The Handmaid's Tale Part 2: Shopping
The narrative has now moved to the present. Offred's room is furnished sparingly, but with folk-art accents, which represent traditional values and womanhood. Knives or anything that can be used to harm oneself has been removed. All the women of Offred's status have a room furnished similarly. Offred remembers that Aunt Lydia said to think of her new situation as a privilege not a prison.
Offred wears a full red dress outfit with red gloves, red shoes, and a white winged bonnet. Her dress is designed to cover her from neck to ankle and obscure her shape. The bonnet is intended to limit her view as well as hide her face. All Handmaids wear this outfit.
Offred picks up her shopping basket and goes down to the kitchen where Rita is making bread. Rita belongs to the class of women called Marthas. Marthas wear green dresses similar to Offred's dress, but need not cover their faces. Rita gives Offred shopping tokens but does not speak to her. Rita despises Offred's position. She once said she would rather be sent to the Colonies and starve to death than accept Offred's lifestyle. Offred wishes she could sit and talk with Cora, another Martha who functions as a maid in the house of the Commander. Offred remembers her former husband, Luke, telling her there was no feminine correlate to the word fraternize.
Offred is on the lookout for the Commander's Wife as she leaves the house. The wife is consistently cold toward Offred because she is reproached by the existence of a Handmaid in her house, but she still has power over Offred. Offred envies the wife's freedom to garden and knit. The Commander's Wife met Offred when she arrived at the house five weeks before. This was Offred's third assignment. The Wife told her she wanted to see as little as possible of her. Offred was disappointed. She wanted a mother figure or a friend. The Wife continued their conversation by asserting her ownership of her husband. Offred then recognized the Wife as a famous television gospel singer, named Serena Joy, from the time before the war. Wives wear light blue dresses.
Offred does not encounter Serena Joy on her way through the garden, but passes by Nick, the Guardian who is the Commander's chauffeur. He winks at her and she turns her head away in a rush of fear. The government does not allow that sort of familiarity. Offred fears he may be an Eye, which is a government spy.
At the sidewalk, Offred is met by Ofglen, a Handmaid who has been her shopping partner for two weeks. They greet each other with the accepted greeting among Handmaids, "Blessed be the fruit." Chapter 4, pg. 19 They converse guardedly because they fear the other may report any unorthodox comments. The first of several barriers surrounding the center of the city of Gilead is staffed by two Guardians, low-rank soldiers used for a variety of menial functions. A Guardian shot a Martha recently because she took too long getting her pass out and he suspected she had a bomb. Offred looks into the eyes of the Guardian as he takes her pass and he blushes. She savors this little bit of power left to her. A Guardian is not allowed to marry until he attains higher rank, and all other sexual outlets are considered sacrilege.
Offred and Ofglen walk down the empty streets of Gilead, which are lined with manicured mansions. They are in "the heart of Gilead, where the war cannot intrude except on television." Chapter 5, pg. 23 They turn onto a main street and join Marthas and Econowives, the women of poorer men who have to do the job of Wife and Martha for their husbands. Offred remembers jogging on similar sidewalks and having to avoid dark streets and strange men. Women were not protected then. Offred recalls another fragment of one of Aunt Lydia's speeches; "There is more than one kind of freedom...Freedom to and freedom from. In the days of anarchy, it was freedom to. Now you are being given freedom from. Don't underrate it." Chapter 5, pg. 24
The first stop is at the Milk and Honey shop. The sign bears only a picture. Words were banished from women's lives long ago because they were considered too much of a temptation. On entering the shop, they find that oranges are available. The war often interfered with the supply of foods imported from other countries and even from California and Florida. Offred looks at the other shoppers trying to find Moira, a friend she made at the Red Center where the Handmaids were trained. Then a hugely pregnant Handmaid enters the shop. All the others stare in envy. "She is a flag on a hilltop, showing what can still be done: we too can be saved." Chapter 5, pg. 26 Offred recognizes her as a favorite of Aunt Lydia's at the Red Center, Janine. She has come to show off her good fortune. Offred and Ofglen make their purchases and head to the All Flesh shop. All the names of the shops are Biblical references. Ofglen gets steak for the second time that week. Offred decided to tell this to Rita and Cora. "They are very interested in how other households are run; such bits of petty gossip give them an opportunity for pride or discontent." Chapter 5, pg. 27
Leaving the meat shop, Offred and Ofglen met a group of Japanese tourists. The short skirts, toenail polish and heeled shoes of the women both scandalize and mesmerize Offred. She remembers wearing similar clothing herself. When asked to be photographed the Handmaids hide behind their bonnets. The guide asks if them if they are happy. Offred must say yes. Many of the guides are Eyes.
On the way home, they stop at an old Puritan church. The government "[has not] fiddled with the gravestones, or the church either. It's only the more recent history that offends them." Chapter 6, pg. 31 Ofglen bows her head in prayer, and Offred assumes her piety is a show. They then head to the Wall, which is the face of Gilead's prison. Six male corpses are hanging by their necks on the Wall from a Men's Salvaging earlier that morning. The men are identified as former abortionists by signs hung around their necks bearing images of fetuses. The men's heads are covered in white bags. One has a bloodstain like a mouth. Ofglen trembles, but Offred is not tempted to inquire or even look at her. "Ordinary, said Aunt Lydia, is what you are used to. This may not seem ordinary to you now, but after a time it will. It will become ordinary." Chapter 6, pg.33