The Handmaid's Tale | Study Guide

Margaret Atwood

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The Handmaid's Tale | Chapter 22 : Birth Day | Summary

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Summary

Offred arrives back at the house and goes to her room, too tired to sleep. She begins to describe a memory of driving late into the night. Then she suddenly decides to narrate instead the story of what happens to Moira, which she has pieced together from various accounts. While at the Red Center, Moira causes a toilet to overflow and calls for Aunt Elizabeth. When Aunt Elizabeth comes, Moira threatens to stab her, steals her clothing, ties her up in the furnace room, and escapes dressed as an Aunt. After the escape, Aunt Elizabeth asks Janine to spy on the other women. The women at the Red Center are both frightened and excited by the idea that Moira has escaped, and nothing more is heard of her.

Analysis

The flashback of driving is a metaphor for control in Offred's life. The fragmented memories that follow illustrate an effort by Offred to deduce the truth behind veiled events. This effort is a means of retaining identity and self-control.

Illustrating that the "women's culture" of Gilead centers on women's betrayal of one another, Aunt Lydia enlists Janine as a spy. As Offred tells us, "There can be alliances even in such places, even under such circumstances." Yet while the women are distrustful of Janine, they also appreciate the news she gives them about Moira.

Offred's habit of playing with the multiple meanings of words, a regular feature of her narrative style, illuminates her mixed feelings about Moira's escape. She says that Moira "set herself loose" and that she is "now a loose woman." Of course, she means that Moira escapes captivity. However, she is also playing on the idiom "loose woman," an old-fashioned term for a woman with questionable morals (a woman who is promiscuous or free sexually). Clearly at work in Offred are the competing feelings of admiration for Moira and the feelings of shame that are part of the women's indoctrination in Gilead. Offred also specifically says that Moira "set herself loose," a variation of the passive voice ("she'd been set loose") that Offred first uses. This switch from passive to active voice is directly related to Offred's own struggle to act—to take action—rather than receive life passively.

As is her narrative style, Offred relates some of the events of this chapter based on what she has heard from other women. However, she fills in the gaps in the story by imagining or clarifying for herself what might have gone on: "Janine would have replied" and "I expect Moira said something like it."

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