Summary and Analysis
Still immured in shifting phantasms of the familiar and reassuring past, Offred sees herself as a mother with her child and also as a child with her mother. To compose her muddled brain, Offred recites litanies, mental gymnastics that exercise her numbed thinking processes. As she ponders the second of the two eggs that she is served for breakfast, she responds instantly to the arrival of the red Birthmobile, the Handmaids' transportation to the birthing chamber of Ofwarren. By separate conveyance, Wives arrive to attend the Commander's Wife, who lies in a downstairs room while Ofwarren and her attendants occupy the master bedroom.
Offred recalls indoctrination sessions with Aunt Lydia and conflicting memories of Offred's mother, an aggressive feminist who supported abortion rights. The primitive tableau of a birthing scene advances from contractions to transition as the baby descends to the birth canal. At the crucial moment, Ofwarren climbs onto the Birthing Stool, a two-seater that accommodates the Commander's Wife behind her. A girl-baby emerges and is quickly washed and passed to the surrogate mother, who names the child Angela.
Emotionally wrung out and exuding sympathetic milk from her breasts, Offred returns home by van in late afternoon. She reverts to the third-hand story of Moira, the gutsy rebel who dismantled a toilet-flushing mechanism and used its metal arm to intimidate Aunt Elizabeth, her hostage. By forcing her victim into the furnace room and exchanging her red clothes for the Aunt's khaki outfit, Moira escaped undetected, leaving Aunt Elizabeth for seven hours before the authorities discovered Moira's escape. While investigating, Aunt Lydia urges Janine, a willing stooge, to stay alert for information from the other inmates.
Keeping Moira before her as a model of courage, Offred intends to escape. She is awakened the next morning by Cora, a barren lover of children who hopes that Angela's birth is a good omen for Offred and the Commander's family. At nine that night, Offred breaks rules and enters the Commander's office and joins him in a game of Scrabble. To her, the illicit tryst is a bargaining session, from which she may obtain some concession. Before she leaves, he requests a sincere kiss.
This segment, a complex and interwoven view of womanhood, juxtaposes Gileadean women in variations of power and powerlessness:
- The sadistic, manipulative, khaki-clad Aunt Lydia and her female pupils, whom she vows to "lick . . . into shape," a common idiom that takes on lesbian overtones.
- On the screen of the classroom flickers a training film of an assisted birth, where a woman, "like a broken robot," is contorted and manipulated into giving birth.
- At the home of Ofwarren's family, another paradigm of the female ghetto appears in the social stratification of Wives and Handmaids, a separation of the privileged from the enslaved. Janine, now known as Ofwarren, whimpers "suckily" for a cookie. The indulgent Wife treats her to a sweet, then dismisses her. In private, the Wives snipe, "Little whores, all of them." By the end of the birthing scene, Ofwarren, her temporary prestige cast aside like a discarded afterbirth, retreats into the sisterhood of Handmaids.
Atwood's examination of not only female enslavement but also the complex woman-against-woman undercurrent of innuendo, mistrust exploitation, and betrayal delves into a dark area of feminism — the overlay of treachery that impedes women from trusting their own kind. During this era of repression and coercion, Offred needs spiritual uplift. Out of her dealing with Marthas, Aunt Lydia, Wives, and other Handmaids, the most hopeful relationships come from Moira, who has vanished from Offred's milieu, and Cora, the simple serving woman who manages an occasional smile and perpetual hope for Offred's conception of a child. As an indicator of Cora's consistent, but peripheral encouragement, Atwood has named her for the Latin cor, meaning heart.
The counterpoint of Gilead's rigid female strata pulsates at different pitches and rhythms — Wives circling the buffet table, sipping wine, gathering in the sitting room. The Wives' mock birthing scene depicts the Commander's Wife in a virginal white gown offset by a spray of gray hair. The coterie of Wives massage her abdomen as though the long-dead reproductive organs were viable, imminently capable of pushing out a living child. In the master bedroom, a similar scene counters with the real push, pant, and relax motif of a woman in the throes of delivery. The local Handmaids, about twenty-five or thirty of them, assist Aunt Elizabeth, the birth master, by running errands and encouraging Ofwarren.
In Offred's mind, another set of female contrasts separates her from her mother, an undaunted voice from the past who lived her life as a liberated woman and took part in public demonstrations for women's rights. During cloaked exchanges at Offred and Luke's residence, Offred's mother referred to Luke as a chauvinist "piglet" and to Offred as a "backlash." Atwood's warning highlights the danger of a postfeminist generation of women who take no active interest in women's rights and suffer the consequences when it's too late to stop anti-feminist forces. After the government takeover, Offred — resentful of old arguments with her mother, who expected validation of her philosophies — wishes she could have her mother back again. In a sardonic invocation of her mother's spirit, Offred asks, "Can you hear me? You wanted a women's culture. Well, now there is one."
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."
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.
a familiar the owl, cat, toad, or other animal that traditionally guards a witch or wizard.
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.
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.
San Andreas fault a fluctuating fissure in the subterranean plates that threatens the stability of California.
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.
past the zero line of replacement The birthrate has fallen so far that the population no longer grows.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
Gyn Ed education in womanhood, from the Greek gyne, meaning woman.
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.
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.
Unwoman any female remanded to the Colonies to serve in clean-up crews removing toxic wastes.
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.
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.
Aged Primipara an elderly first-time mother, as opposed to multipara, the medical term for a woman who has borne several children.
matrix the living tissue in which an embryo grows. The word matrix derives from mater, the Latin word for mother.
crowning the protrusion from the birth canal of the top of the baby's head.
smeared with yoghurt that is, smeared with vernix caseosa, from the Latin for cheesy varnish, the oily protective tissue that coats a newborn.
Computalk an extension of Compuchek, representative of Gilead's multiple internal forms of electronic communications.
black patch an advertising ploy for the Hathaway Shirt Company, whose rakish male model often sports a patch over one eye.