Section 2: Shopping - Chapter two

Synopsis of chapter two

The narrator (whom we later know as Offred) describes her room. It is plain and carefully designed to prevent Offred from the 1990 film adaptationescape or suicide. Offred also describes her uniform, which is like that of a nun but is red. She goes downstairs, into the kitchen, where two workers, Rita and Cora - part of a group known as ‘Marthas' - are talking as they do their chores. Offred overhears them discussing the role and fate of women in this society. Offred thinks about the communication she would like to have with other women, which is now impossible. She also thinks about someone called Luke, whom she used to know. (We later discover that he is - or was, if he is now dead - her husband.) Rita gives Offred tokens which she is to use, instead of money, for shopping.

Commentary on chapter two

A wreath - Atwood introduces an image of death.

the eye has been taken out - The imagery is immediately sinister and horrific. (See Symbolism and imagery.)

They've removed ... they like - Who are ‘they'? The anonymity of the people in charge is disturbing.

opens partly ... no glass - The room's occupant may wish to escape, or even commit suicide, but care has been taken to prevent this.

a return to traditional values - We later find out that Gilead, as the central section of the USA is now called, is run by people who see themselves as re-introducing ‘traditional values', especially those based on a narrow and perverted view of the Bible, and especially in regard to women's roles and activities.

Waste not … I am not being wasted - An example of Atwood's many puns and uses of word-play. Language and how it is used is highly significant in this novel. The original old proverb referred to the idea that if you did not waste items such as food, you would not be in need. Offred's body is certainly being made use of rather than ignored, but here, ‘wasted' takes on the twentieth century slang meaning of ‘killed'.

now ... former times - Atwood indicates by ‘now' that there has been a change in this society.

Thought … rationed - As in George Orwell's dystopian novel 1984, the state wishes to control not only one's actions but one's mind.

I intend to last ... I am alive - Offred's determination to survive is one of her key characteristics.

Ladies in reduced circumstances ... circumstances have been reduced - Another example of Atwood's play on words. ‘Ladies in reduced circumstances' was a mid-C20th euphemistic expression for women, typically of the upper-middle classes, whose lives had changed because they had become poor. For Offred, the whole ‘circumstances' of life have narrowed under this oppressive regime.

The red shoes - Atwood has described her interest as a child in the film The Red Shoes, in which a dancer is hounded to death by the manipulating power of a man. The Red Shoes‘Red shoes' therefore became for her an icon of feminism, and the desire for female independence. (See Themes and significant ideas > Gender significance and feminism and also Imagery and symbolism.) Here, however, the shoes are part of the uniform by which Offred is marked out as a Handmaid in Gilead.

As in a nunnery ... the wings around my face - Offred leads a cloistered existence, and is dressed like a nun – ironically, since sexual activity is now her main purpose).

blood - This paradoxically suggests both death and fertility.

I refuse to say ‘my' - In such small ways Offred asserts her individuality. (See Themes and significant ideas > Individualism and identity.)

fairytale figure in a red cloak - Offred equates herself with Little Red Riding Hood - a fictional figure representing a vulnerable (yet ultimately triumphant) female. (See Themes and significant ideas > Myth and fairytale.)Fern, photo by Olegiwit, available through Creative Commons

opening fronds of a fern - Atwood frequently uses natural imagery, suggesting continuing life in spite of Gilead's oppression. (See Imagery and symbolism.)

Black for the Commander, blue for the Commander's Wife - We realise that those with some power in Gilead have military ranks and titles. Note also that different colours define different social status.

usual Martha's dress - One of the many biblical references used by Atwood. The new regime which Atwood imagines to have taken over the United States of America appears to be a theocracy (a society governed by religious leaders). The rulers of this new state, Gilead, draw on (often twisted) views of the Bible for their ideas. In Luke 10:38-41 is an account of Jesus visiting his friends Martha and Mary of Bethany. Mary sat and listened to Jesus' words while Martha continued to be concerned with domestic duties.

the Colonies ... the Unwomen - These are hints of some sinister fate for women who refuse to comply with the government's wishes or who fail the regime in some way. (Atwood uses the ‘un' prefix in the same way as did Orwell in his dystopian novel 1984, where language was restricted and ‘ungood' meant ‘bad'.)

They're doing it for us all - We do not yet know what ‘it' is, but Cora's comment implies that only fertile women are eligible. There is also an implication that there is a desperate need for babies in Gilead.

I would like ... Cora might ... we would - The use of modal verbs (e.g. might, would, may) suggests possibility - or rather, here, wishful thinking.

An exchange of sorts - Again, as in Chapter 1, the term ‘exchange' is important, suggesting voluntary human interaction. (See Themes and significant ideas > Human relationships.)

I hunger to commit the act of touch - Offred's choice of words suggests that touching is a crime in Gilead.

Luke told me that - As is frequently Atwood's method throughout the novel, we are told of a character's existence but not yet given further information. (See also Structure and methods of narration.)

The derivations of words - Language is a vital medium of expression and of the exchange of ideas which cement relationships. Luke and Offred - like Atwood - are keenly aware of nuances of language.

My pass - Again there is a hint of military control.

Investigating chapter two

  • Make a list of the ways revealed in this chapter by which the powers that be in Gilead control people's lives, especially those of women.
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