases—all she can manage—when she realizes she isn't alone.
    • The door closes and she's trapped. A voice tells her not to shout, and she realizes it's Nick. They kiss, violently. Both would like to do more, but they know it's too dangerous.
    • The narrator tries to tell herself that Luke wouldn't mind if she enjoyed being touched, but she knows it's not true.
    • Nick tells her the Commander wants to "see [her]" in his office the next day. The narrator's not sure what that means, but they separate and she goes back upstairs.
  • Chapter 18

    Night

    • Later that night the narrator is in bed thinking about Luke. She remembers being in bed with him while she was pregnant and misses the sex they had and the love that went with it. She feels lost, just like the people she loved are lost.
    • There's no passion left; the narrator can't even pleasure herself. She thinks this society has withered her like a flower.
    • She runs through a few scenarios of what might have happened to Luke. In the first, his body lies in the grass after being hit by the shots that were fired at them when the narrator was taken.
    • In the second, he's in a prison somewhere, abused but alive.
    • In the third, the narrator sees Luke as having evaded death and capture. Despite all odds, he's now somewhere warm and safe, plotting to rescue her and their daughter so that they can be a family again.
    • The narrator knows that any of these scenarios could be true. She doesn't know what to believe anymore.
  • Chapter 19

    Birth Day

    • The narrator is dreaming that she leaves the Commander's house and goes home to meet her daughter. When she hugs her daughter she realizes she must be dreaming, which makes her cry. Then she awakens in another dream, where she is a child and her mother visits her.
    • Then she really wakes up. She wonders if she's being drugged and decides she's not crazy yet.
    • She looks at her "FAITH" pillow and wonders if there are others in the set, then goes downstairs and sits in a chair. There she thinks about the meaning of "chair" while having a breakfast of eggs and toast.
    • The narrator meditates on the egg. Her situation makes her doubt even the small pleasure she finds in the egg. She wishes she had something of her own.
    • Then she hears a siren; it's a red ambulance. Cora gets her and she gets ready to go. The narrator speeds outside and gets in the Birthmobile. Three other Handmaids are also in it. One of them, crying tears of joy, hugs the narrator. The person giving birth is Ofwarren (Janine).
    • On birth days the Handmaids have more freedom than usual.
    • The narrator hopes the baby will be healthy and whole. Even if it's not, abortion is illegal so Ofwarren would have to have it anyway. Pollution, catastrophes, and "mutant" syphilis have led to widespread infertility, so for a baby to be born unhealthy, as an Unbaby, is a tragedy.
    • Some women, rather than be in the Handmaid's position, made themselves infertile. The narrator remembers Aunt Lydia lecturing the Center women about this.
    • The narrator flashes back to another lecture by Aunt Lydia at the Center, when she told them about their special task. The narrator focuses on graffiti on her desk while Aunt Lydia talks.
    • Aunt Lydia says the women are like pearls, and the narrator thinks about how she will make fun of that with Moira.
    • The flashback ends, and the Birthmobile arrives. The narrator and the other women get out. Doctors have to wait outside; they can only attend the birth if there's an emergency.
    • The narrator remembers Aunt Lydia saying how awful births with doctors and technology used to be. Now it's all natural, all women, with no anesthetic. At the Center they heard about that part of Genesis every day at lunch.
    • Another car (this one blue) is approaching, with all the Wives in it. The narrator imagines that Serena Joy has been to this house before, that Ofwarren (Janine) got special treatment, but that the Wives treated her like a pet or a dog. That afterwards, they'd commiserate with each other about how tough it was for them. She imagines Ofwarren sent upstairs, not thinking at all.
  • Chapter 20

    Birth Day

    • The Handmaids go upstairs to the birthing room, passing the dining room. The Wives have gathered around Warren's Wife, who's acting like she's in labor. The Commander isn't there.
    • The Handmaids go into the master bedroom, where Janine is in labor. Women, including Aunt Elizabeth, are preparing her for a ritual birth.
    • The whole neighborhood is there.
    • The narrator remembers Aunt Lydia saying it would be toughest for them, but she knows that's because future Handmaids won't remember a time when it wasn't like this.
    • In another flashback, the narrator remembers how they were shown movies at the Center. Aunt Lydia picked pornographic torture films to show how much better things had become (Moira said they were faked) and "Unwoman documentar[ies]" (20.14).
    • During one Unwoman documentary the narrator wonders where Moira is, because she wasn't at breakfast that day. She can't ask anybody, though.
    • When the film starts, the narrator is surprised to see a young version of her own mother at a protest rally, where it looks like they were advocating for abortion rights. Even though women at the Center aren't supposed to read, the writing on posters in the film is visible. The narrator's mother is present and then fades out.
    • The narrator thinks back to conversations with her mother and Luke. Her mother had her (the narrator) when she was thirty-seven, which seemed old then, even though her mother felt young. Her mother was determined to raise her alone, not depending on men or worrying about money. She was almost violently feminist.
    • Even when she was older, she still didn't want to depend on men, whom she thought were mostly worthless. At dinner with Luke and the narrator, she said even the narrator's father was worthless. She and Luke would tease each other by making chauvinistic statements.
    • Even though the narrator and her mother disagreed frequently, the narrator misses her and the way things were.
  • Chapter 21

    Birth Day

    • Back at the birthing, it's too warm and too loud. The Handmaids chant while Janine struggles in labor. The narrator sees Ofglen. A Martha brings refreshments, and while they're being passed out, the Handmaid next to the narrator reveals that her name is Alma. The narrator asks Alma if she's heard of Moira, but she hasn't. Then Aunt Elizabeth sees them so they have to stop.
    • The narrator wishes she could ask about Luke, but no one would have any answers for her.
    • The narrator gets swept up in the chant and the birth. The women say Janine is in "transition." They assist her with peeing and then Janine continues to walk, before crying out in pain.
    • They turn out the lights and put Janine on the Birthing Stool, and the Handmaids watch. This Commander's Wife comes in and sits behind Janine.
    • The baby is pushed out. It's a girl, which is not as good as a boy, but it's healthy. Everyone's happy, and the narrator remembers her own—and Luke's—happiness when their daughter was born.
    • The Handmaids have to help Janine while the Wives coo over the baby. The Wife names her Angela.
    • Janine will get to nurse the baby for a little, the narrator says, before getting a new assignment and going back to the drawing board, leaving the baby behind. Because she had a baby successfully she won't be sent to the Colonies.
    • The Handmaids are led out and back to the Birthmobile. The narrator tells a nearby doctor that things went well.
    • In the car the women are sad and think about the babies they've lost or never had. The narrator thinks of her mother and how now there is some sort of "women's culture."
  • Chapter 22

    Birth Day

    • Weary, the narrator returns home. She goes to her room and lies down but is too fatigued and overwrought to sleep. Too tired to think about her own story, she thinks about Moira's.
    • The narrator has pieced it together from different people's accounts—Alma, Dolores, Janine, and Aunt Lydia.
    • The narrator imagines how the information initially came out, which was when Aunt Lydia took Janine into her office and confided in her. The narrator didn't like Janine much, but she was still an ally on some level.
    • Aunt Lydia would have told Janine that Moira had escaped.
    • Moira had asked for a bathroom break. She called out to Aunt Elizabeth, who was on guard, that the toilet was overflowing.
    • When Aunt Elizabeth came in and went to take a look, Moira threatened her with a weapon she'd made out of part of the toilet, forcing her to give up her weapons and go downstairs into the furnace room. There, Moira changed clothes with Aunt Elizabeth, gagged her, and tied her up. Dressed as an Aunt, Moira walked out of the building and out into the world unchallenged.
    • The narrator makes up an interchange in which Moira told Aunt Elizabeth to be grateful that she hadn't killed or tortured her before walking out.
    • Aunt Lydia asked Janine to report on any possible news, and while none of the other women really trusted Janine, they were grateful for the news she gave them about Moira.
    • Janine probably told Dolores, who told someone else.
    • The narrator and other women at the Center became envious and scared of Moira, but they also lived vicariously through her. They worried she would be captured and punished, but as of this point in the story, the narrator hasn't heard anything about her showing up again.
  • Chapter 23

    Birth Day

    • The narrator explains that what she is telling is a "reconstruction," "all of it." She hopes she'll escape someday and says when she does, she'll restructure her experience once more. She wonders if maybe the act of forgiveness is the greatest power.
    • She thinks of the Commander telling her he wants to kiss her, and explains what happened leading up to that.
    • After the birth, she falls asleep and is woken up for dinner by Cora. Cora reveals that she'd like it if they could have a baby in their house too, and the narrator kind of hopes they don't. She remembers what Nick told her and is freaked out again.
    • That evening she goes down to the Commander's office, which is completely illegal. He's not supposed to desire her; she's just supposed to be a vehicle for childbirth.
    • If they're caught, she could be in real trouble, but if she doesn't obey him she could be in trouble too. She's intrigued, so she goes down and knocks on the forbidden door.
    • Inside she sees a "normal" room full of books. She's scared.
    • The Commander says hello, which people don't say anymore, and she doesn't know how to respond. He smiles and invites her to sit down before asking her to play Scrabble with him.
    • The narrator is amazed that that's what he wants but agrees. She takes great pleasure in getting to spell different words. They play two games and he asks her to leave, then he asks her to kiss him.
    • The narrator fantasizes briefly about turning part of the toilet into a weapon, just like Moira did, waiting for the next encounter, and killing the Commander. Then she says she's only thinking about it now, in her reconstruction, and didn't think it then at all.
    • Instead she briefly kisses him, and he asks her to do it again, for real.
  • Chapter 24

    Night

    • The narrator goes back to her room. She keeps her dress on because it helps her think. She wishes she had perspective and is worried she's losing hold of herself. She calls herself Offred.
    • She thinks about what she knows about herself—hair color, height—and how she only has one more round as a Handmaid.
    • She imagines that Aunt Lydia would have advised her to take advantage of the Commander by preying on his sexual needs, but she can't focus on how to do that. Yet he's giving her an opportunity, which could be an escape or a trap, and she needs to take advantage of it.
    • She can't believe he wanted to play Scrabble and make out.
    • The narrator remembers a documentary she saw on TV with her mother when she was just a child. The subject of the documentary was a formerly beautiful woman who had been the mistress of a prominent Nazi. The Nazi was supposed to be a terrible man, and the woman said she didn't know about the concentration camps.
    • In the documentary the woman was very ill with emphysema, but she still tried to present herself well by wearing a lot of makeup. The narrator fantasizes about how the woman might have talked herself into becoming the Nazi's mistress. A few days after she was interviewed for the documentary, the narrator tells us, the woman committed suicide.
    • The narrator is about to get undressed when she feels herself overcome with hysterical laughter. If people heard her, who knows what the consequences would be. She stumbles into her closet and laughs into the red cloak. When her laughter stops, she finds the writing the other woman carved into the wall, and breathes.
  • Chapter 25

    Soul Scrolls

    • The narrator wakes up the next day when Cora drops a tray and it smashes. She dropped the tray because she was startled to see the narrator asleep in the closet and was worried she was dead.
    • An egg, part of the narrator's breakfast, fell on the floor when Cora dropped the tray. The narrator says she wasn't hungry, so Cora won't have to explain how it fell or what happened. Cora is hopeful that the narrator's pregnant, but she's not. They have a short moment of unity.
    • The narrator then says that was in May, and now a few months have passed. She observes Serena Joy's growing garden. She worries about summertime because it makes her want things more, compared to winter.
    • Then the narrator describes how things are going between her and the Commander. They rendezvous in his office a couple of times a week. Each week it's different. She watches for signs from Nick to see if she should go or not.
    • She has to be careful of Serena Joy. Sometimes she's out visiting friends, which makes things easier.
    • On a side note, she says Commanders' Wives get sick a lot, while Handmaids and Marthas can't afford to. When Cora was really sick, she had to pretend to be well. Whenever Serena Joy visits a sick friend, the narrator has to go see the Commander.
    • Then the narrator talks about those visits. It's kind of a letdown that the Commander wants to play Scrabble instead of asking for kinky sex, but in another way it's just as weird for her.
    • He can't put his desires into words.
    • The second time she goes to see him, they play two games of Scrabble again. Then he gives her a present: an old copy of Vogue magazine. The magazine is dangerous contraband. The narrator reflects on how she used magazines casually in the past.
    • Although reading a magazine is forbidden, being in the Commander's room is even worse. The narrator reads the magazine, which she feels pleases the Commander. She asks him a few questions and realizes that he's interested in her because he and his wife have grown apart.
    • The next time they meet she asks him for hand lotion. It takes a while but he gets some for her. He doesn't realize that she can't take it out of the room because someone else would find it. The narrator gets angry at this but has to keep it under control because she's at the Commander's mercy.
  • Chapter 26

    Soul Scrolls

    • A few days later they have another Ceremony. This time, though, the narrator's more uncomfortable. Before she could just check out and treat the Ceremony like another unpleasant experience. After hanging out with the Commander, though, she can't do that anymore. He seems to have changed, too.
    • The narrator feels envious of, and shamefaced around, Serena Joy. She still has control over her, but now the narrator has something the Wife doesn't. She tells the Commander he can't act differently during the Ceremony or Serena Joy might figure things out.
    • She flashes back to something Aunt Lydia used to say: women would be better off in a few years when they'd been Handmaids for a while. Conditions would improve. These were among the small promises made to placate the women at the Center.
    • The narrator thinks about the Commander again, deciding that she's basically his mistress. That kind of relationship hasn't changed, even though so much else has. She worries briefly that Serena Joy might know.
    • More importantly, she likes being treated as more than an object used for fertility; the Commander reminds her that she's not nothing.
  • Chapter 27

    Soul Scrolls

    • The narrator and Ofglen stroll outside in the summertime. They are shopping, and buy fish at Loaves and Fishes. Fish is rare now, and there's some talk that they are becoming extinct.
    • The two women are hot and tired. The narrator remembers an ice cream store that used to be on this street and how she would take her daughter there.
    • The women walk over to the Wall, where there are no executed people visible today. In a way, not seeing anyone there is hard for the narrator, because at least if there's a body she can tell herself it's not Luke's. She believes Luke is imprisoned on the other side of the Wall. One of the buildings back there is the library, which is now forbidden.
    • The women turn around and walk by another store called Soul Scrolls, where you can buy prayers. They look in the window and can see each other's reflections.
    • Ofglen asks whether the narrator thinks the machines that print the prayers can really reach God. This is a dangerous question. The narrator could play it safe, but she doesn't. She says no.
    • This is like an exchange of code, and the two realize they can talk to each other openly.
    • It's a relief to the narrator to talk to someone else who's working against the system. Ofglen says it's less dangerous to talk on their walks than anywhere else, and that she's not alone. The narrator briefly wonders if Ofglen's trying to trap her, but it feels good to have hope again.
    • They get back to the busy main street and see a scary event. Two Eyes (spies) grab a man off the street, beat him, and take him away in a black van. The narrator is just glad they didn't grab her.
  • Chapter 28

    Soul Scrolls

    • The narrator is back home. She's supposed to take a nap but she's too wound up. She has a small fan in her room and thinks about how Moira would know how to take it apart to use as a weapon, but she doesn't.
    • The narrator wonders what Moira would say about her situation. She thinks back to a conversation they had before all of the societal changes. In this flashback Moira criticizes the narrator for being with Luke, who is married to another woman. The narrator responds that it isn't fair for Moira to criticize her because she has become a lesbian.
    • They are in the narrator's kitchen during this talk. They fight about whether a world without men is possible. The narrator says Moira was her dearest friend, then changes her verb to "is."
    • The narrator describes a second flashback, when she worked in a library and waited for Luke's divorce to be finalized. She remembers how she used to have a job and how now that's such a foreign thing for a woman.
    • The narrator compares women with jobs to using paper money, both of which are now obsolete. She remembers her mother showing her paper money. The narrator speculates that the political coup was possible because all the money was electronic.
    • What originally happened, at the start of this governmental change, was that the president and Congress were all assassinated, the army took over, and they stopped following the Constitution. The narrator reflects about how everyone sort of accepted this and didn't try to riot or revolt.
    • Moira warned the narrator that things would get worse, but the narrator didn't know what she meant.
    • The narrator describes how conditions worsened, identification became more important, and porn became illegal.
    • One day the narrator commiserated about the situation with a woman who sold her cigarettes. The next day she went to the store and the woman was gone; a man was working there instead. Luke had taken their small daughter to school.
    • The man working at the cigarette store tells the narrator she can't use her account to buy anything. She watches in disbelief as the man tries her account number again and, even though she has plenty of money in it, it freezes.
    • She says she'll call the credit card company later. At work she keeps calling but can't get through. That afternoon her boss comes in and says women can't work there anymore; it's a new law. There are other men there with guns, and the women are forced to leave. They don't know what's going on.
    • The narrator goes back to her empty house and isn't sure what to do. She tries to call her mother and can't get through, then finally gets to Moira.
    • Moira arrives at the narrator's house and they have drinks while the narrator tells her what happened. Moira says all women's bank accounts have been frozen, and that they're screwed. The narrator's money will go to Luke, while Moira will find a gay man to help her access hers. The narrator thinks about how Moira is a little pleased that she had predicted this terrible thing and been right about it.
    • The narrator picks her daughter up and they meet Luke at their house. They fight, as he comforts her and she says he can't understand her situation.
    • Later the narrator realizes the men with guns hadn't been from the regular army; they were something else.
    • The narrator reveals that some people protested, but not as many as you might think. Protesters were killed. She didn't protest because Luke said it wouldn't help. Instead she sat inside and cried.
    • From this flashback, the narrator moves to an earlier one involving her mother. The narrator is fourteen in this memory and her mother had been protesting in a march for women's rights and abortion rights. Her mother had been hurt. She came home with some friends and the narrator was embarrassed. The narrator remembers how her mother would tell her she was a needed kid. The narrator thinks about how she wishes she could tell her mother they did okay.
    • The memory ends, and the narrator sees Nick walking around the house. He gives a signal, which means she has to go to the Commander. She wonders why Nick assists the Commander, what's in it for him, and whether he's trying to get anything on her.
    • Back to another flashback: Luke wants to have sex with the narrator the night she gets fired. The news has already changed her, though; she doubts him, and herself. She wonders if he doesn't mind having more power than she does, or getting to act like she belongs to him. She never gets to talk with him about how this really makes him feel.
  • Chapter 29

    Soul Scrolls

    • The narrator and Commander are sitting across from each other in his office. They're both pretty relaxed. They are finishing up a Scrabble game, which she has won. He asks her if she would like to read something. She's been getting to read secretly during their meetings, which is better than sex.
    • She asks if they can talk instead. She prods him to talk so she won't have to. She asks him what he does and he says he's sort of like a scientist.
    • Finally she gets up the nerve to ask him what "Nolite te bastardes carborundorum" means. She writes it down for him. Getting to write again fills her with a wave of power.
    • The Commander says it's like nonsense Latin. It's a joke phrase, meaning "don't let the bastards grind you down" (29.40).
    • The narrator realizes that the woman who was handmaid before her must have learned this from the Commander. She asks about her predecessor, and the Commander says she killed herself after the Wife found out.
    • The narrator realizes what this is all about for the Commander: he "want[s] [her] life to be bearable to [her]" (29.54). She realizes she has a little power over him; he doesn't want her to die, and she knows he feels bad about what happened.
    • He asks her what she would like, and she says knowledge about what's happening.
  • Chapter 30

    Night

    • Yet another night in her room. The narrator sits by the window and thinks.
    • Nick walks across the garden and they look at each other for a moment yearningly. The narrator thinks about the differences between Nick and Luke.
    • The narrator has a flashback: she and Luke are in their house the night before they try to escape. He reminds her they have to do something with their cat or people will get suspicious. The narrator suddenly understands they will have to kill it. Luke does and the narrator doesn't watch.
    • She is saddened, looking back, because they thought they had so little, but compared to her situation now they really had so much.
    • The cat died for nothing because they got caught anyway. The narrator comes back to the present and wonders who turned them in. Remembering how someone had lied to them was the worst part.
    • The narrator tries to remember what her family looked like, but she can't hold onto it. She decides to pray instead.
    • She remembers how they used to pray at the Center under the Aunts' direction, how the women had to hope to be made empty so they could be filled with babies. Aunt Lydia wanted them to be in pain and Janine took it too far.
    • Now, at night, the narrator prays differently, trying to talk to God and wondering what God's name is. She asks for help, forgiveness, and assistance with temptation—how to keep from killing herself. She asks God for answers but does not receive them.
  • Chapter 31

    Jezebel's

    • The narrator wakes up and the nightmare that is her life continues. She says she can ask what calendar date it is (it's July 5th), but there's no point in counting down her time.
    • She puts on her shoes and reflects on how her body is aging. She thinks about Luke and how even fighting with him would be nice. She sits on her chair and waits for her egg breakfast.
    • Later that day she walks again with Ofglen from the church to the Wall. Today there are bodies hanging there, a Catholic's and another one with a "J" on it. The narrator wonders if this person is a Jew, then explains the religious prejudice in the country that forced all the Jews to leave. Whether they really got to, she doesn't know.
    • They keep walking so they can talk. They pass a building called Memorial Hall and the narrator thinks of Moira, who said once women couldn't go into it—men wanted to keep them out.
    • Ofglen tells the narrator that if she ever wants to get in touch with other people who are trying to resist the government, she should use their shared password: Mayday. Ofglen had tried it on the narrator before and now she tells her to only use it in an emergency.
    • The two part ways and the narrator passes by Nick—a signal—before she gets to the house.
    • She passes Serena Joy, who tells the narrator to stop and sit with her. Serena Joy asks the narrator to help her with her knitting.
    • This makes the narrator think about her mother, who didn't knit but made chains of safety pins.
    • Serena Joy asks the narrator whether she's making any pregnancy progress and suggests that the Commander isn't going to be able to impregnate her. For a moment they look at each other like equals.
    • Serena Joy suggests that the narrator should try to do it with another man and that she would help keep it a secret.
    • The narrator says not a doctor, then reflects that at her last appointment the doctor who had propositioned her wasn't there. Serena Joy says that's how Ofwarren (Janine) got pregnant, but suggests that they should use Nick.
    • The narrator realizes she's in danger whether she agrees or not, so she agrees. In exchange Serena Joy offers to try to get her a picture of her daughter. This both enrages and saddens the narrator, but she doesn't speak. She begins to feel hopeful.
    • Serena Joy gives her a cigarette—a rare treat—and tells her to go get a match.
  • Chapter 32

    Jezebel's

    • Inside, Rita is cutting up radishes and putting them in ice water. The narrator asks her for a match. At first Rita doesn't want to give it to her, but then she does. The matches are locked in a cupboard.
    • Rita gives the narrator an ice cube, which is unusual. The narrator saves her cigarette and her match and goes upstairs.
    • She's thinking about where to smoke her cigarette and how exciting it will be, when she pauses and realizes there are other things she could do with it. She thinks maybe she should eat the cigarette and save her match, so someday she could burn the house down.
    • She fakes napping.
    • Then she thinks about her meeting with the Commander the previous night. He had a drink, but she never does. They played silly Scrabble and he even turned on the radio for her, then they snuggled.
    • Ofglen has told the narrator that the Commander is really powerful.
    • Last night the Commander and the narrator had a talk about gender relations and how they affected the new world order. He says men were feeling emasculated by women working and having money, and that now that women are so restricted, men are more interested in sex.
    • He asks what she thinks about the way things have turned out.
    • She says she has no input. He tells her it made things better for some people, not for everyone.
    • Back at her naptime, the narrator wishes there would be a thunderstorm so the power would go out and she could go downstairs and have some human interaction with Rita and Cora.
    • The narrator looks up at the circle on the ceiling where the chandelier used to be, from which her predecessor hanged herself. She thinks about how the other handmaid found safety in death, and that she "feel[s] buried" (32.58).
  • Chapter 33

    Jezebel's

    • That afternoon the narrator and Ofglen go to a Prayvaganza.
    • She thinks about how she misses dandelions and her daughter.
    • The narrator, Ofglen, and other Handmaids line up in twos and pass through a checkpoint. They pass the river and go into the building where the Prayvaganza is going to take place. It's in a large courtyard. Other Wives, Marthas, Econowives, and Handmaids are there too.
    • The women are separated by ropes into their various classes.
    • Ofglen and the narrator kneel at the back of their group so they can talk a little. Ofglen points the narrator's attention to Janine, who's come in looking sad and is assigned to a new household. Ofglen reveals that the baby Janine had wasn't right and didn't make it. It was Janine's second baby; her first (pre-Center) died in her eighth month of pregnancy. Janine seems totally defeated.
    • Then Ofglen hints that Janine used a doctor to get pregnant this time, and the narrator wonders if Ofglen knows about the conversation she had with Serena Joy. The narrator wonders how Ofglen might know this, if Serena Joy told somebody. But what can she do? She's already agreed.
    • Then the narrator has a flashback to the women's Center. In the flashback she realizes one morning that Janine isn't getting dressed like they are all supposed to.
    • She notifies Alma and they go over to try to get Janine dressed. Moira goes too—she's recovering from being beaten after her first escape attempt.
    • Janine has lost it and is talking like she's a waitress in pre-Center life. Moira slaps her and tells her to snap out of it, warning her that if she keeps talking like that she'll be done in. The people in charge will just get rid of her like trash.
    • This gets through to Janine and she starts moving, even though she's still crying. Moira tells the narrator that Janine is a loose cannon and the narrator might have to help her if Moira's not there.
    • The narrator realizes that at that point Moira was probably already planning another escape.
  • Chapter 34

    Jezebel's

    • Back in the present, a Commander comes in to lead the Prayvaganza. The narrator can't imagine what he's like in bed.
    • He leads the people in prayer and a hymn. Then twenty Angels (soldiers) come in and mothers present them with twenty daughters in a marriage ceremony. The narrator wonders whether the girls will remember anything of the life they led before things changed.
    • She flashes back to a conversation she had with her Commander: in it, he says things are better now for women. They've removed the dating pool, doubt, and all that stuff. Now there's more respect.
    • The narrator says he left out love. He says arranged marriages have better odds of surviving.
    • In another brief memory, the narrator recalls Aunt Lydia saying the women in the Center can't think or talk about love.
    • She remembers that the Commander says that they've just returned things to the way they naturally should be.
    • Back at the Prayvaganza, the narrator explains that this one is for weddings. Sometimes they would have them for nuns who were becoming Handmaids, but there aren't that many nuns left now.
    • The Commander at the Prayvaganza keeps praying about how women should dress modestly and act soberly.
    • Ofglen tells the narrator that the Wives act hypocritically, while the narrator thinks about how the girls getting married have it worse than the Angels. She mentally advises them to sleep with their husbands silently and not complain.
    • The narrator then flashes back to a time at the Center when she and Moira are making fun of Aunt Lydia, who told them they have to stick together. Moira makes fun of Lydia and accuses her of having sex with Janine, abusing her power to make the women at the Center perform sexual favors for her. The narrator protests, but Moira says it helps them to talk this way.
    • Back at the Prayvaganza the narrator realizes this is true. So she imagines first-time sex for all these couples going really, really badly.
    • At the end of the Ceremony, as they're leaving, Ofglen quizzes the narrator about what she's doing with her Commander. The narrator implies they're having weird sex.
    • Ofglen asks the narrator to get whatever information she can.
  • Chapter 35

    Jezebel's

    • Back at the Commander's house, the narrator waits. She feels like an "invalid" and makes a play on the word, as in "not valid."
    • She has a flashback to when she and Luke and their daughter try to cross the border. They have fake passports. They get to the border and give them to a guard, who takes them inside a building. Their daughter sleeps in the back, Luke gets out to take a closer look, and the narrator smokes. She prays they'll get through.
    • Suddenly Luke jumps back in the car and speeds them away. Luke says the man with their passports had grabbed the phone.
    • The narrator says she doesn't want to talk about this anymore and stops. She rationalizes that she doesn't have to do anything. She thinks of her Latin phrase and how it didn't help her predecessor.
    • She wonders what the point of fighting is.
    • Back in another flashback, the narrator and the Commander talk about love. The narrator ponders how special it is, and how even when it's fleeting it's worth it. Even the scary stories you hear don't take away from its specialness.
    • The narrator considers how she might have broken up with Luke, but they never got the chance. She thinks about how if he'd died in battle she'd at least have a body. Then she scolds herself for referring to him as though he doesn't belong in her present anymore.
    • The narrator snaps back to the present and cries. She calls herself a "refugee from the past" (35.26).
    • A knock on the door and Serena Joy comes in. This is a surprise. She brings the narrator a Polaroid picture of her daughter.
    • The narrator thinks about how people like her won't be in pictures anymore.
    • Her daughter has grown a lot, and the narrator realizes she'll have forgotten her.
    • She's so hurt by the realization that her life is meaningless to her daughter that she wishes she hadn't seen the picture at all.
    • The narrator eats. She never has a knife.
  • Chapter 36

    Jezebel's

    • That night the narrator has to visit the Commander again. When she goes into his study, he's already started drinking. He tells her that he has a surprise for her.
    • The Commander takes out a present for the narrator and makes her guess what it is. When she can't, he reveals that it's a racy feminine outfit.
    • The narrator thinks about how those were all supposed to have been confiscated and burned, like the books. At first she protests about wearing it, but then gets kind of excited because of the danger.
    • He tells her to put on some makeup and that he's taking her out.
    • The dress isn't that flattering, and the makeup's not great, but the narrator makes it work. She's shy and the Commander is excited.
    • He gets out one of Serena Joy's cloaks and tells the narrator she's going to have to pretend she's a Wife when they go through the checkpoints. He has a fake pass for her and everything.
    • They drive through the night, and the narrator doesn't know where they're going.
    • Nick drives them but he doesn't acknowledge her, even though she's curious about what he's thinking. They get through the checkpoints with no problem. When they get to their destination, the Commander tells the narrator to lie down on the floor of the car while they go through the gateway.
    • They get through and arrive in the back of a building, in an alley. The Commander tells Nick to come back for them and takes off the narrator's cloak. Then he puts a tag around her wrist and leads her in.
    • The narrator thinks she looks silly, but it's too late. Moira would've called her stupid.
  • Chapter 37

    Jezebel's

    • They go through hallways with numbered rooms, then pass into a courtyard with a fountain. The narrator realizes where she is: it's a hotel she used to come to with Luke.
    • She's astounded to see so many women and to be able to look around freely.
    • She doesn't know what to think about the other women; they're breaking the law, but at least they're doing something. The Commander asks her if this reminds her of the past and she secretly disagrees. He tells her to act normal then starts taking her around and showing her off. He holds onto her the whole time.
    • They go to the lobby, where he asks her for her opinion of his club.
    • He tells her what they're doing there is natural, and that it serves men's needs.
    • The narrator disagrees with him about whether this is a good thing for women, but she has to humor him.
    • He tells her that the men are powerful guys who are there to network, while the women come from a variety of backgrounds. Some used to be prostitutes, while others were in high-powered professions.
    • The Commander asks the narrator if she'd rather be one of those women than a Handmaid, and she knows she can't answer honestly. He offers to buy her a drink and she accepts, even though she's not supposed to.
    • When he goes off to get drinks, the narrator looks up and sees Moira, who's wearing something like a Playboy bunny outfit. She's smoking. Eventually their eyes meet.
    • Moira signals and they communicate silently, discreetly, about meeting up just like they did in the Center.
    • The Commander comes back with drinks and the narrator says she has to go to the bathroom. Just crossing the hotel lobby by herself is nerve-wracking, but she keeps going.
  • Chapter 38

    Jezebel's

    • The narrator finds the bathroom and goes in. An Aunt, who says she has fifteen minutes, guards the door. The narrator passes by a woman complaining that she wants to go in again and enters a familiar room. Unlike the Commander's house, there's a mirror.
    • There are a bunch of women smoking, but no Moira. Then Moira appears and she and the narrator embrace. The narrator starts to cry and Moira tells her not to waste their precious time. She tells her to sit down and snags her a cigarette.
    • Moira asks what she's doing there, and the narrator fills her in.
    • Moira explains that some Commanders like bringing their Handmaids to the hotel for the combination of power trip and kinky sex. The narrator asks Moira to tell her what happened to her, then explains that what Moira told her in first person, trying to sound like Moira.
    • Moira's story picks up basically where the narrator's knowledge of her second escape attempt left off. She doesn't kill Aunt Elizabeth and she doesn't really have a plan. She makes up a lot of stuff about her escape when she's being tortured, though.
    • She just keeps walking and tries to figure out what to do. She figures most of the people she knew before have also been captured and it wouldn't be safe to try to reach them. So she heads north.
    • She goes through some checkpoints and is terrified, but acts like an Aunt and gets through. She knows she's running out of time, though. She tries to remember who was on her section of a mailing list that she and some other resistance people divided up and memorized.
    • She admits that she might have already given these people up under torture; she's not sure. But she picks an older couple of Quakers, who reluctantly take her in. She realizes later that people on the street didn't flag her in her disguise because Aunts and the Center were still kind of secret.
    • She pees, has a sandwich, then plays with the kids. Then the couple takes her to another Quaker safe house.
    • This is a station on the Underground Femaleroad. Moira explains what that's like and adds that a man smuggled her into the city in a mail sack. He was later caught and executed.
    • Moira spends eight to nine months hiding and trying to make it across the border. She has a hard time staying with religious people because they pray at night and that reminds her of the Center. But they're trying to help so she lets it go.
    • She says she was close to making it. At the end, she's in a truck headed for Maine that's full of chickens. She's supposed to cross the border by boat, but something goes wrong. Officials come and capture her and the couple helping her. She doesn't know what happened to them after that.
    • Moira is taken somewhere and bad things happen to her, but she doesn't describe them. She thinks about killing herself but has no opportunity. When the administration is done torturing her, they show her a movie about the Colonies. Moira describes them as terrible places where societal outcasts—old women, used-up Handmaids, gay men—are sent to work until they die. Some of the Colonies are so polluted that the people don't last long. Everyone is sterilized and they all have to wear gray dresses.
    • Moira says she'd rather wear her cheap brothel outfit.
    • The people in this unknown place let Moira choose between coming to be a sex worker at the hotel and going to the Colonies. She picked the hotel, saying who would choose otherwise. She says she doesn't even mind getting sterilized (which they require).
    • Moira finishes her story by telling the narrator that it's not that bad. It buys a couple years that aren't too awful before facing the worst.
    • The narrator worries about what happened to the old Moira. She needs Moira to be the braver one.
    • Moira tries to lighten things up by saying it's not so bad for a lesbian where she is. She explains that the men don't mind and they refer to the hotel as "Jezebel's" (38.66).
    • The narrator says she'd like to finish the story on a good note, with Moira's triumph, but after this night in the hotel she and Moira never meet again.
  • Chapter 39

    Jezebel's

    • The narrator goes back to the Commander, who has a key to one of the hotel rooms. They go up. It looks just like it used to, all covered in flowers.
    • She goes into the bathroom to compose herself. While she's in there, she feels at home.
    • She remembers how Moira just told her that she saw the narrator's mother. This freaked the narrator out because she thought she was dead.
    • Moira says she saw her in a movie about the Colonies. The narrator is grateful, but Moira says her mother would be better off dead.
    • The narrator tries to remember when she saw her mother for the last time, but she can't. She has an impression of a bunch of casual meetings that didn't seem that important at the time. They had a unique relationship.
    • In the memory, things suddenly change for the worse a couple of weeks later. The narrator tries to call her mother but can't get hold of her. She worries her mother is ill or dead.
    • She and Luke eventually convince the guard to let them into her mother's apartment, which is completely empty.
    • The narrator wants to call the police, but Luke won't let her. He says there's no point.
    • The narrator remembers Moira liking her mother, then worries about her in the Colonies.
    • She will have to keep grieving.
    • The narrator ends her flashback and returns to the present. She looks at herself in the mirror and thinks she looks like a mess. She's running out of time; the Commander is getting impatient. They have a Ceremony the next night.
    • She comes out of the bathroom and wishes they weren't going to do this, that even the Ceremony is better.
    • She lies down on the bed. The Commander touches her, revealing that she has a tattoo, as presumably all the Handmaids do. But the narrator has a hard time responding. She doesn't feel for him.
    • He decides to turn out the lights, and she forces her body to respond to his.
  • Chapter 40

    Night

    • Later that night it's hot and muggy. The narrator's dressed in her Handmaid clothes, waiting in her room in the dark.
    • At midnight Serena Joy taps on the door, just like they planned. Without speaking, they walk through the house. At the door, Serena Joy gives the narrator directions, tells her she'll keep watch, and says the coast is clear.
    • The narrator goes outside by herself to the garage, where Nick is.
    • The narrator says he brings her in, turns out the lights, undresses her, and they begin to make love, which makes her feel again.
    • Then she says that's not what actually happened. He brings her in and gives her a drag on his cigarette. It feels awkward. Their talk turns into quotes from old movies, and the narrator begins to cry. Nick comforts her.
    • He brings her to the bed and tells her they'll do this without being "romantic." She understands that to mean they won't die for each other. She bids him farewell internally even as they begin.
    • Then she says even that isn't exactly what happened; it's a "reconstruction." She thought about how Serena Joy would think of her as a slut.
    • Now, she thinks, she's betrayed Luke, whether he's alive or not. She wishes for ignorance.
  • Chapter 41

    Salvaging

    • The narrator apologizes for the story she's telling and wishes it were different. It's not positive enough and she's distracted. She would like to stop but can't.
    • She speaks to a possible reader, calling the reader "you" and saying that by telling the story she's keeping the possible reader around. This reader may or may not be Luke. She says she has to finish the story, in which she doesn't behave as well as she could.
    • The narrator continues visiting Nick, now without Serena Joy's help or knowledge. She gets sloppy and almost too brave. He keeps seeing her too, though.
    • Each time she visits, Nick welcomes her in after smoking. They undress and make love.
    • The narrator contrasts this with how she is around the Commander; with him she closes her eyes and with Nick she opens them. She focuses on remembering Nick because she's forgotten what Luke looks like.
    • The narrator is passionate about Nick. Each time they're together it could be the last. She feels protected even though by being there she's putting herself in danger. She gets comfortable and tells Nick things: her real name, her relationships with Ofglen and Moira, and her past. She doesn't talk about Luke.
    • Nick doesn't confide anything in return, but he listens.
    • The narrator thinks there's no way he would turn her in.
    • One day the narrator observes the growing flowers as she walks with Ofglen. Ofglen wants the narrator to spy on the Commander to get information, but the narrator is less interested.
    • She thinks of a conversation she had with Nick; she's hoping she's pregnant.
    • Ofglen says they can get her out if they need to, but she wants to stay with Nick. She is ashamed of this.
    • Cora hopes the narrator is pregnant. The narrator wonders if Cora and Rita know what she's been doing. She can tell Ofglen is conspiring with her less.
  • Chapter 42

    Salvaging

    • A bell is ringing. The narrator is somewhere in a line of women, arranged in twos, going past the Wall to a Salvaging. They found out they were going the previous day.
    • The women file onto the lawn by the library, where a stage is set up. It has three poles on it with ropes attached to them. There hasn't been an event like this in two years.
    • The narrator says she doesn't want to tell this part of the tale.
    • The lawn is full of Wives, Econowives, Marthas, and Handmaids, all segregated by class. The Handmaids kneel in front.
    • The weather is pleasant. The narrator tries to distract herself with thoughts of sex.
    • A long rope winds among and around all the chairs. The narrator can see three women on the stage, a Wife and two Handmaids. She wonders if they are drugged or restricted.
    • Several official figures arrive, including Aunt Lydia. Aunt Lydia gives a speech, but the narrator doesn't really listen. She's heard it before.
    • Aunt Lydia says that usually they read out the crimes of the people being Salvaged, but now they don't anymore because people had been imitating them.
    • The people in attendance are disappointed. The narrator tries to imagine what crimes the women might have committed—murder or attempted murder, maybe.
    • One of the Handmaids, Ofcharles, is announced. She tries to wink at the camera (the narrator says the administration won't actually show it on TV) while men restrict her hands. The narrator hears someone throw up.
    • Instead of describing what happens next, the narrator shifts to the past tense and describes what has happened before when a woman has been hanged for a crime. She describes how all the audience has to pull on the rope that goes around them so they are all taking part in the execution.
    • She doesn't want to this time, so she looks away.
  • Chapter 43

    Salvaging

    • The executions have finished. Unusually, Aunt Lydia has another announcement: she says the Handmaids should get in a circle and the other women will watch.
    • The narrator doesn't want to participate, but it's too dangerous not to.
    • Aunt Lydia says there is going to be a Particicution. They can do whatever they want between two blows of the whistle. A man is brought out, his face so beaten that it's unrecognizable. He seems drugged.
    • Aunt Lydia says he raped two Handmaids, one of whom was pregnant, and her baby didn't make it.
    • This horrifies all present, even the narrator. She didn't want to participate before but she's touched by the communal anger around her.
    • Aunt Lydia blows her whistle, but no one moves. The narrator looks at the man. She doesn't want to hurt him, because a man she loved could easily be in that position.
    • The man manages to say a few words before the Handmaids run at him. Ofglen runs to the front, knocks him over, and kicks him in the head.
    • The narrator pulls back, appalled. Everything is chaos. When she and Ofglen are beside each other again, the narrator reprimands her. Ofglen replies that the man was on their side and she was just helping him so he wouldn't feel the worst of it.
    • The whistle blows again and it's over. Aunt Lydia tells them to leave in an orderly manner.
    • Janine passes them. She's bloody and out of her mind, disengaged from reality. The narrator can't help her. She's upset.
    • Back at home the narrator wants to wash her hands. She's hungry and wants to feel, even though it appalls her.
  • Chapter 44

    Salvaging

    • Later that day the narrator has eaten a reasonable lunch. She leaves the house, passes Nick, and pauses at the corner for Ofglen, as she usually does.
    • Ofglen approaches, looking different. The narrator realizes that it's not Ofglen; it's another woman, who greets the narrator like everything is normal.
    • They're walking and the narrator is trying to figure out what happened. Finally, she asks about the other Ofglen; this one says she's Ofglen.
    • They go shopping. The narrator says they should go to the Wall. They find the bodies displayed there.
    • Ofglen makes a traditional remark and the narrator worries about how to respond. She goes with a less traditional answer and gets nothing. As they walk back, the narrator wonders whether she should try to find out if this Ofglen is on her side.
    • She thinks she should wait, but she can't, so she tries out the Mayday password on Ofglen. Ofglen says she shouldn't think about stuff like that.
    • The narrator realizes she's in trouble.
    • They keep walking, and the narrator freaks out about possible repercussions, particularly against people she loves. The old Ofglen, if she was captured, may have turned her in. She might be next.
    • The women get to the end of their walk and say goodbye. As they do, Ofglen whispers quickly that the old Ofglen knew the bad guys were coming for her, so she killed herself. Then this Ofglen leaves.
  • Chapter 45

    Salvaging

    • The narrator is stunned. Is this new Ofglen is telling the truth?
    • She goes back to her house, passing Nick and thinking she'll do anything if she can just keep on living.
    • She's almost made it inside when Serena Joy interrupts her. She is upset and says the narrator betrayed her. The narrator isn't sure what this could be about.
    • Serena Joy found the cloak and sequins the narrator wore when she went out with the Commander. She is really angry and says the narrator is a whore.
    • The narrator has to remain calm, even though she wants to go to Nick for comfort. Instead she goes quietly inside.
  • Chapter 46

    Night

    • The narrator waits in her room, for what she doesn't know. She feels rather peaceful because at least something is happening, even if it's terrible.
    • Night falls.
    • The narrator thinks about her options: she could set fire to the house, try to break her unbreakable window, approach the Commander, kill herself, kill Serena Joy, try to walk out authoritatively, go to Nick...
    • Mainly she's tired, and none of these seem like good options.
    • She looks out the window and imagines the night is winter. She pictures her predecessor swinging by her noose.
    • Then she sees a black van coming for her.
    • She thinks she should have grabbed some kind of weapon while she had the chance.
    • Nick comes to her room. He tells her the van is Mayday and calls her by her real name.
    • She doesn't know whether to believe him or not, but she has no choice.
    • Two Eyes escort her down the stairs. She passes the Commander and Serena Joy. The Commander is sad but trying to keep away. Serena Joy wants to know what happened.
    • The narrator realizes this isn't Serena Joy's punishment; it's something else.
    • The Commander asks for a warrant. The narrator realizes this is a pivotal point; if the Eyes are not government, they'd have to leave. But even then she'd still be stuck where she is.
    • One of the Eyes says they don't have it with them, but that the narrator has been spying and that they're authorized to take her.
    • The Commander, Serena Joy, Rita, and Cora seem furious with the narrator and think she's put them all in some kind of jeopardy.
    • The men take the narrator out to the van and she gets in, not knowing whether she's about to be rescued or killed.
  • Historical Notes on The Handmaid's Tale

    Historical Notes on The Handmaid's Tale

    • This section is described in a headnote as a "partial transcript of the proceedings of the Twelfth Symposium on Gileadean Studies" (Historical Notes.1). The year is 2195. Two people speak.
    • The first is Professor Moon, who welcomes everyone to the symposium and says this historical period is important because of the ways in which it shaped their world.
    • She makes some administrative announcements about symposium events, alluding to other historic moments that would have taken place after the events in the Handmaid's story.
    • She introduces Professor Pieixoto and gives his credentials, then he speaks.
    • Professor Pieixoto thanks everyone and says he's going to talk about The Handmaid's Tale, which they have been treating like a manuscript but is actually a series of tape recordings that had been hidden in a footlocker. The tapes were retrieved from a station on the Underground Femaleroad, in what used to be Bangor, Maine.
    • The professor alludes to other, similar memoirs, but says this one is particularly valuable.
    • He and another professor transcribed the voice on the tapes. The story was haphazard and out of order. They determined that it was not a forgery: the tapes were authentic and had been made at least a hundred and fifty years ago.
    • Professor Pieixoto argues that the narrator made these tapes not as the events were happening, but afterward. He says it would help if they knew her identity, but she could have been anyone.
    • The house where the tapes were discovered was a dead end. All they could find out about the narrator was that she was in the first group of women made to be Handmaids. He offers a scientific description of how fertile women were allocated to powerful men in the Gileadean society.
    • A combination of illness and pollution had led to infertility problems.
    • Professor Pieixoto says people in Gilead used Biblical ideas to reinforce and support their new society. He briefly explains why the society was successful.
    • Then he discusses the problem of names in the society. None of the Handmaids' names reveal their identities, but potentially their Commanders'. The other names the narrator used were probably pseudonyms.
    • The professor did research to try to track down the narrator's Commander. From his powerful status and the use of "Fred," combined with diary readings from someone named Wilfred Limpkin, the professor thinks the man could have been one of two men: Frederick Waterford or B. Frederick Judd.
    • Both of the men were extremely powerful and dangerous, devising many of the ceremonies for the society. One of them possibly had connections to the President's assassination.
    • The professor then speaks briefly about some of those ceremonies. He adds details about how women were selected to act as Aunts and what that involved. It was all deliberately calculated to keep larger populations under control.
    • He says neither of these men were married to a woman named Serena Joy, but one of them—Waterford—had a wife who had been on television. Waterford was put on trial for having books and supporting a subversive, which fits the narrator's Commander's situation.
    • Professor Pieixoto says "Nick" could have been the subversive, and that he was probably a member of Mayday. He might have also been an Eye and was probably there to spy on the Commander.
    • The professor says that's about as far as they can speculate. The narrator didn't get the kind of material that would have helped them more closely analyze the Republic of Gilead, and they don't know what happened to her. Even if she did get out, the trail is cold, and she didn't take her tapes with her. The professor says it's unlikely Luke would still have been alive.
    • Professor Pieixoto states that they also can't tell why Nick helped the narrator or what his help meant, whether the narrator was pregnant, and if saving her doomed him.
    • The professor ends his talk by saying they should be glad for the little history they've gotten. Then he asks for questions.