Study Help Full Glossary for The Handmaid's Tale


Aged Primipara an elderly first-time mother, as opposed to multipara, the medical term for a woman who has borne several children.

Agent Orange a defoliant employed by the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War to strip the jungle of hiding places for Communist insurgents. Returning soldiers discovered that exposure to the chemical seemingly increased the likelihood of birth defects in their children.

All alone by the telephone an Irving Berlin duct sung by Grace Moore and Oscar Shaw in the 1924 version of The Music Review.

All Flesh Gilead's meat center, taking its name from a warning in Isaiah 40:6 that, unlike God's word, human life is fragile and transitory.

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."

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

"And Leah said, God hath given me my hire, because I have given my maiden to my husband" Leah's comment at the birth of Issachar, Jacob's fifth son, Genesis 30:18.

Angels a euphemism for soldiers, or guards.

Angels of the Apocalypse, Baptist guerrillas, Angels of Light satiric parodies of holy war in which euphemistic names deflect the murderous intent of religious sects fighting for supremacy. The biblical vision of an Apocalypse, when the powers of darkness challenge the powers of light, appears in Revelation 8:2-11:19.

Arctic char a pun on a small-scaled trout and the British slang for charwoman, a domestic worker.

Aunts staff members who blend the prim role of academy schoolmarms with the sadism of prison matrons.

Aztec hearts The ancient Aztecs worshipped at stone altars, where priests used obsidian knives to cut the hearts from sacrificial human victims.

Balm in Gilead the concluding question in Jeremiah, chapter 8, in which the prophet mourns Judah's slide into wickedness and depravity.

Bangor, Maine city in south central Maine. Brewer, across the bridge from Bangor, was once a Quaker waystation on the Underground Railroad. The town's location on the Penobscot River made it a useful connection point to seagoing vessels. From Brewer, abolitionists could transport escaping slaves downriver to the Atlantic Ocean and northeast around the coast to Canada.

Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth the second half of Genesis 9: 1, God's injunction to Noah and his family after the ark survived the flooding of the world to rid it of wickedness.

Beatitudes a reference to the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5:311, a lyrical passage written in tight parallelism. Manipulative propagandists add "Blessed are the silent," which Offred recognizes as a spurious interpolation.

The bell is tolling an allusion to John Donne's Meditation XVII, which includes the phrase therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee."

Bestow an ironic usage of a biblical synonym for give.

Birthing Stool a primitive seat with a hole in the center. By centering a laboring woman upright on the stool, an ancient midwife utilized gravity to guide the infant out of the birth canal.

Birthmobile a vehicle that transports Handmaids to a birthing so that they may encourage their fellow Handmaid during labor and profit from the experience by conceiving and producing children for Gilead.

black patch an advertising ploy for the Hathaway Shirt Company, whose rakish male model often sports a patch over one eye.

candles you would light to pray by an image suggesting Catholic worship, during which the devout light prayers and pray for the souls of loved ones, particularly those in Purgatory who have not yet reached Paradise. The metaphor suggests the limbo in which Offred's family existscut off from one another, possibly incarcerated, tortured, or dead.

carved on the stone walls of caves, or drawn with a mixture of soot and animal fat an allusion to prehistoric art, particularly the energetic drawings of Lascaux, a series of isolated chambers in the Pyrenees Mountains between France and Spain, where Neolithic artisans inscribed ritualistic pictures of animals.

Children of Ham a reference to black-skinned nations in Genesis 10:6, a passage that bigoted religious groups use as justification for racism.

Christmas crèche a manger scene displaying the Holy Family.

a circle . . . the stem of a cross the traditional scientific symbol for woman. The male counterpart is a circle sprouting an arrow. The two symbols derive from the hand-mirror of Venus and the shield and spear of Zeus. Ironically, the male symbol reflects militaristic strength as opposed to the shallow vanity implied by the female symbol.

Colonies those areas beyond Gilead that are permeated with radioactive toxins. Clean-up crews consist of incorrigibles, old or sterile women, and other expendable citizens not suited to the rigid caste system of a theocracy or the need for state breeders.

"Come to the Church in the Wildwood" an enticingly idyllic gospel 'hymn that depicts worship as bucoYic, innocent, and inviting.

Commanders of the Faithful a euphemism for the privileged, authoritarian hierarchy of Gilead.

Compuchek a parody of computerized scanning devices that read credit cards and bar-coded pricing and inventory symbols.

Compucount a parody of modern credit cards.

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

Compunumber a credit registration number, a means by which the religious right controls Gilead's apathetic citizens.

Computalk an extension of Compuchek, representative of Gilead's multiple internal forms of electronic communications.

Context is all a paraphrase from Shakespeare's King Lear: "Ripeness is all" (V, ii, 9). The requests for a game of Scrabble and a kiss, under normal circumstances, would not seem bizarre, but in the context of Gilead, the Commander's desires appear perverted and racy.

crowning the protrusion from the birth canal of the top of the baby's head.

Daily Bread a reference to a line from the Lord's Prayer, found in Matthew 6-11.

Deuteronomy 22:23-29 the exacting Mosaic law governing punishment for rape of a virgin.

Econowives a jargon term for working-class women who lack maid service and thus must "do everything."

Emerge van A shortened version of emergency, the Emerge van carries doctors and medical machines to be used only if the "emerge" the birth proceeds abnormally.

Eurydice in Greek mythology, the luckless bride bitten by a snake on her wedding day. Her husband, Orpheus, the famed musician, convinced Hades to let Eurydice return to earth. However, Orpheus disobeyed the strictures of the journey and looked at Eurydice too soon, thus dispatching her back to the abode of the dead forever.

exploding atomic power plants an allusion to the nuclear meltdown on Three Mile Island in March 1979. Ironically, Atwood's book was published shortly before the nuclear explosion at Chernobyl, which occurred in Russia on April 26, 1986.

an F on it instead of an M letters denoting gender of cardholders.

The Fall Adam and Eve's loss of innocence after they disobeyed God and tasted of the Tree of Knowledge.

a familiar the owl, cat, toad, or other animal that traditionally guards a witch or wizard.

fanlight a half-circle of colored glass meant to add filtered overhead sunlight as a further adornment of the foyer. The colors, red and blue, suggest patriotic bunting as well as the free-floating hostility between the Commander's Wife in blue and the intrusive Handmaid in red.

Feels on Wheels vans and Bun-Die Buggies vehicles carrying prostitution to the streets.

fetish a bizarre or perverse psychological obsession — such as a focus on hair, shoes, revealing lingerie, or body odor — to relieve an erotic need.

"For the eyes of the Lord run to and fro throughout the whole earth, to know himself strong in the behalf of them whose heart is perfect towards him" II Chronicles 16:9, an analysis of military victory, which occurs through human dependence on God. The passage, as interpreted by Gilead's cabal, justifies the use of the Eyes to spy on citizens.

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.

Frailroad a multiple pun on Women as the weaker sex and the pejorative slang term frail, meaning a girl or woman. The term also suggests a line from a scene in William Shakespeare's Hamlet, in which the title character disparages his mother, Gertrude, a widow newly married to her husband's brother. In disgust at her haste to remarry, Hamlet mutters: "Frailty, thy name is woman" (I, ii, 146).

From each . . . according to her ability; to each according to his needs a sexist restatement of a quotation of 1875 from the writings of Karl Marx, father of Communism.

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

Gilead in Old Testaments times, a productive Israelite upland region cast of the Jordan River and northeast of the Dead Sea. Gilead was known for ample flocks of sheep and goats, orchards and vineyards, and plentiful spices.

Gyn Ed education in womanhood, from the Greek gyne, meaning woman.

a handprint on stone a reference to the bloody handprints of women who participated in suttee, the sacrifice of Indian wives who followed their husbands' funeral processions, then leaped or were forced onto their crematory pyres. British rulers outlawed the barbaric Hindu custom in 1829, but it continued to thrive in outlying areas.

Hard Times a key novel by Charles Dickens depicting the blatant human exploitation common during England's Industrial Revolution.

Holy Rollers a derisive term applied to energetic religious groups, primarily Pentecostal, who dance, shout, embrace, testify, and speak gibberish during spiritual ecstasy.

HOPE and CHARITY the pillow inscribed with "FAITH" suggests the remaining two abstract nouns of Paul's triad, found in I Corinthians 13:13, "Now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity." In Gilead, there is precious little hope or charity; Offred is left with faith in herself.

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

I tell time by the moon that is, by her menstrual periods, which parallel the 28-day lunar cycle.

I tell, therefore you are a rephrasing of Rene Descartes' I think, therefore I am."

I will greatly multiply thy sorrow God's punishment of Eve in Genesis 3:16. The verse concludes with Eve's loss of autonomy: and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee."

Identipasses in-town visas; an unconstitutional restriction on personal freedom.

in homage to the great Geoffrey Chaucer author of The Canterbury Tales (1385), a series of narratives told by a contingent of pilgrims traveling to a religious shrine in Canterbury, England. Each tale is identified by the profession or social status of the teller — that is, the wife of [from] Bath, the knight, the nun's priest, the franklin, and so forth.

In Hope the brief phrase suggests several biblical passages, particularly Psalm 16:9, an uplifting statement of trust that God promises joy and deliverance from suffering: "Therefore my heart is glad, and my glory rejoiceth: My flesh also shall rest in hope.

Jezebels an allusion to the wicked Phoenician, Baal-worshipping wife of Ahab, Israel's king. At her instigation, state-ordered persecution cost the lives of prophets. Her power to subvert the worship of Israel's god with paganism ended in arrest and execution. Her body was devoured by dogs.

Kali a paradoxical Hindu goddess of creativity and destruction.

Krishna a light-hearted, sensual Hindu god connected with music and dance.

ladies in reduced circumstances a Victorian euphemism for poor women, who frequently had to live in boarding houses when they could find no suitable employment. Many of them ultimately resorted to prostitution, turning their rented chambers into brothels.

Late Victorian an architecture that reflects the staid, family-centered mindset of Queen Victoria's reign, which extended from 1837-1901. A heavy style, the Victorian touch runs to red brick, imposing, fortress-like facades, and an absence of beauty for its own sake.

Les Sylphides a popular ballet adapted in 1909 from music by Chopin and featuring a serene, plotless idyll of graceful, birdlike female beings and a single male dancer.

Libertheos a political force that captured Central America and cut off supplies of oranges to Gilead. The name elides the Latin for free with the Greek for god.

Lichchen German diminutive for darling.

Lilies of the Field a clothing store that takes its name from the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 6:28.

Lily of the Valley In the Song of Solomon 2: 1, the chaste bride refers to herself as "rose of Sharon" and "lily of the valley." This seemingly erotic verse was allowed to remain in the canon works of the Bible after interpreters saw a parallel between Christ, the bridegroom, and his beloved, the Church. In gospel lyrics, the genders are reversed so that Christ becomes the "lily of the valley, the bright and morning star, the fairest of ten thousand."

Loaves and Fishes a food store named for Christ's miracle described in Matthew 14:17 of expanding five loaves and two fish to feed a multitude of hungry people.

M'aidez French for "Help me," which is pronounced in English like "Mayday," a universal radio code indicating extreme distress.

the man had been cruel and brutal an allusion to Adolf Hitler, credited with orchestrating the annihilation of over six million Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals, retardates, handicapped, and elderly victims, whom he considered detrimental to the breeding of his Master Race.

Martha In Luke 10:38-42, Martha, a Bethany housekeeper, works so hard at welcoming Jesus to her home that she fails to take advantage of his teachings.

matrix the living tissue in which an embryo grows. The word matrix derives from mater, the Latin word for mother.

memento mori Latin for "remember that you must die," an inscription used by the pious on tombstones and monuments.

Milk and Honey a food shop named for a biblical allusion to abundance, which is repeated in Exodus 3:8, Exodus 33:3, and Jeremiah 11:5.

the mistress an allusion to Eva Braun, Hitler's mistress, who is thought to have committed suicide with her lover.

Monotheocracies religious dictatorships based on the worship of one god.

"The moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow" an evocative line from Clement Moore's A Visit from St. Nicholas (1823). Offred's recitation of a verse from children's poetry suggests a female breast, purity, her fall from innocence, vulnerability, and the cycles of the moon, symbolic of fertility.

National Homeland One a parallel to schemes by Marcus Garvey and others who sought to resettle African slaves in their native land.

national resources figuratively, fertile women.

Nick, the private Eye a pun linking the chauffeur with Nick Charles, sleuth in The Thin Man, a popular 1934 movie starring William Powell, with Myrna Loy portraying Nora, his wife and sidekick. Peter Lawford reprised the role in a television series of the same name.

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

Ours is not to reason why a paraphrase of a line from Tennyson's "The Charge of the Light Brigade," a way poem describing the pointless deaths of soldiers dispatched into battle against impossible odds.

papier poudre a sheaf of thin paper sheets permeated with face powder. At the turn of the century, these matchbook-sized leaves of make-do cosmetics fit easily into a purse for a quick, surreptitious repair of a shiny nose or face.

paranoid delusion a perversion of reality. Offred loses touch with identifiable stimuli and fluctuates between testing sanity and denying it. She suspects she is being drugged. To test her grasp of reality, she clutches simple data: " . . . where I am, and who, and what day it is."

paranoid excessively suspicious or mistrustful.

a parlor, the kind with a spider and flies an allusion to the nursery rhyme that begins with "Come into my parlor, said the spider to the fly." The parallel between the sticky web and Serena's sitting room echoes the theme of entrapment and powerlessness.

Particicution execution by dismemberment.

past the zero line of replacement The birthrate has fallen so far that the population no longer grows.

Pen is Envy a pun on "penis envy," a concept of Sigmund Freud to account for negative behavior that women express against men.

Pielxoto Pieixoto's name suggests Pope Pius IX, a Vatican pope (1854-1878), who, in his first year of office, issued the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The reign of Pius IX produced a sharp swing from liberalism as the Church fought to maintain its powers from diminishment by the aftermath of Napoleon III's rise to power. As a result of the hostile political climate at a time when Rome became a part of the Italian kingdom, the state vs. church power struggle rendered Pius IX a virtual prisoner in the Vatican.

pier glass a bulging, round mirror that produces a distorted image. Symbolically, it represents the Commander's importance to Gilead's spying operation and the prying eyes that deprive Offred of privacy. In its fish-eye reflection, Offred sees herself as a "sister, dipped in blood."

Pornomarts distributors of pornography.

Prayvaganzas a public display of sanctimony, which occurs in Chapter 33.

Quakers a pacifist religious sect that masterminded much of the Underground Railroad and helped escaped slaves elude patrollers as they followed the trail north to New England or Canada.

recollected, if not in tranquility, at least post facto an allusion to William Wordsworth's Preface to the Lyrical Ballads. This deduction suggests that Offred lived long enough "after the fact" to compose her thoughts, when safety, privacy, cassette tape, and recorder were available.

Red Center an acronym of the official name of Gilead's indoctrination center, the Rachel and Leah Re-Education Center, where potential breeders dress in red habits.

Romanesque architecture that emphasizes rounded arches and vaults, piers, and arcades.

Salvagings a euphemism for executions. Such manipulations of language conceal the predatory nature of Gilead and its vicious hierarchy.

San Andreas fault a fluctuating fissure in the subterranean plates that threatens the stability of California.

scriptural precedent biblical examples taken from context and used as justification for Gilead's laws, or strictures. One precedent allows Wives to hit Handmaids.

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

semaphore a coded system of flag movements used at sea for ship-to-ship or ship-to-shore communication.

serial polygamy the practice of marriage, divorce, and remarriage.

simultaneous polygamy . . . in the former state of Utah The reference is to the Mormon practice of polygamy, a socio-religious custom allowing men to take multiple wives, which thrived under the leadership of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young from 1843 until it was banned in 1890.

smeared with yoghurt that is, smeared with vernix caseosa, from the Latin for cheesy varnish, the oily protective tissue that coats a newborn.

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

soi-disant manuscript a French literary term questioning the authenticity of a manuscript.

something Renaissance about the pose models depicting bold, selfconfident attitudes,

Sons of Jacob In Genesis 32:28, after wrestling with God's messenger, Jacob changes his name to Israel, thus establishing his tribe as the Israelites, God's chosen people.

Soul Scrolls an automated print shop that publishes prayers "for health, wealth, a death, a birth, a sin."

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.

Sufi a seventh- and eighth-century mystical Arabic sect growing out of Islam. Infused with lyricism and wisdom, Sufism encouraged the faithful to seek God out of love rather than from any desire to gain heaven or avoid hell.

sum es est, sumus estis sunt a lesson in beginning Latin, which translates, "I am, you are, he is, we are, you are, they are."

Sumptuary Laws legal regulation of food, drink, color and style of clothing, personal adornment and purchase and display or use of luxury items, such as furs, glass windows, chimneys, and dishes made of silver or gold.

TAKE BACK THE NIGHT a feminist slogan of the 1980s indicating dismay and revolt at the increase in violence against women, which lessened their freedoms by making them fear the dark.

Testifying a Gileadean perversion of a fundamentalist ritual in which Christians tell how and why they gave up sinful ways and converted to Christianity. In the futuristic testimony, Handmaids-in-training confess to sexual sins, including gang rape and abortion.

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.

Tibetan prayer wheels cylinders containing written prayers used by devout Buddhists as an adjunct to worship.

torahs, talliths, Magen Davids symbols of Judaism — the five books of Moses, prayer shawls, and the superimposed triangles that form the hexagrammatic shield of David, a feature of the flag of Israel.

an Unbaby the one-in-four child born deformed, "with a pinhead or a snout like a dog's or two bodies, or a hole in its heart or no arms, or webbed hands and feet." Atwood's speculative novel suggests that environmental pollution may trigger prenatal malformations, a belief held by agitators against Agent Orange, a defoliant used during the Vietnam War, and the noxious substances said to have affected the reproductive cells of soldiers during the Persian Gulf War.

University of Denay, Nunavit a pun on "Deny none of it." Nunavit suggests Nunivak, a fogbound island off Alaska in the Bering Sea. Likewise, the Dene, who are Native American ancestors of the Athapascan aborigines, inhabit the Northwest Territories of Canada south of the tree line. Another sound-alike is Danae, the character from Greek mythology who was impregnated by a ray of sunlight from Zeus while she was imprisoned. After giving birth, Danae and her child were cast into the sea. The conclusion to her story, like that of Offred, is ambiguous, suggesting both acceptance and treachery.

Unwoman any female remanded to the Colonies to serve in clean-up crews removing toxic wastes.

the wandering womb an ancient Greek explanation for female hysteria, which derives from the Greek hystera, or womb

The Warsaw Tactic: Policies of Urban Core Encirclement In 1940, Nazi occupation forces confined 400,000 Jews to a ghetto in the center of Warsaw, Poland. As disease, starvation, and exportation to death camps decimated the number of Jews, the authorities began reducing the perimeter of the ghetto, thus squeezing the inhabitants into a smaller and more easily controlled compound. On April 19, 1943, German and Lithuanian soldiers joined Polish firemen and police in a brutal attack against the remaining 60,000 Jews, who put up a brave, but doomed resistance. By May 16, a house-by-house search revealed that Warsaw's Jews were annihilated.

Waste not want not a puritanic aphorism credited to John Platt, nineteenth-century author of Economy, a compendium of platitudes.

We don't seem to have much in common a humorous twist on a cliche common to the seductive line of seducers in novels, movies, and television soap operas

Whirlwind a high-powered car that suggests the biblical injunction from Hosea 8:7, a mournful complaint warning wayward Israelites: "They have sown the wind, and they shall reap the whirlwind: it hath no stalk: the bud shall yield no meal: if so be its yield, the strangers shall swallow it UP."

"Whispering Hope" a familiar gospel hymn suggesting the fleeting hopes of Handmaids who may remain alive only if they conceive.

Whore of Babylon a slang insult found in Shakespeare's Henry V (II, iii, 37) and derived from Jeremiah's concern that God's people had taken up Babylonian excesses of bawdy dress, idol worship, and immoral behavior.

women in long somber dresses the pictures on the walls of the museum depict the area's Puritan ancestry.

Women's Salvagings a public execution presided over and carried out by women, which is acted out in Chapter 14.

Word perfect the trademark of a popular computer word processing program.

yellow stars symbols of Judaism selected by Hitler's forces as required badges to identify Jews.