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 is 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 of 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 child with birth defects, which Gilead deems an "Unbaby." One in four women have been poisoned by toxins and other environmental pollution, which leads to these birth defects 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.
Summary: Chapter 20
While Ofwarren gives birth, the Wife lies in the sitting room as if she is giving birth. Janine lies in the master bedroom, and the Handmaids gather around the bed to watch. Offred remembers how the Aunts used to show the Handmaids pornographic movies in which men practiced violent sex on women. Aunt Lydia said that was how men thought of women in the old days. One movie was about “Unwomen,” feminists from the days before Gilead. The Aunts did not play the soundtrack, because they did not want the Handmaids to hear what the women said. In one of these movies, Offred saw her mother as a young woman, marching in a feminist rally. Her mother gave birth to Offred in her late thirties and chose to be a single mother. Offred and her mother used to fight, because her mother thought Offred did not appreciate the sacrifices early feminists made in order to help the next generation of women. Offred wishes she could have her mother back, fights and all.
Summary: Chapter 21
The Handmaids chant to help Janine give birth. One Handmaid asks Offred if she is looking for someone. Offred describes Moira, and the woman tells her she will keep an eye out for a woman of that description. The woman is looking for someone named Alma. She asks Offred what her real name is, but before Offred can reply, their conversation is cut short by a suspicious glance from an Aunt who heard the break in the chant. Just before the child is born, Janine (Ofwarren) and the Wife of Warren sit on the Birthing Stool together. The Wife sits above Janine. The baby is born: a girl with no visible birth defects. Everyone rejoices. The Wife climbs into bed, and the baby is given to her. The other Wives crowd around, pushing the Handmaids aside, and the Wife announces she will name the baby Angela. After the birth, Janine will nurse the baby for a few months, and then she will transfer to a new Commander. Since she has produced a child, she will never be declared an Unwoman and sent to the colonies.
Analysis: Chapters 16–21
Offred’s description of the Ceremony is supposed to be ironic, horrifying, and funny at the same time. For all the elaborate ceremonial preparations and the symbolic positioning of the bodies of Serena and Offred, the mechanical act itself makes the solemnity seem ridiculous. Offred, searching for the best word, defines the Ceremony as "fucking" rather than sex. The harshness of that word contrasts with other possibilities, like "making love," which would imply that she enjoyed or took part in the act. And she cannot call it rape, she says, because she was given a choice and she chose to be a Handmaid.
The Commander has sex as if performing a slightly boring duty; Offred must grit her teeth and detach herself from the situation; an angry Serena Joy grips Offred so hard that her rings cut into Offred’s hand. Sex in the Ceremony is mandated, scripted, formal, and pleasureless. Offred says sex is simply for the purpose of reproduction now, and nothing more.
The hustle and bustle surrounding Ofwarren’s labor reinforces the importance of pregnancy in Gilead. Birth, now a rare event, has become a joyful community gathering for the women. However, this joy is tempered by the fear of giving birth to an infant with visible differences—a frequent outcome as a result of widespread pollution. These infants are called “Unbabies,” a name that suggests society does not consider them humans. Those who do not fit into the Gileadean worldview are considered not merely dangerous or evil but actually non-human. Significantly, the “un” prefix is also attached to former feminists, called “Unwomen,” who are sent to Gilead’s feared Colonies. Atwood associates Gileadeans with Joseph Stalin and Hitler, who dehumanized middle-class peasants and Jews in order to justify killing them. Language, in a totalitarian state, is a useful tool of oppression.
Aunt Lydia demonstrates how the patriarchal structure of Gilead borrows from and perverts the ideas of the women’s movement. She tells the women of their terrible plight in the old world, when men thought of women as sex objects or as potential victims of sexual violence. Some feminists do oppose pornographic films on these grounds, saying that the films objectify women and glorify violence against women. They say pornographic films, like domestic and sexual violence of all kinds, stem from the legacy of patriarchal oppression. Aunt Lydia and Gilead agree with this condemnation of sexual violence against women, but, in contrast to the feminists, they think a patriarchal society can effectively protect women from violence. From one perspective, they have succeeded: in Gilead, women are not judged by their bodies, catcalled, or attacked. But this safety comes at a price. Women may not be raped by strangers in Gilead, but they must submit to state-sanctioned rape by the Commanders. Sexual love and romantic love do not exist for them. And the price of this safety is the total forfeit of control over their bodies.