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The Handmaid's Tale | Study Guide

Margaret Atwood

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The Handmaid's Tale | Chapter 11 : Waiting Room | Summary



Alone in her room again, Offred describes the previous day's events. She is driven to a monthly doctor's appointment by a Guardian. Other Handmaids sit in the waiting room. When it is Offred's turn to have her fertility and general health checked, she goes into a white exam room, undresses, and gives a urine sample. She uses one sheet to cover her body; another hangs suspended over her neck so the doctor cannot see her face and she cannot see him. The doctor arrives and examines her intrusively. He breaks protocol by speaking to her and lifting the sheet to view her face. He suggests that the Commander may be infertile and offers to help her become pregnant by having sex with her. Even though her life depends on becoming pregnant, she refuses. He leaves, and she gets dressed, but she is shaken by the idea that she might have this option.


Again, the protocol of the doctor's visit is designed to deny Offred any sense of self. Her face is hidden behind a sheet so that she has no unique identity. She is simply a female vessel who could become pregnant—a "torso." However, the doctor operates within the gaps of this protocol. He looks at Offred's face, and he suggests the Commander is infertile, a blasphemous idea in a society where women have been given the responsibility of all fertility issues. Yet the doctor's offer to impregnate Offred reinforces the concept that her identity and her survival are dependent on her role as a bearer of children.

In fact, the doctor's advances call to mind the black-market cigarettes and other evidence of a hidden world under the façade of obedience to the rule of law. There is image and there is a reality, and the two are not the same. On the surface, all is in order. People abide by the rules; they wear the correct clothing and use the accepted words. In fact, they have become experts at the appearance of obedience. Yet there is a secret world in which all these rules are broken. Offred's gradual realization that this underworld exists and what it might mean for her is an important part of her story.

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