The Handmaid’s Tale

by: Margaret Atwood

Chapters 1–3

We do not know yet what purpose Offred serves in the house, although it seems to be sexual—Cora comments that she could have done Offred’s work if she hadn’t gotten her tubes tied, which implies that Offred’s function is reproductive. Serena Joy’s coldness to Offred makes it plain that she considers Offred a threat, or at least an annoyance. We do know from Offred’s name that she, like all Handmaids, is considered state property. Handmaids’ names simply reflect which Commander owns them. “Of Fred,” “Of Warren,” and “Of Glen” get collapsed into “Offred,” “Ofwarren,” and “Ofglen.” The names make more sense when preceded by the word “Property”: “Property Offred,” for example. Thus, every time the women hear their names, they are reminded that they are no more than property.

These early chapters establish the novel’s style, which is characterized by considerable physical description. The narrator devotes attention to the features of the gym, the Commander’s house, and Serena Joy’s pinched face. Offred tells the story in nonlinear fashion, following the temporal leaps of her own mind. The narrative goes where her thoughts take it—one moment to the present, in the Commander’s house, and the next back in the gymnasium, or in the old world, the United States as it exists in Offred’s memory. We do not have the sense, as in some first-person narratives, that Offred is composing this story from a distanced vantage point, reflecting back on her past. Rather, all of her thoughts have a quality of immediacy. We are there with Offred as she goes about her daily life, and as she slips out of the present and thinks about her past.