Chapter II: Shopping is the second chapter of The Handmaid's Tale (Novel). It contains section 2-6.
Section 2 Edit
Offred now lives in a room fitted out with curtains, a pillow, a framed picture, and a braided rug. There is no glass in the room, not even over the framed picture. The window does not open completely, and the windowpane is shatterproof. There is nothing in the room from which one could hang a rope, and the door does not lock or even shut completely. Looking around, Offred remembers how Aunt Lydia told her to consider her circumstances a privilege, not a prison.
Offred often secretly listens to Rita and Cora, the Marthas who work in the house where she lives. Once, she hears Rita state that she would never debase herself as someone in Offred’s position must. Cora replies that Offred works for all the women, and that if she (Cora) were younger and had not gotten her tubes tied, she could have been in Offred’s situation.
Offred wishes she could talk to them, but Marthas are not supposed to develop relationships with Handmaids. She wishes that she could share gossip like they do—gossip about how one Handmaid gave birth to a stillborn, how a Wife stabbed a Handmaid with a knitting needle out of jealousy, how someone poisoned her Commander with toilet cleaner. Offred dresses for a shopping trip. She collects from Rita the tokens that serve as currency. Each token bears an image of what it will purchase: twelve eggs, cheese, and a steak.
Section 3 Edit
On her way out, Offred looks around for the Commander’s Wife but does not see her. The Commander’s Wife has a garden, and she knits constantly. All the Wives knit scarves “for the Angels at the front lines,” but the Commander’s Wife is a particularly skilled knitter. Offred wonders if the scarves actually get used, or if they just give the Wives something to do. She remembers arriving at the Commander’s house for the first time, after the two couples to which she was previously assigned “didn’t work out.” One of the Wives in an earlier posting secluded herself in the bedroom, purportedly drinking, and Offred hoped the new Commander’s Wife would be different.
On the first day, her new mistress told her to stay out of her sight as much as possible, and to avoid making trouble. As she talked, the Wife smoked a cigarette, a black-market item. Handmaids, Offred notes, are forbidden coffee, cigarettes, and alcohol. Then the Wife reminded Offred that the Commander is her husband, permanently and forever. “It’s one of the things we fought for,” she said, looking away. Suddenly, Offred recognized her mistress as Serena Joy, the lead soprano from Growing Souls Gospel Hour, a Sunday-morning religious program that aired when Offred was a child.
Section 4 Edit
As she leaves the house to go shopping, Offred notices Nick, a Guardian of the Faith, washing the Commander’s car. Nick lives above the garage. He winks at Offred—an offense against -decorum— but she ignores him, fearing that he may be an Eye, a spy assigned to test her.
She waits at the corner for Ofglen, another Handmaid with whom Offred will do her shopping. The Handmaids always travel in pairs when outside.
Ofglen arrives, and they exchange greetings, careful not to say anything that isn’t strictly orthodox. Ofglen says that she has heard the war is going well, and that the army recently defeated a group of Baptist rebels. “Praise be,” Offred responds. They reach a checkpoint manned by two young Guardians. The Guardians serve as a routine police force and do menial labor. They are men too young, too old, or just generally unfit for the army. Young Guardians, such as these, can be dangerous because they are frequently more fanatical or nervous than older guards. These young Guardians recently shot a Martha as she fumbled for her pass, because they thought she was a man in disguise carrying a bomb. Offred heard Rita and Cora talking about the shooting. Rita was angry, but Cora seemed to accept the shooting as the price one pays for safety.
At the checkpoint, Offred subtly flirts with one of the Guardians by making eye contact, cherishing this small infraction against the rules. She considers how sex-starved the young men must be, since they cannot marry without permission, masturbation is a sin, and pornographic magazines and films are now forbidden. The Guardians can only hope to become Angels, when they will be allowed to take a wife and perhaps eventually get a Handmaid. This marks the first time in the novel we hear the word “Handmaid” used.
Section 5 Edit
In town, Ofglen and Offred wait in line at the shops. We learn the name of this new society: “The Republic of Gilead.” Offred remembers the pre-Gilead days, when women were not protected: they had to keep their doors closed to strangers and ignore catcalls on the street. Now no one whistles at women as they walk; no one touches them or talks to them. She remembers Aunt Lydia explaining that more than one kind of freedom exists, and that “in the days of anarchy, it was freedom to. Now you are being given freedom from.”
The women shop at stores known by names like All Flesh and Milk and Honey. Pictures of meat or fruit mark the stores, rather than lettered signs, because “they decided that even the names of shops were too much temptation for us.” A Handmaid in the late stages of pregnancy enters the store and raises a flurry of excitement. Offred recognizes her from the Red Center. She used to be known as Janine, and she was one of Aunt Lydia’s favorites. Now her name is Ofwarren. Offred senses that Janine went shopping just so she could show off her pregnancy.
Offred thinks of her husband, Luke, and their daughter, and the life they led before Gilead existed. She remembers a prosaic detail from their everyday life together: she used to store plastic shopping bags under the sink, which annoyed Luke, who worried that their daughter would get one of the bags caught over her head. She remembers feeling guilty for her carelessness.
Offred and Ofglen finish their shopping and go out to the sidewalk, where they encounter a group of Japanese tourists and their interpreter. The tourists want to take a photograph, but Offred says no. Many of the interpreters are Eyes, and Handmaids must not appear immodest. Offred and Ofglen marvel at the women’s exposed legs, high heels, and polished toenails. The tourists ask if they are happy, and since Ofglen does not answer, Offred replies that they are very happy.
Section 6 Edit
As they return from shopping, Ofglen suggests they take the long way and pass by the church. It is an old building, decorated inside with paintings of what seem to be Puritans from the colonial era. Now the former church is kept as a museum. Offred describes a nearby boathouse, old dormitories, a football stadium, and redbrick sidewalks. Atwood implies that Offred is walking across what used to be the campus of Harvard University.
Across the street from the church sits the Wall, where the authorities hang the bodies of executed criminals as examples to the rest of the Republic of Gilead. The authorities cover the men’s heads with bags. One of the bags looks painted with a red smile where the blood has seeped through. All of the six corpses wear signs around their necks picturing fetuses, signaling that they were executed for performing abortions before Gilead came into existence. Although their actions were legal at the time, their crimes are being punished retroactively. Offred feels relieved that none of the bodies could be Luke’s, since he was not a doctor. As she stares at the bodies, Offred thinks of Aunt Lydia telling them that soon their new life would seem ordinary.
- "SparkNote on The Handmaid’s Tale." http://www.sparknotes.com/lit/handmaid/.
- Chapter transcript: