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The Handmaid's Tale: Novel Summary: Chapters 29-32

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Offred is playing Scrabble with the Commander. After the game, which she wins, he asks her what she wants to read. This has become a routine for them. The Commander owns many forbidden magazines and books. But this time Offred says she would sooner talk than read. She tries to get him to talk about himself. He describes himself as an ordinary guy. He started out in market research but later branched out. He calls himself a kind of scientist but does not elaborate. Offred decides to ask him what Nolite te bastardes carborumdorum, the inscription carved into the closet in her room, means. He gets her to write it down, and then he laughs and says it is not real Latin but a joke. Schoolboys used to write things like that in their books. It means "Don't let the bastards grind you down." He tells her that the woman who occupied Offred's room and wrote that inscription hanged herself. Offred decides that this revelation gives her a slight power over him, since he may feel guilty and he may fear that she will also commit suicide. So when he asks her what she would like, she says she wants to know everything about what is going on in Gilead.
Offred acknowledges that she and Nick have a desire for each other. But she knows she cannot act on it. Then she thinks back to her last day with Luke. Luke had to kill their cat since they could not take it with them, nor leave it behind because it would hang around the house and people would notice they were gone. But all their planning was useless, because someone must have betrayed them, a neighbor perhaps. The authorities were tipped off and were waiting for them.
Back in the present, Offred tries to pray, but her heart is not in it. She wonders how she is going to keep on living.
On a July day, Offred and Ofglen go on their usual shopping walk. They go to the Wall, where two bodies are being displayed. They walk to an open space so they can talk and end up in a park, where Ofglen gives Offred the password, Mayday, that enables those in the resistance network to identify who is with them and who is not. When Offred returns home, Serena Joy, who is sitting under a willow tree, calls her over. After inquiring about whether Offred is pregnant yet, she offers the comment that perhaps the Commander is responsible for the failure and that Offred should try to get pregnant by someone else. She says that this is done frequently. It was how Ofwarren (Janine) got pregnant, with the permission of her Commander's Wife. Serena Joy suggests Nick as the father. Offred agrees, although she knows she is taking a great risk. In return, Serena Joy offers to get Offred a picture of her daughter. She also gives Offred a cigarette.
Offred gets Rita to give her a match, and she looks forward to smoking the cigarette. But then she decides to keep the match. She hides it in the mattress, and has the pleasure of knowing that if she wanted to, she could burn the house down.
The previous night she was with the Commander again. Ofglen has told her that he is very important in the hierarchy, but sometimes Offred finds it hard to imagine this, since his manner with her is so mild. He wants her to express an opinion about what the leaders of Gilead have done, but she says she has no opinion. He says simply that they thought they could do better than the way society was at the time, although he acknowledges that better never means better for everyone, and always means worse for some.
Even though Offred is often in despair, asking such questions as "How can I go on living?" she is gradually fighting back against the regime, opening up some possible avenues of escape from her restricted life. She has acquired a small amount of power. Her odd relationship with the Commander gives her some leverage against him, if she could know how to use it. Also, for the first time in the novel, she begins to have real feelings, as when she acknowledges a desire for Nick (ch. 30). Up to this point, all her relationships have been artificial and distant. However, Offred is not like her more aggressive friend Moira. She is more passive and accommodating, tending to go along with the situations she finds herself in. So it is harder for her to plot an escape.
It also becomes apparent in these chapters that, as in most totalitarian societies, everyone is cheating the system. The ideology of Gilead may say one thing, and lay down laws to enforce its doctrines, but what people actually do is a different matter. The Commander is not supposed to form a relationship with his Handmaid other than what happens at the Ceremony. Nor is he permitted to have all the magazines and books that he produces for Offred to read. Offred and the Handmaids are not even allowed by the regime to read.
Even Serena Joy, the Commander's Wife, shows that she does not abide by Gilead's ideology or its practices. She acknowledges to Offred that her, Offred's, failure to become pregnant may be due to the Commander's sterility, which contradicts the official explanation that only women can be at fault. Serena Joy also shows that she knows the Handmaids get round the problem by having men other than their Commanders get them pregnant. Her own desire for a child is much stronger than her adherence to the orthodoxy of Gilead.


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