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The Handmaid’s Tale

Margaret Atwood
Summary Chapters 16–21
Summary Chapters 16–21

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 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. She cannot call it making love or copulating, because that would imply that she enjoyed or took part in the act. And she cannot call it rape, she explains, 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; Serena Joy, angered, grips Offred so hard that her rings cut into Offred’s hand. This sex is so scripted, formal, and anonymous that no one takes any pleasure in it. Offred says sex now is simply for the purpose of reproduction, 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 a deformed or defective infant—a frequent outcome as a result of widespread pollution. These deformed 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 Giledeans 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 Giliad 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 ready 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. They seem to have a valid point: 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.