Read back over the opening six chapters. Write about how these chapters represent aspects of Offred’s world and introduces Gilead to the reader. The opening line of the novel begins: ‘We slept in what had once been the gymnasium’. People generally find themselves sleeping in gymnasiums only in emergencies, after disasters, but this ‘had once’ been a gymnasium implies that it was converted to its present use a long time ago. Some major changes have taken place and as we read on we realize these changes have not been made for the good.
There is a huge contrast as to the purpose and function of what this gymnasium would have been used for previously and what it is used for now. A gymnasium is a place of activity, energy and sweat. The irony here is that the people occupying the gymnasium now have been forced into extreme inactivity to the point where their every movement is scrutinized. From the very first chapter we are able to make out from what the narrator reveals that the women are highly oppressed with their every move being dictated: ‘…
we weren’t allowed out, except for our walks, twice a day, two by two around the football field which was enclosed now by a chain-link fence topped with barbed wire’. Their lives are mundane and monotonous and the freedom of choice bares no existence. The fencing and barbed wire does not spark off ideas of protection but prevention, preventing the women from trying to escape. The atrocious treatment of the women leads us to question who is the inhumane authoritarian that causes such suffering?
We are led to question the barbaric treatment of the women and this quite neatly prepares us for the introduction of the Gileadian regime. ‘Aunt Sara and Aunt Elizabeth patrolled’. As a satirical text, Atwood writes with great irony on many occasions, a typical example of it here. An aunt suggests love and bondage however, in this context ‘they had electric cattle prods… ‘ There is more irony here as under the Gileadian regime, the handmaids are treated like cattle. Although theoretically the Aunts are give a position of responsibility, their placing in the regime is minute and of very little value.
We are introduced to members of the hierarchy who have greater importance and whom stir great fear amongst the women: ‘They were objects of fear to us’; ironically an Angel in Biblical terms is a highly positive spirit for protection. In the Handmaid’s Tale, ‘Angels’ are at the very top of the hierarchy. They represent oppression, violence, male chauvinism and evil in its purest form. Their man-made fundamentalist religion shares resemblance to infamous regimes such as the Puritans’, Hitler’s Germany and Stalinist Russia.
We are also introduced to the guards who are possibly just below the Angels in the hierarchy. This is a patriarchal society where women control women in order to eradicate any forms of unity or opposition forming against the regime. The women’s clothing defines who they are and their clothing divides them according to their primary function. ‘I never looked good in red’, here she refers to having worn red in her previous life. In relation to the present, it is a red uniform that is given to the handmaids to distinguish them from the other women.
She indicates resentment to her uniform. The choice of colour is important, red being the colour of regeneration and the blood of birth. The Commanders’ Wives are given blue clothing and the Marthas are given ‘a dull green’ colour. The narrator (and we assume the same for the other women) are far from happy with the situation they find themselves in. We know that this regime is quite new as Atwood develops the narrative through the juxtaposing of the past and present. ‘I remember that yearning…