The Handmaid's Tale

The Handmaid's Tale Summary and Analysis of III: Night - IV: Waiting Room


Offred lies in her bed, thinking about the limited freedom that nighttime allows her. She idly thinks about the difference between to "lie" and to "lay", and the ramifications of these differences. She considers what she should imagine. Transported by memory, Offred recalls one night during her college years when she was trying to finish a paper, books scattered around her room, and Moira was trying to get her to go out for a beer. Next, she remembers going to a park with her mother, and then discovering that they were really there because her mother wanted to join some female friends of hers who were making a bonfire of pornographic magazines. Suddenly, without meaning to, Offred remembers waking up to find her daughter gone, and seeing a picture of her with another woman and knowing that she would not be returned. Offred thinks about how much easier her life would be if it were just a story. It's not a story, but at the same time it is - a story she is telling in her head, because she is not allowed to write. She decides she will tell her story only to "you" because "you" is safe, "you" can mean anyone...even if she knows that "you" really means no one.

The weather is beautiful; in the past, Offred thinks, it would have been called "swimsuit weather". Today, only three bodies are on the wall: a priest and two homosexuals. Offred suggests that they leave, wondering why Ofglen is never the first to want to leave. Ofglen comments that "it's a beautiful May day," and Offred starts thinking about how that word used to be a distress signal, from the French m'aidez ("help me"). They pass a funeral procession of several Econowives, one holding a jar. The jar contains a baby, only a few months in the womb - too early to know whether or not it would have been an "unbaby". The Econowives glare at them; they do not like the Handmaids. As Offred enters the yard, Nick greets her, though he is not supposed to talk to her. Offred walks past Serena Joy, thinking about her name and how she used to make speeches about the woman's proper place being the home. Offred doesn't think she necessarily likes the results of such speeches, and considers how much Serena Joy hates her. Aunt Lydia had warned them about the Wives, couching this warning in pious reminders that they should pity these women, for they have failed; they are unable to produce children.

Inside, Offred smells baking bread and is reminded of motherhood, though neither she nor her mother ever baked. She tells Rita that there are oranges for sale. Rita simply grunts, then comments that it's Bath Day. Cora comes in, and they discuss who will be in charge of Offred's bath like she is not there. Offred goes up the stairs to her room. Suddenly, she sees someone in the hall: it is a man, looking into the room where she stays. She realizes it is the Commander. He is not supposed to be there; he is breaking all of the rules. He turns and walks towards her, nodding at her, and then is gone. She wonders what this means. Was he in her room? She realizes that she does feel that the room is hers. It is her waiting room. When she first arrived, she had explored the room very slowly, mostly because she had so little to do. After only a few days, she realized that someone had been there before her. It reminded her of a hotel room, and made her think of the hotel rooms where she and Luke used to meet before he left his wife. She looked everywhere, even under the mattress, careful not to be caught snooping around. She looked long enough to become certain that it would be difficult to kill herself in this room. They had been careful not to leave her with anything that she could use if she wanted to commit suicide. On the third day, though, she found something scratched into the floor of the wardrobe: nolite te bastardes carborundorum. She thought it might be Latin, but wasn't sure. She imagines the woman who wrote this, and it makes her happy. She once asked Rita what the woman had been like, and her bluntness surprised her into honestly. Rita told her only that she "hadn't worked out".

Sometimes, to pass the time, Offred sings songs in her head. These songs are all forbidden now. Occasionally there is music on the television, which Offred can hear from another room, but not often. It is very hot, and the summer dresses have been unpacked. Aunt Lydia told them how much better these dresses were - more appropriate, healthier. Offred remembers Moira coming into her room and telling her that she's throwing an "underwhore party" - everyone is supposed to bring seductive underwear or negligees, and they'll all trade. Moira thought it would be hilarious. Offred thinks about how then such things were normal, but now this is normal. She recalls how gradually things changed; the changes didn't affect them directly, so it was almost as if they weren't happening. Offred hears a car, and goes to sit on the window seat. She looks at the pillow set there, embroidered with the word "Faith". It is the only thing she has to read in this place. She looks down and sees Nick. Then she sees the Commander getting out the car. His hair is a silvery gray. She thinks about how she would like to spit on him, or throw something at him. She remembers Moira once more, how they used to throw paper bags filled with water on boys walking below their window. The car drives away. Offred tries to figure out what she feels for this man, but it is too complicated. It isn't hatred, and it isn't love.

Once a month Offred is taken to the doctor for tests. These are the same tests that she used to get once a year, but "now it's obligatory." This time, Offred goes inside the examination room as usual, takes off all her clothes, and lies behind the screen so that the doctor will never see her face. He comes in and begins to examine her. Suddenly he whispers that he could help her, that no one would ever know, and that it would probably work. She realizes he is offering to impregnate her. He lifts the screen, and she sees his face. She is afraid, because the penalty for such a transgression is death. But there would need to be two witnesses - women cannot testify alone - and the door is locked. She says no, but nicely - hoping to keep the possibility open.

The bathroom next to the bedroom is nice. It is the same as before, except it has no mirror and, of course, no razors. Cora sits outside, to be safe - from what, Offred isn't sure. It is wonderful to be naked, but now Offred is unused to her own body. She cannot imagine wearing a bathing suit. As soon as she is in the tub, Offred remembers what it was like to bathe her daughter. She remembers an incident when her daughter was eleven months old. They were in the supermarket, and a woman tried to take her. The woman, clearly crazy, had sobbed that it was her baby, that the "Lord had given it to her." Now, Offred finds that is harder and harder to remember her daughter; it is as if she died. Offred wonders whether her daughter remembers her. She must be eight now; it has been three years. Cora tells her to hurry up. She washes quickly, unable to avoid seeing the tattoo on her ankle, the mark of her position. Cora brings her supper; the food is always relatively good, healthy and filling. If she does not eat it, Cora is supposed to report her. She forces the food down. Offred wonders how Serena Joy acts at dinner with her husband. Offred takes the pat of butter and wraps it in a piece of napkin, slipping it into her extra pair of shoes. She waits.


Like all novels written in the first person, The Handmaid's Tale offers the reader entry to only a single consciousness. This choice always suggests a certain degree of solitude, but in Offred's case this solitude is even more profound than usual. Offred's exchanges with others are extremely limited, and they are made more so by the sense that Offred is remembering everything from some point in the future. She is never in medius rei, in the middle of things. She also spends an astonishing amount of her time alone, and her attempts to pass that time make up a large portion of the novel. While Offred's loneliness is a reality, it is also a symbolic expression of her position in this society.

Offred is both more and less than other women - she is a vessel. She is "more" because she has the potential to have a child, to increase herself, but she is also "less", because she has no individual function. This duality expresses itself in the way she is treated. On the one hand, the Handmaids are meant to be honored, and Aunt Lydia emphasizes this vision of their role. She tells them she is fighting for them to enter through the front door, because they are not servants. Of course, this comment only makes them aware that others, presumably the Wives, are fighting to have them enter by the back door. Offred is cared for like a precious object - she is guarded while she bathes, kept covered up, inspected, and tested monthly. At the same time, Wives, servants and Econowives look on her with disgust. She knows that Rita, if not Cora, thinks of her as common, even depraved. She cannot be trusted, and her function is simply to obey orders and cause as little trouble as possible.

This section of the novel also introduces the idea of rule breaking. In the beginning of the novel, Offred is intrigued to realize that there must be a black market, and that this house participates in it. Now, even more rules are being broken: the Commander stands by the door to her room, Nick speaks to her, and the Doctor offers to commit a grievously dangerous act to help her conceive. Offred's situation begins to seem ever so slightly different. The reader doesn't get any real information about what Nick or the Commander might want, but the possibility that they want something is there. At this point in the novel, Offred's function - and the reader's - is simply to wait and see.

Indeed, this section is all about waiting, and it is clear that something is going to happen. The essential component of Offred's role hangs over the chapter, waiting to be addressed directly, or at least commented upon. Offred never directly addresses the issue of sex; she only alludes to it. The doctor offers to "help her", telling her that "she's ready" and that she doesn't "have much time left." In some ways, Offred has been trained by this culture to think about sex - this kind of sex - differently. It has been ritualized into a kind of chore, an ordeal that must be undergone. Offred is prepared, but this preparation is passive. She removes herself from the experience, because to think about it would be to acknowledge that she has no choice in the matter. There is no need to think about it. Besides mere submission, her participation is not required.

Fittingly, this chapter also focuses on the idea of motherhood - both Offred's actual status as a mother, and the fact that she hopes to become one once more. As Offred prepares for a sexual encounter with the Commander, her mind is repeatedly drawn back to her own child. Offred's grief and her still-present love contrast with the possibility of conceiving once again. Offred acknowledges that she does want a baby, but this baby bears no comparison to her existing daughter. She wants this baby in the same way that she "wanted" to be a Handmaid: she wants it because she wants to live. Just as Offred has allowed her body to become a vessel, she believes that she is prepared to give a baby as payment for continued life. Once again, the novel flip-flops between the almost-normal and the extraordinarily strange. At one moment Offred seems like a completely ordinary woman trapped in bizarre and terrible circumstances, and at another she has been transformed into something less than a woman, something degraded by her surroundings and her fears.