Handmaid's Tale: A Level revision notes

November 21, 2018

Video summary:

Before reading the detailed breakdown of the novel, the summary, themes and symbols - do check out a video I had recorded on the novel here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OdR3186Tt8A&t=7s.


Key Characters: 

Offred - The main character, who narrates the story. She is now a Handmaid, and had a husband and daughter before the country became Gilead. 

The Commander - The head of Offred’s house, The Commander is very important in the Gilead government. 

Serena - The Commander’s Wife. She was a famous gospel singer before Gilead. 

Moira - One of Offred’s closest friend’s before Gilead. 

Ofglen - Another Handmaid, who is part of the resistance. 

Nick - An Eye who works in The Commander’s house. 

 

Plot Summary: 

 

Chapter 1

The narrator, Offred, describes how she and other women sleep in gymnasiums. During the day, the women walk around a football field as armed guards, called Angels, patrol.

 

Chapter 2

Now the narrator is in a bedroom.

She describes what Handmaids are, which is what she currently is. They dress in all red with white wings on their head. Servants, called “Marthas”, dress in all green, and “Wives” wear all blue. Marthas work in the home, and Wives are married to important men. All wives are barren. 

 

Chapter 3

Offred goes to the store, and looks for the Commander’s Wife, Serena, as she leaves. 

Offred remembers the first day she came to this new home, when Serena told her to stay out of her way and remember that the Commander is her husband. 

 

Chapter 4

Offred exits, and sees Nick washing The Commander’s car outside. Nick is a Guardian of the Faith, and Offred suspects he is an Eye sent to spy on her. He lives above the Commander’s garage. 

Offred waits for Ofglen, another Handmaid. All Handmaids travel in pairs. 

 

Chapter 5

We learn that this place is called “The Republic of Gilead.” 

The two are at the shop, where they see a Handmaid named Ofwarren who is pregnant. 

Offred thinks back on her life before Gilead, when she lived with her husband Luke and their daughter. 

 

Chapter 6

The two walk home past the old church, across from which the soldiers hang rebels. The current bodies hanging are those of doctors who performed abortions before Gilead. 

 

Chapter 7

Offred lies awake at night thinking of her old life. 

She thinks of her college friend, Moira. Moira was taken with her to “The Red Center” where they trained Handmaids. 

She remembers how authorities took her daughter away from her.

 

Chapter 8

Offred and Ofglen pass the church another day, and see three new bodies hanging, these of those who committed homosexual acts.

They pass a procession of Econowives, who are married to poor men, and dislike the Handmaids. 

 

Chapter 9 and 10

Offred recounts the first time she came to her room. She asks Rita about the Handmaids before her, but Rita won’t tell her anything. 

Offred muses on many things from before--how women acted before, how music was allowed, and about crimes that existed before Gilead, like rape and abuse. 

 

Chapter 11

Offred describes going to the doctor the day before. Handmaids go to the doctor monthly to check for diseases and pregnancy. 

The doctor tells her that the Commander may not be able to conceive a child, and he offers to have sex with her himself. She declines, knowing that is against the law. 

 

Chapter 12 and 13

Offred takes a bath, as scheduled.

After her bath and dinner, Offred remembers running through a forest with her daughter to try to escape authorities, which is when she was taken. 

 

Chapter 14

The household prepares for the Ceremony. 

As they wait for the Commander, Offred remembers how her and her husband bought fake passports and had planned to sneak over the border into Canada. 

 

Chapter 15 and 16

The Commander arrives. He takes out a Bible from an ornate box and reads the story of Rachel and Leah aloud. In the story, one woman carries a child for the other, who is barren.

Offred, The Commander, and Serena go up to the bedroom. Offred lies between the Serena’s legs while the Commander has sex with her. 

Afterwards, Serena tells her to leave immediately.

 

Chapter 17

At night, Offred is restless and goes downstairs to pick a flower. 

She runs into Nick and the two kiss. Nick tells her that The Commander sent him to tell her that he wants to see her in his office tomorrow. 

 

Chapter 18 and 19

The next morning, the Birthmobile comes to take her to the house where Ofwarren is, who is now giving birth. Offred wonders if they baby will be healthy, or deformed like so many are now. 

They arrive, followed by a birthmobile of Wives.

 

Chapter 20 and 21

The Wife lays in the sitting room as if she is giving birth, while Ofwarren goes into labor in the bedroom upstairs. 

Just as she is about to give birth, the Wife joins her and they sit on the birthing stool. 

She gives birth to a healthy baby girl. The Wife takes her and names her Angela. 

 

Chapter 22 

Offred recounts how Moira escaped from the Red Center. She has not been heard from since. 

 

Chapter 23 and 24

That night, Offred goes to meet The Commander. 

To her surprise, he only asks her to play a few games of Scrabble with him. This is against the law, as Handmaids are forbidden from reading. 

When she finally goes to leave, he asks her for a kiss, which she gives him. He says he wishes she meant it. 

 

Chapter 25 and 26

Time goes by, and she continues meeting the Commander. They play a Scrabble and he allows her to read and old copy of Vogue. He does not try to kiss her again. 

Now that they are friendly, Offred feels embarrassed about having sex with the Commander. 

She warns him never to say anything, as his Wife could have her sent away. 

 

Chapter 27 

Offred and Ofglen continue their shopping trips. They pass a shop that prints Wives’ prayer requests and Ofglen asks Offred if she believes God reads the prayers. 

Offred says no, and realizing that she can be trusted, Ofglen tells her that she is a part of rebel group. 

 

Chapter 28 

Offred thinks back on her old life again, revealing that her friend Moira was a lesbian. 

She describes how her old country fell and Gilead took over--government officials were assassinated, laws changed, and women forced out of work. 

 

Chapter 29 and 30

Offred and the Commander continue to see each other at night. She learns that the last Handmaid also spent time with the Commander, but when his Wife found out, the Handmaid hanged herself.

Offred realizes the Commander feels guilty for Offred’s life, and she asks him to tell her more about what is going on in the world. 

Later that night, Offred sees Nick in her window, and thinks he is looking at her sexually. 

 

Chapter 31 and 32

Ofglen tells Offred that rebels have a secret password, “mayday.”

The Commander’s Wife asks if she is pregnant, and when she says no, she tells her he may be sterile, and suggests she try with Nick. 

 

Chapter 33 and 34

All the Handmaids, Wives, and Marthas attend a “Prayvaganza”, which is like a large wedding for all the young girls. 

 

Chapter 35

Offred thinks again about Luke, and what love was like before Gilead.

Serena shows her a picture of her daughter, who she believes barely remembers her.

 

Chapter 36 and 37

The Commander buys Offred an outfit and asks if he can take her out on a date, as people did before Gilead.

He takes her to an old hotel, where many scantily-dressed women and powerful men are meeting and socializing in secret.

Offred sees Moira there, and signals to meet her in the bathroom. 

 

Chapter 38

In the bathroom, Moira tells her how she had escaped from the Red Center to the home of some rebels, who tried to help her escape the country. She was caught and agreed to work here, as a prostitute. 

Offred is sad to see how defeated she is and leaves.

 

Chapter 39

The Commander takes her to a hotel room, where she reluctantly has sex. 

 

Chapter 40

They return to the Commander’s house, and Serena instructs Offred to go have sex with Nick. 

After, she feels guilty about being involved with someone else without the Commander knowing. 

 

Chapter 41, 42, 43

Offred continues seeing Nick every night, without Serena knowing. 

Everyone attends a “Salvaging”, where two Handmaids and a Wife are hanged for unknown crimes. 

Then, they bring out a man convicted of rape, and the Handmaids take turns beating him to death. 

 

Chapter 44

Offred prepares to go on a shopping trip, but the women who comes to meet her is not Ofglen. The women says she is the new Ofglen. 

Offred gives her the password “mayday,” and the new Ofglen tells her the old Ofglen hanged herself because they found out she was a rebel, and that Offred should forget about the resistance. 

 

Chapter 45 and 46

At home, Serena calls her in and confronts her about going to the club with the Commander. 

Offred goes to her room, expecting Serena to call the authorities or kill her.

The Eyes pull up with Nick saying she is under arrest. Nick whispers “Mayday” to her, making her believe this may be a front for rebels sneaking her away, and she goes with them.

 

Themes:

 

Women, Feminism, Women’s Bodies - Everything about Gilead centers around a woman’s ability to have children. The country was formed because of panic from decreased and deformed births and infertility. The government and social structure is made so that the few women who can have children serve the upper class and give them the babies they want. Despite how valuable women are to Gilead, they are not given any rights and treated like birthing machines. Even Wives and Marthas do not have as much power as men. 

 

Complacency - Gilead seems like such an awful society to live in, we must wonder how it got to be as accepted and powerful as it is. The novel shows us that people are willing to be complacent as long as they can have some amount of power. Despite how little Offred has, being able to be romantic with Nick makes her feel powerful. Wives do not have any power against men, but they have total power in their own households, which may be enough to make them accept this society. 


Barbara Njau



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