Summary and Analysis Chapter 5



In a single chapter, Offred's tenuous, tedious existence is summarized as she waits for the ceremony. She recalls how Handmaid's training prepared her for periods of nothingness and wonders if she were drugged or merely overwhelmed by the enormity of the change in her life. While she practices labor exercises on the floor, her mind drifts back to the Red Center gymnasium and her friendship with Moira. Three weeks after beginning indoctrination, Offred reunited with Moira, who was brought in with a bruise on her cheek. After a four-day wait, the pair managed to slip past a guardian Aunt for a pleasant, but brief afternoon rendezvous in the end stall of the washroom.

After Offred stretches out on the braided rug, amorphous dreams of the past haunt her rest. She remembers standing at the closet in her first apartment, searching her wardrobe for an appropriate dress. Behind her, Luke recedes into the background as the cat demands food. The disjointed stream-of-consciousness daydream shifts to her family's abortive attempt to cross the Canadian border. During a chase through the woods, Offred tries to rescue herself and her daughter from faceless pursuers. Shots crack like the snap of dry branches. Hostile forces separate her from the child, who is taken away. In an abrupt shift to the present, the maid rings the bell and awakens Offred to tears and a realization that the loss of her child is her worst dream.


Atwood makes extensive use of the isolated chapters that depict Offred coping with loneliness. Bored with unfilled time, Offred battles ennui by pondering paintings of luxuriant, fleshy women in harem settings. Ironically, she sees herself as a kept woman, a prototype of "sedentary flesh." Like a "prize pig," she identifies with the groomed show animal or with a pigeon conditioned as part of a psychological experiment. She regrets having no toy similar to the pigs' plaything to amuse her during the long waits between performances.

As Offred studies the change in her attitude toward femininity, the author, speaking clearly through her heroine, enlarges on a central theme, the focus of woman as womb, woman as begetter. The round of lunar cycles depresses Offred as her unproductive, pear-shaped uterus becomes a pulsating symbol — a pseudo-heart, the glowing core of her existence. The arrival of her menstrual period, "the droolings of the flesh," reduces her to normal fits of the blues, exacerbated by emptiness, grief, and despair, "coming towards me like famine." Taking a secondary role in her body, her beating heart, 11 salty and red" with its blend of tears and blood, marks the rhythm of days as she awaits conception and the resulting release from a potential death sentence if she fails to produce a child.

By the end of the chapter, the salty blood is supplanted by real tears, which Offred wipes away with her sleeve. The total effect captures the crux of the story — the fact that Gilead has performed a dire organ swap, hearts for uteruses. Too fearful of allowing herself to grieve for members of her family who might still be alive, Offred does what prisoners of war do to keep sane. She concentrates on self-control and compliance with her keeper's wishes and wills her reproductive organs to fill the empty chamber with a fetus.


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.

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.