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'The Handmaid's Tale' Analysis: Chapters 3-5

"There is more than one kind of freedom... freedom to and freedom from. In the days of anarchy, it was freedom to. Now you are being given freedom from. Don't underrate it."

May the Lord open.

Link to 1st part.

Chapter 3

One motif you’ll see recurring throughout the novel is Offred’s descriptive prose about Serena Joy’s garden, specifically her flowers. The Commander’s Wife dutifully dotes on her garden, which symbolizes her desperate want for a child. The flowers are her children, the only life she can fertilize and raise to adulthood. Note also of Serena Joy’s introduction, that she is the Commander’s Wife, not her own identity. This represents that even elite women of Gilead are oppressed and owned by men. Offred is reminded of how she also had a garden in the past, a way to pass time, something she isn’t permitted now.

Offred notes that the Commander’s Wife also spends her time knitting scarves for the Angels (soldiers fighting the holy war at Gilead’s borders). The scarf patterns are childlike, another demonstration of her cloying need for motherhood. Offred supposes that the scarves are rolled back into balls of yarn and knitting is just a pastime to make the Wives think they’re doing their part for the regime. Offred is jealous of her knitting, because at least she’s allowed to have hobbies.

Offred remembers the first time she met Serena Joy. She’s already made clear of her standing that after that first day, she has to use the back door to enter the house. She remembers Aunt Lydia telling her that she believed Handmaids deserved front doors, because “Yours is a position of honor.” However, lower castes of the households wholly disagree. Serena Joy is not welcoming, ushering the Guardian carrying Offred’s bags to leave them on the porch. This could symbolize that she believes Handmaids have to carry their own burdens, that they don’t deserve help.

Offred takes stock of the Wife’s appearance. She’s dressed in fine, glamorous attire, complete with diamond jewelry. She carries a cane, telling the reader that’s she handicapped; specifically arthritis from her age. Offred again remembers Aunt Lydia’s instruction, that she should feel sympathy for the Wife because “it isn’t easy for them.” Oh, how embarrassing it must be for her, having need for a breeding slave! Sorry, reader, I personally do not like Serena Joy at all.

While in her sitting room, Serena Joy lights a cigarette, a first show of elite hypocrisy. No doubt, cigarettes had been banned because they lower fertility rate and increase chance of birth defects. Offred supposes that there was a black market and this gives her momentary hope. It’s not at all uncommon for strict religious organization and cults to have rampant hypocrisy in their higher ranks. I went to an Independent Fundamental Baptist academy in grades 5 to 9, and the preacher constantly went on about the “sanctity of traditional marriage” and imposed the sexist dress code where girls had to wear skirts and dresses fashioned off a Deuteronomy verse. Come to find out, he had affair after affair on his wife and supposedly groomed the teenage girls in the higher grades. But I digress.

Offred supposes that Serena Joy might be a Wife that bent the rules, allowed for illicit trade offs. Serena Joy is vocally mocking Offred, of this being her second posting. Handmaids are only given three postings, which is to say a certain amount of time and Ceremonies (the horrifying ritual in which Commanders rape the Handmaids on their fertile days while the Wives cradle them from behind). If they don’t conceive in three postings, they are rumored to be sent to the Colonies or executed.

Offred is detail-oriented, taking in the tired appearance of Serena Joy and the color of her eyes, with some beautiful imagery I might add, “Not so her eyes, which were the flat hostile blue of a midsummer sky in bright sunlight, a blue that shuts you out.” She considers aloud that Offred’s role is like a business transaction. Serena Joy makes her feelings of Offred quite plain because she doesn’t consider her high status enough to call her “ma’am.” In the television adaptation, Offred refers to her as “Mrs. Waterford,” but we don’t know the Commander’s or his Wife’s last name in the novel, though it’s speculated to be Waterford in the novel’s epilogue, which is where the show’s iteration of the Commander’s last name comes from and his wife, respectively.

Offred notes that her previous posting, the Wife preferred to stay in her room and get drunk. She’s melancholic about Serena Joy, wishing that she could have been like a motherly figure. Serena Joy makes it clear that her husband is off bounds. Offred mistakenly says “ma’am” again, reminding her of wind-up dolls. “She probably longed to slap my face. They can hit us, there’s Scriptural precedent. But not with any implement. Only with their hands.” I think this might be satire on Atwood’s part, because spanking children is a hot-button issue of evangelical groups; they argue that spanking is allowed, but not with an instrument, only a flat hand. Opponents of spanking argue that it shouldn’t matter what you child with, hand or otherwise, it’s still abuse because it hurts the child and studies show that it doesn’t work in the long run. Children don’t learn to obey, they learn to fear.

Serena Joy notes that faithful marriage is something “they” fought for, which reveals her to be very much in collusion with the forces of Gilead, even if she’s in an indirect role now. Offred thinks that she knows Serena Joy from somewhere and flashes back to a memory of being a child, surfing through TV channels. When she couldn’t find any, she watched an evangelical show where personalities would tell Bible stories and sing gospel hymns. Serena Joy sung soprano and could cry and smile at the same time. Offred ends the novel by saying that the same woman that sung gospel hymns on Christian television was the Wife she served now. So, if a popular televangelists had to be submissive in this regime, it really is worst than Offred thought.

Chapter 4

Offred snaps back to present, to where she’s walking out among the lawn. More fertility imagery, with worms emerging from wet soil, dying out in the sunlight. She walks past a gate and the driveway where a Guardian (driver for the Commander) is washing his car. I don’t know cars that well, but I’m guess the names Whirlwind, Chariot, and Behemoth are made up models or at least mean different models than what we know in the real world, unless there are Commanders being escorted in cars like this, which would be absurd and hilarious. Offred notes that one thing hasn’t changed, “the way men caress good cars.”

Guardians guard (I know, shocking!) the Commander’s house and its household. Offred notes that he’s low status and hasn’t been assigned a wife, meaning that Gilead sanctions arranged marriages. She supposes that Nick isn’t “servile enough” and I’m guessing this means he doesn’t suck up to higher ranking positions. Offred supposes that he might be more than a Guardian, even an Eye (special operatives, spies within Gilead politics—they’re referred to as the “Eyes of God”). Offred is attracted to him and Nick seems to reciprocate, but Offred is astounded by this. She’s been ingrained with the Gileadean doctrine that women shouldn’t flaunt their sexuality, that it’s sinful to give in to lust or even accept affection from men.

Offred waits at the corner, remembering Aunt Lydia’s instruction about patience. She also thinks Aunt Lydia talks to them (Handmaids) like children, comparing her to a ballet teacher. Her shopping partner, Ofglen, approaches and they exchange the state-sanctioned greetings. Even speech is policed in Gilead, and they are both supposed to watch each other. If one of them is suspected of breaking laws, the other will be held accountable for not informing their household of their partner’s illicit behavior, regardless of whether they knew about it. Offred recalls having a previous partner before this one, noting that “on a certain day she simply wasn’t there anymore and this one was there in her place.” This demonstrates to the reader that these women, regardless of their roles as baby factories, are expendable and can be replaced at a moment’s notice.

They talk about the war, the civil war going on between Angels at the frontlines and Baptists in the Blue Hills. Gilead forbids any sect of Christianity not beholden to their doctrine. This gives us a clue that the South, which was/is the Bible Belt in our timeline, is one section of resistance against Gilead, since the Southern States are known (in our timeline) to be predominantly Baptists. Huh, the most prominent Christian regions before pre-Gilead becoming enemies of a Christian extremist takeover. Say what you will about the Southern Baptist Convention, but Baptist doctrine is definitely more humane than Gilead’s brand of Christianity. And this is coming from someone that went to an Independent Fundamental Baptist Christian academy. Not my best years, but at least I wasn’t made a sex slave. That’s irony for you.

This Ofglen knows things that she shouldn’t, considering how they can’t read or write. She could have been eavesdropping on conversations like Offred does, but we’ll later find out just how much she does know about Gilead. They approach the first barriers which are decorated with Guardians holding machine guns. Not just pistols—machine guns. What exactly do they do day-to-day that requires automatic weapons? Offred refers to them by their full title, “Guardians of the Faith” and describes their green uniforms with crests: “two swords, crossed, above a white triangle.” Free Mason imagery, anyone? Offred notes that the Guardians “aren’t real soldiers. They’re used for routine policing and other menial functions…” Yes, “menial functions,” that require machine guns. Offred notes that they are “either stupid or older or disabled or very young.” The prime example of people you want to trust with machine guns. More satire to paint how careless religious extremists are with guns? You decide.

Offred remembers an incident in which a Guardian shot a Martha because they thought she was reaching for a bomb. She recalls Rita and Cora’s conversation about it, which is where she heard of the incident, probably. Cora defends the actions of the Guardians, but Rita angrily admonishes them. Then she says, “All the same. She worked hard. That was a bad death.” Implying that they thought there was such a thing as “good deaths.” Note that Offred’s memories will not have quotation marks around past dialogue. This is possibly done to separate past and present dialogue, or to separate flashbacks from the main narrative.

Offred seems to dare herself to touch the young guardian’s face, to flirt with him, something forbidden by law. She considers these thoughts to be a small piece of defiance, though she doesn’t act on them. She imagines coming back during the night, taking off her headdress, a sacrilege. We get another preview of the caste system and some of the events that take place. She notes that the black-painted vans that pass through the checkpoints sometimes have noises, possibly sexual noise. We see double-standards, Guardians being permitted to break laws because “Nobody’s heart is perfect,” yet that same exact reason is why some women are Handmaids.

Offred notes that the guardians probably don’t think like men used to think of sex, which is revealing that men of the regime are being affected as well. They have to abstain from sexual contact in order to be promoted, married, and given a Handmaid of their own. So, in a way, having a Handmaid for Commanders is like a perverted little elitist bonus. I think this is why Commanders deprive lower ranking men of sex, because it instills more power and smug authority in their (the Commanders’) position. Offred and Ofglen go through the gate and she teases the guardian by swiveling her hips. She’s momentarily ashamed of her actions (again, the brainwashing of Gilead is evident by her self-policing) but then she prides herself, this glimpse of femininity displayed so brazenly. “I enjoy the power; power of a dog bone.” She notes that even masturbation is a sacrilege among Guardians. In this way, she’s able to assert power, if only for a minute.

Chapter 5

Offred walks the street with Ofglen, noting how picturesque the neat lawns and hedges are. It’s quiet and she observes the houses like they are museums, which in a way, they are. Remnants of previous owners, before the regime happened and each house was repurposed for Commanders’ households. She also notes the lack of children. These houses are in the eye of the storm, where outside attacks do not happen…or supposedly, do not happen. After all, Gilead is known for bolstering propaganda, much like the Nazi Party did to cover up failures in their attempted conquests.

Offred acknowledges that doctors, lawyers, and university professors used to live in the big houses, before such professions were purged. She morosely remembers her and her husband planning for their futures while walking these streets. A few other castes are allowed to walk the streets within reason. There are some Econowives, wives of the poorer male castes. They wear blue, red, and green to symbolize that they do all the duties the richer castes have separate help for. Offred notes that would be widows walking the path, in all black.

Offred avoids stepping on the cracks, remembering her doing this as a child. She travels further back in her memories to when she used to go jogging on sidewalks. “Women were not protected then.” There’s the obvious scoff of the reader, or maybe that’s just in my head, but remember that Offred is quite possibly brainwashed into Gilead’s doctrine or at least, halfway. She goes over the old rules of those days, unspoken rules to avoid getting assaulted or abducted. She thinks about Laundromats and that she would put her own clothes and money into. She misses these little freedoms.

A quotation of note: “There is more than one kind of freedom… Freedom to and freedom from. In the days of anarchy, it was freedom to. Now you are being given freedom from. Don’t underrate it.” Ironic, since Handmaids are still being raped. It’s just not called rape. Offred and Ofglen are outside a clothing store, Lilies of the Field. She notes that the previous lettering of the shop was covered over because “even the names of shops were too much temptation for us.” She notes that the store used to be a movie theater, where women could wear what they want to see the cinema talents of Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, and Katharine Hepburn. Aunt Lydia’s words haunt Offred once more, “We were a society dying of too much choice.”

Offred and Ofglen go into the grocery store, where they wait in line. Offred notices they have oranges today, which had been a problem since the Libertheos (Liberation Theology) took Central America. This seems to be a resistance movement, but Offred sees them as enemies since she’s been brainwashed by Gilead to think so. This also tells us that Gilead hasn’t taken over the whole of America, it’s only a sizeable section, possibly the Northeast. She doesn’t have tokens for oranges and reminds herself to tell Rita about them for next time. A further aspect of the control, to where she can’t even buy oranges at a moment’s whim. Offred notes that she might see someone from the Red Center here and she desperately wants to see Moira, her best friend from before. She notes that Ofglen is still piously silent with her head down.

A very pregnant Handmaid walks into the store accompanied by her Guardian. Pregnancy has become a rarity in society, so the Handmaids are envious of her success. It’s also a calming thing to see, an assurance to Handmaids, that by having children can save their lives. Offred notes that Ofwarren does not need to be out at all, daily walks no longer prescribed. She merely wants to flaunt her rounded belly and gloat. Considering this is the extent of what Handmaids are allowed to do, it’s a monumental event. Offred compares the pregnant belly to a fruit, an allusion to the greeting phrase, “Blessed be the fruit.”

Offred suddenly remembers who the pregnant Handmaid is; it’s Janine from the Red Center. She’ll be an important key member later on in the narrative. Her and her shopping partner go into a butchery called All Flesh. Offred mentally notes to tell Rita and Cora that Ofglen is getting steak for her Commander. Such little ordinary details being gossiped about shows just how starved they get for entertainment. Offred says that nothing is wrapped in plastic anymore and she trails off about she used to hoard plastic shopping bags. There’s actually a real life research study being done about plastic in the water supply around the globe affecting fertility rates. Isn’t that terrifying?

In the middle of her inner monologue retelling of the plastic bag story, she cuts off. She can’t be in public while remembering this, possibly because she gets emotional. Getting emotional in public is possibly dangerous in Gilead or she’s merely embarrassed to be seen in those human moments. She sees a group of Japanese tourists in the distance. Considering Gilead’s racism, it’s strange that they would allow such tourism. But I’m guessing they have to have something to offer the rest of world now. There’s not much global lore in the novel, but in the TV adaptation, they discuss sanctions by the UN, the UK, and even entertain trade deals with Mexico. There are even scenes of a refugee center in Ontario, Canada called Little America.

Offred notes that the Japanese female tourists seem undressed to her in their skirts and open-toe sandals. “We are fascinated, but also repelled. They seemed undressed. It has taken so little time, to change our minds about this.” She then reminds herself that she used to dress like this. This is evidence of Gilead’s brainwashing and oppression against women, that even the women being oppressed are self-policing their own bodies. The interpreter showing the group around is possibly an Eye, but asks if they can take the Handmaids’ picture. Handmaids have been told not to let them, possibly because such pictures can be evidence other countries can use against Gilead. A real life example: architectures of the Nazi death camps didn’t want the public to know what their actual plans were because it would inspire backlash. Gilead possibly told a part of the truth about their regime, just not the whole truth.

Aunt Lydia’s words haunt Offred once more, saying modesty is like invisibility. She also compares being seen so brazenly to being penetrated, which is ironic, considering that’s exactly what Handmaids experience, though she meant it in a metaphoric sense. Offred gets distracted by the female tourists’ feet, by their nail polish. She misses these vanities of painting her toenails and wearing sandals. Then comes the ultimate question from the tourists: “Are you happy?” I’m sure most of us reading this would be like, “Hell, no, we ain’t happy!” But just consider this: Imagine that you’re in a world where your opinion to whatever heinous crime has been unleashed on you and every other woman is being ignored and these crimes even encouraged. Imagine that you are policed on everything, even what you say. To survive, to save your life, what would you say? Being in this society would be like being held at gunpoint or held captive. You’ll say whatever you have to in order to stay alive. “What else can we say?”

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