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The Handmaid's Tale | Study Guide

Margaret Atwood

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The Handmaid's Tale | Chapter 12 : Waiting Room | Summary



Cora sits outside the bathroom as a guard against male intruders while Offred bathes. There is no worry of suicide because the bathroom, like the bedroom, has been proofed for safety. The smell of soap triggers a memory for Offred of bathing her daughter. She recalls a time when a strange woman attempted to kidnap the child at the grocery store. She wonders whether her daughter has any memory of her. She realizes that the child has probably been told her mother is dead and reveals that it has been three years since she was taken. Her daughter is now eight.

At Cora's urging, Offred finishes her bath, dresses, and notes a tattoo on her ankle. She compares her required long but uncut hair with something she saw in a film once, in which women kneeling in a town square were being held and having their heads shaved. After Offred eats a bland dinner in her room, she hides the butter in the toe of an extra shoe. Then she waits and "composes herself" for what is going to happen next.


Offred's examination of her long but uncut hair causes her to remember Aunt Lydia's joke about a "close shave." This language connects the narrator to the memory of a film in which women have their heads shaved in the town square. After World War II, women—mostly French and Belgian—accused of collaborating with German Nazi soldiers had their heads publicly shaved as a way of stripping the women of identity. The narrator asks, "What had they done?" Historically, it is understood that the nature of their "collaboration" was primarily sexual.

The closing paragraph hinges on two meanings of compose. The idiom compose myself usually means "calming oneself, or regaining emotional control—regaining composure." Yet this word can also mean "to create," in the way one might compose a letter or a symphony or this text. The idea that Offred must now "compose" a self, as one would compose a speech, suggests that the self is malleable and can be changed by words alone. The final line, "What I must present is a made thing, not something born," reinforces the idea that Offred is composing an identity through the telling of her story.

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