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The Handmaid's Tale | Study Guide

Margaret Atwood

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The Handmaid's Tale | Chapter 4 : Shopping | Summary



Offred walks toward the front gate, where Nick, a Guardian who lives at the house and works for the Commander, is washing the Commander's car and smoking. She stares, and he winks at her, a forbidden gesture. She looks away, uncertain about how to interpret Nick's actions and wondering whether he might be an Eye, or a spy, looking to entrap her. She walks to a street corner, where she is joined by another woman in red. They exchange formal greetings. Offred recalls that her last shopping partner disappeared about two weeks ago without warning. This woman, Ofglen, is the replacement. Offred reveals, finally, that they are Handmaids. Ofglen has news of the war that continues in remote areas, which she shares in a guarded fashion.

The two women encounter more Guardians as they cross the "first barrier," one of many checkpoints. As Offred gives her pass to one of the Guardians, their eyes meet. She fantasizes about undressing in front of him and considers the punishment it would mean for both of them. As the two women proceed, Offred can feel the men watching her. She enjoys having the power to cause a sexual response in these men.


The slow, bit-by-bit revelation of the religious nature of the oppressive government under which Offred lives starts to come into focus. In this society, sexuality is strictly controlled, and people are disposable and replaceable. It is forbidden for Nick to wink at the narrator, and the Guardians of the Faith strain to catch glimpses of the women's faces beneath their wings as they move through the checkpoint. The narrator's previous shopping partner disappears without explanation and is simply replaced by a seemingly identical woman. This interchangeability of women reinforces the government's reduction of female identity to functional roles.

Citizens of Gilead learn about the war only on television. It may be merely propaganda; Offred is not sure.

The idea that small acts of independence function as substitutes for real liberty, or at least give the illusion of brief moments of control, is revealed when the narrator, despite her fantasy of causing a public scene by engaging in forbidden actions, chooses to obey the rules out of fear for her life. Those who disobey the law may be killed or reassigned to toxic colonies. Nonetheless, she delights in her power to stimulate the men sexually as she sways her hips, taunting them because she knows they are watching. She recognizes that this fleeting moment of power is false—a tidbit allowed to her so that she does not consider real rebellion. Yet she seems somewhat satisfied with this moment, at least for now.

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