The Handmaid's Tale | Study Guide

Margaret Atwood

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The Handmaid's Tale | Chapter 3 : Shopping | Summary



Offred walks by the garden on her way to do the grocery shopping. The garden belongs to the Commander's Wife, who spends most of her time gardening or knitting. Offred remembers once having her own garden and feels envious of the Commander's Wife. She recalls her arrival and first meeting with the Commander's Wife five weeks ago, when she was dropped off by a Guardian and used the front door for the only time. In this flashback, the Commander's Wife, dressed in blue, invites Offred into her sitting room, where she is illegally smoking. Here, she makes her expectations clear for Offred's third assignment (the other two having failed) as a Handmaid. She wants as little as possible to do with Offred, and she does not want to be called ma'am. Whatever Offred is there to do is "like a business transaction." As the Commander's Wife speaks, Offred recognizes her as Serena Joy, a woman who was once a singer on a religious television show.


The relationship between the Commander's Wife and Offred is complicated. As women in a patriarchal society, they both suffer from restrictions of liberty. Both have been assigned roles, and both wear color-coded clothing—blue for the Wife, symbolic of purity and passivity, and red for the Handmaid, symbolic of sexuality and childbearing. Both have limited activities that no longer include working outside the home. The Wife may garden, knit, and run the household, although the Wife's elite position in the society does afford her some additional freedoms, such as smoking. The Handmaid may shop, walk, and bear children.

Despite their similarities, the women in this household do not form a sisterhood. Rather, the Wife views Offred's position in the household as a reproach against the Wife's infertility, even if Offred's presence is a necessity for procreation. This resentment allows the Commander's Wife to exercise what little authority she has over the narrator and other household servants, belittling them and further stripping them of their identities. The narrator takes a bit of comfort in the knowledge that she would not have liked the Commander's Wife even in other circumstances based on Serena Joy's work as a religious television figure.

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