The Handmaid’s Tale

by: Margaret Atwood

Chapters 4–6

Summary: Chapter 6

This may not seem ordinary to you now, but after a time it will. It will become ordinary.

(See Important Quotations Explained)

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.