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The Handmaid's Tale: Novel Summary: Chapters 21-24

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The women chant softly and drink grape juice that someone has spiked with wine. Just as Ofwarren is about to give birth, the Commander's Wife enters, and sits on the Birthing Stool, behind and above Ofwarren. Ofwarren gives birth to a baby girl. It appears to be normal. The Wives assemble and name the baby Angela. Ofwarren will be allowed to nurse the baby for a few months but after that she will be transferred, to see if she can produce another baby. The Birthmobile arrives to take the women back to their own households.
It is late afternoon when Offred returns to her room. She tells the story of how Moira had escaped. Moira had gone to the washroom, and called Aunt Elizabeth in to cope with an overflowing toilet. Moira then poked a thin pointed lever that she had taken from the toilet into Aunt Elizabeth's back and forced her to walk down to the basement. She took Aunt Elizabeth's clothes and tied her up. Then she made her escape, using Aunt Elizabeth's pass. No one has heard of her since.
After eating her dinner of beef stew in her room, Offred makes her way downstairs to the Commander's office. She is nervous because she knows she is on forbidden territory, but she cannot refuse his request. She knocks on the door and is told to enter. The Commander invites her to sit down in front of his desk, and he sits behind it. Offred is surprised to hear that all the Commander wants her to do is play a game of Scrabble with him. He offers no explanation about why he wants to do this. They play two games. She wins the first, and then lets him win the second. After this he says it is time for her to return to her room. But before she leaves he asks her to kiss him.
Offred realizes that she is now in a position to ask something of the Commander. She thinks she may be in a position to manipulate him and gain her freedom. But she has no plan on how to proceed. She recalls when she was a child watching a television program about Hitler and the Holocaust. One of his former mistresses is interviewed and says she did not believe Hitler was a monster. She managed to humanize him, Offred now thinks, because otherwise she could not have continued to live.
Then for some reason, Offred feels she is about to break out into laughter. Knowing that she would endanger herself if she were to be heard laughing (it would be called hysteria and she would be given a drug to control it), she goes into the closet and stifles the laughter until it passes.
Offred's stories about Moira continue to demonstrate that not all women are beaten down into submission by the regime. Moira is one who fights back and manages to escape. The human spirit cannot be completely controlled or subjugated, and the knowledge of Moira's escape encourages the women: "We hugged her to us, she was with us in secret, a giggle; she was lava beneath the crust of daily life" (ch. 22). And yet at the same time, the women are frightened by Moira's escape. This is the danger of living in a totalitarian society: after a while people tend to accept their loss of freedom and find security in their restricted lives. As Offred says, "Already we were losing the taste for freedom, already we were finding these walls secure" (ch. 22). And yet, fortunately for her, there is something about Offred's temperament that ensures she cannot simply quietly accept her role as Handmaid and embrace the ideology of Gilead. She still hopes for better things and believes that one day she will get out of her current situation.
Offred's meeting with the Commander is a surprise. He is not what the reader might have expected. He does not appear to be arrogant or a bully; his manner is gentle and he appears to be rather kind. Offred is puzzled because she cannot determine what he wants from her. But then her memory of having watched a documentary about Hitler puts her encounter with the Commander in the appropriate context. In some respects, Gilead is like Nazi Germany, and the fact that the Commander may in person appear to be a normal, even likable man, cannot obscure the fact that he occupies a senior position in an oppressive totalitarian society. His gentle manner cannot hide the guilt that must be assigned to him for the crimes committed in the name of the Republic of Gilead.


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