The Handmaid's Tale By Margaret Atwood Summary and Analysis Chapter 4 - Waiting Room

Summary

In May, Offred again joins Ofglen to walk by the Wall; they turn away from an executed trio — a priest and two homosexuals. As three Econowives pass by in mourning for a stillborn fetus, Offred and Ofglen place hands over their hearts in a gesture of sympathy. The Handmaids walk on and part with a sanctimonious ritual farewell, "Under His Eye." Offred sees her own hesitation and fear reflected in Ofglen's tentative move toward communication.

Passing Nick and Serena, Offred returns to the kitchen and delivers the day's supply of groceries to Rita. After Offred climbs the stairs, she passes the Commander outside her room. Alone again, she retreats into enforced seclusion and thinks about her premarital affair with Luke. Suffering an "[attack] of the past," she recalls her arrival at the Commander's house and her investigation of the sparse leavings of the former Handmaid. On her third day, she found scratched into the corner of the closet a bit of Latin doggerel, which she is unable to translate. Her questions to Rita fail to gain information about former Handmaids.

Summer brings lighter garments. Offred is escorted to the doctor's office in a modern office building for her monthly medical examination. After vaginal and rectal probing and breast exam, the doctor whispers through the cloth screen, "I could help you." Offred considers taking a chance on insemination by the doctor, but fears the death penalty. Later, in her bath, Offred avoids gazing on her body because it "determines [her] so completely." Her memories return to a time when a demented woman briefly stole Offred's eleven-month-old daughter from a shopping cart.

On the afternoon of the monthly ritual mating with the Commander, Cora supervises Offred's bath. Offred dresses and dons a red veil in anticipation of the ceremony.

Analysis

This grouping of five chapters delineates more thoroughly the characterization and focus of Offred. In former times, her life was full of love, friendship, learning, opportunity, and optimism. Although her mother was an actively militant feminist, Offred, a postfeminist backslider, failed to appreciate women's rights and privileges, such as making choices, having a job, holding a bank account, controlling her reproductive capabilities, and enjoying equality with men. She paid scant attention to the ominous political, religious, and social climate that indicated an alarming rise in misogyny. By cocooning herself in Luke, her daughter, and the events of their narrow microcosm, she ignored the gathering hostile takeover until she and her family were victims of Gilead's lethal tentacles.

Under rigorous theocratic rule, seemingly pampered with her diet of chicken, vegetables, fruit, and milk, Offred retains the womanly urge to hide in her spare pair of shoes some pats of butter which she uses as body cream. This small indulgence lightens the tedium of incarceration, as does her reading of "Faith" on the needlepoint pillow and her tolerance of Nick's flirtations. Although willing to flout rules against makeup, reading, and infidelity in these minuscule misdemeanors, Offred is too intent on survival to risk so daring a departure from law as copulating with the doctor, a capital crime for both of the fornicators if they are discovered.

As she examines the tattooed pass number and symbolic eye on her ankle, Offred, like the women of World War II whose heads were shaved for consorting with the enemy, appears to live vicariously on the edge — never far out of compliance, yet a bit of a daredevil. Thus, against a brutally intrusive, all-knowing regime, she retains a frail modicum of individuality and self-esteem. In anticipation of another mating with the Commander, she composes herself into a soulless, long-suffering receptacle for his sperm.

Glossary

sect wars interdenominational battles, which Gilead's fundamentalists fight against Jews, Jehovah's Witnesses, Quakers, and other religious sects.

gender treachery betrayal of traditional sex roles that is, homosexual acts.

All flesh is grass a biblical warning in Isaiah 40:6-8, noting that "all the goodness thereof is as the flower of the field. . . . The grass withereth, the flower fadeth; but the word of our God shall stand for ever."

Forgive them, for they know not what they do Aunt Lydia's pious platitude, drawn from Luke 23:34, repeats one of Jesus's final utterances during his crucifixion at Calvary.

Nolite te bastardes carborundorum a botched version of the Latin aphorism Non illegitimi carborundum, meaning "Don't let the bastards wear you down."

Amazing grace a popular Protestant hymn written by reformed slaver John Newton, who established a new life as minister and hymn writer.

I feel so lonely, baby concluding lines from Elvis Presley's "Heartbreak Hotel."

Compudoc medical computer like the Compuchek, which ascertains patient identity.

snake-twined sword a version of the caduccus, the traditional symbol of the medical profession.

St. Paul a founder of Christian worship and writer of epistles to new churches. Paul was notoriously hard on women, particularly the whores of coastal Mediterranean towns, whom he forced to cover their hair as evidence of their departure from seducing sailors and of their conversion to Christianity.

that film, about the women Offred recalls an unnamed movie picturing female collaborators kneeling in the town square and having their heads shaved in token of their disloyalty.

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