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The Handmaid's Tale | Study Guide

Margaret Atwood

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The Handmaid's Tale | Chapter 6 : Shopping | Summary



The two women decide to walk past the church on their way home from shopping. Their headdresses make it difficult for them to observe the world around them, but they catch glimpses of structures that have new purposes. Ofglen stops and appears to pray in front of the church, which is now a museum. As they turn away from the church, they see the Wall—made of brick, barbed wire, and shards of glass—which is what they really walked this way to see. The bodies of six men, their heads covered with bags, hang from metal hooks embedded in the Wall. One man's injuries have left a smile-shaped bloodstain on the front of the bag. The men's white coats reveal them to be those who were, in the past, doctors who performed abortions. Offred is relieved, knowing that Luke was not a doctor. Ofglen seems to be crying, but the narrator is afraid to ask why.


The church, now a museum, contains paintings of Puritans, leaders of a religious movement who sought to purify the church and society through extreme moral and religious teaching. This setting offers some clues regarding the nature of the religion that has now become the government, though Gilead is extreme even by Puritan standards. Other details—the river, boathouse, football stadium, red brick wall—identify this area as Cambridge, Massachusetts, where Harvard University is located. The transformation of Harvard, a renowned center of learning, into a center of the oppressive new government is a powerful statement that education is the antithesis of oppression.

The reader gets insight into Offred's thought process near the end of the chapter. As she looks at the dead man's bloodstained smile, she thinks of the red tulips in Serena Joy's garden and how the flowers, in their turn, look like blood. Flowers become an important symbol in the novel for what the women lack—individual beauty and choice. Yet in her mind the narrator rebels against this tendency to make everything connect. These things—the dead man and the red tulip—are separate objects that do not affect each other. She explains that making these distinctions is important to her. Separating reality from the story she imposes upon that reality is part of how she stays in control of her own thoughts and her own sense of identity or self.

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