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The Handmaid's Tale | Study Guide

Margaret Atwood

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The Handmaid's Tale | Chapter 5 : Shopping | Summary



The two Handmaids arrive in the Republic of Gilead. The area is subdued and tidy, and there are no children present. Offred briefly revisits a memory of walking with Luke, her former husband, and talking about a future house and family. The pair see other women, Marthas and Econowives, but all are on prescribed errands. There is no freedom in their choices.

The women pass a clothing store called Lilies and then wait in line at a store called Milk and Honey, which is marked by an image rather than words, as women are not allowed to read. The women enjoy shopping, as it is the only time they might see old friends or family. Offred thinks of her college friend Moira. Other Handmaids enter, and one is pregnant, which causes a stir of excitement and envy among the women. Offred recognizes this woman as Janine, now called Ofwarren, from the Red Center (the gymnasium in Chapter 1). The women pay for their purchases with tokens, but Offred cannot buy any of the rare oranges because she does not have a token for them.

The two women next visit the butcher shop, All Flesh, where there are no shopping bags. This event triggers a memory of an argument with Luke over plastic grocery bags. The memory is from a time when the narrator and Luke had a daughter together, and it is painful, so she lets it go. As the women leave the butcher shop, a group of tourists from Japan ask to take their photograph, which the women refuse. The tourists also ask the Handmaids whether they are happy, and after a pause, Offred says yes.


As the narrator observes women on the street, she recalls the distinction Aunt Lydia used to make between "freedom to" and "freedom from." The former is the freedom to make one's own choices, while the latter is the freedom from dangers such as crime and violence. Aunt Lydia notes that the previous society had been dying "of too much choice." The implication is that some "freedom to" must be sacrificed to achieve the improved state of "freedom from." Offred may not have the choice to buy oranges, but she need not worry about being attacked by a man on the street.

The shops, like the Handmaids, have new names. Old identities have been erased by renaming; symbols have replaced words. Language as a means of power for defining and interpreting one's experience and relation to the world has been usurped in the lives of these women. Offred correctly comprehends that the government equates language with rebellion: "Even the names of shops were too much temptation for us." By denying women power over language, the government maintains its control of gender.

The Handmaids in particular have lost their independence and their power to control their own lives. They are allowed the "honor" of bearing children, yet they have no choice in whether to become pregnant or by whom. When the women get excited about Janine's pregnancy, they acknowledge that a successful pregnancy has the potential to maintain Janine's status in the society. However, it is a status that none of them want.

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