Section 2: Shopping - Chapter six

Synopsis of chapter six

Walking back from going shopping, Offred and Ofglen pass a street going to the river; Offred thinks about how pleasant it was there in the past. They pass a churchyard and reach the Wall, where six bodies are hanging, their heads covered in white sacks. The bodies are also wearing white coats, and Offred wonders whether they were doctors, hanged because they had performed abortions in the days when it was legal. She reflects that nowadays no-one would want to abort a child, as conception is rare. Offred also feels relief, as Luke was not a doctor and therefore probably not one of these executed men.

Commentary on chapter six

it's the beautiful things we pick out - Atwood focuses on the difference between past and present - but does not allow us to make the simple assumption that everything before was ‘beautiful'. We become aware that ‘the past' exists only in memory, which is personal and fallible. (The last section of the novel, the Historical Notes, makes us particularly aware of this.)

The Men's Salvagings - At this point we may well assume that this is some beneficial, ‘saving' process. Later in this chapter we discover that the term ‘Salvaging' has much more horrific connotations. The rulers of Gilead tend to use euphemisms such as ‘Salvaging' for their most brutal activities.

Puritan womanwomen in long sombre dresses ... Our ancestors - Atwood reminds her readers that the history of East-coast America is that of settlement by the Puritan Fathers, who also ran oppressive theocracies (as depicted in Arthur Miller's play The Crucible). Such régimes were the ‘ancestors' of a state like Gilead. There is an additional irony in that Atwood's own ancestors were Puritan settlers. Atwood has herself said in an interview that 'There's nothing in the book that hasn't already happened'.

Memento mori - Latin, meaning ‘remember that you have to die'.

six more bodies hanging ... until there's a new batch - We now realise that ‘Salvaging' means the régime's ruthless elimination of opponents. The bodies are displayed to deter others, though the faces are not displayed, so those who have had loved ones arrested will never know whether they are the ones who have been executed. The word ‘more', the fact that Offred assumes there has been a recent ‘Salvaging', and the phrase ‘new batch', all tell us that such executions are a frequent occurrence.

The heads are zeros … the outlines of the features - Atwood is always concerned with the expression of and acknowledgement of individuality. (c.f. her poem This is a photograph of me.) (See Themes and significant ideas > Individualism and identity.) Towards the end of this chapter Offred herself comments on the importance of this: ‘Each thing is valid and really there... I put a lot of effort into making such distinctions.'

Doctors ... Angel Makers - It is not only Gilead that uses euphemisms. ‘Angel makers' is a term that was used in Europe and America for centuries to mean ‘killers', and, in this context, especially those who induce abortions in pregnant women.

These bodies … come here from the past - Atwood indicates to us that different societies have different attitudes; what was once a crime may not be so now (c.f. homosexual activity, which was a crime in England and Wales until 1967, in Scotland until 1980 and in Northern Ireland until 1982. See Social and political context > Social satire.) As Atwood records Aunt Lydia saying (in the penultimate sentence of this chapter):

‘It may not seem ordinary to you now, but after a time it will.'

Luke wasn't a doctor. Isn't - Offred corrects the tense of the verb because she wants to hope that Luke is still alive.

Investigating chapter six

  • 'There's nothing in the book that hasn't already happened.' The Wall, which Atwood describes as being ‘hundreds of years old' has been used in Gilead for a sinister purpose.
    • Use a web search to investigate other examples of the use of walls by political regimes which Atwood may have had in mind, or which may reflect ideas of oppressive regimes
      • You might begin with the Berlin Wall ... and will also find information in entries about walls in Iraq, Israel, Northern Ireland as well as other, more ancient ones.

Related material
Scan and go

Scan on your mobile for direct link.