Section 2: Shopping - Chapter four

Synopsis of chapter four

Going through the garden, Offred leaves the vicinity of the house to go shopping. In the driveway she sees Nick, who drives the Commander's car. She is aware of his masculinity. He winks at her, but she feels such a forbidden gesture may be a trap, to test her.

She walks down the road to meet another handmaid, Ofglen; neither of them is allowed to go shopping alone. Each is to keep watch over the other, and, as each is wary, their conversation is stilted.

They walk past a roadblock manned by Guardians (soldiers) to whom they have to show their passes. One of the men looks directly into Offred's eyes, which is forbidden. Offred wonders about the sexual desires of such men, who lead very restricted lives and aren't allowed to have any sexual relationships with women.

Commentary on chapter four

Worms … fertility ... half dead; flexible and pink, like lips - indications of natural fertility here are ‘half dead'. However, the mention of lips may suggest both kisses and the power of speech. (See also Imagery and symbolism.)

Whirlwind … Chariot … Behemoth - The names of the cars are taken from Behemoth by William Blakebiblical references. The Chariot and the Whirlwind probably both refer to the incident mentioned in 2 Kings 2:11, in which the prophet Elijah, sitting in a chariot, is taken up to heaven by a whirlwind. The Behemoth is an appropriate name for a chunky car as it refers to the large animal depicted in Job 40:15-24.

his cap is tilted - In this minor way the driver, Nick, seems to be asserting his own individuality.

Low status: he hasn't been issued a woman - Atwood's selection of the word ‘issued' suggest to us that in Gilead women are seen as a commodity.

I think of how he might smell - Offred's reaction to Nick - her awareness of his physicality - shows us that she has sexual feelings which cannot be repressed by Gilead's forcible use of her body.

he winks ... perhaps he is an Eye - Offred cannot afford to take an apparently friendly (if subversive) gesture at its face value. It may be a trick to test her. In Gilead, the ‘Eyes' are spies, members of the secret service. The name ‘Eyes' comes from another Biblical reference – Proverbs 15:3, which tells the reader, ‘the eyes of the Lord are in every place.'

Sidewalks are kept much cleaner - Atwood highlights a dilemma: by controlling people's reactions through fear of reprisals, repressive regimes clamp down on anti-social behaviour as well as on liberties. As Aunt Lydia says later, in chapter 5, there are two types of freedom - ‘freedom from' as well as ‘freedom to'.

They also serve who only stand and wait - Aunt Lydia quotes the last line of Milton's sonnet On His Blindness, which records the poet's faith in God's purposes.

Parable of the sowerSome of you will fall on dry ground, or thorns - A reference to one of the parables of Jesus, told in Luke 8:4-15. In it, Jesus refers to the different ways in which people listen to and receive the word of God. Aunt Lydia, however, is referring to whether the Handmaids will successfully become pregnant.

A shape like mine - In her writing, which at times has elements of the Gothic, Atwood sometimes uses the idea of a ‘double'. Here, the other Handmaid (Ofglen) seems to be the ‘double' of Offred - another suggestion that individuality is suppressed in Gilead. (See Themes and significant ideas > Doubling.)

Blessed be the fruit - The stylised greeting of the Handmaids refers to ‘the fruit of the womb' - children - which they hope to produce. The phrase comes from the ominous suffering mentioned in Deuteronomy 28:53 but is also associated with another biblical quotation, from Genesis 1:28, where God tells Adam and Eve to ‘Be fruitful and increase in number'.

I don't know what happened to the one before – A sinister hint; Handmaids can simply disappear without trace.

Ofglen - Handmaids only have identity through the men they serve. (See Themes and significant ideas > Gender significance and feminism.) This one belongs to someone called Glen.

Praise be ... I receive with joy - During the novel Offred says very little out loud to others. When she does speak, much of what she says is necessarily formulaic, to hide her thoughts.

rebels … Baptists ... They smoked them out - Gilead is supposedly based on Christian principles yet rebels against the regime are Baptists - an evangelical Christian group which particularly stresses the importance of adult baptism. This makes the reader question Gilead's attitudes to other Christian societies. Baptists generally reject the closer organisation and control of, for example, episcopalHitler youth churches.

The young ones are often the most fanatical – This echoes the Hitler Youth movement in Nazi Germany or young members of the Red Guard during China's Cultural Revolution. (See Social / political context.)

our service - We later learn that there is a crucial shortage of healthy children in Gilead, because of factors such as AIDS, nuclear reactor accidents, toxic chemicals - and also a rise in the number of abortions. The Handmaids are therefore coerced into providing a ‘service' to the state.

Salvagings or Prayvaganzas - These words, which obviously describe some sort of event -actually described in detail later in the novel - are simultaneously familiar and new - for example, a cross between ‘salvage' and ‘salvation', or a mixture of ‘prayer' and ‘extravaganza'. (Such words, derived from two others, are known as portmanteau words.) In this way Atwood suggests that Gilead is both similar to societies in the real world and yet a ‘science fiction' - or, using the term she prefers, ‘speculative fiction' - invention of her own. (Note, however, that the term 'salvaging' has been used in real life in the Philippines, for killings of suspects by the police.)

allowed … to marry ... allotted a Handmaid - Sexual relationships are closely controlled in Gilead, and not supposed to involve emotions. Again we see that women such as the Handmaids are regarded as property.

a sacrilege - These young men can only resort to masturbation, because they ‘aren't yet permitted to touch women.' For Offred, sexual relations are sacred because they should involve an exchange (a word she stresses from chapter 1), a link with other humans and their emotions.

Investigating chapter four

  • Look up the biblical quotations, and names based on biblical terms, used in this chapter (see > The Bible)
    • In what ways has Gilead twisted them for its own purposes?
  • Make a list of the ways in which Gilead controls its citizens, as revealed or hinted at in this chapter. (You will find further material to add to this list later in the novel.)
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