The Handmaid’s Tale establishes a regime, which has reduced life to a constant drear against the narrator, who can remember what it was like in, ‘the time before’, as she longs to rebel. The main character reveals the horrors of the totalitarian regime and her struggle for survival throughout these first four chapters, which is characterised by physical description. The novel begins with a direct sentence suggesting the past straight away and the word, ‘we’ implies that there was more than one and the character is speaking in the first person narrative.
Indications of a change taking place is present as she quotes, ‘we slept in what had once been the gymnasium’. She uses a detailed description of what had once been a gym, ‘the pungent smell of sweat’ and also describing the fashion times which progressed from the 1960’s to the 1980’s indicating a futuristic time. She narrates several flashbacks in the past tense, which distinguishes them from the main body of the story, which she tells in the present tense; ‘later in mini-skirts, then pants, then in one earring, spiky green streaked hair’.
She likens the gym to a ‘palimpsest, a parchment either erased and written on again or layered with multiple writings. In the gym ‘palimpsest’, the narrator sees multiple layers of history, Likening the gym to a palimpsest also suggests that the society she now inhabits has been superimposed on a previous society, and traces of the old linger beneath the new. The opening page portrays sexual tension and ‘old sex in the room’ referring to the later implications of her desire for freedom and the sexual tension between the other handmaid’s and the ‘Angels’ and ‘Guards’.
The setting of where they are sleeping in the old gymnasium signifies an imprisonment where orders were given and completed and often they were kept in a confined space being controlled by a person of higher status. We see a clear sign of this in which where she sleeps hence the quotation, ‘the army cots that had been set up in rows, with spaces between so that we cannot talk’. The women in the gymnasium live under the constant surveillance of the Angels and the Aunts, who guarded and taught them, patrolling at night with electric cattle prods and leather belts allowing no interaction with one another.
The Angels and Aunts portray a hierarchy image with biblical name titles clearly implying that they are more powerful than the other women. The Aunts use, ‘cattle prods’, conveying the impression to the reader that they are treated like animals also suggesting a lack of identity to the women. The Angels, however who are even of a stronger status than the Aunts, ‘aren’t allowed inside the building’, and stand with their backs facing to the other women, wherefore we see their yearning and longing for communication and contact with the Angels. The narrator tells that if only, ‘something could be exchanged…
some deal made, some trade off’, between the women and the men suggesting sexual tension and the lack of privacy, and personal status which they want to own. The women cannot look at the Angels to avoid the sexual temptation in this surrounding prison-like set-up. The second main setting in which describes is in a room that seems at first like a pleasant change from the harsh atmosphere of the gymnasium, ‘relief ornament in the shape of a wreath’. 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 defence, or escape by suicide or flight, have been removed. For example, anything you could tie a rope too’ suggests torture and suicidal behaviour. The window, ‘-it opens partly-‘. The quotation which importantly follows, ‘waste not want not’, and ‘I am not being wasted’ signifies that she classes herself as useful. ‘Why do I want? ‘ is the questioning to herself that why and what does she want when she should be happy to be used but the natural human desire is to always want more and the need for transcend. Here we can see a clear definition of utilitarianism.