Summary: Chapter 4
As she leaves the house to go shopping, Offred notices Nick, a Guardian of the Faith, washing the Commander’s car. Nick lives above the garage. He winks at Offred—an offense against decorum— but she ignores him, fearing that he may be an Eye, a spy assigned to test her. She waits at the corner for Ofglen, another Handmaid with whom Offred will do her shopping. The Handmaids always travel in pairs when outside.
Ofglen arrives, and they exchange greetings, careful not to say anything that isn’t strictly orthodox. Ofglen says that she has heard the war is going well, and that the army recently defeated a group of Baptist rebels. “Praise be,” Offred responds. They reach a checkpoint manned by two young Guardians. The Guardians serve as a routine police force and do menial labor. They are men too young, too old, or just generally unfit for the army. Young Guardians, such as these, can be dangerous because they are frequently more fanatical or nervous than older guards. These young Guardians recently shot a Martha as she fumbled for her pass, because they thought she was a man in disguise carrying a bomb. Offred heard Rita and Cora talking about the shooting. Rita was angry, but Cora seemed to accept the shooting as the price one pays for safety.
At the checkpoint, Offred subtly flirts with one of the Guardians by making eye contact, cherishing this small infraction against the rules. She considers how sex-starved the young men must be, since they cannot marry without permission, masturbation is a sin, and pornographic magazines and films are now forbidden. The Guardians can only hope to become Angels, when they will be allowed to take a wife and perhaps eventually get a Handmaid. This marks the first time in the novel we hear the word “Handmaid” used.
Summary: Chapter 5
In town, Ofglen and Offred wait in line at the shops. We learn the name of this new society: “The Republic of Gilead.” Offred remembers the pre-Gilead days, when women were not protected: they had to keep their doors closed to strangers and ignore catcalls on the street. Now no one whistles at women as they walk; no one touches them or talks to them. She remembers Aunt Lydia explaining that more than one kind of freedom exists, and that “[i]n the days of anarchy, it was freedom to. Now you are being given freedom from.”
The women shop at stores known by names like All Flesh and Milk and Honey. Pictures of meat or fruit mark the stores, rather than lettered signs, because “they decided that even the names of shops were too much temptation for us.” A Handmaid in the late stages of pregnancy enters the store and raises a flurry of excitement. Offred recognizes her from the Red Center. She used to be known as Janine, and she was one of Aunt Lydia’s favorites. Now her name is Ofwarren. Offred senses that Janine went shopping just so she could show off her pregnancy.
Offred thinks of her husband, Luke, and their daughter, and the life they led before Gilead existed. She remembers a prosaic detail from their everyday life together: she used to store plastic shopping bags under the sink, which annoyed Luke, who worried that their daughter would get one of the bags caught over her head. She remembers feeling guilty for her carelessness.
Offred and Ofglen finish their shopping and go out to the sidewalk, where they encounter a group of Japanese tourists and their interpreter. The tourists want to take a photograph, but Offred says no. Many of the interpreters are Eyes, and Handmaids must not appear immodest. Offred and Ofglen marvel at the women’s exposed legs, high heels, and polished toenails. The tourists ask if they are happy, and since Ofglen does not answer, Offred replies that they are very happy.
Summary: Chapter 6
As they return from shopping, Ofglen suggests they take the long way and pass by the church. It is an old building, decorated inside with paintings of what seem to be Puritans from the colonial era. Now the former church is kept as a museum. Offred describes a nearby boathouse, old dormitories, a football stadium, and red brick sidewalks. Atwood implies that Offred is walking across what used to be the campus of Harvard University.
Across the street from the church sits the Wall, where the authorities hang the bodies of executed criminals as examples to the rest of the Republic of Gilead. The authorities cover the men’s heads with bags. One of the bags looks painted with a red smile where the blood has seeped through. All of the six corpses wear signs around their necks picturing fetuses, signaling that they were executed for performing abortions before Gilead came into existence. Although their actions were legal at the time, their crimes are being punished retroactively. Offred feels relieved that none of the bodies could be Luke’s, since he was not a doctor. As she stares at the bodies, Offred thinks of Aunt Lydia telling them that they would soon get used to their new lives.
This may not seem ordinary to you now, but after a time it will. It will become ordinary.
Analysis: Chapters 4–6
The theocratic nature of Offred’s society, the name of which we learn for the first time in these chapters, becomes clear during her shopping trip. A theocracy exists when there is no separation between church and state, and a single religion dominates all aspects of life. In Gilead, state and religion are inseparable. The official language of Gilead uses many biblical terms, from the various ranks that men hold (Angels, Guardians of the Faith, Commanders of the Faith, the Eyes of God), to the stores where Offred and Ofglen shop (Milk and Honey, All Flesh, Loaves and Fishes), to the names of automobiles (Behemoth, Whirlwind, Chariot). The very name “Gilead” refers to a location in ancient Israel. The name also recalls a line from the Book of Psalms: “there is a balm in Gilead.” This phrase, we realize later, has been transformed into a kind of national motto.
Atwood does not describe the exact details of Gilead’s state religion. In Chapter
Atwood seems less interested in religion than in the intersection between religion, politics, and sex.
When Offred and Ofglen go to town to shop, geographical clues and street names suggest that they live in what was once Cambridge, Massachusetts, and that their walk takes them near what used to be the campus of Harvard University. The choice of Cambridge for the setting of