Chapters 13-16 Offred thinks back to the time before she was sent to the house, when she lived with other women at the Center where the Handmaids were trained for their new positions. After she had been there for about three weeks, Moira arrived. She and Offred saw each other in the gymnasium. They managed to talk briefly during a walk around the football field, and they arranged to meet in the washroom at a certain time. This was during a Testifying session, where Janine confessed that it was her fault that she was gang-raped at the age of fourteen because she led the men on. Offred was happy that Moira had come and they were able to communicate. Moira was robust and had not lost her sense of humor.
Offred dreams about how she, Luke and their daughter tried to escape. But they were shot at and caught.
A bell awakens her, and it is time to go down to the sitting room. In the sitting room, she kneels, with her head lowered, and waits for the household to assemble. Rita, Cora and Nick arrive, then Serena Joy. It is the evening of what is called the Ceremony. As they all wait for the Commander to arrive, Serena puts on the television. They watch the news, which is about the ongoing war against Baptist guerrillas. The armed forces of the Republic of Gilead go under names such as the Angels of Light and the Angels of the Apocalypse. The television always shows victories, never defeats. There is more political news. Two members of the heretical sect of the Quakers are shown, captured. Serena get bored and turns the television off.
As they wait, Offred thinks back to the time when she and Luke, with their daughter, tried to escape. With forged passports, they drove to the Canadian border. They had fake visas valid for only a day, and hoped to convince the guards they were only going on a day-trip.
Offred's memories break off as the Commander enters the room, wearing his black uniform. He sits in a large leather chair and reads to them from the Bible, particularly the story of Rachel and Leah in Genesis: "Give me children or else I die." Offred has had this and other Bible passages read to her many times since the establishment of Gilead.
She remembers how Moira, at one of their clandestine meetings in the washroom, told her that she planned to escape. Her initial plan was to fake being sick.
The Commander finishes reading; Serena begins to cry, as she always does on the night of the Ceremony. The Commander calls for a moment of silent prayer.
Offred remembers what happened to Moira. After being taken to the hospital with a fake illness, she was quickly returned to the retraining facility. She had been badly beaten on the soles of her feet and could barely walk.
The Commander indicates that it is time to stop praying. This part of the Ceremony is over.
The Ceremony continues in the Commander's bedroom. Offred lies on her back on the large four-poster bed. She is fully clothed except she has removed her underwear. Above her on the bed is Serena Joy. Offred lies between Serena's outspread legs. Offred's arms are raised, and Serena holds her hands, which supposedly signals that they are one being. As Offred lies still, the Commander has sexual intercourse with her in an impersonal way. There is no pleasure involved in this for anyone. They are all simply doing their duty. As soon as it is over, Serena tells Offred to leave.
The testifying session shows how Gilead has adopted a reactionary male view of sexual violence and manipulated women into agreeing with it. If Janine was gang-raped, it was because she led the men on. This shows how Gilead has rejected the feminist movement that sought to put the blame for male violence against women squarely on the shoulders of the men involved. The violence now practiced against women in Gilead is of a more subtle kind; rapes appear to be rare, but women have no freedom. They are still powerless and oppressed by men.
The official attitude to sexuality in Gilead is that it should be used only for procreation. This need to procreate (for reasons that are not fully explained until a later chapter), defines the lives of the Handmaids. Their success or failure in life is measured by their menstrual cycle. If it is present, they have failed. Time is marked by the cycle of the moon. Fertility is everything. The Handmaids are no longer fully human beings, but simply wombs, which is the only part of their body that is considered useful by the regime.
All love and joy has been removed from the sexual act. Bible verses are read that justify the grotesque Ceremony by Biblical precedent. The key passage, which also serves as an epigraph to the book, is the story of Rachel and Leah in Genesis, in which Rachel, who conceives no children for Jacob, allows Jacob to impregnate their servant, Bilhah. The baby produced by Bilhah is then known as Rachel's. Leah does the same with her maid.
As Atwood has said in interviews, she did not invent anything regarding the ideology of Gilead; she merely pieced together and extended elements that were already in the culture.
These sections about the Ceremony are all the more powerful because they are interspersed with accounts of how the feisty Moira tried to rebel and beat the system, only to end up being physically beaten herself.
The Handmaid's Tale: Novel Summary: Chapters 13-16