Section 2: Shopping - Chapter three

Synopsis of chapter three

On her way to go shopping, Offred walks out into the garden, remembering that she too had once had a garden. The Commander's Wife organises this one, but is not there at the moment. Offred recalls her first meeting, five weeks ago, with the Commander's Wife, who was hostile and unwelcoming. Offred realises that many years ago this woman was a singer on a television channel broadcasting hymns and Bible stories.

Commentary on chapter three

The interaction of women is particularly important to Atwood. In this novel, such interaction and communication is severely restricted, and Offred knows that she will be in the power of the Commander's Wife.

The garden - This garden is the domain of the Commander's Wife - The garden represents a natural world of vibrant life which the Commander's Wife currently tries rigidly to control. (See Imagery and symbolism.)

Angels … front line - This suggests to us that there is a war going on.

a reproach … a necessity - We gradually discover that Offred and the other ‘Handmaids' are a ‘reproach' because, unlike the Commander's Wife, they are fertile. Offred is a ‘necessity' because, if it is to survive, Gilead needs more children - but only men in positions of power are given fertile women as Handmaids.

Guardian … previous posting - Offred has been ‘posted' to such a role before. The military term ‘posting' indicates that she was commanded to go - she has no choice. ‘Guardian' suggests a caring role, but is in fact a guard rather than a guardian.

Things haven't settled down - We realise that this rigidly structured society is a relatively new state.

My head lowered ... hands folded - Offred adopts a humble posture. Status and positions of power are strictly enforced in Gilead.

There is no real money any more - Control of finance and people's ability to spend is part of Gilead's rigid organisation. Notice how Atwood draws a picture in which the familiar - here, money - and the unfamiliar - no money in circulation - are suggested simultaneously.

cigarettes are forbidden – This is not merely because Offred is of inferior status, but because the state wishes to ensure that potentially fertile women do nothing which might harm a foetus.

Not so good for you either - Offred's failure to conceive at previous ‘postings' means that unless she becomes pregnant at this one she will be regarded as useless and dispensable.

under her veil - Even women in apparently powerful positions have to conform to a rigorous dress code and wear a veil.

supposed to call her - Names should suggest individuality, but they don't in Gilead. The real name of the Commander's Wife is withheld at this point, as with Offred (though we learn more later about her identity; we are never explicitly told Offred's real name).

Till death do us part - The Commander's Wife cites the traditional marriage vows from the Book of Common Prayer (Liturgy The Solemnisation of matrimony:The vows).

scriptural precedent - In Exodus 21:20-21 it is said that a man may beat his maidservant, but not so hard as to kill her.

things we fought for - Apparently there has been a civil war in the United States of America with the winning side (Gilead) fighting to establish a regime which has re-imposed traditional (supposedly biblical) values.

when I was eight or nine - Offred's thoughts go back in time to her childhood. Atwood's narrative constantly shifts our perspective between past and present (though in ‘Historical Notes' at the end of the novel we move well into the future, discovering that the ‘present' for Offred is in fact far in the past). (See Structure and methods of narration.)

Growing Souls Gospel Hour - we are reminded that there has been a movement in the USA to encourage people to become – or mature as – Christians well before the emergence of Gilead.

Serena Joy - The aptronym was once her chosen identity, as a television performer. Now, in Gilead, she has become a new creature - a woman whose identity is only ‘The Commander's Wife'.

Investigating chapter three

  • Draw up a detailed description of Serena Joy - appearance, character and behaviour - as revealed in this chapter.
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