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The Handmaid's Tale

The Handmaid's Tale Summary


Here you will find a The Handmaid's Tale summary (Margaret Atwood's book).
We begin with a summary of the entire book, and then you can read each individual chapter's summary by visiting the links on the "Chapters" section.

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Last Updated: Monday 1 Jan, 2024

The Handmaid's Tale Summary Overview

Offred is a Handmaid living in a totalitarian regime, succeeding the United States. Handmaids are women assigned to bear children for elite couples with fertility issues. Offred's duty is to the Commander and his wife, Serena Joy, a previously renowned gospel singer. The Commander conducts a monthly ritual of attempting to impregnate Offred. Women's freedom in this society is heavily curtailed - they can only leave their houses for errands, their rooms cannot be fully enclosed, and a secret police force monitors their every move. Offred often reverts to her past, revealing her previous life. She once had an affair with a man named Luke, who divorced his wife to marry her. They had a child together. A dramatic increase in violence against women, coupled with the prevalence of pornography and declining fertility rates due to pollution and chemical spills, led to a military coup. The new regime stripped women of their rights, leading to Offred and Luke attempting to flee with their daughter to Canada. They were separated, and Offred hasn't seen her family since. She was then sent to a re-education center to prepare her for her role as a Handmaid. Once assigned to the Commander's house, Offred's life becomes monotonous. Her routine is disturbed when her doctor offers to impregnate her, claiming the Commander might be sterile. She refuses, fearing the consequences. She later starts visiting the Commander in secret, playing forbidden games like Scrabble. Meanwhile, her shopping partner, Ofglen, reveals herself as a member of an underground rebellion. After Offred fails to conceive, Serena suggests she sleeps with their driver, Nick. Offred reluctantly agrees, leading to a clandestine affair. However, her quiet life is upended when she is rescued by members of the rebellion, leaving her uncertain about her future. The narrative concludes in 2195, with a lecture discussing Offred's story, which was found on cassette tapes, suggesting she may have escaped or been recaptured.

chapter 1

Offred, our storyteller, recollects how she and other females shared a gym, sleeping on military beds. They were watched over by Aunt Sara and Aunt Elizabeth who carried electric prods on their belts. Despite being silenced, the women managed to whisper without getting noticed. They were allowed outside twice a day to the former football field, now enclosed by a wire fence with barbed wires on top. It was guarded by armed men known as Angels, who seemed to ignore the women. Yet, the women desired to be noticed by these men, fantasizing about negotiating with their own bodies. Offred remembers the nights, when they would silently share their names with each other.

chapter 2

The narrative transitions to the present, revealing Offred's living conditions. She resides in a glassless room, furnished with curtains, a picture, and a rug. The window opens partly and has shatterproof glass. There are no items in the room to fix a rope on, and the door lacks a lock. Offred recalls Aunt Lydia suggesting she view her situation as a privilege not imprisonment. Offred, a Handmaid, dons a red outfit, white wings surrounding her face, distinguishing her from Marthas in green and Wives in blue. She resides with Marthas, Rita and Cora, whose conversations she often eavesdrops on. One day, she overheard Rita expressing her disdain for Offred's predicament, while Cora empathized, noting she could've been a Handmaid if younger and fertile. Longing for companionship, Offred wishes to engage with them, sharing rumors of various incidents involving Handmaids. Preparing for a shopping trip, she retrieves her shopping tokens from Rita, each token imprinted with the image of the intended purchase: eggs, cheese, and steak.

chapter 3

Offred, on her departure, scans for the Commander's Wife without success. The Wife has a hobby of knitting, specifically scarves "for the Angels at the front lines." Offred speculates if it's a mere pastime or the scarves are indeed used. Her initial arrival at the Commander's house, after her previous two placements "didn't work out," comes to mind. Offred had hoped that the new Wife wouldn't lock herself in the bedroom like the one before her. On the first day, the Wife requested her to remain invisible and not cause any issues. Conversing while enjoying a forbidden cigarette, she reminded Offred of her permanent status as the Commander's spouse. "It’s one of the things we fought for," she stated indifferently. To Offred's surprise, she realized her mistress was Serena Joy, the primary singer from a Sunday religious show, Growing Souls Gospel Hour, that aired during her childhood.

chapter 4

Offred, stepping out for groceries, spots Nick, the Faith Guardian, cleaning the Commander's car. Living above the garage, he winks at her inappropriately, stirring her suspicion that he might be an Eye, a government spy testing her loyalty. She waits for Ofglen, her shopping partner, as Handmaids are always paired for outside tasks. On Ofglen's arrival, they exchange cautious greetings, avoiding unorthodox discussions. Ofglen mentions a recent military victory over Baptist rebels, to which Offred replies, “Praise be”. They approach a checkpoint overseen by two young Guardians, the policing force comprised of men unfit for military service. Younger Guardians can be dangerously zealous or jittery—recently, one shot a Martha who hesitated while fetching her pass, mistaking her for a bomber. Offred learned about it from Rita and Cora's conversation—Rita was seething, while Cora accepted it as a safety measure. At the checkpoint, Offred risks a minor infraction by making eye contact with a Guardian, guessing that they must be sexually frustrated, given the restrictions on marriage, masturbation, and pornography. Their only hope lies in promotion to Angel status, which allows marriage and potentially a Handmaid. This is the first time the term “Handmaid” is mentioned in the book.

chapter 5

In the city, Ofglen and Offred stand in store queues. This society is called “The Republic of Gilead.” Offred recalls a time before Gilead, when women didn't have their current protections. They endured unwanted attention and harassment. Today, they are left alone, untouched and unaddressed. Aunt Lydia used to explain this as a shift from 'freedom to' to 'freedom from'. They shop in stores with names like All Flesh and Milk and Honey, denoted by images instead of words because “they decided that even the names of shops were too much temptation for us.” An obviously pregnant Handmaid, known to Offred as Janine from the Red Center and now named Ofwarren, causes excitement. Offred suspects that Janine is flaunting her pregnancy. Offred's thoughts drift to her past life with her husband, Luke, and their daughter. She remembers a mundane memory of keeping plastic grocery bags under the sink, a habit Luke criticized out of fear their daughter might suffocate. Guilt over her negligence ensues. Post-shopping, Offred and Ofglen meet a group of Japanese tourists with their translator. The tourists want a picture, but Offred declines. Many translators are Eyes, and Handmaids must maintain modesty. The sight of the tourists in revealing attire leaves Offred and Ofglen marveling. When asked if they are content, Offred claims they are very happy, since Ofglen stays silent.

chapter 6

While heading back from their shopping trip, Ofglen proposes a detour past the church. The church, ornately adorned with colonial-era Puritan portraits, now serves as a museum. Offred paints a picture of the surrounding area, including an old boathouse, dormitories, a football field, and red brick sidewalks, indicating they're traversing the erstwhile Harvard University campus. Directly opposite the church looms the Wall, a grim reminder of the Republic of Gilead's authority. This is where the bodies of punished criminals are grotesquely displayed. The condemned men's faces are concealed by bags, one having a bloodied smile. Each of the six cadavers bears a fetus symbol, indicating they were previously abortion providers. Despite their actions being lawful then, they're being posthumously punished. Offred finds solace in the fact that her husband Luke couldn't be among them as he wasn’t a doctor. Looking at the bodies, she recalls Aunt Lydia's words about adapting to their altered lives.

chapter 7

Offred spends her nights reminiscing about her past life. She recalls a conversation with her college friend Moira and memories of attending a protest against pornography with her mother as a child. She has lost memories of a significant period, possibly due to drugs administered by the regime. She remembers waking up in a panic, demanding to know her daughter's whereabouts. She was told she was deemed unfit as a mother and her daughter was put in better care. She was shown an image of her daughter accompanying an unfamiliar woman. Offred narrates these experiences as if relating them to someone else, as she is unable to write them down due to the prohibition on writing. I would like to believe this is a story I’m telling. I need to believe it. I must believe it. Those who can believe that such stories are only stories have a better chance.

chapter 8

After a shopping excursion, Ofglen and Offred spot three new hangings on the Wall, including a Catholic priest and two Guardians labeled as "Gender Treachery" for homosexual acts. Following a moment of observation, the pair continue home, encountering a procession of lower-class Econowives holding a funeral. One woman holds a small jar, indicating a premature miscarriage. The Econowives express clear disdain for the Handmaids, with one even spitting at them. Near the Commander's residence, Ofglen bids Offred farewell with the traditional phrase "Under His Eye," but seems to hesitate as if wanting to add more. As Offred arrives at her destination, she crosses paths with Nick, who uncommonly inquires about her day, to which she gives no response. She notices Serena Joy in the garden, recalling the woman's history as a singer turned advocate for women's domestic roles. Despite pushing for this lifestyle, Serena was always busy with speeches. Offred recalls an assassination attempt on Serena that resulted in her secretary's death. She wonders if Serena resents the fact that she, like all women, is now confined to the domestic life she championed. Inside the house, Rita critiques the shopping purchases as usual. As Offred heads upstairs, she is surprised by the presence of the Commander. They acknowledge each other before he leaves, as he shouldn't be in that area.

chapter 9

Recalling her past, Offred reminisces about secret rendezvous with Luke in hotel rooms while he was still married to his first wife. She mourns for the lost freedom of having her own space. She acknowledges the happiness they shared, oblivious to it at the time. Reflecting on her early days in the Commander's house, she remembers inspecting the room. She discovered stains from past sexual encounters and a Latin inscription in the closet floor, 'Nolite te bastardes carborundorum'. Unfamiliar with Latin, Offred finds solace in the thought of connecting with the previous occupant who had etched it. She envisions this woman as an irreverent, freckled woman, similar to Moira. Subsequently, she inquires Rita about the room's previous occupants. Rita's response hints at many past Handmaids. Offred speculates about a "lively one... with freckles." Rita confirms her knowledge but discloses nothing about the earlier Handmaid, vaguely stating she didn't work out.

chapter 10

Offred often hums tunes like “Amazing Grace” and Elvis in her mind, a small rebellion in a land where music is largely banned, including in the home of her Master, the Commander. Occasionally, she catches Serena, the Commander's wife, listening to her own old gospel recordings, a remnant of her past celebrity. With summer on the horizon, the heat in the house intensifies. The season change also brings the prospect of switching to lighter attire for the Handmaids. Offred's mind drifts back to Aunt Lydia's tales of the horrors women faced in the pre-Gilead era, when scantily clad sunbathing was common. She recalls her friend Moira hosting a risqué lingerie party, dubbed an "underwhore" event. She muses over the often distant-seeming reports of female victims of violence she used to read in the newspaper, somehow detached from her own existence. Positioned by a window, Offred lingers on a cushion with Faith stitched onto it. It stands as the solitary word she's permitted to read - she spends a considerable time staring at it. From her vantage point, she sees the Commander leaving in his car.

chapter 11

Offred recounts her recent visit to the doctor, a monthly routine where she is tested for pregnancy and disease, with a Guardian escorting her each time. At the doctor's clinic, she must undress and cover herself with a sheet, while another sheet hangs from the ceiling, obstructing the doctor's view of her face. Communication isn't encouraged, but the doctor defies norms, engaging in friendly conversation and even proposing to impregnate her. He suggests that many Commanders are either old or sterile, which shocks Offred, as officially no man in Gilead is considered sterile. The society's narrative only acknowledges fruitful and barren women. She perceives the doctor as empathetic, but also recognizes his enjoyment of power. His proposition unsettles her - if caught, they could both be executed. She rejects his offer, trying to sound appreciative yet nonchalant. Her rejection, she worries, might provoke him to falsely report a health issue, which could result in her being sent to the Colonies with the "Unwomen". But she's also scared because she's been presented with an escape route.

chapter 12

Offred has to bathe, a task overseen by Cora who waits outside the unlocked, mirrorless bathroom. Offred feels a sense of estrangement from her own body, reminiscing about times she used to sunbathe. In the bath, she reflects on her daughter, remembering an attempted kidnapping incident at a supermarket. It has been three years since Gilead's authorities separated her from her five-year-old child. Offred has no keepsakes from her daughter and recalls Aunt Lydia's advice to not be attached to earthly things, referencing the Bible's "Blessed are the meek," without completing the quote. At times, Offred perceives her daughter as a phantom, conceding that it's simpler to think of her snatched child as deceased. Cora, growing restless, prompts Offred to finish her bath. She gazes at the Handmaid tattoo on her ankle, a mark all Handmaids bear. Post-bath, Offred eats a bland dinner despite her lack of appetite. She recalls Aunt Lydia's rules prohibiting Handmaids from consuming coffee, alcohol, or nicotine. She ponders about Serena and the Commander dining elsewhere, questioning if the Commander ever pays attention to his Wife. Despite the rules against saving food, Offred stashes away a butter pat in her shoe.

chapter 13

Feeling like a cloud molded around a solid pear-shaped nucleus, Offred battles with boredom after supper. Her thoughts drift to harem paintings, now seeing their true depiction of women's ennui rather than eroticism. She ponders if men find such dullness enticing. Recollections of the Red Center surface, especially the time when Moira arrived three weeks after her, and their secret restroom meetings that provided a fleeting sense of joy. In the Red Center, everyone was compelled to reveal their pasts. Janine confessed to being gang-raped at fourteen, but was blamed for the incident by the Aunts and other Handmaids. They shamed her tears, labeling her weak. Offred muses on her body's transformation, once a vessel of pleasure or mobility, now reduced to a mere womb. She dreads her monthly menstrual cycle—it signifies failure in her imposed duty of child bearing. She recalls a desperate escape attempt through the woods with her daughter. Hindered by her child, she couldn't run fast. Shots rang and they fell to the ground, but her daughter was too young to comprehend the need for silence. Restrained, she had to watch her child being torn away from her grasp.

chapter 14

Post-meal and bath, Offred is obligated to partake in the Ceremony alongside her household. The Commander is perpetually tardy, causing Serena to sit waiting as Offred kneels on the ground. Rita, Cora, and Nick stand at her rear, with Nick intentionally brushing his shoe against Offred's. She tries to evade his touch, yet he persistently nudges her foot. Serena permits them to view the news during their wait. Canadian broadcasts are banned and the majority of available programs are faith-based. The news highlights the capture of spies trafficking “national resources” and the arrest of five Quakers. The broadcaster mentions that the forced “resettlement of the Children of Ham” is underway in the Dakotas. Offred reminisces about the time she and Luke procured counterfeit passports to flee. They informed their daughter about a picnic trip and intended to drug her at the border to prevent her from revealing their plans. To avoid raising suspicion, they packed no belongings in their vehicle.

chapter 15

The Commander steps in and unlocks a lavish box. He retrieves a Bible, reading aloud to everyone. Offred contemplates about his life, ensnared by the gaze of women. The passages he reads underscore the importance of bearing children. As he reads, his Wife starts to quietly weep. The tale of Rachel and Leah from Genesis is read by the Commander. Rachel, infertile, convinced her husband to conceive with her handmaid, Bilhah. This story was persistently taught to the Handmaids at the Red Center. The Beatitudes were broadcasted by a male voice during meals, thus allowing the Aunts to avoid the transgression of reading. Offred recalls when Moira feigned sickness, intending to use sexual favors as a bribe for her escape. However, her plan failed when an Angel reported her. The punishment was a beating on her feet using steel cables, which was the standard for a first offense. The penalty for a second offense was a beating on the hands. Aunt Lydia reassured the women that their hands and feet weren't necessary for their roles.

chapter 16

Following the devotions, the Ritual proceeds as expected. Offred is positioned between Serena's legs in the bedroom, lying on her back with her head against Serena's fully-clothed body. Serena and Offred's hands are clasped while Offred's clothing is displaced and her underwear removed. Serena's rings press painfully into Offred's hands. The Commander copulates with Offred in a detached, emotionless manner, promptly zipping up and exiting post-act. Serena hastily dismisses Offred, despite the usual post-coital rest period intended to increase pregnancy likelihood.

chapter 17

After retreating to her room, Offred takes the butter she has hidden in her footwear and applies it as a skin moisturizer, defying the prohibition of beauty products for Handmaids. Struggling with insomnia, she resolves to pilfer something. Stealthily moving downstairs, she opts to snatch a daffodil from a floral setup. Her intention is to flatten it under her mattress to be discovered by her successor. Suddenly, while in the living room, she becomes aware of another individual's presence. It's Nick. Both are breaching rules by being downstairs. Without a word, they share a kiss, and she yearns to be intimate with him instantly. She contemplates telling Luke, assuring him he'd comprehend, before doubting his understanding. Engaging in sexual activity is too perilous, leading to Nick and Offred parting ways. Before leaving, Nick quietly discloses that the Commander has requested her presence in his office the next day.

chapter 18

Following her trip back to her quarters, Offred reclines on her cot, her mind occupied by past memories of intimate moments with Luke as her unborn child fluttered inside her. She envisions different possibilities for Luke's fate - maybe he's lifeless, his corpse hidden in the bushes where their escape was thwarted. Perhaps he's imprisoned somewhere. Or he could have successfully reached the safety beyond the border, and might someday unexpectedly reach out to her. She holds onto these three different realities at once, preparing herself for any eventuality.

chapter 19

Offred experiences a dream where she embraces her child, yet it fills her with sadness as she knows it's not real. She also envisions her mother serving her breakfast in bed. While eating breakfast, she admires the aesthetic of a boiled egg in sunlight. Her meal gets disrupted by sirens from a Birthmobile, signifying that it's time for Offred to attend a birth. Janine, currently known as Ofwarren, will soon deliver her baby. In her journey to Commander Warren's house, Offred speculates whether Ofwarren's child might have birth abnormalities, termed as "Unbaby" in Gilead. One out of four women bear these abnormal babies due to pollution and harmful environmental factors. Offred remembers Aunt Lydia accusing women, who opted not to bear children, of self-poisoning or getting sterilization procedures. Such women, according to Aunt Lydia, were Jezebels, rejecting God's blessings. Aunt Lydia had once shown them a graph illustrating the declining birth rate over time, dropping beyond the replacement level. Aunt Lydia condemned women who didn't want children as idle and immoral. She praised the childbirth process in Gilead since it was completely natural, forbidding any pain-relieving drugs for the mother's comfort, claiming it was better for the child and divine will for women to suffer during labor. Upon reaching Ofwarren's Commander's residence, the Handmaids enter. Another Birthmobile arrives carrying the Wives. Offred pictures the Wives gossiping about the Handmaids, labeling them as promiscuous and unsanitary.

chapter 20

As Ofwarren is in labor, the Wife postures in the sitting room as though she too is giving birth. Meanwhile, the Handmaids assemble around Janine's bed in the master bedroom to observe. Offred recollects the Aunts presenting them with explicit films showing men committing violent sexual acts on women. According to Aunt Lydia, this depicted the old days' perception of women. One film showcased “Unwomen,” or pre-Gilead feminists. To prevent the Handmaids from hearing the women's dialogue, the Aunts muted the audio. In one film, Offred recognized her young mother participating in a feminist march. Offred's late-thirties, single mother and her had a strained relationship; her mother believed Offred failed to value the early feminists' sacrifices. Despite their disagreements, Offred yearns for her mother's presence.

chapter 21

Handmaids recite a mantra to assist Janine during labor. Offred is questioned by another Handmaid if she is searching for someone, to which she provides Moira's description. The Handmaid promises to look out for Moira, then mentions she seeks someone called Alma. She also inquires about Offred's real name. However, as an Aunt catches them not chanting, their conversation is abruptly ended. As the baby is on the verge of arrival, Ofwarren (Janine) and Warren's wife share the Birthing Stool, with the latter seated higher. The baby girl is born, healthy and without defects, causing much jubilation. The jubilant wife then takes the newborn to her bed and decides to name her Angela amidst the adulation of the other wives, pushing the Handmaids away. Post-birth, Janine will breastfeed Angela for several months before moving on to serve another Commander. Her capability to bear a child ensures her safety from being labeled an Unwoman and exiled to the colonies.

chapter 22

Returning from Janine's birthing event, Offred recalls Moira's daring escape from the Red Center. Moira had strategically caused a toilet to flood, and when Aunt Elizabeth came to investigate, she was ambushed. Using a long lever from the toilet, perceived as a knife, Moira cornered Aunt Elizabeth into the furnace room. She then swapped clothes with her captive and secured her in place before boldly exiting the center, utilizing Aunt Elizabeth's pass. From that point onwards, there were no sightings or news of Moira.

chapter 23

Offred reveals to Cora about the child, prompting Cora to voice her desire for Offred to become a mother soon. Later, Offred secretly encounters the Commander in his office. She mentally prepares herself for an unwanted sexual advance. The stakes are high because if Serena finds out about their meeting, Offred could be banished to the Colonies as an Unwoman. But declining the Commander could lead to worse outcomes, given his authoritative position. Offred takes note of the book-filled walls in the Commander's study. He greets her traditionally with a "Hello," leaving Offred unsure of how to respond. In an unexpected twist, the Commander simply asks her to play Scrabble, which is a forbidden activity for women. They play two rounds, and Offred finds the game surprisingly indulgent. At the end of their rendezvous, the Commander requests a kiss from Offred. She fantasizes about killing him with a metal piece from the toilet, similar to Moira's act. She complies with his wish and kisses him, but he expresses his disappointment as he wanted her to kiss him "‘as if [she] meant it.’"

chapter 24

Overwhelmed by her encounter with the Commander, Offred knows she must let go of her old life and adapt to her current reality. She begins to see the Commander's unconventional actions as an opportunity to gain something. She recalls Aunt Lydia implying that men are driven by lust and can be controlled through sex. She remembers a television documentary about the Holocaust. A former mistress of a Nazi guard was interviewed; she claimed ignorance of the death camps and defended her lover. Her mother, a keen viewer of such programs, would explain the content to a young Offred. The mistress's suicide shortly after the interview has stuck with her. Later, in her room while undressing, the absurdity of her situation nearly brings her to laughter. A struggle to suppress her amusement sends her stumbling into the closet (or cupboard, as she also refers to it). There, she finds the Latin phrase 'Nolite te bastardes carborundorum' inscribed. Exhausted and overpowered by her emotions, she falls asleep on the closet floor.

chapter 25

When Cora discovers Offred unconscious on the floor, she inadvertently drops the breakfast tray in shock. Offred manages to convince Cora that she had passed out, and Cora successfully lies to Rita, stating the tray was accidentally dropped. As spring transitions to summer, Offred's secret rendezvous with the Commander persist. They design subtle signals to avoid arousing Serena's suspicion. Nick's hat, either absent or misaligned, becomes an indicator for these meetings. However, the presence of Serena knitting in the sitting room sometimes impedes these meetings. Occasionally, Serena leaves to attend to other ill or pretending-to-be-ill Wives, a seemingly rotation practice that Offred believes livens up their mundane existence. Offred observes that the Marthas and Handmaids can't afford such luxuries, as being sick or elderly could lead to their exile to the Colonies. Offred notes the absence of elderly women, though she doesn't know their exact fate. The Commander refrains from further physical intimacy during their meetings. They engage in Scrabble and perusal of old Vogue magazines, where the women depicted strike Offred as princely or pirate-like. On one occasion, Offred requests hand lotion from the Commander, who is amused by her revelation that Handmaids use butter to moisturize their skin. She ensures that the lotion is left in the Commander's office to avoid suspicion in her room.

chapter 26

Offred's budding connection with the Commander leads to a complex mix of emotions. She is engulfed by embarrassment when involved with him sexually during the Ceremony, and resentment towards Serena is now coupled with jealousy and guilt. Despite the lack of actual secret sexual encounters, Offred feels like she has become the Commander's mistress. She understands the risk of Serena discovering the truth, which could lead to Offred's expulsion. Once, the Commander almost caresses Offred's face during the Ceremony, leading her to caution him against such gestures, as they could result in her transfer to the Colonies. His admission of finding the sex impersonal prompts her to question his slow realization. Gradually, she's growing more at ease with him. Offred's memory of Aunt Lydia's words echoes in her mind—there will come a point when the population stabilizes, leading to the Handmaids residing in a single home, without transfers, becoming akin to daughters for the Wives.

chapter 27

Ofglen and Offred have grown familiar with each other, continuing their routine shopping duties. They often go to the fish shop, Loaves and Fishes, but because of the rampant pollution in the sea leading to dwindling fish stocks, the shop is rarely open. The pair also frequently visit the Wall, causing Offred to question if Luke is incarcerated behind it in what used to be a university but now serves as a detention center. During one trip, they drop by a shop named Soul Scrolls where machines are constantly printing prayers. It's common for the Wives to order these prayers to show their devotion. Once printed, the paper is reused for more prayers. Unexpectedly, Ofglen, risking treason, whispers a question to Offred, asking her if she thinks God actually listens to these machine-generated prayers. Offred chooses to trust Ofglen and answers with a simple "No." This moment solidifies their trust in each other. Offred feels a rush of excitement when she discovers that Ofglen is involved with a group of rebels. As they head home, a black van with the Eyes' symbol painted on it pulls up abruptly. Offred is terrified that their conversation might have been overheard, but instead of arresting them, the Eyes apprehend a man with a briefcase. As the van drives away, Offred is flooded with relief.

chapter 28

Offred looks back on her past, recalling her affair with Luke and how her friend, Moira, a lesbian, disapproved of her encroaching on another woman’s territory. As she sits in her sweltering room with a fan, she contemplates the idea of dismantling the fan to use the blades as a weapon as Moira might have done. She finds it odd to think that once, women had jobs. She recollects the downfall of the United States, leading up to the establishment of Gilead. The president and Congress were assassinated, and the army imposed a state of emergency, pinning the blame on Islamic fanatics. The Constitution was suspended, and people, in shock, confined themselves to their homes. Moira predicted that disaster was imminent. Gradually, censorship took over, roadblocks were set up, and everyone was required to carry an Identipass. Indecent establishments were shut down. Remembering her life before Gilead, Offred reflects on how paper money was replaced by Compucards. After the government's fall, her Compucard was deemed invalid at a local store. At her library job, she discovered the phone lines were jammed and later that day, her boss, visibly distraught, fired her and her female colleagues due to a new law. The dismissal was supervised by armed men in military attire. When Offred returned home, she learned from Moira that women were now prohibited from working or owning property. Their bank accounts were transferred to the closest male relative. Her husband Luke tried to comfort her, but Offred began to feel patronized. She later realized the armed men were not from the U.S. Army. Despite protests and marches, strict crackdowns by the army ended all resistance. Fearful for their lives and their daughter’s, Offred and Luke refrained from joining the protests. This brings up memories of her mother's activism, which made her feel embarrassed as a teenager. From her window, she observes Nick entering the yard with his hat slanted. She questions his reasons for aiding her secret meetings with the Commander, and recalls their brief kiss. She then reflects on the night she lost her job and how Luke wanted to be intimate. She felt uncomfortable due to the sudden shift in their power dynamics; she felt more owned by him than partnered with him. She wonders if he enjoyed this new dynamic and whether her suspicions were correct.

chapter 29

The Commander and Offred's relationship has grown more relaxed. Following their Scrabble game, he tries to give her the usual magazine, but she opts for conversation instead. Her attempts to extract information from him yield vague responses. When she enquires about the meaning of the Latin phrase in her room, he interprets it as “don’t let the bastards grind you down,” revealing its origin as a schoolboy prank. Offred speculates that the previous Handmaid learned the phrase from him and etched it into the floor. She questions the fate of the former Handmaid, to which he responds that she took her own life after Serena found out about their secret meetings. Offred then grasps that the Commander calls her to his office out of guilt, hoping to make her existence more tolerable. She realizes she can manipulate his guilt to her advantage. When asked what could improve her life, Offred requests to know “what’s going on.”

chapter 30

That evening, Offred catches a glimpse of Nick from her window. Their eye contact sparks a feeling of lust before she quickly shuts the curtains. She's taken back to the day she and Luke had their failed escape attempt from Gilead. They didn't pack anything to avoid suspicion. Their pet cat was killed by Luke so it wouldn't starve or draw attention with its cries. Their plan must've been leaked, possibly by a neighbor or the one who created their fake passports. Offred speculates if the Eyes ever disguise themselves as forgers to trap those trying to flee. As she lies in darkness, she offers a muddled prayer and contemplates ending her life.

chapter 31

The heat of summer persists, making life in Gilead increasingly unbearable. During a routine shopping excursion, Ofglen and Offred encounter two new corpses hung on the Wall. The victims are identified as a Catholic and another individual, whose 'J' marking confuses the women. The yellow star usually signifies Jews, who were considered “Sons of Jacob” in early Gilead. They were granted the option to convert or relocate to Israel. Some exploited this provision to abscond from Gilead. Many Jews departed, while others feigned conversion or outrightly resisted. Those found guilty of insincere conversion are now executed. Ofglen shares with Offred that 'mayday' is used by Gilead rebels as a secret code-word. She cautions Offred to use it sparingly to avoid revealing other dissidents if captured. Upon her return home, Offred observes Nick's misplaced hat. Serena summons her, requesting her help with knitting. She inquires about any pregnancy symptoms. When Offred replies negatively, Serena raises the possibility of the Commander's sterility. She hesitatingly agrees. Serena proposes Offred tries with another man, hinting at Nick, given her rapidly dwindling time. Serena promises a glimpse of Offred's daughter's photo in exchange for her consent. Despite her sudden abhorrence for Serena, Offred agrees. She is rewarded with a cigarette and is directed to Rita for a match.

chapter 32

Offred ponders consuming the cigarette bit by bit for the nicotine high and retaining the match to set the house ablaze. The Commander has begun to drink in his nighttime meetings with Offred. According to Ofglen, Offred's Commander holds a high position in power. During one encounter, the Commander expresses that prior to Gilead, men had lost purpose and interest in women. They would lament their numbness. He questions her opinion of Gilead. Offred strives to clear her thoughts, as she can't reveal her true feelings. She remains silent, yet he senses her despair. He remarks, “You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs,” and adds, “We thought we could do better.”

chapter 33

Offred and Ofglen go to a “Prayvaganza” held in a former university, where women are grouped by status. Ofglen reveals Janine's baby had birth defects, and Janine had illicit relations with a doctor to conceive. Offred recalls an incident at the Red Center, where Janine was lost in a delusion from her past life until Moira brought her back to reality with a slap and stern words.

chapter 34

Prayvaganzas serve as communal wedding ceremonies for the Wives' adolescent daughters in Gilead. Soon, the brides will be ones who don't recall a time before this regime. Offred recollects a talk with the Commander who argued that Gilead has offered women protection and respect at the cost of some liberties. Now, all women have husbands and are exempt from single parenthood, abuse, or unwanted work. They are free to "fulfill their biological destinies in peace". Offred countered this by pointing out love's absence, to which the Commander responded that arranged marriages are more successful. Prayvaganzas also sometimes mark the conversion of Catholic nuns to Gilead's state religion. Captured nuns are subjected to torture by the authorities. The older ones are dispatched to the Colonies while the younger ones have a choice between the Colonies or conversion. Should they convert, they become Handmaids, though many opt for the Colonies. As the wedding proceedings continue, Offred recalls Aunt Lydia's assertion that Gilead's true aim is to foster solidarity amongst women. Post-ceremony, Ofglen reveals the rebels are aware of Offred's private meetings with the Commander and encourages her to gather as much information as possible.

chapter 35

Offred unwillingly revisits the day she and Luke attempted to flee Gilead. They presented their counterfeit passports, indicating Luke was never divorced, to the border guard. When the guard reached for the phone, they hastily drove off, eventually abandoning the car to scramble through the forest. Offred tries to distract herself with nostalgic recollections of love—its challenges, its value and how it used to shape lives. Convinced that Luke is no more, she breaks down in tears. Later, Serena shares a photo of Offred’s daughter in a white dress, smiling. Offred is struck with the painful realization that her daughter barely remembers her.

chapter 36

The Commander, seeming inebriated, jovially interacts with Offred and gives her an extravagant, feathery outfit, expressing his desire to take her on an outing. She agrees and gets dressed up in this get-up and low-priced cosmetics. He leads her out of the residence, cloaked in one of Serena’s wintery blue coats. Nick, waiting in the vehicle, drives them through the city under a cloak of darkness. Offred conceals herself on the vehicle's floor as they cross the gateway and finds herself preoccupied with Nick’s views on her. They halt in a backstreet where the Commander assists Offred out of the cloak. He unlocks a door with a key, placing a purple wristband on her and instructs her to declare that she is an "evening rental" if inquired. On entering the building, she envisions Moira criticizing her for complying with this plan.

chapter 37

The Commander escorts Offred to a former hotel, a location familiar to her from the time before Gilead when she rendezvoused with Luke. In the main square, Offred spots females in extravagant, revealing outfits, socializing with influential men. Quiet and playing the naive, Offred surmises the Commander relishes her company and enjoys impressing her. He clarifies that the club is technically outlawed, but it's an open secret that men crave variety in women to be content. Some of the women used to be sex workers pre-Gilead, while others were professionals who chose this over the life of a Handmaid or in the Colonies. Out of the blue, Offred recognizes Moira, donned in a inappropriate Playboy bunny suit, in the throng. They feign ignorance of each other before Moira silently instructs Offred to meet her in the bathroom.

chapter 38

Shortly after, Offred heads to the restroom where a dolled-up Aunt, armed with a cattle prod, informs her she has a quarter of an hour. Inside, she encounters Moira, telling her that the Commander brought her to the club for the evening. Moira shares her past. Post her escape from the Red Center, she sneaked into town in Aunt Elizabeth’s attire, seeking shelter with a Quaker couple, part of the rebellion. She reveals that initially, Gilead's authorities kept the existence of the Red Center a secret, fearing public outrage. The couple put Moira on the Underground Femaleroad, a rescue network for women. They attempted to secretly transport her out of the country. However, just as she was about to cross the border covertly via boat from the last safe house, she was captured. The Eyes tortured Moira and made her watch horrific films of the Colonies, where old ladies and rebels clean up war remnants and radioactive waste, with a dismal life expectancy of three years. Faced with this, Moira opted to work at the club, known as “Jezebel’s,” as a prostitute rather than be sent to the Colonies. Offred is saddened by Moira's resigned tone—Moira advises her to consider working at Jezebel’s, where she could live longer and even get face cream. Offred mourns the loss of the fiery, rebellious Moira of the past. After this encounter at the club, Offred never sees Moira again.

chapter 39

Offred accompanies the Commander to a hotel room, triggering memories of her past relationship with Luke. Seeking a moment alone, she retreats to the restroom. The familiar sounds of flushing toilets in neighboring rooms bring her temporary solace, reminding her of the shared human experience. She reflects on Moira and her mother, recalling a conversation with Moira who claimed to have spotted Offred's mother in a film about the Colonies. This revelation shocks Offred, as she had believed her mother to be deceased. The memory of a trip to her mother's apartment with Luke surfaces, the disarray they found there and her mother's absence. Luke discouraged her from contacting the authorities, judging it would be futile. She ponders on her mother's once vibrant character, considering the harsh reality of the Colonies likely extinguished it. After her solitary reflection, she returns to the Commander, who is visibly disheartened by her lack of enthusiasm for a genuine sexual experience. As he lays on the bed, unclothed, he appears diminished and aged. Offred, devoid of arousal, resolve to feign pleasure.

chapter 40

Once Offred is back in her quarters, makeup-free and garbed in her Handmaid attire, Serena arranges a midnight rendezvous for Offred and Nick to engage in intercourse. Serena escorts Offred to Nick's quarters at the appointed hour and awaits her return. Offred recounts her encounter with Nick in two different versions. The first version is a passionate, desire-filled narrative reminiscent of a romance novel, while the second one, most likely closer to the truth, is filled with awkwardness, uncertainty, and a melancholy longing for the dating customs of the time before Gilead took over. "No romance . . . okay?" is Nick's reminder before they proceed. Offred experiences enjoyment this time around. However, she points out that neither narrative is entirely truthful, as every account is inherently a reconstruction. After her intimate encounter with Nick, feelings of shame overwhelm her. She feels she has betrayed Luke and contemplates whether her feelings would be different if she were certain of Luke's death.

chapter 41

Offred confides to her imaginary audience that her tale is unbearable, yet she persists in telling it to keep her listener alive. She could be addressing the reader or perhaps Luke, expressing a wish to hear their stories should they manage to flee. She continues her clandestine meetings with Nick, feeling relief each time he admits her. He remains mostly silent, but she shares her experiences about Moira and Ofglen, even revealing her true identity to him, though she never speaks of Luke. In time, she shares a hopeful suspicion that she might be carrying his child. Meanwhile, Ofglen insists that Offred should infiltrate the Commander's office to uncover his actual duties, but Offred chooses to ignore her, preoccupied by thoughts of Nick.

chapter 42

A mass execution, known as a "Salvaging," takes place in the grounds of the previous Harvard Yard, with all district women forced to attend. Aunt Lydia, whom Offred hasn't seen since her departure from the Red Center, supervises from a stage reminiscent of pre-Gilead graduation ceremonies. Aunt Lydia reveals a new policy: the crimes of those condemned will no longer be disclosed to prevent potential imitation. This disturbs the Handmaids, as these crimes provided them with a semblance of hope, an indication of ongoing resistance. During the Salvaging, three women - two Handmaids and one Wife - are executed. Offred ponders the possible offence of the Handmaid, perhaps an attempt on her Commander's Wife's life. She notes that Wives are typically executed for one of three reasons: ending a Handmaid's life, infidelity, or trying to flee. As part of the ritual, the Handmaids are required to touch a long rope during the hangings, signifying their approval of the punishment.

chapter 43

Following a public execution, Aunt Lydia commands the Handmaids to encircle a particular area. Most spectators, predominantly comprised of Wives and daughters, remain on scene. Two Guardians lead a third, who appears disoriented and unclean, into the circle. According to Aunt Lydia, this individual and another Guardian have committed rape, leading to the miscarriage of a Handmaid. The other Guardian has already been executed. The Handmaids are to engage in a ritual punishment, known as a “Particicution.” A collective surge of wrath sweeps over the crowd, with Offred experiencing a similar murderous rage. At the signal of Aunt Lydia's whistle, the Handmaids savagely attack the man. Ofglen is the first to charge, incessantly kicking his head. Offred later questions Ofglen's actions, only to discover he was a traitor from their rebellion and Ofglen's attack was mercy-driven. Offred notices Janine holding a bloody chunk of hair, her gaze empty and her speech disturbingly cheerful, reminiscent of pre-Gilead times. Offred confesses to her unsettling feelings of intense hunger in the aftermath.

chapter 44

Offred embarks on a routine shopping task, finding solace in the mundane. She gets a shock when she encounters a different Handmaid, also called Ofglen, instead of her usual acquaintance. Offred grasps how easy it is for women to disappear in this system of ever-changing names. She tests this new Ofglen by taking a detour to the Wall, and cleverly slips in the codeword “Mayday” by referring to the forgotten holiday “May Day.” The new Ofglen discourages her from reminiscing about the past, leaving Offred horrified as she understands that this woman is not part of the rebellion. The fear of being discovered and the thought of her daughter being used against her fill her with dread. After a tense walk home, the new Ofglen divulges that the previous Ofglen committed suicide to escape arrest, claiming it was the better option before swiftly departing.

chapter 45

A sense of relief washes over Offred upon learning of Ofglen's suicide, knowing she will not be betrayed to the 'Eyes' under duress. This marks the first instance of her complete submission to the authorities, prompting her to give up resistance, desire for bodily autonomy, and her relationship with Nick. Serena confronts Offred on the porch, presenting her winter cloak and the sparkly club dress. She reprimands Offred for her impropriety, labeling her a promiscuous woman, much like the other Handmaid, and predicting a similar fate for her. Despite Nick discontinuing his whistle, Offred refuses to meet his gaze, maintaining her composure as she withdraws to her room.

chapter 46

Offred contemplates in her room after the clash with Serena. She feels strangely calm. As darkness falls, thoughts of setting a fire using her hidden match or hanging herself from a closet hook cross her mind. She even contemplates killing Serena. But all feels pointless. She hears a van approaching as dusk settles and regrets not taking action when she had the opportunity. She notices the eyes painted on the van. Nick opens her room door as the van arrives. She suspects betrayal, but Nick advises her to trust the Eyes. He reveals that they are part of Mayday, there to rescue her. Despite knowing that Nick could be an Eye, she decides to take this last chance. Offred descends the stairs to meet the men. Serena, clueless about Offred's wrongdoing, wasn't the one who called them. The men refuse to disclose the reason for their visit. The Commander insists on a warrant, and they state it's a "violation of state secrets." Ignoring Serena's curses, Offred follows the Eyes to the awaiting van.


The epilogue is a record of a scholarly symposium from 2195, post-Gilead. Offred's story has been discovered on hidden cassette tapes and published as The Handmaid’s Tale. The symposium is led by Gilead specialist, Professor Pieixoto, who discusses the task of verifying the tapes. Each tape begins with songs from pre-Gilead times, likely to disguise their true content. All the tapes feature the same speaker, but are neither numbered nor ordered, making transcription challenging. Pieixoto cautions against judging Gilead too harshly, citing cultural bias. He details the societal pressures Gilead faced, particularly declining birthrates and increased environmental issues. He sheds light on Gilead's decision to create a group of fertile women and transform their society from one of “serial polygamy” to “simultaneous polygamy.” He highlights Gilead's use of elements from pre-Gilead, including existing racial stereotypes, in their doctrine. The professor explores the mystery of the narrator's identity, which despite numerous attempts, remains unknown. Historical data is limited due to purges and civil wars. Nevertheless, some tapes made it to England's Save the Women societies. He suggests Offred's use of pseudonyms to protect family members. The Commander could have been Frederick Waterford or B. Frederick Judd, both early Gilead leaders. Pieixoto delves into Judd's creation of the Particicution, and his belief in female control over women. Both men may have been sterile due to a virus. Evidence points to Waterford as Offred’s Commander; records reveal he was executed for owning forbidden items and showing “liberal tendencies.” Pieixoto admits Offred's fate remains a mystery. She may have been caught or escaped to England or Canada. Her silence could be due to protecting others or fear of reprisals. The professor discusses Nick’s ambiguous role, revealing his affiliations with both the Eyes and Mayday. Despite all the speculations, the truth about Offred’s story may never be fully known. The book closes with, “‘Are there any questions?’”

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