The Handmaid’s Tale
Summary: Chapter 4
As she leaves the house to go shopping, Offred notices Nick, a Guardian of the Faith, washing the Commander’s car. Nick lives above the garage. He winks at Offred—an offense against -decorum— but she ignores him, fearing that he may be an Eye, a spy assigned to test her. She waits at the corner for Ofglen, another Handmaid with whom Offred will do her shopping. The Handmaids always travel in pairs when outside.
Ofglen arrives, and they exchange greetings, careful not to say anything that isn’t strictly orthodox. Ofglen says that she has heard the war is going well, and that the army recently defeated a group of Baptist rebels. “Praise be,” Offred responds. They reach a checkpoint manned by two young Guardians. The Guardians serve as a routine police force and do menial labor. They are men too young, too old, or just generally unfit for the army. Young Guardians, such as these, can be dangerous because they are frequently more fanatical or nervous than older guards. These young Guardians recently shot a Martha as she fumbled for her pass, because they thought she was a man in disguise carrying a bomb. Offred heard Rita and Cora talking about the shooting. Rita was angry, but Cora seemed to accept the shooting as the price one pays for safety.
At the checkpoint, Offred subtly flirts with one of the Guardians by making eye contact, cherishing this small infraction against the rules. She considers how sex-starved the young men must be, since they cannot marry without permission, masturbation is a sin, and pornographic magazines and films are now forbidden. The Guardians can only hope to become Angels, when they will be allowed to take a wife and perhaps eventually get a Handmaid. This marks the first time in the novel we hear the word “Handmaid” used.
Summary: Chapter 5
In town, Ofglen and Offred wait in line at the shops. We learn the name of this new society: “The Republic of Gilead.” Offred remembers the pre-Gilead days, when women were not protected: they had to keep their doors closed to strangers and ignore catcalls on the street. Now no one whistles at women as they walk; no one touches them or talks to them. She remembers Aunt Lydia explaining that more than one kind of freedom exists, and that “[i]n the days of anarchy, it was freedom to. Now you are being given freedom from.”
The women shop at stores known by names like All Flesh and Milk and Honey. Pictures of meat or fruit mark the stores, rather than lettered signs, because “they decided that even the names of shops were too much temptation for us.” A Handmaid in the late stages of pregnancy enters the store and raises a flurry of excitement. Offred recognizes her from the Red Center. She used to be known as Janine, and she was one of Aunt Lydia’s favorites. Now her name is Ofwarren. Offred senses that Janine went shopping just so she could show off her pregnancy.
Offred thinks of her husband, Luke, and their daughter, and the life they led before Gilead existed. She remembers a prosaic detail from their everyday life together: she used to store plastic shopping bags under the sink, which annoyed Luke, who worried that their daughter would get one of the bags caught over her head. She remembers feeling guilty for her carelessness. Offred and Ofglen finish their shopping and go out to the sidewalk, where they encounter a group of Japanese tourists and their interpreter. The tourists want to take a photograph, but Offred says no. Many of the interpreters are Eyes, and Handmaids must not appear immodest. Offred and Ofglen marvel at the women’s exposed legs, high heels, and polished toenails. The tourists ask if they are happy, and since Ofglen does not answer, Offred replies that they are very happy.
Summary: Chapter 6
This may not seem ordinary to you now, but after a time it will. It will become ordinary.
As they return from shopping, Ofglen suggests they take the long way and pass by the church. It is an old building, decorated inside with paintings of what seem to be Puritans from the colonial era. Now the former church is kept as a museum. Offred describes a nearby boathouse, old dormitories, a football stadium, and redbrick sidewalks. Atwood implies that Offred is walking across what used to be the campus of Harvard University. Across the street from the church sits the Wall, where the authorities hang the bodies of executed criminals as examples to the rest of the Republic of Gilead. The authorities cover the men’s heads with bags. One of the bags looks painted with a red smile where the blood has seeped through. All of the six corpses wear signs around their necks picturing fetuses, signaling that they were executed for performing abortions before Gilead came into existence. Although their actions were legal at the time, their crimes are being punished retroactively. Offred feels relieved that none of the bodies could be Luke’s, since he was not a doctor. As she stares at the bodies, Offred thinks of Aunt Lydia telling them that soon their new life would seem ordinary.
Analysis: Chapters 4–6
The theocratic nature of Offred’s society, the name of which we learn for the first time in these chapters, becomes clear during her shopping trip. A theocracy exists when there is no separation between church and state, and a single religion dominates all aspects of life. In Gilead, state and religion are inseparable. The official language of Gilead uses many biblical terms, from the various ranks that men hold (Angels, Guardians of the Faith, Commanders of the Faith, the Eyes of God), to the stores where Offred and Ofglen shop (Milk and Honey, All Flesh, Loaves and Fishes), to the names of automobiles (Behemoth, Whirlwind, Chariot). The very name “Gilead” refers to a location in ancient Israel. The name also recalls a line from the Book of Psalms: “there is a balm in Gilead.” This phrase, we realize later, has been transformed into a kind of national motto.
Atwood does not describe the exact details of Gilead’s state religion. In Chapter 2, Offred describes her room as “a return to traditional values.” The religious right in America uses the phrase “traditional values,” so Atwood seems to link the values of this dystopic society to the values of the Protestant Christian religious right in America. Gilead seems more Protestant than anything else, but its brand of Christianity pays far more attention to the Old Testament than the New Testament. The religious justification for having Handmaids, for instance, is taken from the Book of Genesis. We learn that neither Catholics nor Jews are welcome in Gilead. The former must convert, while the latter must emigrate to Israel or renounce their Judaism.
Atwood seems less interested in religion than in the intersection between religion, politics, and sex. The Handmaid’s Tale explores the political oppression of women, carried out in the name of God but in large part motivated by a desire to control women’s bodies. Gilead sees women’s sexuality as dangerous: women must cover themselves from head to toe, for example, and not reveal their sexual attractions. When Offred attracts the Guardians, she feels this ability to inspire sexual attraction is the only power she retains. Every other privilege is stripped away, down to the very act of reading, which is forbidden. Women are not even allowed to read store signs. By controlling women’s minds, by not allowing them to read, the authorities more easily control women’s bodies. The patriarchs of Gilead want to control women’s bodies, their sex lives, and their reproductive rights. The bodies of slain abortionists on the Wall hammer home the point: feminists believe that women must have abortion rights in order to control their own bodies, and in Gilead, giving women control of their bodies is a horrifying crime.
When Offred and Ofglen go to town to shop, geographical clues and street names suggest that they live in what was once Cambridge, Massachusetts, and that their walk takes them near what used to be the campus of Harvard University. The choice of Cambridge for the setting of The Handmaid’s Tale is significant, since Massachusetts was a Puritan stronghold during the colonial period of the United States. The Puritans were a persecuted minority in England, but when they fled to New England, they re-created the repression they suffered at home, this time casting themselves as the repressors rather than the repressed. They established an intolerant religious society in some ways similar to Gilead. Atwood locates her fictional intolerant society in a place founded by intolerant people. By turning the old church into a museum, and leaving untouched portraits of Puritan forebears, the founders of Gilead suggest their admiration for the old Puritan society.
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