Section 10: Soul scrolls - Chapter twenty-seven

Synopsis of chapter twenty-seven

It is now high summer. As Offred goes shopping with Ofglen, she thinks about how food stocks have depleted, especially fish from the sea, which has been over-fished and polluted. She also remembers going shopping for ice-cream with her daughter. Ofglen suggests that they go round by the Wall. Offred wonders about Luke, and where he might be if he is imprisoned inside the building behind it. She remembers the interior of the building, which was once the University.

They pass a store now called ‘Soul Scrolls', where slot-machines churn out prayers on pieces of paper. Those who wish to be known as pious often pay for these prayers. Ofglen asks Offred if she thinks God listens to such prayers, and Offred says, ‘No.' Such a question and such a response are extremely dangerous in Gilead. Offred decides that she can risk exchanging some thoughts with Ofglen, who indicates that there are others who are not believers in Gilead's ideas.

On the way back, a black van pulls up right by them and two of the Eyes (secret police) jump out. Offred is terrified, thinking that she and Ofglen must have been overheard, but then she realises that the Eyes have seized a man walking nearby, who is beaten and dragged away. Offred is deeply relieved: at least she is still safe for the moment.

Commentary on chapter twenty-seven

Atwood is very aware of the natural world and of our environment, and begins this chapter by focussing on the ecological disasters for which humans have recently been responsible. By using the phrase ‘all extinct, like the whales', Atwood's dystopia suggests to her readers that, though not yet extinct in reality, whales could soon be.

Jesus feeding the 5000Loaves and Fishes - A reference to the biblical account of the miracle of the feeding of the 5000 which features in all four gospels (e.g. Mark 6:35-44). Jesus fed a multitude of people with just five loaves and two small fish. Atwood's reference is ironic, since, although Jesus fed many people with little food, in Gilead there is little left to eat because of the wasteful over-fishing and destruction of the environment by human society.

sea fisheries were defunct … extinct, like the whales? - Atwood is a keen environmentalist, and acutely aware of the threat to wildlife. Her own Website has a link to the World Wildlife Fund which highlights the dangers of climate change and animal extinction.

Sign language - The shop uses a picture instead of a written notice. Words, both spoken and written, are severely restricted in Gilead. In any case, reading is a forbidden activity.

when she was little - Offred does not stop to explain who ‘she' was. Both Offred and the reader are only too well aware that her lost child is in her mind all the time.

Siamese twins - Offred and Ofglen seem to move as one. This is another reminder of the ‘doppelgänger', or double, motif. (See Themes and significant ideas > Doubling.)

when it was a University - Gilead, like some real extremist régimes, does not allow women to be educated. Now the University is used as a prison and books are forbidden, it suggests that any notion of education in Gilead is limited, for both men and women.

a mural in honour of some war - the rulers of Gilead are waging war on a number of fronts against anyone who has different views. It is a belligerent, not a peaceful, régime.

just the ones dealing in … vanities … shut down - ‘Vanities' here means ‘fripperies', ‘unnecessary and futile items'. Gilead uses this term for goods such as cosmetics and jewellery which women might have enjoyed buying. The word is probably an echo of Ecclesiastes 1:2Vanity of vanities where the word signifies emptiness / empty things.

Soul Scrolls ... the machines print .. prayers going out endlessly - This way of praying may at first remind some of Atwood's readers of Tibetan prayer wheels. However, Tibetan Buddhists are devout and have great spiritual belief in the effect of spinning these mantras, whereas in Gilead it is for show: ‘Commanders' Wives do it a lot. It helps their husbands' careers.' (See Religious and philosophical context.)

Holy Rollers - In the USA ‘Holy Rollers' is a term used to describe Pentecostal Christians, especially those who manifest their faith by speaking in tongues. Ironically, in Gilead these ‘rollers' are parts of a machine which has ‘toneless metallic voices repeating the same thing over and over'. (See Religious and philosophical context.)

Coloured pantyhose, brassieres with lace, silk scarves.. Something lost - Offred regrets the loss of such feminine accoutrements. However, Atwood may be asking her readers to consider the importance or otherwise of such items: Offred's mother, an ardent feminist, was against such things.

now it's treason - Free speech is not allowed in Gilead. No-one is allowed to express any idea which goes against state doctrine.

I thought you were a true believer.. I thought you were - Offred and Ofglen have been ‘doubles' in more than appearance. (See Themes and significant ideas > Doubling.)

There's an us then, there's a we - Offred is not alone: there is a chance of community as opposed to the faceless ‘them' who govern Gilead.

Hope is rising in me, like sap in a tree - Another garden image suggesting renewed life. Hope is also the word which is on one of the missing cushions (see chapter 19) - Gilead has tried to remove hope from the lives of the Handmaids.

We have made an opening - ‘Opening' was also the important last word in chapter 24, as Offred felt her heart expanding after finding the phrase ‘nolite te bastardes carborundorum' written by a previous Offred.

Something is happening - Atwood allows us to think, as Offred does, that she is about to be arrested. When she finds she is not the victim, Offred has no time to feel sorry for the man who has been arrested; relief is too strong an emotion. Her survival is what she continually works for. (See Characterisation > Offred.)

Investigating chapter twenty-seven

  • Use the internet to investigate whether whale-fishing could result in the extinction of this species, or to investigate how many species really did become extinct in recent times.

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