The Handmaid's Tale Summary and Analysis
VII: Night - VIII: Birth Day
In bed, Offred lies trembling. She remembers lying in bed with Luke when she was pregnant. She remembers sex, and thinks that she will die if she never experiences it again. Then, however, she remembers that she will not die from lack of sex, but rather from lack of love. Without Luke and her daughter there, it is as if she is not there, either. She thinks about what she believes. She believes that Luke was shot, and that his body is lying in the forest, decaying. She also believes that Luke is a prisoner, and that they are torturing him to find something out, and that he escaped to Canada, and is living under some kind of government in exile. She believes that if this is true, he will contact her. She believes that someday they will all be together again. She believes in all three possibilities at once.
Offred falls asleep and dreams of her daughter, and then of her mother. When she awakens, she gets up and looks out the window. She wonders whether there are "Hope" and "Charity" pillows to match her pillow that reads, "Faith". She dresses. She thinks about all of the different meanings of the word "chair" as she eats her breakfast. She looks at the egg that she is eating, and she thinks about all the things it resembles. She knows that even though she has so little, she makes much of everything. She hears the siren, and her "heart speeds up." Cora calls to her to hurry, and she almost runs down the stairs and out the door. She gets into the red Birthmobile, joining three other women on the benches inside. One of the women tells her that it is Ofwarren who is giving birth. One woman looks very happy, and another is praying. They wonder whether it will be a baby, or an unbaby. There is only a one in four chance that the infant will be healthy.
Offred remembers Aunt Lydia talking about all the things that caused the declining birthrate. Aunt Lydia told them that they were going to fix it. She told them that they needed to become rare, so that they would be valued. They arrive at Ofwarren's house. The Doctor's van is already there, but they aren't allowed in unless it's absolutely necessary. Offred remembers Aunt Lydia talking about how terrible it used to be, when women had babies in cold environments, hooked up to wires, with men in charge. The Blue Birthmobile for the Wives arrives. She knows that Serena Joy has probably been here before. Ofwarren's Commander's Wife probably showed her Handmaid off, like a prize. Offred knew, though, that when Ofwarren left the room, they Wives would all have complained about the Handmaids.
The dining room is filled with food for the Wives. Commander Warren's Wife lies on the floor in a nightgown as if she is about to give birth. Aunt Elizabeth is standing over Ofwarren. The Handmaids sit cross-legged on the rug. Offred remembers Aunt Lydia telling them that it is the hardest for them, for they are the "transitional generation." She remembers how they were shown movies: sometimes old pornography where women were raped, beaten, and murdered, and sometimes the documentaries of "unwomen", as Aunt Lydia called them, wasting their time combating the new regime. Once Offred saw her own mother, protesting for abortion rights. These videos were intended to show them how much better off they are. Offred then remembers her mother telling her that she had her when she was thirty-seven and alone, just because she wanted her so much. She didn't want a husband...she just wanted a baby. Her mother used to come over and argue teasingly with Luke, telling him that men were unnecessary and would soon be disposed of, and Luke would tease her right back. Her mother would become upset, telling Offred that she took for granted all of the things she and other women of her generation fought for. Now, Offred wishes she could have all of those moments back.
In the birthing room it his hot and noisy. The women chant together, telling Janine to breathe. Under the noise, Offred exchanges a few words with another woman; Birth Days provide a rare opportunity to speak secretly to each other. She asks about Moira, but the woman doesn't know her. Janine begins to push, and Offred can feel the pains in her own womb. It is time, and someone goes to fetch the Wife. They lift Janine onto the lower of two seats on the Birthing Stool. The Commander's Wife comes in, and two other Wives help her up to the higher seat. The baby is born. It is a girl, which is a little sad, but they rejoice at her wholeness. Offred remembers her daughter's birth. The Wife is helped into the bed, and the baby, washed and clean, is given to her. Envy radiates from the other Wives as the baby is named "Angela." Janine is crying: she will be allowed to nurse the baby for a few months, and then she will be transferred to try again. However, she will never be sent to the Colonies; she is fertile, and thus safe. They get back in the Birthmobile, exhausted. Offred thinks to herself that they should be grateful for small mercies - this is a women's culture, after all.
Back at the house, the day is over. Offred lies on the bed, exhausted. She feels like she's seeing things. She thinks about Moira. She learned what happened to her by putting together pieces of information gleaned from many sources, but she believes it to be correct. She only found out because Aunt Lydia confided in Janine, hoping to get some information out of her. Moira had managed to jam the toilet, and when the Aunt came in to try and fix it, Moira threatened to hurt her, using a sharp piece of metal she'd wrenched from the toilet. Moira took her weapons, tied her up in the basement, dressed in her clothes, and walked out of the Center. The women were already so beaten down that they found Moira's escape frightening. At the same time, she was their "fantasy": she gave them room to hope. Offred has never heard of Moira's whereabouts since.
Offred thinks about how her story is a reconstruction, and how if she's ever able to set it down, it will be even more of a reconstruction. No story can ever accurately describe the truth. She thinks about what all this is really about. Maybe, she thinks, it's about power, but at the same time, it might be about forgiveness. She recalls how the Commander wanted her to kiss him. After she woke up, Cora brought the dinner tray in and spoke to her happily about the baby, expressing hope that they might soon have one of their own to care for. Offred feels unworthy of this hope. She remembers what she is to do that night, and feels unprepared. At nine she slips down the stairs, knowing that she cannot be caught by Serena Joy. She is in her charge, subject to her mercy. At the same time, she knows that she cannot refuse to see the Commander. Indeed, she wants to see him, because of the merest possibility that it will bring her some power. She knocks, and he tells her to come in.
The Commander's study looks like "normal life." There are books everywhere. She sits down, and he sits with the desk between them. He tells her that he wants her to play Scrabble with him. She wants to laugh, but she also understands why he might want such a thing. He can't do this with his wife, as games of this sort are forbidden. They play Scrabble for a while, and Offred feels that it is a luxury. Offred wins the first game, but lets the Commander win the second. He tells her it's time for her to go home, but before she departs he tells her he wants her to kiss him. She thinks about how she could take a piece of metal from the toilet, and the next time he asks her to kiss him, she could stab him with it. Truthfully, however, she only thinks that in retrospect. In the moment itself, she kisses him. He asks her, smiling "sheepishly," to kiss him "as if [she] meant it."
The word on Offred's pillow is "Faith": the only word that she is allowed to see throughout the tale. Although the Commander and Serena Joy might have left the pillow in her room as an oversight, this word has important connotations for Offred's situation, and for the existence of Gilead as a whole. Gilead has supposedly been created as a country ruled by Faith - the Christian Faith, to be exact. Its citizens are supposed to accept the hardships and difficulties imposed on them because of their Faith in God. However, the very structure of the government suggests the impossibility of accomplishing this kind of submission. Instead, this government relies on surveillance, fear, punishment, and secrecy to accomplish its goals and keep its citizens - especially its women - in line.
At the same time, Offred relies entirely on Faith. On the one hand, Offred makes it through each day by relying on her belief that things cannot stay like this forever, and that somewhere there is a government in exile. She believes that the future will be different, whether or not she survives long enough to see it. Similarly, she holds three different beliefs about the fate of her husband, Luke; her ability to hold all three of these beliefs suggests the endurance of her faith in the possibility of his survival.
Thus far, Atwood has seemed to focus on the manner in which the more conservative and religious elements of society influence the new government. Now, however, Offred acknowledges (though bitterly) the elements of society that women like her mother and Moira (more "liberal" types) cannot deny having desired. As Offred experiences Janine's birth, she dryly acknowledges that there is a women's culture after all. Janine's birth is handled by a mid-wife, and doctors are allowed in only if absolutely necessary. In other words, women's instinctive knowledge about childbirth is given precedence over scientific knowledge. The participation of the other Handmaids and Wives is intended to support the women in their time of need.
Of course, Atwood clarifies that under these circumstances, the community is a travesty. Despite the Aunts' insistence that someday the Wives and the Handmaids will have a close and loving relationship, the division between the two groups is clear, and even violent. The scene of childbirth cements the readers' allegiance with the Handmaids, though Offred herself recognizes the pain and difficulty experienced by the Wives, as well. The question at this point is whether Atwood is criticizing the very idea of a "community of women," or if she is instead criticizing the government's attempt to use that idea in order to appease and silence the women who once valued it. In asking this question, yet another becomes relevant: since Offred is the narrator of her story, does it not ultimately lie in her power to cast the readers' sympathy with one party or another? Does her control of words ultimately shape the readers' verdict on the Gileadean society? Offred "writes":
This is a reconstruction. All of it is a reconstruction. It's a reconstruction now, in my head, as I lie flat on my single bed...When I get out of here, if I'm ever able to set this down, in any form, even in the form of one voice to another, it will be a reconstruction then too, at yet another remove.
When Offred describes the wives behavior behind the back of the Handmaids - the vicious remarks, the coarse insults - she is imagining what she believes to be true, rather than describing anything she has actually witnessed. By admitting her lack of accuracy, Offred might also free the reader to make his or her own judgments about the relative guilt of the parties involved. At the same time, the difficulty of eliciting any real sympathy for the Wives once again returns to the idea of the power that language holds, especially in this world, and the power that Offred actually possesses simply from telling her own, if slanted and inaccurate, version of the story.
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