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The narrator, whose name we learn later is Offred, describes how she and other women slept on army cots in a gymnasium. Aunt Sara and Aunt Elizabeth patrol with electric cattle prods hanging from their leather belts, and the women, forbidden to speak aloud, whisper without attracting attention. Twice daily, the women walk in the former football field, which is surrounded by a chain-link fence topped with barbed wire. Armed guards called Angels patrol outside. While the women take their walks, the Angels stand outside the fence with their backs to the women. The women long for the Angels to turn and see them. They imagine that if the men looked at them or talked to them, they could use their bodies to make a deal. The narrator describes lying in bed at night, quietly exchanging names with the other women.
The scene changes, and the story shifts from the past to the present tense. Offred now lives in a room fitted out with curtains, a pillow, a framed picture, and a braided rug. There is no glass in the room, not even over the framed picture. The window does not open completely, and the windowpane is shatterproof. There is nothing in the room from which one could hang a rope, and the door does not lock or even shut completely. Looking around, Offred remembers how Aunt Lydia told her to consider her circumstances a privilege, not a prison.
Handmaids, to which group the narrator belongs, dress entirely in red, except for the white wings framing their faces. Household servants, called “Marthas,” wear green uniforms. “Wives” wear blue uniforms. Offred often secretly listens to Rita and Cora, the Marthas who work in the house where she lives. Once, she hears Rita state that she would never debase herself as someone in Offred’s position must. Cora replies that Offred works for all the women, and that if she (Cora) were younger and had not gotten her tubes tied, she could have been in Offred’s situation. Offred wishes she could talk to them, but Marthas are not supposed to develop relationships with Handmaids. She wishes that she could share gossip like they do—gossip about how one Handmaid gave birth to a stillborn, how a Wife stabbed a Handmaid with a knitting needle out of jealousy, how someone poisoned her Commander with toilet cleaner. Offred dresses for a shopping trip. She collects from Rita the tokens that serve as currency. Each token bears an image of what it will purchase: twelve eggs, cheese, and a steak.
On her way out, Offred looks around for the Commander’s Wife but does not see her. The Commander’s Wife has a garden, and she knits constantly. All the Wives knit scarves “for the Angels at the front lines,” but the Commander’s Wife is a particularly skilled knitter. Offred wonders if the scarves actually get used, or if they just give the Wives something to do. She remembers arriving at the Commander’s house for the first time, after the two couples to which she was previously assigned “didn’t work out.” One of the Wives in an earlier posting secluded herself in the bedroom, purportedly drinking, and Offred hoped the new Commander’s Wife would be different. On the first day, her new mistress told her to stay out of her sight as much as possible, and to avoid making trouble. As she talked, the Wife smoked a cigarette, a black-market item. Handmaids, Offred notes, are forbidden coffee, cigarettes, and alcohol. Then the Wife reminded Offred that the Commander is her husband, permanently and forever. “It’s one of the things we fought for,” she said, looking away. Suddenly, Offred recognized her mistress as Serena Joy, the lead soprano from Growing Souls Gospel Hour, a Sunday-morning religious program that aired when Offred was a child.
The Handmaid’s Tale plunges immediately into an unfamiliar, unexplained world, using unfamiliar terms like “Handmaid,” “Angel,” and “Commander” that only come to make sense as the story progresses. Offred gradually delivers information about her past and the world in which she lives, often narrating through flashbacks. She narrates these flashbacks in the past tense, which distinguishes them from the main body of the story, which she tells in the present tense. The first scene, in the gymnasium, is a flashback, as are Offred’s memories of the Marthas’ gossip and her first meeting with the Commander’s Wife. Although at this point we do not know what the gymnasium signifies, or why the narrator and other women lived there, we do gather some information from the brief first chapter. The women in the gymnasium live under the constant surveillance of the Angels and the Aunts, and they cannot interact with one another. They seem to inhabit a kind of prison. Offred likens the gym to a palimpsest, a parchment either erased and written on again or layered with multiple writings. In the gym palimpsest, Offred sees multiple layers of history: high school girls going to basketball games and dances wearing miniskirts, then pants, then green hair. Likening the gym to a palimpsest also suggests that the society Offred now inhabits has been superimposed on a previous society, and traces of the old linger beneath the new.
In Chapter 2, Offred sits in a room that seems at first like a pleasant change from harsh atmosphere of the gymnasium. However, her description of her room demonstrates that the same rigid, controlling structures that ruled the gym continue to constrict her in this house. The room is like a prison in which all means of defense, or escape by suicide or flight, have been removed. She wonders if women everywhere get issued exactly the same sheets and curtains, which underlines the idea that the room is like a government-ordered prison.
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