The Handmaid's Tale

The Handmaid's Tale Summary and Analysis of XIII: Night - XIV: Salvaging


The night of Offred and the Commander's excursion to the hotel is very hot. For some reason, the searchlights are out. Offred has put her normal clothes on and attempted to scrape off all traces of her make-up. Serena Joy arrives at her door at midnight, as arranged. Offred follows her through the kitchen, and Serena Joy tells her that she'll wait for her there. Offred moves quickly, afraid. Nick opens the door to his apartment, which is plain and neat. He turns out the lamp, undoes her dress, and offers her a drag of his cigarette. They speak awkwardly at first, but gradually become more comfortable with one another. Finally he hugs her, and then leads her over to the bed. He begins kissing and touching her, and says "No romance, OK?" Offred, however, isn't quite sure how the events transpire. She lies there, thinking about what Serena Joy is thinking, wondering whether she is betraying her husband, and wishing she were "without shame."

Offred wishes this story were about something else, something better. She has tried to put in some nicer things, like flowers. She goes back to Nick as many times as possible. Every time, she expects him to turn her away, but he never does. When they kiss, she keeps her eyes open. They always make love as if it is the last time, so the next time is always a gift. This is the most dangerous thing she could do, but she does not care. She tells him everything: about Moira, about Ofglen. She even tells him her real name. He, however, talks very little.

One day Offred is walking with Ofglen, who is trying to get her to find out information from the Commander by breaking into his study and reading his papers. Offred feels like none of this is real, and thinks about whether she might be pregnant. They are going to a district Salvaging. They file onto the lawn, where a stage has been set up. There are fewer and fewer Salvagings now, because the women are so well-behaved. They take their places in the usual order. This time, the Handmaids have cushions to kneel on, and the weather is good. Offred tries to think about Nick, and not the stage. Two Handmaids and one Wife are going to be salvaged; they have probably been drugged. The officials arrive, and Offred realizes that Aunt Lydia is there. Aunt Lydia gives the usual introductory speech, and then tells them that they will no longer give a detailed account of the crimes of the prisoners, because in the past it has lead to a surge in exactly those kinds of crimes. The crowd reacts angrily, and begins speculating that the Wife is probably there for killing her Handmaid - the only thing that Wives are not allowed to do. Or, they wonder, it could be adultery, or attempted escape. A bag is tied over the woman's head, and a noose is placed around her neck. The woman hangs. Offred doesn't want to see any more, and looks down at the rope.

The three bodies hang there. Aunt Lydia announces the end of the Salvaging, but then she tells the Handmaids they may form a circle. Most of the Wives and Daughters leave, although a few stay behind to watch. Ofglen tugs Offred to the front of the circle. Aunt Lydia reminds them of the rules of a Particicution: they must wait until she blows the whistle. Two Guardians bring out a man who has clearly been beaten. Aunt Lydia tells them that he and another man raped two Handmaids at gunpoint. One of the women was pregnant, and the baby died. Despite herself, Offred feels a surge of bloodlust. Aunt Lydia whistles, and after a moment the man tries to speak, but the women surge forward. Ofglen pushes to the front and kicks the man several times, viciously, in the head. The women tear him apart. Ofglen comes back to Offred, who is horrified. Ofglen whispers that it was a lie; he is part of their network, and she was knocking him unconscious. A few moments later it is over, and the women drift away. Offred feels sick at what happened, at herself. She wants to "go to bed, make love, right now."

Life returns to normal. One afternoon, Offred goes to her usual corner to wait for Ofglen. When the approaching woman reaches Offred, Offred realizes that it's a different woman. Offred doesn't know how she will be able to find out what happened to Ofglen, since they're not supposed to be friends. She asks whether Ofglen was transferred, and the woman replies that she is Ofglen. They shop for a while, and Offred suggests they go to the Wall. There are already women hanging from the wall already. Offred attempts to work the word "Mayday" into the conversation, but does so clumsily, and realizes that she has made a mistake: "She isn't one of us. But she knows." She thinks about the things the regime could do to her. At the corner, as they part, the woman leans in and whispers "She hanged herself...After the Salvaging. She saw the van coming for her. It was better." Offred feels only relief; she, at least, is safe. The danger washes over her, and "for the first time" she feels "their true power." On the top step she sees Serena Joy. She is holding her cloak and the garment worn by Offred. Serena Joy angrily tells her that she trusted her, and Offred knows it is over. She goes to her room, as ordered.


For a brief time, The Handmaid's Tale unexpectedly becomes a love story. Offred's affair with Nick is an odd development largely because it demonstrates several major changes in Offred's character that have gone on almost entirely beneath the surface of the novel. Her actions seem to demonstrate that she has abandoned her belief in the possibility of escape, her faith that Luke might still be alive somewhere, and her prayer that someday the new regime will come to an end. This "letting go" is somewhat tragic, for Offred's belief in the possibility of change seems to be the only thing holding her together as a person, and may be the only thing standing between her and suicide. At the same time, by initiating an affair with Nick, Offred has done a far braver thing than one might expect her to have done: the kindling of love in that hidden room is the greatest possible strike against the regime of Gilead.

Offred's affair with Nick is the third in a series of affairs. Twice, Offred has consciously "stolen" a man from another woman, though with the Commander she did not have much choice in the matter. Nick, however, is stolen from no one. Her actions are illicit in the context of the regime, but romantic in the reader's eyes. Thus, her affair with Nick is a reminder that sex united with love does not belong in the same category as sex in the absence of love. Offred and Nick's relationship clarifies the viewpoint of the novel in that it suggests that sex cannot be regulated by law, because nothing can govern love. The Commander dismisses Offred's suggestion that the regime has forgotten to provide for love, but he does so without a true understanding of love's power. The regime considers love unimportant, but it is clearly love that ultimately holds the power to destroy the regime.

Ironically, it is also a form of love that puts Offred in tremendous danger. When Serena Joy finds the costume Offred wore to Jezebel's, she feels that Offred has betrayed her, despite her understanding of Offred's situation. Earlier in the novel, Offred thinks about how Moira criticized her earlier affair with Luke, even though she wound up marrying him, and wonders what Moira would have thought of her affair with the Commander. Once again, Atwood seems to be pointing to similarities between the world of Gilead and the ordinary world. Did Offred owe anything to Luke's previous wife? Does she owe any kind of allegiance to Serena Joy? Is there any intrinsic solidarity between women that takes precedence over the relationships between women and men?

Another important theme that reasserts itself in this section of the novel is the power of language. Here, Offred directly addresses the fact that she is "constructing" her story:

I wish this story were different...I wish it were about love, or about sudden realizations important to ones life, or even about sunsets, birds, rainstorms, or snow. Maybe it is about those things, in a way; but in the meantime there is so much else getting in the way...I've tries to put some of the good things in as well. Flowers, for instance, because where would we be without them?

The confusion, the lack of a clear thread, is carefully - even artfully - constructed. The story is told as Offred wishes to tell it, rather than in the objective manner that the reader might prefer.

In this section, Offred also articulates more clearly whom the story is intended for. Though she does not directly state Luke's name, she certainly alludes to him when she says, "I am coming to a part you will not like at all, because in it I did not behave well, but I will try nonetheless to leave nothing out." The point of Offred's ramblings, however, is not entirely clear. She says (presumably to Luke), "By telling you anything at all I'm at least believing in you...I believe you into being." Yet it seems possible that Offred tells the story not solely to believe Luke into being, but also to believe herself into being. She betrays Luke not by sleeping with another man, but by telling another man her story, by telling him everything from her real name to, one suspects, the name of her child. Offred offers her story to Nick and to us, the readers, because only through telling it can she "feel that [she is] known."

In order to reveal Offred's desires more clearly to the reader, Atwood provides us with a scene that sharply contrasts with the intimations of love. One of the worst deaths the novel has to offer is Ofglen's death, for she is not even spared the dignity of absence: she is replaced by another woman with the same name, and essentially the same appearance. There is no hole standing where she once was. Ofglen is an example of what happens to the woman whose story has not been told. Though she was braver than Offred, and possibly more deserving of our interest, she ceases to exist as soon as she is dead. We do not know her name, so it is as if she did not exist.