Skip over navigation

The Handmaid’s Tale

Margaret Atwood

Chapters 16–21

Chapters 13–15

Chapters 16–21, page 2

page 1 of 2

Summary: Chapter 16

After the prayers and Bible reading, the Ceremony continues as usual. In the bedroom, Offred lies on her back between Serena’s legs, her head resting on Serena’s pubic bone. Serena is fully clothed, while Offred’s skirt is hiked up and her underwear is off. The two women hold hands, and Serena’s rings dig into Offred’s fingers. The Commander has sex with Offred in a brisk, impersonal fashion, then zips himself up and leaves the room promptly. Serena orders Offred to leave, even though Offred is supposed to rest for ten minutes to improve her chances of getting pregnant.

Summary: Chapter 17

Once Offred is safely alone in her bedroom, she removes the butter from her shoe and uses it as lotion for her skin because lotion and beauty products are forbidden to the Handmaids. Offred cannot sleep, so she decides to steal something. She sneaks downstairs and decides to take a daffodil from a flower arrangement. She wants to press it under her mattress and leave it for the next Handmaid to find. As she stands in the sitting room, she senses the presence of someone behind her in the room. It is Nick. Neither of them are supposed to be downstairs. Wordlessly, they kiss, and she longs to have sex with him right there. She thinks of Luke, telling him he would understand, then thinking he wouldn’t. Sex is too dangerous, and Nick and Offred separate. Nick whispers that the Commander sent him to find her. The Commander wants to see her in his office tomorrow.

Summary: Chapter 18

After returning to her room, Offred lies in her bed, remembering making love to Luke while her baby kicked inside her womb. She imagines Luke dead, his body lying in the thickets where they were caught trying to escape. She imagines that he is in prison. She also imagines that he made it safely across the border and that one day a message from him will come to her in some unexpected way. She believes in these three scenarios simultaneously, so that nothing will surprise her.

Summary: Chapter 19

Offred dreams of catching her daughter in a hug, but a wave of sorrow overtakes her because she knows that she is dreaming. She dreams of waking up to her mother carrying in a tray a food and taking care of her. At breakfast, Offred contemplates the beauty of a boiled egg in sunlight. The sound of sirens interrupt her breakfast; it is a Birthmobile, coming to collect Offred and take her to a birth. Janine, now known as Ofwarren, is about to have her baby.

During the ride to Commander Warren’s house, Offred wonders if Janine will give birth to a deformed child, an Unbaby. One in four women have been poisoned by toxins and other environmental pollution, which leads to birth deformities in their children. She recalls Aunt Lydia saying that women who did not want to have babies poisoned their own bodies or got their tubes tied. She calls these women Jezebels, scorners of God’s gifts. In an old classroom, Aunt Lydia showed them a graph of how the birthrate had fallen over the course of history, eventually falling below the “line of replacement.” Aunt Lydia said that women who did not want to breed were lazy sluts. She explains how much better childbirth is in Gilead in contrast to the old days, because birth is entirely natural. Women are not even allowed drugs to soothe their pain, because it is better for the baby, and because God wants women to suffer during childbirth.

The Birthmobile arrives at the home of Ofwarren’s Commander, and the Handmaids file in. Then another Birthmobile pulls up, the one that carries the Wives. Offred imagines the Wives sitting around and talking about their Handmaids, calling them sluts, complaining about how unclean they are.

More Help

Previous Next
Cigarettes

by sidlaecarg, October 15, 2013

Offred's thoughts about cigarettes in her new life and the memory of smoking them in her old provides another symbol for control of women's bodies and choices in the Gilead regime. She is a former smoker, but her cigarettes are taken away from her along with many other freedoms when she becomes a handmaid. Offred can no longer smoke because this might harm any children she has yet to bear, though she still yearns for another cigarette whenever she sees one. Offred yearns for the freedoms her old life had to offer. Gilead's removal of cigaret... Read more

1 Comments

281 out of 294 people found this helpful

Follow Us