The Handmaid's Tale

The Handmaid's Tale Summary

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The narrator was in an old high school gymnasium. The Aunts patrolled at night, and men with guns guarded her and the other women from the outside. Now she is in another room, a normal bedroom. She wears a red dress, red gloves, and shoes. Her head and most of her face are covered with a stiff, white veil. She goes shopping, taking with her tokens to be exchanged for food. The narrator wishes the other women, the "Marthas", were friendlier, and wonders why the Wife envies her. She remembers arriving in the house and recognizing the Wife from a televised Gospel Service she used to watch as a girl. Next, the narrator walks to meet her partner, passing Nick, the chauffeur, in the yard. She waits on the corner until the other woman, her mirror image, arrives. They walk to the store, saying only proscribed things. Her partner's name, we learn, is Ofglen. They pass through a barrier, showing their passes. The narrator thinks about how much these men must miss women. Around them walk "econowives", Marthas, and other "Handmaids". The narrator remembers what it was like before, when she had a job and money, and walked these streets with Luke. She remembers what each store used to be before. The two women exchange their tokens for food, and see a pregnant Handmaid, Ofwarren, whom the narrator recognizes as Janine, from the re-training center.

After they depart, they are stopped by a Japanese trade delegation that wants to take their picture and ask them questions about their lives. The two women say no to the picture and keep their speech to a minimum. They walk past the Church and the wall. There are six bodies hanging from it today. They are doctors, so none of them are Luke. That night the narrator, whose name is Offred, lies in bed and remembers things from her past. She remembers conversations with Moira when they were in College; going to a book-burning in a park with her mother when she was young; her daughter being taken from her. Another day begins, and this day there are only three bodies on the wall. Offred and Ofglen pass a funeral procession; an econowife is holding a jar containing a baby probably only a few months old. She thinks about Serena Joy, and about how Aunt Lydia had warned them to be careful of the wives. At home, Offred smells baking bed, and the scent reminds her of motherhood. Rita and Cora discuss her bath. As she goes upstairs, Offred sees the Commander standing outside of her room, though he is not supposed to be there. He passes her without speaking.

When Offred first arrived at her current abode, she explored the room and discovered that someone had written nolite te bastardes carborundorum on the floor of the wardrobe. She got Rita to tell her that several Handmaids had been there before her. As Offred sits in her room, she remembers another time when Moira came to her room and dragged her out of it, inviting her to an "underwhore" party. Out the window, she watches Nick and the Commander drive away. Later, she is taken to the doctor for her monthly visit. Once alone in the examining room with her, the Doctor offers to impregnate her, reminding her that the Commander may be too old, or impotent, though it is illegal to say such things. She wants to say yes, but she is too afraid, so she politely declines. That night she bathes, thinking about her daughter. It is hard to eat her dinner that night. She thinks about how the waiting is the hardest part, and the one thing they weren't prepared for. She remembers Moira's arrival at the training center. She falls asleep and dreams, first of Luke, and then of running with her daughter and being caught. She is awakened by Cora, who is knocking on the door; it is time for the Ceremony.

Offred goes into the living room and waits. Rita and Cora enter, closely followed by Nick. Finally Serena Joy comes in and turns on the television. Offred thinks about the day they left, how they were going to show the guards at the border their fake passports and tell them they were having a picnic. The Commander comes in, takes the Bible out of its locked box, and reads the usual prayers. Meanwhile, Offred thinks about sneaking meetings with Moira at the Center, during which Moira told her about her plans to escape. She had been caught, brought back, beaten terribly, and then put back with the other women. They go into the bedroom. Offred lies on the bed, her head on the Wife's lap, her hands in the Wife's hands. Lifting her skirt above her waist, the Commander penetrates her, not looking at her. When it is over Serena Joy tells her to leave, though she is supposed to wait for ten minutes. That night Offred creeps out of her bed and into the living room, intent on stealing something, anything. Instead, she meets Nick. In the dark he kisses her, but a moment later he tells her that the Commander wants to see her in his office tomorrow night.

Offred remembers what her life used to be like, and imagines the different possibilities of what may have happened to Nick. She dreams of her daughter and then her mother. She gets through her morning and eats her breakfast, but then her reveries are interrupted by the Birthmobile siren. She runs down the stairs and gets into the van, which is already occupied by several other Handmaids. The wives get into a separate vehicle, and both parties drive to the house of Commander Warren. Offred remembers the lectures about the declining birthrate. She sees the Doctor's van, knowing he will be called in only if necessary. The wives go upstairs and sit in a circle around Ofwarren. Aunt Elizabeth is there to oversee the birth. Offred remembers how they were shown movies, some violent pornography, others political propaganda. She thinks about how her mother protested for abortion rights. Just before Janine (Ofwarren) begins to push, they place her on the lower seat of the birthing stool, with the Wife above her. Janine gives birth to a baby girl, who seems to be healthy. The wife is placed in the bed and given the clean baby, while Janine is led away. In a few months she will be transferred to another man, to try again, but since she is fertile, she will always be safe from banishment to the Colonies.

At home, in bed, Offred remembers Moira's second escape attempt. This time she was successful - or, at least, Offred assumes so, since has never seen her since. Offred thinks about her story, about how impossible it is to tell the truth, to tell everything. She wonders what it's all about. Later that night, after she's eaten dinner and is supposed to be in bed, she creeps down to the Commander's study. Inside, he invites her to play a game of Scrabble with him. At the end of the night, he asks her to kiss him like she means it. Upstairs once more, Offred thinks about what this change in their relationship means. She is suddenly overcome with hysterical laughter, and stifles it in her cloak. She falls asleep on the floor and doesn't wake until the next morning, when Cora sees her and screams. Cora drops her breakfast tray, scattering the eggs and breaking a glass. They agree to pretend she broke it on the way out. Offred begins to visit the Commander two or three nights a week, whenever Nick signals her by wearing his cap askew. On each visit, the Commander gives her magazines to read, old copies of things like Vogue. On the third night she asks him for hand lotion, and he agrees to get it for her. The next Ceremony is uncomfortable for them both. Offred realizes that she is essentially the Commander's mistress. Strangely, she is happier. Now, she is more to him than just a container.

On one of their shopping walks, Ofglen and Offred look at the wall, which is empty that day. The walk past the Soul Scrolls and watch them for a moment. Shielded by the noise of the scrolls, Ofglen reveals that she is part of a secret network of Handmaids and their supporters, but can't say any more. As they walk home a van (which we learn holds a group called the Eyes) pulls up, and snatches a man next to them on the street. That afternoon, instead of napping, Offred thinks of what Moira would say about her relationship with the Commander. She wonders whether Moira would criticize it, the way she criticized her affair with Luke when he was still married. She remembers the day when the president and the members of Congress were shot and the entire government was taken over, and how no one realized yet what was going on. The changes were slow, and didn't affect her until one day they made a law that women couldn't own property. Then they made a law that women couldn't have jobs. She thinks about how she never asked whether Luke was happier when he was in total control of her. One night in the Commander's office, Offred learns that the Latin written in her closet means "Don't let the bastards grind you down," and that the women who wrote it must have seen it written in this room. The Commander tells her that the woman hung herself because Serena Joy found out about their relationship.

At night, Offred sits by her window. She remembers how Luke had to kill their cat. She thinks about praying in the Center, and tries to pray, asking God to help her. In the morning Offred gets up, waits for a while, and then goes shopping with Ofglen. They look at the bodies on the wall, and Ofglen tells her a bit more about the network, called Mayday. She returns home, and sees that Nick's hat is askew. She passes Serena Joy, who tells her to sit down. Serena Joy tells Offred that she can help her get pregnant, that she will help her use someone else, probably Nick. Offred agrees, and Serena Joy tells her she will try to get a picture of her daughter to show her. Then she gives her a cigarette and tells her she may ask Rita for a match, though she is never supposed to smoke. She gets the match from Rita, but then she hides it in her room instead of using it. She remembers how the Commander the night before had spoken to her about the way things are, about why it was better.

The next day there is a Prayvaganza. Offred and Ofglen walk into the building and kneel on the concrete floor with the other Handmaids. They see Ofwarren enter, and Ofglen tells her that the baby was a "shredder" after all. As they watch the group marriage ceremony - twenty daughters married to twenty newly decorated Angels - Ofglen tells Offred that they know about her visits to the Commander. She asks her to get whatever information she can from him. Offred thinks about their escape attempt. They had almost made it across the border, but Luke had seen a guard pick up the phone and they had fled into the woods. She and the Commander had spoken about love. Serena Joy knocks on her door, and for a moment gives her a picture of her daughter - she is older, taller, dressed in white. It is worse, Offred thinks, to have seen her. That night, the Commander appears drunk. He tells her he's taking her somewhere, and he gives her an old piece of lingerie, now illegal, to wear. She puts it on, paints her face with some old make-up he provides, and covers herself with his wife's cloak, and they depart. He takes her to an old hotel that she used to visit with Luke when she was his mistress. Now it is filled with women dressed in a similar manner to her, and men like the Commander. He explains that it is a private club, only for higher-ups. After a few minutes, Offred sees Moira. They pretend not to recognize each other, but Moira signals Offred to meet her in the bathroom.

In the lounge of the Ladies' room they hug, and then Moira quickly tells Offred about everything that happened to her. When she escaped, she sought refuge with a Quaker couple she knew from her work. They had managed to get her to a house that was part of the Underground Femaleroad, and she had stayed underground for eight or nine months. When they tried to get her across the border, however, she was caught. They punished her, and then they offered her a choice between this place and the Colonies. She chose this. After that night, Offred never sees Moira again. The Commander, having gotten a room key, takes Offred upstairs. In the bathroom she thinks about a great many things, and then joins the Commander on the bed. He wants to sleep with her, and for her to respond, but she doesn't know how to be with him like that. Back at the house, Offred attempts to restore her appearance. At midnight, Serena Joy comes to her room and takes her down to the kitchen. She tells her how to get to Nick's room above the garage. Offred tries to explain what happened, but she doesn't know how to make it clear. After that night, she goes back to Nick as many times as she can. He never turns her away, though it is as dangerous for him as for her. She tells him everything she can think of. Ofglen tries to get Offred to break into the Commander's office to get them information, but she has a hard time feeling like any of that is "real".

There is a Salvaging. The attendants kneel and watch as two Handmaids and one Wife are hung. Offred tries not to look. Their crimes are no longer read out, but it is easy to guess what kinds of things they might have done. After the Salvaging is over, most of the wives and daughters leave, but Aunt Lydia tells the Handmaids to form a circle. It is a Particicution. They lead out a man, and Aunt Lydia tells them that he and another guard violently raped two Handmaids at gunpoint, causing one to lose the baby she was carrying. She blows her whistle and the women leap on him. Ofglen tears to the front, giving him several vicious kicks in the head. When she returns to the horrified Offred, she scornfully explains that he did not rape anyone; he was one of them, and she was merely knocking him unconscious. That afternoon, when Offred goes to the corner to meet Ofglen, another woman is in her place. At first the woman betrays no knowledge of Ofglen, and Offred is a little afraid of her, but just before they part the new Ofglen whispers that she saw the van coming for her, and she hung herself. Though she is devastated, Offred is also relieved, aware that she's safe. As she walks up the steps, she sees Serena Joy standing over her. She shows Offred the lingerie and accuses Offred of betraying her. She orders her upstairs, where Offred sits and waits at the window, holding the lingerie in her hand. She thinks about doing something, fighting back in some way, but feels at peace. She hears the van, and sees two guards get out. Suddenly Nick is at her door. He whispers that they are from Mayday, and she wonders if it's true. The men escort her past Serena Joy and the Commander. Offred steps into the van.

At this point, Offred's narrative ends. The book closes with the transcription of a Symposium on Gileadean Studies written sometime in the distant future. The Chairperson introduces the keynote speaker, who will deliver an address on "Problems of Authentication in The Handmaid's Tale." Professor Pieixoto speaks about how he and a colleague discovered thirty cassette tapes that contained recordings made by one woman. They transcribed them and worked out the probable order, and the result has been named The Handmaid's Tale. He speaks about the possibility that the tapes are fake, but concludes that they are probably real recordings made by a real Handmaid, though they should be careful not to cast a moral judgment on such a different time and place. Finally, he talks about how they worked to authenticate whatever details they could, relying mostly on evidence about the identity of Offred's Commander. They ultimately conclude that Offred's narrative is interesting, but not terribly useful as a historical document.