The Handmaid’s Tale

by: Margaret Atwood

Chapters 29–32

Summary Chapters 29–32

The Commander’s comments and revelations during his evenings with Offred cast him in an increasingly unflattering light. His admission that the previous Handmaid also made forbidden, clandestine visits to his study, and that she hanged herself after Serena found out, makes him seem selfish and obtuse. He not only evinces no concern over the suicide of the Handmaid; he seems unfazed by the possibility that Serena might discover Offred’s visits too. He recognizes that he is putting Offred’s position and possibly her life at risk in order to satisfy his desire for a little bit of intimacy, but he does not seem to care.

The Commander’s explanation of the reasoning employed by the founders of Gilead shows the founders to be equally selfish. He tells Offred that men in the old world found everything too easy, too available—especially women and sex. Gilead, from the Commander’s point of view, has restored meaning to men’s lives. He insists that it has made them “feel” again. Yet he does not realize that such feeling comes at the price of human misery, which is borne by the women of Gilead. When Offred wonders how he can imagine Gilead to be better than the old world, the Commander callously replies that “[b]etter . . . always means worse, for some.” The Commander thinks he has made men happier and more fulfilled. If that means that life is ghastly and oppressive for women, so be it.

While the Commander looks colder and crueler in these chapters, Serena Joy briefly comes across as, if not kind, then at least willing to consider Offred a fellow human being. Serena’s suggestion that her husband is sterile establishes a brief moment of unity between the two women, against the Commander and the other men of Gildead, who refuse to acknowledge that men can be sterile. Yet Serena’s offer to help Offred get pregnant, even though it is a kind request because it will keep Offred from the Colonies, is also a selfish one, since it is Serena and not Offred who will raise the child. And Serena’s offer to get a photo of Offred’s daughter reveals that Serena has known where the girl is all along but has never mentioned her or given Offred news of her. Again, the cruelty of women to other women in Gilead proves as bad as, if not worse than, anything the men inflict on women.

The trip to the Wall creates an explicit parallel between Gilead and Nazi Germany. We have already seen that Gilead, like the Nazis, persecutes Catholics, executes homosexuals (“gender traitors”), and practices racism; now we see that it is anti-Semitic as well. Offred describes Gilead’s anti-Jewish laws, which provide for deportation, and then create an Inquisition-style atmosphere for those who remain and do not convert.