The Handmaid's Tale

The Handmaid's Tale Summary and Analysis of V: Nap - VI: Household


This section begins with Offred simply sitting alone, waiting. She had not been prepared for all this stillness, all of this boredom. She thinks about experiments they used to do on animals, how they would give them something to distract them. She wishes she had something to distract her. She lies down on the floor and begins to do her exercises, tilting her pelvis back. She remembers how at the training center they had rest time every day from three to four. Now she thinks it was practice for all of the waiting. She remembers how Moira showed up, after she'd been there for about three weeks. They couldn't talk for a few days, but finally during a walk they were able to plan a meeting in the washroom. The first time was during Testifying, which Aunt Helena came for specially. That day, Janine was talking about how she was gang raped when she was fourteen and had to get an abortion, and the other women respond as they have learned to, chanting that it was her fault. Despite the surroundings, Offred was extremely happy to see Moira.

Now Offred thinks about her body. She used to see it as an instrument of her will, but now she sees it only as a container protecting a womb. She dreams that she is standing in their first apartment. In the dream, she is trying to find something to wear. Luke stands behind her, but he can't hear her. Then she begins dreaming of running with her daughter, but she can't keep up. They drop to the ground, and Offred prays they will escape, but then she sees that her daughter is being led away through the trees. The bell rings and Cora knocks, waking her. She realizes that she has been crying in her sleep. She goes downstairs into the sitting room and kneels beside the chair where Serena Joy will sit, her assigned place. She waits, thinking about all of the signs of money in this room. She smells Serena Joy's perfume nostalgically; perfume is now a luxury. She thinks about how much she would like to steal something small from this room, to have something for herself. Rita and Cora come in and get to work; both of them have small roles in the Ceremony. Nick comes in and stands too close to Offred. His shoe is touching hers. She tries to move away, but he moves closer.

Serena Joy comes in wearing one of her nicest dresses and turns on the television. Offred looks forward to the Ceremony because only on this night does she get to watch the news. Even though she knows it is probably all fake, it is still something to do, something to learn. The newscaster speaks of beating back the Baptist army, arresting Quakers who were smuggling women into Canada, and resettling the black people in North Dakota, where they are supposed to farm. Finally, Serena Joy turns off the television. As they sit, Offred thinks about her name - the name she is no longer allowed to use. She remembers getting into the car, her daughter in the backseat. She had told her daughter that they were going on a picnic, and had planned to tell the guards on the border that they were just taking a day trip. They had fake passports and fake visas. She remembers being afraid even after they passed the first checkpoint.

The Commander knocks on the door as he is supposed to, but enters before Serena Joy gives him permission. He takes a Bible out of a box. It is locked away so that the women cannot read it. He asks for a drink of water, and someone goes to fetch it. Everyone watches him. Offred thinks about how strange it must be to be a man watched by women all the time, even when he is inside one, looking inside her with his extra eye. He reads the usual stories, including the one about Rachel and Leah, in which Rachel tells her husband to use her maid Bilbah, saying "she shall bear upon my knees, that I may also have children by her." At the Center they heard that story at breakfast, and the Beatitudes at lunch. Offred knew that they had changed the facts in the stories, but she could not prove it.

She remembers meeting Moira in the washroom. Moira told her that she was going to try to escape by faking illness. She said that she knew how to give herself scurvy by not eating vitamin C. Offred told Moira not to do such a thing, but Moira ignored her. She snaps out of her reverie to listen to the Commander, who is continuing with the story. Serena Joy is crying as always. During the silent prayer, she whispers the Latin words written in her closet by the woman she believes was like Moira, though she does not know what they mean. It was at dinner that she had learned that Moira had gone away. Then she saw the ambulance come back. They took Moira into the Science Lab and beat her feet with steel cables until she could not fit them into her shoes. Feet and hands, she understood, were not important parts of a woman's body. Offred remembers what Moira's feet looked like.

The Commander finishes the prayer, and everyone stands up. The Commander, Serena Joy, and Offred go upstairs into the marital bedroom. Offred lies fully clothed on the bed, looking up at the canopy. Serena Joy takes her head in her lap and holds her hands. Her rings cut into Offred's hands - perhaps on purpose. The Commander moves below her skirt. What is happening doesn't fit any definition of sex that Offred can think of. She lies still and wonders, as always, whether she is crazy. This is not fun, even for the Commander; they are all simply doing their duty. She wonders whether the act might be better if he were handsomer. He is, at least, an improvement on the last one. Finally he ejaculates, zippers his pants, and leaves the room. Serena Joy tells her to get out, though Offred is supposed to rest in this position for ten minutes. Offred wonders who this is worse for - her or Serena Joy.

When Offred gets back to her room, she puts on her nightgown, takes the pat of butter from her shoe, and rubs it onto her face. Handmaids are forbidden any beauty products - a decree of the Wives - and this is the best they can do. She lies in bed, unable to sleep, missing Luke. Suddenly, she decides that she wants to steal something. She gets up and creeps downstairs, wondering what she should take. Suddenly she realizes that someone is there, in the room with her: Nick. They stand motionless, until suddenly he kisses her. She begins to reach downward, but it is too dangerous, and they break apart. He tells her he was coming to find her. The Commander wants to see her in his office tomorrow.


In this section of the novel, Atwood begins to dig more deeply into the complex and emotional themes that permeate the story. One of the most important elements of The Handmaid's Tale is the idea of ownership. The women a generation before Offred fought for what they called ownership of their bodies, but they had no idea that this ownership would someday be completely stripped from them. Ironically, the actual loss of ownership has led to the "objectification" of women in a way far more damaging than the pornography and media images that feminists and conservatives were in some ways united in opposing:

[Offred] used to think of [her] body as an instrument, of pleasure, or a means of transportation, or an implement for the accomplishment of [her] will...Now the flesh arranges itself differently. [She's] a cloud, congealed around a central object, the shape of a pear, which is hard and more real than [she is] and glows red within its translucent wrapping.

The world tells her that the most important part of her, the only part of her that matters, is her womb, and she cannot help but believe this to be true.

Offred's internal language reflects her external objectification. She sees herself as a "prize pig", a rat in a cage, and she literally wishes that she were treated as well as those kinds of animals. She wants a "pig ball", or a reward for good behavior. She longs to steal, because possession feels like a kind of power. One might argue that Offred's objectification is not complete - in other words, her sense of self has not been completely destroyed - because she recognizes that possessing a knife or even a fork would give her back some sense of power over her life. However, Offred's resistance of this idea suggests that she is so overwhelmed by the notion of possession that she has given up her ability to possess any kind of power at all.

Offred's desire to articulate her feelings, her need to tell her story even when it is painful, suggests that Offred's use of language is the key to her continued survival. It is important that Offred continue to try to put her experiences into words, because language has become even more powerful in light of the restrictions placed upon it. Signs of language's power are everywhere. The Bible is literally locked up, so that no one but the Commander can have access to it. One wonders whether all men are allowed to possess a Bible, or if only those with a sufficient amount of power can be entrusted with access to the Word that has literally become Law.

Another kind of power arises in this section: the power of transgression. In this world, transgressions have taken on heightened significance, and as the consequences of being caught have grown worse, the desire to commit "crimes" without detection seems equally heightened. When Moira tries to escape from the Center, the law states that she must be punished in order to deter her from future transgressions. Her feet are beaten, ostensibly because they have no use for her feet, but this punishment also carries a symbolic significance. Her body, like Offred's, is no longer a "means of transportation": she cannot just walk off wherever she chooses.

Though the Handmaids' world has been minimized, their opportunities to transgress have decreased in number but increased in potency. When Offred dreams of a knife, she is thinking of killing herself. She does not fantasize about slipping by the guards unseen, but rather about seducing them. The Handmaids are clearly not alone in these changes. The new order attempts to regulate all relationships between men and women, and in doing so has effectively made these relationships entirely about sex. When Offred finds Nick alone in the room, their kiss seems almost inevitable, and Offred clearly desires to have sex with him, though in her past life she was a loving and faithful wife. Offred can see no longer envision a relationship with a man that does not involve sex, whether sanctioned or transgressive.