The Handmaid's Tale

The Handmaid's Tale Summary and Analysis of IX: Night - X: Soul Scrolls


Upstairs, in her room, Offred sits and thinks, trying to "take stock" of her situation. She is no longer just a woman with "viable ovaries"; now her position has changed. If the Commander has desires, as she now knows he does, those desires can be manipulated. She remembers watching a television show about World War II with her mother. The filmmakers had interviewed Hitler's mistress, and she had talked about how she hadn't known anything about the ovens, and how Hitler was a sweet man when he was around her. A few days after the interview, she had killed herself. Offred remembers how nicely the woman had been made-up, how she had tried to look her best. Offred starts to take off her clothes, but suddenly feels laughter bubbling up inside her. She knows she must stifle it, and buries her face in her cloak. She lies on the floor, trying to slow her breathing, and eventually falls asleep right there.

The next morning, she is awoken by Cora's scream and the crash of the dropped breakfast tray. She sits up from her place on the floor, and realizes that Cora thought she was dead. Offred tells Cora that she must have fainted, but then realizes that now Cora thinks she might be pregnant. She tells Cora that she doesn't think that she is, and the two women agree that it must have been the strain of the birth that made her fall asleep on the floor. Cora grumbles about the dropped tray, and Offred suggests that they pretend that she ate the breakfast already. She is happy, because she feels that this shared lie has created a link between them. Several days later, Offred walks by Serena Joy kneeling on a pillow, gardening. She thinks idly about the Commander's Wife, imagining that she is doing penance for some sin, but then realizes that she is really thinking about Serena Joy's shears. The irises bloom, tall and beautiful, and Offred thinks to herself that there is something subversive about spring. Winter, she feels, is easier.

Offred begins visiting the Commander two or three nights a week, going to his rooms whenever Nick wears his cap askew to signal her that her presence is desired. It is understood that they must be very careful not to let Serena Joy catch on. Offred begins to think that his desires are not clear to her because they are not clear to him. The second time she visits the Commander they play Scrabble again, and Offred realizes that it is he who is letting her win. After they finish, he gives her a magazine, Vogue, to read. He seems proud to be showing it to her, since publications of this nature are supposed to have been destroyed. She realizes that he is getting pleasure out of watching her read. She asks him why he doesn't show the magazine to Serena Joy, and he tells her that his Wife wouldn't understand. On the third night, she asks the Commander for some hand lotion, and the next time she visits him, he gives it to her.

The next Ceremony is strained and difficult, and Offred is uncomfortable. At one point the Commander reaches up as if to touch her, but she avoids his hand. Her feelings toward Serena Joy have changed as well. She still hates her, but also feels jealous and guilty. She tries to remind herself that Serena Joy would get rid of her in a second if she could. The next time she is in the Commander's room she tells him to be more careful in the future. He tells her that he finds the Ceremonies impersonal, and she replies sarcastically. Their relationship, it seems, has shifted. Aunt Lydia once told the Handmaids that in the future all women "would live in harmony...There can be bonds of real affection." Offred recognizes that she is no longer just a Handmaid: she is now the Commander's mistress, just as much as she once was Luke's. Sometimes she wonders whether Serena Joy knows. Whatever the truth of their situation might be, she knows that she is happier; she is more than just a vessel to him now.

The next scene begins with Offred and Ofglen walking along the street. It is very hot out, and Offred finds herself thinking about ice cream. She and Ofglen have become used to each other. They reach the Wall, though there is no one hanging from it today. Sometimes Offred imagines seeing Luke on the Wall, though there is no reason he would be there. She tries to imagine him in one of the rooms in one of these buildings. They pass a store known as "Soul Scrolls" (even though this store, like the others, is not marked by a written sign). Inside are "printing machines" which spit out "prayers...ordered by Compuphones...There are five different prayers." Offred tries to remember what this store used to sell - she thinks that it was lingerie, which is now illegal. They look at the machines through the window, but suddenly Offred realizes that Ofglen is looking straight at her reflection. She feels that the air around them has changed. Ofglen asks her if she "think[s] God listens," but Offred tells her that she doesn't. Offred realizes that Ofglen is nothing like she had thought. Ofglen tells her about an underground network, and invites her to join. They start to walk again, and Offred thinks about the possibility that Ofglen may be a spy. Suddenly a van pulls up next to them. Two Eyes jump out and grab a man who is walking by. The Eyes pull him into the van and speed away.

That afternoon, after she arrives back home, Offred is unable to sleep. She sits and looks out the window, thinking about what Moira would say about the Commander. She remembers how Moira disapproved of her affair with Luke, saying she was stealing from another woman. Offred didn't understand why Moira, who was a lesbian, was allowed to steal women from other women, but Moira argued that in her situation the "stealing" was more balanced. They would argue about these things, about whether Moira's desire for a life surrounded only by women was realistic, but their fights always ended with them laughing. Before Luke left his wife, she got a better job, working in a library. Offred thinks about all of the jobs that women used to be allowed to hold. She remembers paper money, which is now obsolete, ever since the switch to Compubanks. She recalls how the new regime shot the president and all of the members of Congress; afterwards, the army declared a state of emergency, placing the blame on Muslim fundamentalists. After the coup, the new regime suspended the Constitution.

At first, the changes didn't seem bad. They shut down the Pornomarts and the Feels on Wheels - developments that appealed to both conservatives and liberals. Then, one day, Offred went to the store and was told that her Compuaccount was no longer working. Later, at the office, she was told that she had been let go along with all of the other women, because the new law dictated that women no longer be allowed to hold such positions. She returned home and waited for Luke, totally unsure of what she should do. Finally she called her mother, and then Moira, who worked for a women's collective. Moira came over and told her about how they had cut off all of the women's Compucards because women were no longer permitted to hold property. Moira, she recalls, didn't seem particularly surprised. Offred then remembers how Luke didn't seem very upset about the new laws, and simply assured her that he would take care of her. There were marches, but not many, because the army would open fire on the participants. Offred then begins thinking about her mother. She remembers her coming home from marches, and how embarrassed she was by her mother's political efforts. Now, she wishes she could take it all back.

Offred hears Nick come out of the house and watches him through her window. She wonders what he gets for his role in the arrangement. She remembers that she never asked Luke whether he was actually happy with the changes that were taking place; she was already too dependent, too afraid.

In the Commander's office, Offred sits looking at the board, wondering what it is that he gets out of this arrangement. He asks her what she wants to read, for this is now their routine. The Commander always watches her while she peruses the reading material that he provides. She suggests that they talk instead, and she asks him questions about himself. He answers her vaguely, saying only that he used to be in "market research." Finally she asks him what the Latin phrase in her bedroom means, hoping that he won't catch on to where she saw it. Though puzzled at first, he finally explains that it is a joke: it means, essentially, "Don't let the bastards grind you down." He shows her one of his old Latin schoolbooks, full of jokes like this one. Now she understands why the woman wrote it. She had been here, in this room with the Commander, as well. Offred asks him what happened to the woman who preceded her, and he tells her that she hung herself on the light fixture because Serena Joy found out about her relationship with the Commander. Offred suggests that he wants her to come here because he "wants [her] life to be bearable to [her]," and he agrees. She tells him that she wants to know "whatever there is to know."


In this section, Atwood underscores the idea that the new regime has intensified the objectification of women by demonstrating that when the Commander actually starts to treat Offred like a "sex object," she begins thinking of herself as more than merely a woman with "viable ovaries." This subtle shift in power suggests that the Gileadean regime's purpose in creating a role for the Handmaids that is distinct from the roles of "concubines" or "second wives" has more to do with power and control than with the Biblical teachings or a desire to honor the Handmaids. At this point it would be difficult for a reader to see The Handmaid's Tale as a criticism of fundamentalist beliefs, or even of the unification of church and state. Though Offred's understanding of the true nature of her situation is limited, the hypocrisy and degeneration underlying the Gileadean regime is painfully clear to the reader.

What is less clear to the reader is whether the Gileadean regime is solely responsible for undermining the relationships between men and women, or whether it simply exposes serious weaknesses that were already present in society. One of the most painful moments in this section of The Handmaid's Tale is Offred's admission that Luke didn't seem to object to the things that were happening to her, and that he might even have preferred the new system. Offred explains that they "never talked about it" because by the time she really understood what was happening, she "couldn't afford to lose [him]." What destroyed the balance of power between men and women? The laws that stripped women of their individuality, or the men's suppressed desire to control - even own - their wives? Offred does not come close to answering this question, but by raising it at all, Atwood prods the reader to examine the idea of "gender equality" in reality as well as in fiction. Even if the regime of Gilead seems extreme, it nevertheless sheds light on the beliefs and desires of the reader, both male and female.

Though The Handmaid's Tale belongs to the genre of "speculative fiction", it raises many philosophical and political ideas with some very real ramifications. Atwood highlights the idea that even if the means of exchange and the value of things are altered, one cannot alter basic human desires. Though Offred's new relationship with the Commander is unquestionably strange, Offred soon realizes that she has essentially become the Commander's mistress. Their Scrabble games and Offred's access to banned magazines are as transgressive - if not more so - than the sexual acts a mistress would have performed in the past. The Aunts told the Handmaids that they would make them more valuable by making them rare, and it appears that they also meant that they would make sex more valuable by making it more rare, as well.

The Commander seems to believe that the system has been effective, for he insists that before the new regime, sex was so easy to acquire that it had almost ceased to matter. What the Aunts and the Commander fail to articulate is that the new regime makes sex scarce and makes the Handmaids "protected" primarily by creating a climate of fear and powerlessness around sex. The Commander's relationship with Offred is the same as any man's relationship with his mistress. Offred's relationship with him, however, is vastly different than her previous relationship with Luke. The new regime and its dictates have made Offred's situation difficult by destroying her ability to take pleasure in a relationship with a man.

The new regime's decision to place all guilt and blame on women (for example, when Janine was gang-raped at age fourteen it was her fault, and when a woman cannot conceive it is always because she is infertile) is effective because women are careful to follow the dictates of their new position. However, this decision is also ineffective because it denies the reality of these interactions. The serious problem of the decreasing birth rate cannot be solved if the regime is unwilling to admit that a decline in male fertility is an equal important factor. Illicit sexual relationships will always exist if men have the power to conceal them, and especially if those men have power over vulnerable women. Once again, the reader must consider how different the world of Gilead actually is from our own.