The Handmaid’s Tale

by: Margaret Atwood

Chapters 10–12

When the doctor suggests impregnating Offred, she realizes it scares her not just because the doctor could punish her if he chose to do so, but because he has offered her an escape. Offred’s fear seems inexplicable at first—how could she not long to escape?—but it illustrates the prisoner mentality that sometimes overtakes her. She wants to survive, and the best way to survive is to learn to bear her chains. When she bears them too well, they become almost comforting to her. Her captivity becomes familiar, and the prospect of a new, free life becomes scary.

Aunt Lydia’s words to the women suggest that Gilead operates not just by using ideas from the women’s movement, but by using and perverting biblical ideas and language. She tells the women, “Blessed are the meek,” but she leaves out the pivotal phrase with which the Bible ends that sentence: “for they shall inherit the earth.” The Bible suggests that the downtrodden can look forward to an eternal reward—rising up against their oppressors—but the ideology of Gilead suggests just the opposite: women’s glory comes from their meekness, and they will always be meek. That women would rise up against their oppressors is—beyond sinful—unthinkable. Gilead uses biblical language when convenient, even if that means taking phrases out of context and destroying their intended meaning.

In the household, a mood of loneliness and isolation exists. As a Handmaid, Offred is not only denied friends, she is denied a family. She must eat dinner apart from the rest of the household; her baths and movements are regulated as if she is an animal; the servants hardly speak to her. Without meaningful contact in the present, Offred spends much of her time remembering her past. Her memory of her daughter’s attempted kidnapping in the supermarket is a piece of retrospective foreshadowing, a memory of an event that foreshadowed the ultimate loss of her daughter to some unknown woman in Gilead, who, like the supermarket madwoman, did not have a daughter and wanted one by any means necessary.