The Handmaid’s Tale

Margaret Atwood
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Chapters 13–15

Summary Chapters 13–15

Summary: Chapter 13

I’m a cloud, congealed around a central object, the shape of a pear, which is hard and more real than I am and glows red within its translucent wrapping.

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After dinner, Offred feels bored. She remembers paintings of harems: she used to think they were about eroticism but now realizes they depicted the boredom of the women. She wonders if men find bored women erotic. She thinks of the Red Center, and how Moira was brought there three weeks after her own arrival. Moira and Offred pretended not to know one another because friendships aroused suspicion. They arranged to meet in the restroom to exchange a few words, which made Offred feel terribly happy. At the Center everyone had to “Testify” about their past lives. Janine testified that she was gang-raped at fourteen. After she finished speaking, the Aunts asked the group whose fault the rape was, and the rest of the Handmaids chanted in unison that it was Janine’s fault because she led them on. When she cried, they called her a crybaby.

Offred says she used to think of her body as an instrument of pleasure or of transportation, an instrument she controlled. Now, others define her body as nothing more than a uterus. She hates facing menstruation every month because it means failure. Her only function is childbearing. Offred remembers running through the woods, trying to escape with her daughter. She could not run very fast, because her child slowed her down. She remembers hearing shots. She and her daughter fell to the ground, hiding; Offred begged her daughter to be quiet, but she was too young to understand. She remembers being physically restrained and watching her daughter get dragged away from her.

Summary: Chapter 14

After bathing and eating, Offred must attend the Ceremony with the rest of the household. The Commander is always late for the Ceremony. Serena sits while Offred kneels on the floor. Rita, Cora, and Nick stand behind Offred. Nick’s shoe touches Offred’s. She shifts her foot away, but he moves his foot so it touches hers again. As usual, Serena allows them to watch the news while they wait. Television stations from Canada are blocked, and most of the programming is religious. The news reports that spies were caught smuggling “national resources” across the border, and that five Quakers have been arrested. The newscaster declares that the “resettlement of the Children of Ham” is proceeding, with thousands of people forced to resettle in the Dakotas.

Offred remembers how she and Luke purchased fake passports when they decided to escape. They told their daughter they were going on a picnic and planned to give her a sleeping pill when they crossed the border so that she would not be questioned or give them away. They packed nothing in their car because they did not want to arouse suspicion.

Summary: Chapter 15

The Commander arrives and proceeds to unlock an ornate box. He takes out a Bible and reads to everyone. Offred wonders what it is like to be a man like him, surrounded by women who watch his every move. The Commander reads passages that emphasize childbearing. As the Commander reads, his Wife begins to sob softly. The Commander reads the story of Rachel and Leah from the book of Genesis. Rachel was barren, so she urged her husband to have a child by her maid, Bilhah. At the Red Center, this story was drilled into the Handmaids. During lunch, they played recordings of a male voice reciting the Beatitudes, so the Aunts would not have to commit the sin of reading. Offred remembers the time when Moira decided to fake an illness, hoping to escape by bribing one of the men in the ambulance with sex. When she tried it on an Angel, he reported her. The Aunts tortured Moira by beating her feet with steel cables, the punishment for a first offense. The -punishment for a second offense was beating the hands. Aunt Lydia reminded the women that hands and feet did not matter for their purpose.

Analysis: Chapters 13–15

If some of Gilead’s rhetoric borrows from the feminist movement, some of it utterly contradicts the feminist movement. We see this when Offred remembers the group taunting of Janine. When Janine tells the story of her gang-rape at the age of fourteen, the group, at Aunt Lydia’s prompting, chants that the rape was Janine’s fault, that she led them on, that God allowed the rape to happen in order to teach Janine a lesson. These sentiments contrast with those espoused by feminists, who fight against blaming the victim of sexual violence and argue that leading someone on never justifies rape. This incident also illustrates the way Gilead turns women against women. Testifying is a powerful way of breaking women, for they are blamed not by their oppressors, men, but by their fellows in oppression, women. The effectiveness of the group condemnation becomes clear when Offred relates that the next week, Janine said without prompting that the rape was her fault because she led them on. These women are coerced into condemning their peer, because they know they will be punished if they do not. Horribly, however, they begin to enjoy the condemnation. When they call Janine a crybaby, Offred says, “We meant it, which was the bad part.” They despise her weakness, and for a moment they truly believe the ideology Aunt Lydia feeds them.