Section 4: Waiting room - Chapter eight

Synopsis of chapter eight

It is May, and as Offred and Ofglen pass the Wall on another shopping expedition, there are three new bodies hanging there. One is a priest; the others are homosexuals, as what Gilead calls ‘Gender Treachery' is forbidden. As Ofglen comments on the ‘beautiful May day', Offred thinks about Luke discussing the meaning of ‘Mayday' as a distress signal. They see a funeral procession for a miscarried foetus.

As Offred returns to the Commander's house, Nick speaks to her. She does not reply, as such communication is forbidden. She sees Serena Joy, the Commander's Wife, in the garden, and again thinks about her as a television performer, whose real name was Pam. Offred recalls how she and Luke used to watch her on television, urging women to react against feminism and to stay at home instead of going out to work. Offred also remembers Aunt Lydia warning the handmaids about the resentment of the Wives.

Offred delivers the shopping to the kitchen, where Rita accepts it grudgingly; the shortages mean that the food is often of poor quality. Rita and Cora discuss who is going to supervise Offred's bath - it is another job they have to do.

Offred goes upstairs to her room and passes the Commander who, to her surprise, is on the landing outside, which is an area where he is not supposed to be. Offred wonders what this implies.

Commentary on chapter eight

The section title is effectively a pun, since it does not refer to the usual kind of ‘waiting room' used before a journey or an appointment, but here refers to the room where Offred has to wait, with nothing to do, hoping that she may one day escape.

the sect wars - We have already heard of Gilead's opposition to Baptists and Liberation Theologians. We now realise that the wars going on involve various religious sects with views that differ from those of Gilead's leaders. (We never do find out exactly who runs Gilead.)

Gender Treachery - Homosexuality is an offence punishable by death in Gilead - as it is still in some régimes today. (See Social and political context > Social satire.)

May day - The term used in this paragraph has various implications:

  • Offred remembers that it used to be a distress signal, like SOS (save our souls). She wonders whether this could be a signal from Ofglen
  • Offred also remembers that it ‘was something from Beethoven'. The opening bars of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony became a kind of code for ‘victory' among the Anti-Nazi allies in the Second World War. The reason for this is that the Roman numeral for five is V, and the opening of the Symphony has notes which sound ‘dot-dot-dot-dash' - the Morse Code signal for V. (This is not directly associated with the code for S-O-S, except that the first four ‘pulses' would be the same: S is dot-dot-dot and O is dash-dash-dash.)
  • Offred also remembers Luke telling her that the term comes from French. We learn that Offred and Luke liked to talk about communication and the meanings of words. These are important concepts in the novel as a whole, especially as language is restricted in Gilead.

M'aidez. Help me - Atwood gives extra meaning to ‘help me' by placing it on a separate line, where it becomes more than a simple translation from the French: it is also a cry from Offred.

Two or three months - Babies are so precious in Gilead that even a tiny foetus is given a funeral. In many societies at the time the novel was written (and since) thousands of women opt to abort babies of this size. (See Social satire.)

An Unbaby - A child which is born so malformed that, as we learn in chapter 19, it would be ‘put somewhere, quickly, away.'

She's like my own reflection – This is another of the doppelgänger or ‘double' images which Atwood often uses. See Themes and significant ideas > Doubling. However, Atwood adds here ‘from which I am moving away', suggesting that Offred is still well aware of her own individuality in spite of the efforts of Gilead to suppress it.

Chalicetulips are redder ... chalices, thrusting - A chalice is a cup, usually one used in religious ceremonies (and particularly associated with the Christian sacrament of Holy Communion, where it is filled with red wine, which symbolises the blood of Jesus). Here Atwood combines both sexual and religious imagery in the tulips, their life-force in both ways a challenge to Gilead. However, Offred also sees that their vibrancy is short-lived: ‘they are, after all, empty.' (See also Imagery and symbolism > The garden.)

All flesh is weak. All flesh is grass - Aunt Lydia frequently alters biblical texts for her own purposes. The text she is mis-quoting is 1 Peter 1:24: ‘For all flesh is as grass, and all the glory of man as the flower of grass.' Offred here reminds herself, through remembering the original text, that all earthly powers, including the Aunts, are mortal, whereas Aunt Lydia has altered the wording to warn the Handmaids to be aware of sexual temptation.

Serena Joy ... Pam - Names and identity are important throughout The Handmaid's Tale, where names are often imposed by the powers of Gilead. See Themes and significant ideas > Individualism and identity.

how women should stay at home - Atwood is here foregrounding the pressure on women to stay as housewives - a role opposed by feminists, who wanted women to Phyllis Schlafly, author: c.berlet/ available through Creative Commonshave the option of other careers. Serena Joy ironically uses her successful career in broadcasting to pressurise other women to stay at home. Atwood may be satirising the American Senator Phyllis Schafley, a still-active anti-feminist and leader of the Eagle Forum, a group which describes itself as pro-family. (See also Social and political context > Social satire.)

She has become speechless - Offred's pun highlights the fact that part of Gilead's oppression of women is to control their language and to remove their right to speak out.

She's looking at the tulips - do the empty, dying tulips perhaps remind Serena Joy of her own infertility and ageing?

the true shape of things to come - Offred feels that Serena Joy must have been appalled when she realised the true nature of the state she was supporting. Atwood is alluding to H.G. Wells' 1933 science-fiction novel The Shape of Things to Come in which he imagined a world state emerging after devastating wars.

Forgive them, for they know not what they do - these are the words of Christ, regarding his executioners, as he was dying on the cross (Luke 23:34), but Offred is grimly satirising Aunt Lydia's mawkish and hypocritical belief in her own sympathetic nature. As the novel progresses Aunt Lydia and the other Aunts are in fact seen as being more and more cold-hearted.

a treacherous smell - Offred knows that she cannot afford to think too much about her past life and about people she loves if she is to survive in Gilead. Smells evoke memories - as the bath soap does later (in chapter 12). (See also Imagery and symbolism.)

Dishtowels are the same … flashes of normality - Atwood makes us more aware of the changes that have come to her (imaginary) America by reminding us of past normalities.

Security camera, photo by Sanderflight, available through Creative CommonsThe hall mirror … bulges .. like an eye under pressure - Many of Atwood's images are grotesque, suggesting the abnormality of Offred's life. (See also Imagery and symbolism.) Such rounded mirrors are used in surveillance as they reflect more than one angle.

Something has been shown to me, but what? - In Gilead, restrictions on freedom of expression inhibit understanding and shared meaning.

The room where I stay ... I called it mine - Offred carefully avoids saying ‘where I live' which would have different connotations. When, at the end of the chapter, she calls it ‘mine', she is aware that she may be succumbing to the system (having refused in Ch 1 to call it ‘my' room) - but ironically she is also, simultaneously, claiming her own space.

Investigating chapter eight

  • How many instances can you find in this chapter in which Offred compares and contrasts her past life and her present existence?
    • What is the effect of these constant comparisons?

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