The Marthas


The Marthas are household servants, given the generic name ‘Martha' after Martha the sister of Mary of Bethany, the friends of Jesus (see Luke 10:38-42). Martha is the practical, domesticated one, whereas Mary sits at Jesus' feet to listen to his teachings. So in Gilead the Marthas are those women who have been given the task of serving as cooks and cleaners for the Commanders. The two we meet in Commander Fred's house are Cora and Rita.


Neither Martha is particularly welcoming to Offred, but Rita is noticeably more suspicious and hostile than Cora. However, even she has her moments of responsiveness. When Offred finds her cutting radishes into shapes - ‘little Aztec hearts' (chapter 32) - she offers Offred an ice cube. Offred is surprised at this, but makes in return the gesture of praising Rita's decorative cutting techniques (though the metaphor of Aztec hearts suggests human sacrifice and blood-letting).


It is the warmer Cora who finds Offred asleep on the floor (chapter 25) and thinks at first that she has killed herself, but then agrees to pretend that Offred has eaten all her breakfast: ‘I'll say I dropped the tray on the way out.' Offred comments, ‘It pleased me that she was willing to lie for me, even in such a small thing.'

Cora has a motive for colluding with Offred: she wants there to be a baby in the house for her to look after. When Janine (Ofwarren) has a baby, Cora is pleased. ‘ “Maybe we have one, soon,” she says, shyly.' Offred realises that:

‘Rita may disapprove of me, but Cora does not. Instead she depends on me.... Her hope is of the simplest kind. She wants a Birth day... she wants a little child to spoil.'

However, at the end of the novel (chapter 46), Cora ‘has begun to cry' when Offred is apparently arrested. It is not, as Offred realises, out of sympathy for the Handmaid, but from pity for herself: ‘Now she will always be childless.'

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