Summary and Analysis
In spring, settled in a sedate, suicide-proof chamber, Offred, who is conditioned to accept her lot as a Handmaid as though it were a commission in the army, endures a prissy, overly feminized environment run by women. Her red habit, matched with stockings and gloves and topped with white blinders, isolates her from society as she shops daily for groceries. She sets her goals at unattainable levels — not to think too much so that she can survive repression. Although she longs for feminine companionship and conversation, Offred tries to avoid Serena Joy, the Commander's testy, envious Wife. Undercurrents of murder, assault, and stillbirth float by in the gossip of Marthas, females who guard the household.
To Serena Joy, who has passed her reproductive years, Offred is both "reproach" and "necessity." Five weeks previous to the opening scene, Offred arrived by staff car at the Commander's front door, which Serena blocked in a frail show of domestic dominance. On admittance to the family sitting room, Offred perched on a stiff chair as Serena, cold and nervous, stubbed out black-market cigarettes while outlining house rules: "I want to see as little of you as possible." To Offred, the arrangement was a "business transaction."
On her walk toward the rendezvous with the obligatory second Handmaid, Offred passes Nick, the Commander's cocky chauffeur, who polishes the family Whirlwind; he winks provocatively at Offred. Her reaction is a blend of annoyance and caution. She could report him for insolence, but she fears that he is an Eye, or police spy. At the corner, Offred joins Ofglen, a pious, pro-army disciple of Gileadism who, two weeks earlier, replaced a Handmaid who disappeared inexplicably. Checkpoint guards authenticate street passes by punching in identification numbers on Compuchek. A youthful guard peers at Offred's hidden features and blushes.
The town, so over-regulated and devoid of humanity that it looks like a miniature city, lacks crime, sidewalk litter, and a semblance of normal human habitation. The austere landscape sets Offred on a memory tour of the past, when she shopped with her earnings and wore nail polish and her own clothes. Waiting in line for service at the local market, she observes the stir that accompanies the arrival of Janine, a vain Handmaid who is "vastly pregnant." Again on the streets, Offred walks with Ofglen past the church and the Wall, where six bodies of former abortionists hang like war criminals, reminders of that morning's Men's Salvaging ceremony.
Divided into five brief chapters, this segment relates the controlling theme of Atwood's novel: the sterility and coercion of a circumscribed and enforced notion of womanhood. Because Offred's mind longs for stimulation, she wards off the boredom of incarceration by playing word games, twisting "Waste not want not" into an exercise in logic: "If I am not being wasted, why do I want?" In an existential brain stretcher, she declares, "I am alive, I live, I breathe, I put my hand out, unfolded, into the sunlight," yet the warm rays fail to penetrate to the chilled soul that doubts the future and longs for news of mother, husband, and daughter. Displaying a sliver of defiance against the dictatorship that has robbed her of family and freedoms, Offred refuses to think of her cell as "my."
The persistent color motif suggesting menstruation and the female cycle resounds in the blatant scarlet color of the Handmaid's uniform, Serena's voluptuous tulips, and the blood spots on the hoods of executed doctors. To Offred, the blood color "defines us." Curiously, Offred's name suggests both "of Fred" and "off red," a hint of her rebellion against authoritarianism. Like a venturesome Little Red Riding Hood in a forest of preying beasts, she steps out of the Commander's protective walls into the streets, her only armament a shopping basket. The ambiguity of Offred's position in Gilead is reflected in society's unresolved conflict of interests. As a treasured future mother, she enjoys a bland, but nutritious diet and the constant vigilance of guards, who protect her sexual integrity at the same time they prevent her from taking a subway into the city. As a potential failure, she lives under a sword of Damocles, an unnamed punishment that will fall on her after three years of failed attempts to conceive. Thus, the Handmaid journeys an ambiguous walkway, both "path through the forest" and "carpet for royalty."
Waste not want not a puritanic aphorism credited to John Platt, nineteenth-century author of Economy, a compendium of platitudes.
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.
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.
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."
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.
scriptural precedent biblical examples taken from context and used as justification for Gilead's laws, or strictures. One precedent allows Wives to hit Handmaids.
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."
Compuchek a parody of computerized scanning devices that read credit cards and bar-coded pricing and inventory symbols.
Commanders of the Faithful a euphemism for the privileged, authoritarian hierarchy of Gilead.
Salvagings a euphemism for executions. Such manipulations of language conceal the predatory nature of Gilead and its vicious hierarchy.
Prayvaganzas a public display of sanctimony, which occurs in Chapter 33.
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.
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.
Econowives a jargon term for working-class women who lack maid service and thus must "do everything."
Lilies of the Field a clothing store that takes its name from the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 6:28.
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.
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.
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.
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.
women in long somber dresses the pictures on the walls of the museum depict the area's Puritan ancestry.
memento mori Latin for "remember that you must die," an inscription used by the pious on tombstones and monuments.