The Handmaid's Tale: Novel Summary: Chapters 17-20

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Summary
Offred returns to her room. She takes the butter she has saved and rubs it on her face. It helps to keep the skin soft, since there is no hand lotion or face cream available. She lies down but cannot sleep, so she goes out into the hall and down to the sitting room. She wants to steal something. Nick enters the room. Neither of them should be there, so neither can give the other away. He pulls her to him and kisses her, and she feels some desire for him. Then he tells her that the Commander wants to see her in his office tomorrow.
Offred lies in bed thinking of Luke. She does not know what happened to him but is able to believe three possibilities simultaneously. The first is that he was shot dead when they were caught trying to escape. The second is that he is still alive but a prisoner. The third is that he evaded their pursuers, made good his escape and made contact with others who helped him. There may be a message from him any day now, she believes, telling her that he will get her out, and they will be together again with their daughter. This is the belief that keeps her alive.
While she is eating her breakfast egg, Offred hears a siren in the distance. She knows what it is and grabs her cloak and goes downstairs. Outside is a red car they call the Birthmobile. She steps inside it, joining three other women. They are going to witness another woman, Ofwarren (Janine), give birth. They all hope that Ofwarren will not give birth to a deformed baby, known as an Unbaby. Because of environmental pollution, there is one chance in four of producing an Unbaby. Offred remembers a lecture given by Aunt Lydia at the Center, in which she explained the plunging birthrate.
As they arrive at the home of Ofwarren's Commander, a blue Birthmobile arrives, carrying the Wives, including Serena Joy.
The Wives assemble in the sitting room. Offred goes upstairs to the master bedroom, where Ofwarren is about to give birth. Twenty-five or thirty women are already there. Two are holding Ofwarren's hands; a third pours baby oil on her stomach. Aunt Elizabeth stands at the foot of the bed. Offred sits with the other women on the rug.
Offred recalls how at the Center, once a week, they were shown movies. These were sometimes old pornographic movies showing women being degraded. They were shown to illustrate how things used to be, before Gilead. On other occasions they were showed documentaries made by feminists many years ago. On one of these Offred sees her mother helping to organize a protest march against male violence. This prompts Offred to reminisce about her outspoken, feminist mother. They had a difficult relationship, but Offred would give a lot to have her back.
Analysis
These chapters show how Atwood took trends that were apparent in contemporary society and magnified them. She took the fact of a declining birthrate amongst white Americans, and the growing problem of environmental pollution, and put the two together. Thus Gilead's obsession with fertility has a rational basis: The increase in pollution led to more stillbirth, miscarriages and deformed births, and also male sterility (although the Gilead regime officially denies male sterility, automatically blaming the Handmaid if she does not conceive). Women who were capable of giving birth to normal babies were therefore highly valued, although for their fertility alone, not as full human beings.
The use of the terms "Unwoman" and "Unbaby" show how in Gilead, as in any totalitarian society, language is used to shape reality and to manipulate people. The prefix "un" dehumanizes the women and the babies concerned, which means that the Gilead regime can then do whatever it likes with them, and with a clear conscience. "Unbabies," that is, those with birth defects, are killed. "Unwomen," by which is meant for the most part feminists (including Offred's mother) or infertile women, are sent to the Colonies, which are Third World countries that are used as dumps for toxic waste. Once again, this is a practice-the West's dumping of toxic waste in the Third World-that is all too common in today's world. Atwood has only extrapolated and exaggerated an aspect of present-day society.
The showing of the old pornographic films reveals how Gilead appropriated some aspects of feminism whilst rejecting others. Feminists were (and are) generally against pornography, since they regard it as degrading to women. But whereas feminists sought to promote freedom and equality for women-the right not to be exploited by men-the architects of Gilead "solved" the problem of male violence by in effect institutionalizing it. Women may no longer live in fear of being attacked by men on the streets or in their homes, but the Handmaids are forced into a kind of state-sanctioned prostitution in which they are forced to accede to the demands of whatever Commander they happen to be assigned to.

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