The Handmaid's Tale

The Handmaid's Tale Summary and Analysis of XI: Night - XII: Jezebel's


Offred sits at the window, watching as night falls. She sees someone in the garden and wonders whether it is Nick. Her thoughts, she realizes, are becoming confused. She remembers the night before she and Luke left. She had walked through the house. Nick had brought up the cat. They couldn't just leave her, but they couldn't bring her, and they couldn't give her to anyone. Luke said that he would take care of it, and Offred had let him, pretending that she didn't know that "take care of it" actually meant "kill it." She wonders who it was that turned them in. Offred tries to pray, remembering how they were forced to pray in the Center. She asks God to help the others, and says that she'll try to forgive. She tells God that she will try to believe, but that she simply doesn't know how she can keep on living.

Once again Offred wakes up only to remember that she is not at home. She makes an effort to keep track of the days, but now she measures time by the moon rather than the sun. Her body is stiff, as if she is old. She wishes she could have a fight with Luke, a fight over something unimportant. She then sits down to wait for something to do. Later, she and Ofglen go on their walk. There are two bodies on the Wall today. One has a "J" written on it. She knows that the "J" doesn't stand for "Jew", because the Jews had been allowed to flee to Israel. Today, they stop in front of a building called Memorial Hall. She remembers Moira telling her about this building, and about how women used to not be allowed in. Ofglen whispers that this is where the Eyes hold their banquets. She tells Offred that the password for entry is "Mayday". Sometimes the idea of a network seems almost silly to Offred - childish, even.

When she returns home, she notices that Nick's hat is askew - the sign that the Commander wishes to see her alone. She walks through the garden and sees Serena Joy, who tells her to hold her wool while she winds it. Offred thinks about knitting. Serena Joy asks Offred whether anything has happened yet, and Offred tells her "no". Offred tries to imagine herself with a baby, but she cannot. She knows that she would be happy to have it done with, though. Serena Joy tells her that she can help her by arranging for another man to try. She tells Offred that Ofwarren's baby was conceived with a doctor. She tells Offred that she was thinking of asking Nick to try to help her conceive, and Offred realizes just how much Serena Joy wants a baby. Offred agrees to the plan, and in return Serena Joy tells her that she will try to show her a picture of her daughter. Then she gives Offred a cigarette, and tells her to go find herself a match.

Offred goes inside and asks Rita for a match, telling her that Serena Joy said she could have one. Although she protests, Rita eventually gives her one. Rita also offers her an ice cube to suck, and Offred is pleased by the gesture. She tells Rita that the radishes she is carving into roses are pretty. Offred then hurries upstairs, anticipating the cigarette. She wonders if she should save the match instead. She could hide it in the mattress and "burn the house down." She remembers being with the Commander the night before. He had started drinking while she was there. She has learned from Ofglen that he is high up in the chain of command. He tells her that the problem had been with the men and the women. The men hadn't had anything to do anymore; sex was too easy. Now, however, they feel. He tries to get Offred to tell him what she thinks, but she knows better. He tells her that "Better never means better for everyone...It always means worse, for some." Later, Offred lies in bed, wishing it would rain.

The next day, Offred walks to the Prayvaganza with Ofglen. She remembers dandelions; she hasn't seen any in a long time. They turn into a building, and inside they find chairs for the Wives and Daughters. The galleries are for the lower-ranked women who are not obligated to come, but often do. The Handmaids must kneel on the cement floor, where they are cordoned off from the rest with red silk ropes. Ofglen elbows Offred, and she looks up to see Janine enter. Ofglen tells her that the baby was a shredder after all, and that Janine blames herself because she used doctor. Offred wonders how Ofglen found out. She remembers one morning at the Center when Janine didn't get up to dress with the others; she was in some kind of state, and Moira had to slap her to bring her around.

The Commander in charge of the service comes in. He says a few prayers, and then twenty Angels enter the room. Twenty veiled Daughters are brought forward to wed twenty men. Offred wonders if these girls are old enough to remember the time "before"; some of these girls are no more than fourteen. The Commander insists to her that it is better now: now every woman has a purpose, men are kept in line, and mothers are protected. This time, Offred tells him that the new regime overlooked "love", to which he replies calmly that "arranged marriages have always worked out just as well, if not better." At earlier Prayvaganzas they would sometimes have a "nun...recant", although most of them chose the Colonies. The ritual ends, and Ofglen whispers to her. Once again Offred thinks of the Center, and about how Moira had insisted on making crude jokes about Aunt Lydia and the others, believing - rightly - that doing so "helped". Now Ofglen whispers to Offred they know that she is not only seeing the Commander during Ceremonies, and that she should find out anything that she can and pass it on.

Back in her room, Offred remembers the day when she, Luke, and her daughter had tried to leave. They had gotten to the border and presented their fake passports, which claimed, among other things, that Luke had never been divorced. Suddenly, Luke jumped back in the car and took off, telling her that the guard had picked up a phone. They got to the woods, jumped out of the car, and began to run. Offred doesn't want to be thinking about this. She recalls how she and the Commander talked about love, and wonders how they could have taken it for granted before the new regime. She remembers what love was like, and the things that lovers did. There is a knock on the door, but when Offred opens the door it isn't Cora; it is Serena Joy, holding a photo. The photo is of Offred's daughter - she is tall now, and dressed in white. Offred wishes she had not seen the picture, and that night when she eats, she thinks about the knives that they do not bring her.

Offred goes to the Commander's room, and can tell that he's been drinking. He tells her he has a surprise for her, and he gives her a garment made of colored feathers and sequins. She wonders where he got it, since all pieces of lingerie were supposed to have been burned. He tells her she needs to put it on and paint her face, because he's going to take her somewhere. She knows she shouldn't go with him, but wants to nonetheless. She asks him to turn his back, and she dresses herself and puts on some old make-up, realizing that she has almost forgotten how. The Commander gives her Serena Joy's blue cloak and tells her to put it on, and they depart. While they are driven through the streets, Offred wonders how much Nick knows. They pass through the checkpoints without delay, but as they approach their destination the Commander tells Offred to get down on the floor of the car. When they stop, the Commander slips a tag around Offred's wrist and leads her inside.

Their destination is a hotel, one that Offred has been to with Luke. She looks around and sees women everywhere, some wearing outfits like hers, others in bathing suits, and others in exercise costumes. There are even a few cheerleaders. There are also men, all wearing dark uniforms or suits. The Commander shows Offred off to some men, and then they sit down and he tells her about the club. He defends it, explaining, "nature demands variety for men...It's part of the procreational strategy." He says that the hotel is only for officers and trade delegations. As for the women, some were prostitutes before, while others are women who prefer this sort of work to the alternatives. He suggests she have a drink, and she asks for a weak gin and tonic. Suddenly, Offred spots Moira. After a few moments Moira notices Offred, but they both pretend they don't recognize each other. After a few more moments pass, Moira signals her to meet her in the bathroom. Offred excuses herself, trying not to look conspicuous.

She walks into the ladies' room rest area, and after a moment Moira comes out of a stall. She hugs Offred. Offred starts to cry, but Moira tells her to stop. Offred tells Moira how she came to be here, and Moira comments that Offred's Commander "is the pits." Moira tells Offred everything that happened when she left the Center. She headed towards the center of town, and bluffed her way through several checkpoints. She went to a Quaker couple she knew from her previous work, and they helped her, even though they were clearly scared. They moved her to the house of some friends, a house that was "a station on the Underground Femaleroad." At that point, she explained, they were mostly just focusing on people who weren't Christian or who had been divorced, so the Quakers were reasonably safe. Still she was always terrified. After about eight or nine months they tried to get her across the border, but she and the couple she was with were picked up. She refuses to tell Offred what they did to her, saying only that they showed her a movie about the Colonies and told her that she could go to a colony, or do this. She chose this. Offred looks sad, but Moira tries to reassure her, joking that it's like "Butch paradise." After that night, Offred never sees Moira again.

The Commander has secured a room key, and when Offred returns from the bathroom they go upstairs. Their interaction is exactly the same as before. She thinks about something else Moira told her: that she had seen Offred's mother in one of the videos about the Colonies. She thinks about how she can't remember the last time she saw her mother. When things got bad she tried to call her, and finally she and Luke went to her apartment and convinced the Super to let them in. Offred's mother wasn't there, and the apartment had been torn apart, but Luke told her not to call the police. In college, Offred remembers, Moira always talked about how much she liked Offred's mother. Coming back to the present, Offred stares at the ruin of her appearance in the mirror. She washes her hands and goes outside. The Commander is lying on the bed, and she lies down next to him, as she knows she's supposed to. He starts touching her, suggesting it will be a nice change, but she cannot bring herself to respond. She tells herself to fake it, but she doesn't know how.


In this section, Offred's faith and belief in the future seem to be slipping. Her memories are becoming more and more random, and she seems physically weaker. Though Offred knows far more about the weaknesses of the regime and the presence of subversive elements (such as the Mayday network), she seems less certain than ever that she will be able to escape. This section of the novel may be particularly frustrating for the reader. Compared to Moira and now Ofglen, Offred seems unwilling to take any real risks to escape her circumstances. However, Offred's fear reveals a great deal about her character, and fits with what the reader already knows about her.

Before Gilead, Offred was a relatively ordinary woman. She did not particularly care about her political rights: she wanted to fall in love and get married, and was willing to have an affair with a married man and wait for him until he left his wife. At the same time, Offred did enjoy having her own job and her own money. She was not uncaring, merely complacent. In other words, Offred is not a typical heroine. She feels no desire to risk her own life in order to help others, and she's not even sure that she would risk what she has now for the possibility of escape. Atwood clearly intends Offred to be a kind of everywoman - neither a "true believer" nor a potential martyr.

Given Offred's aversion to risk, it is extremely surprising when she accepts Serena Joy's offer to help her get pregnant. On the one hand, this seems incredibly dangerous; on the other hand, their complicity seems natural. She and Serena Joy are at least more equal than she and the Commander, or she and the Doctor. Furthermore, in order for Serena Joy to betray Offred, she would need a male witness or another female witness. Offred's trust, however, does not seem to be based on pragmatism. She makes her decision quickly without considering the risks, as she did with the Doctor. It seems likely that as her affair with the Commander progresses, Offred begins to feel more and more like an ordinary woman, and begins to feel something like a kinship with Serena Joy. As strange as it may seem, Offred feels more like Serena Joy's equal than ever before. Serena Joy has taken a great deal from her, and she will take even more from her (a child) if she can, but now she has also taken something from Serena Joy. The change in their relationship suggests that the government does not really want the Handmaids and the Wives to live in harmony. Creating divisions between them is a very effective way of introducing yet another layer of protection for the regime.

The conversations that Offred begins to have with the Commander offer another crumb of insight into the nature of the regime. He admits that better never means better for everyone - it always means worse for some. While it seems clear that the regime truly believes that drastic measures are necessary to ensure the survival of this population, it does not seem clear that the new rules are actually better for anyone. The only possible answer is that they are better for the Commanders, who, as Offred's Commander tells her, had lost all interest in sex because it was so easy to get. Even so, the Commander himself seems no happier, no more fulfilled or free in his sexual relations, than any man prior to the institution of the new regime.

The Commander, like so many men in the past, needs his sexual pleasure to be illicit and somewhat public. Like a man who brags to his friends about his mistress, it is not enough to just sleep with Offred in his study or in her room - he must show her off to others. He justifies breaking the rules by arguing that nature designed things so that men want more than one partner, but this explanation loses its validity when one considers that nearly all of these women have clearly been sterilized. The sexual behavior of men in the new regime is a far grosser violation of cultural norms than it was pre-Gilead, because it subverts the entire purpose of the regime - the re-population of their culture.

Offred suggests that rather than being about power, the current state of affairs is really about forgiveness - about who can forgive whom. Once again, it seems that the Commanders are at the center of this net, for in order to forgive them, it is first necessary to articulate their crimes, which are so gross, so base, and so selfish that to articulate them would make forgiveness impossible. Offred, however, does not follow through with this thought, either because it is too difficult, or because Atwood herself is not certain what she intends to say. Ultimately, one might interpret Offred's words to mean that it is impossible to remain human and at the same time to believe that other human beings consciously decide to do such evil things. Forgiveness is the only possible course, and it is even better if one can forgive without articulating the reasons behind it.