Section 2: Shopping - Chapter five

Synopsis of chapter five

As Offred and Ofglen walk along the street, Offred remembers when she used to walk along chatting to Luke. She and Ofglen reach the shops and go to the food store, where produce is limited because of the continuing war. They see a pregnant Handmaid, whose condition makes her a source of envy to the others. She is now known as Ofwarren, but Offred recognises her as one of the women she was with at the Red Centre (see chapter 1) whose name then was Janine.

Offred and Ofglen go to the butcher's shop where Offred exchanges a token for a chicken. She remembers how shopping used to come in plastic bags, which Luke worried could suffocate their young daughter if she got hold of one.

Offred and Ofglen meet a crowd of Japanese tourists; the women are dressed in the sort of clothes women in America wore years ago, before the USA became Gilead. Offred remembers what it was like to wear short skirts and use nail varnish.

Commentary on chapter five

Doubled, I walk – This is an example of Atwood's word-play to make her readers think about nuances of language. At first glance, we may think Offred is doubled over, hunched up, but then we realise she means she has a ‘double' in Ofglen who is identically dressed. (See Themes and significant ideas > Doubling.)

no lawyers … university is closed - As in the Cultural Revolution in China (see Social / political context > Political satire), Gilead has acted to suppress intellectuals who might lead criticism of the regime.

Luke and I - Luke was mentioned without introduction or explanation in chapter 2. Again, Atwood presents Offred's thoughts as they would occur to her; the reader has gradually to piece together Offred's story and her past.

Such freedom now seems almost weightless - The simple pleasures of freedom of movement and of casual conversation are not seen as precious until taken away. Atwood is here warning her readers how rapidly the freedoms we value can be eroded.

Econowives - A portmanteau word formed from ‘economy' or ‘economic' and ‘wife'. In Gilead it means a poor and insignificant woman, wife of a lowly worker, living in poverty. Gilead is a class-ridden society in which hierarchy is very important - another way in which it perverts its apparently Christian basis.

Women were not protected then - As with the issue of clean pavements (‘sidewalks') mentioned in chapter 4, Atwood raises a dilemma for us to consider. Women used to be afraid of molestation or rape. These things do not happen in a strictly controlled regime. This is ‘freedom from', which, as Aunt Lydia tells the Handmaids, should not be underrated; Atwood's picture of a dystopia is not simplistic. (See also Religious / philosophical context.)

Freedom to and freedom from … Don't underrate it - Although the Aunts are unpleasant characters in the novel, Atwood is raising a serious moral dilemma about the nature of personal freedom and the point at which it becomes anarchy. See Religious and philosophical context.

Habits are hard to break - The word ‘habits' can mean both ‘long robes' and ‘customary ways of behaving'. Atwood's frequent puns make us aware of the importance of language and of how we use it.

Lily, photo by Yiannis G, available through Creative CommonsLilies of the field - The clothes store is named after a comment made by Jesus about the God-given beauty of flowers - ‘the lilies of the field' - in Luke 12:27. There is, however, irony in Gilead's use of the name, since Jesus was pointing out that the God-created flowers do not have to work or spin to make clothing, whereas those in the shop are manmade clothes.

Women ... able to choose - Atwood depicts a time when the successes of the feminist movement were giving women much more freedom. However, again Atwood also suggests a dilemma: did too much freedom undermine society, as Aunt Lydia suggests when she says that:

‘We were a society dying of too much choice'?

undone; or not – This is another pun. ‘Undone' could mean physically having their buttons undone, but this might lead further to being ‘undone' in the sense of ‘morally ruined'.

Milk and Honey - Another shop whose name is a biblical echo. In Exodus 3:17 God promises Moses to bring the Israelites to ‘a land flowing with milk and honey'. Ironically, the shop in Gilead is experiencing shortages.

the Libertheos - A reference to the movement of Liberation Theology popular in Latin America from the mid 1960s (see Religious / philosophical context.) This is a particular type of Christian, largely Roman Catholic, but also left wing movement which sees the primary duty of the church as assisting the poor and those oppressed by capitalist regimes. Atwood imagines a time when the movement has won control of Central America; a repressive and conservative theocracy such as Gilead would not wish to trade with such a regime.

If I could just see Moira - Later Offred encounters Moira who has a significant role to play in the novel.

We too can be saved - Ironically, though Gilead sees itself as a religious state, ‘saved' here has nothing to do with the saving of souls. Only Handmaids who produce children will be saved from death or exile to a concentration camp in the ‘Colonies'.

Her name … was Janine - As frequently, Atwood reminds her readers of the past/present divide in her narrative. There is also another clue here as to Offred's identity - she cannot be either Moira or Janine, two of the five names given in chapter 1.

All Flesh - Another shop, this time a butcher's, which takes its name from a biblical quotation, but again with ironic connotations. ‘All Flesh' seems to be referring to meat eaten by humans, and could be taken from Genesis 7:15-16 where God instructs Noah to take two of ‘all flesh', meaning animals, into the ark. However, the phrase could just as easily refer to 1 Peter 1:24 where Peter warns the early Christians to keep their minds on higher things since they are all mortal - ‘all flesh is grass'.

kids - We now realise with surprise, even shock, that Offred and Luke had a daughter.

skirts that short ... nearly naked in their thin stockings ... They seem undressed - The clothing which Western women take for granted, now seems immodest to Offred.

so little time to change our minds … That was freedom - Again Atwood asks us to consider the nature of freedom and how one's attitudes can be manipulated.

the smell of nail polish, the satiny brushing of sheer pantyhose - Such sensuous experiences are strictly repressed in Gilead, but for Offred they are part of her human, especially female, nature. Throughout the novel she asserts her individuality in such small ways as remain possible to her, and her memories often concern sensuous detail, especially smells (see for example, chapters 8 and 12).

Investigating chapter five

  • Go through the chapter noting the number of contrasts Atwood describes between the present time in Gilead and ‘the time before'.
    • Consider whether you think all changes are for the worse.
  • In the section ‘Historical Notes', Professor Pieixoto says that ‘Judgements are of necessity culture-specific... Our job is not to censure but to understand.'
    • Do you think it is desirable or necessary to make a moral judgement about past regimes?
      • Is it possible to do so?
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