Consider the ways in which Margaret Atwood creates interest in the society of Gilead in the opening 5 sections of the novel Atwood is clearly an author who enjoys playing with her readers; taunting and teasing, suggesting rather than explaining and describing amazing situations without emotion but in a most moving manner, this is no more true than in “The Handmaid’s Tale”. During the first five chapters Atwood describes the society of Gilead through her main character Offred.
This brief but informative insight contains some incredibly fascinating and provoking passages as Atwood describes a society spine chillingly close to our own but with a terrible control over those it contains. Offred herself is a Handmaid and is therefore expected to conceive with her given Commander. The many other segregated members of the society are also given single names such as the Angels, Guardians and Aunts. By using familiar names Atwood encourages the reader to expect certain actions from these characters, the irony is then expressed by the way in which the society actually expects them to behave.
This contrast between the reader’s expectation and the actual behaviour raises curiosity into the reasons for their naming and as the novel continues the reader begins to understand the necessity for the members of Gilead to feel as though this control is advantageous rather than restrictive. The constant drumming in of this message to Offred starts from the Aunts, who incidentally carry electric cattle prods, a cruel irony on the word Aunt, considering the usual comforting position of Aunts in our own society.
As Offred repeats the words of the Aunts to the reader, one senses a hint of sarcasm and dislike to their over simplification. “Where I am is not a prison but a privilege, as Aunt Lydia said, who was in love with either/or. ” This line gives an idea into the rebellious nature of Offred and these hints continue as she persists to look for a way out her life in Gilead. When she talks of the Angels in the first chapter; “If only we could talk to them.
Something could be exchanged, we thought, some deal made” and later when she talks of her first meeting with the commander’s wife “She then was a woman who might break the rules. But what did I have, to trade. ” This longing to break the rules or even remove herself from the society of Gilead creates real interest as the reader becomes excited as to whether these are intended to be hints into the future or further explanation into Offred’s character. During the 5th chapter Offred and Ofglen complete a regular shopping trip and Atwood offers us more descriptions into the religious undertones of Gilead.
Already we have been given hints of this through Biblical quotes, Offred’s reference of her life; with the other handmaids like being in a “nunnery”, and the “Angels”. During the chapter it becomes apparent that even the freedom of shopping has been removed, however by including ration books Atwood relates Gilead to the state of emergency during the Second World War and therefore gains acceptance for what would usually be considered restrictive rather than beneficial. The shops have been renamed as ” milk and Honey” and “habits”.
the second of these is a clever double pun which, as Offred notes is “A Good name for them. Habits are hard to break” as well as referring to the uniforms of nuns, linking back to the religious nature of the society. At the end of the 5th chapter Atwood decides to introduce an outside society directly into the present, with the arrival of Japanese tourists and this immediately bring to the reader’s attention that Gilead co-exists with outer societies such as our own. On first sighting of the tourists the reader becomes aware how much Offred longs for their freedom.