lllustration of six women wearing long, loose red dresses

The Handmaid's Tale

by Margaret Atwood

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Chapters 1–6: Summary

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Last Updated on February 27, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1991

Chapter 1

It is nighttime at the Rachel and Leah Re-education (Red) Center in the heart of the Republic of Gilead. The facility, which was previously a high school, is now a place where young white women train for their duties as Handmaids, a group of women whose role is to increase the population. Offred, lying on her cot in the dormitory, which used to be the school gym, reflects on what the room may have been like before the establishment of the Republic Gilead.

Offred ponders about the basketball games once held in the room and imagines how it may have transformed during school dances when everyone dressed stylishly, the air was full of excitement, and the music boomed. Now, the room is a sad and silent place filled with women prohibited from speaking to each other. 

Offred reflects on her past life, as she often does; she considers her teenage years, which were filled with anticipation for the future and all the opportunities it held. Sadly, she reminds herself that the Red Center, surrounded by armed guards and barbed wire, is her present and future reality.

Offred can only long for a moment of fleeting eye contact with the other prisoners or, even more unrealistically, a brief conversation with the Angels, guards who stand just outside the fenced-in yard in which the prisoners exercise. She knows the thought is absurd: if an Angel were to look at or speak to her, they would both face severe punishment.

As Offred mourns the lack of verbal communication, she reflects on the covert methods she and the other Handmaids use to communicate, such as secret touches or silently mouthing words for the others to lip-read. The main motivation behind these attempts to communicate is to share their true names, which they are no longer permitted to use. While lying in her cot, Offred whispers these names to herself, silently enacting the only form of rebellion she can.

Chapter 2 

Offred, who has recently been assigned to a new location, describes her living quarters. She reveals that this is her third assignment to a Commander; such placements typically last between three to six months.

At this point, it is unclear how many assignments a Handmaid must endure before being deemed infertile and incapable of fulfilling the role of a Handmaid. When Handmaids have lived out their usefulness, they are labeled an "Unwoman" and then sent to one of Gilead's Colonies to clean hazardous waste until their death.

In her room, Offred observes the room's idiosyncrasies; it has been retrofitted to ensure that the Handmaid living in it cannot possibly commit suicide. There is nowhere to hang a rope; the window is unbreakable and only opens slightly; and although the room is decorated, it remains a prison cell. There is a watercolor painting of blue irises and a rug laid across the floor; the room affords a measure of privacy and comfort that the dormitories do not, yet Offred feels no better in this room than in the dormitory. 

Just like at the Red Center, time at her new location is measured by bells. When the bell rings, Offred dons her Handmaid attire. She puts on a floor-length red dress; a white head cover with wings that narrow her vision and conceal her face from others; red gloves; and low-heeled red shoes. She reflects humorlessly that the outfit makes her resemble a fairy tale character.

As she heads to the kitchen, Offred notices that her door is unlocked and does not shut properly. In the kitchen, she sees Rita, dressed in the Martha...

(This entire section contains 1991 words.)

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uniform of a long green dress and a white apron, kneading a batch of dough. Rita barely looks up from her work and simply nods at Offred as she hands her three tokens to purchase eggs, cheese, and meat.

In the kitchen, Offred is subjected to Rita's unpleasant demeanor. Rita has moral objections to the Handmaids acting as prostitutes for the country, however, the Handmaids have no alternative as refusal would result in a death sentence in the Colonies. Offred wishes to assist Rita with the bread-making process, but she is aware that Rita is too scared of the potential consequences to let her.

Despite the mistreatment, Offred takes pleasure in spending time with Rita and Cora in the kitchen. She daydreams about sipping coffee, chatting about the neighbors, and talking about their physical ailments with Rita and Cora. However, she realizes that forming close relationships with them is not permitted as Marthas are not allowed to associate with Handmaids.

Chapter 3 

As Offred sets out on her shopping journey, she walks through the back entrance and past the Commander's wife's garden; she tends carefully to the plants but leaves the heavy labor to the Guardians. Guardians serve as both police officers and assistants to Commanders. Their ranks are made up of those who are too young, too old, or physically incapable of serving in the military. When not gardening, the Commander's wife spends her time knitting scarves for Angels at the front lines of the war. Offred longs for a similar hobby but knows that her low status would not allow her such luxury. 

Walking past the garden reminds Offred of her initial encounter with the Commander's wife, which took place five weeks earlier on her first day in the house. She soon realized that the wife was hostile towards her, shattering Offred's hope of finding a supportive older sister or motherly figure in her. The wife warned Offred not to cause any trouble; yet, Offred observed her smoking, an act strictly prohibited for women in Gilead. 

This momentary transgression indicates the Commander’s wife’s complex nature; Offred recognizes her as a famous singer from a television show who was a vocal critic of American culture and helps herald the new Republic of Gilead. Her name was Serena Joy, and she held extreme beliefs that made Offred fear that her current posting might be worse than her previous postings. Yet, despite the wife’s conservative beliefs, she still smokes, defying the regime she helped build and indicating a certain dissatisfaction with the rules of Gilead. 

Chapter 4

As Offred continues toward the store, she notices Nick, a Guardian, cleaning the Commander's car, a Whirlwind, which, like the other two car models in Gilead—the Chariot and Behemoth—is named after the Bible. Nick does not have an Econowife assigned to him, and he resides in a single apartment above the garage, so Offred guesses that he has a similarly low rank in society. She also notices an unlit cigarette in his mouth and assumes that he must be involved in the black market trade.

To Offred’s surprise, Nick winks at her. Startled by the unexpected acknowledgment, she becomes concerned that he is an Eye, Gilead’s secret police, which is similar to the Gestapo of Nazi Germany. She worries that he might be after her but cannot understand why. More anxious than she started, Offred continues walking toward her destination.

At the corner, Offred waits for Ofglen, another Handmaid, and ponders Aunt Lydia's statement: "they also serve who only stand and wait." Offred is cautious around Ofglen because she seems to be a devout follower of Gilead. As a result, Offred tries to avoid speaking to her as much as possible. However, when Ofglen mentions the military campaign against Baptist rebels in the Blue Hills, Offred, despite being scared to engage in conversation, listens eagerly, excited to hear any news from the outside world, even if it might not be accurate.

As they travel to the store, they stop at one of the many checkpoints manned by armed guards, which are scattered throughout the city. The Guardians examined their passes using their Compuchek device. As the two Handmaids pass through the gates, Offred subtly defies the rules, staring directly into the guards’ eyes and swaying her hips as she passes them. Briefly, she relishes the passive power she holds over the men but, at the same time, pities them because they are not permitted to have Wives or interact with women.

Chapter 5

During Offred and Ofglen's journey, they pass through a neighborhood once inhabited by affluent professionals. Offred notices the obvious lack of children and considers the massive changes that the rise of Gilead has wrought. The neighborhood is silent; there are no professionals to inhabit it; the university, which once trained such professionals, has shut down; and there is a noticeable absence of older and middle-aged women.

Offred reminds herself that the streets are now safe for women, unlike in the past. She recalls Aunt Lydia's words about the two types of freedom: freedom from and freedom to. Gilead, Aunt Lydia explained, has freed women from the fear of rape and sexual assault; the Handmaids would do well to remember that.

As they walk by, Offred and Ofglen come across "Lilies of the Field," a nearby store. In its window is a sign with an illustrated lily; the words on the sign have been erased. All signs were modified in this manner because women in Gilead are not permitted to read. They then enter a store called "Milk and Honey," where Offred is shocked to see oranges, which have become scarce due to the war and railway sabotage that has disrupted shipments from Florida and made oranges scarce commodities.

At the store, Offred and Ofglen encounter several Handmaids, including a pregnant one whom Ofglen identifies as Ofwarren. Offred recognizes her as Janine from the Red Center, who was a favorite of Aunt Lydia. Although the Handmaids act excited about Ofwarren’s pregnancy, Offred perceives their true envy and notices that Ofwarren basks in their jealousy. 

At a store called "All Flesh" Offred purchases a stringy chicken and comments on how groceries are no longer wrapped in plastic bags. This thought conjures a memory of the stacks of plastic bags she used to save, which her husband Luke worried their daughter might accidentally suffocate herself with.

As they return home, they come across a delegation of Japanese men and women who are there for trade. Offred is taken aback by the women's attire, which includes short skirts and high heels. An interpreter requests that the two Handmaids pose for pictures, but they decline. The interpreter then asks on behalf of one of the Japanese visitors if the Handmaids are content. Offred responds with a lie, saying, "Yes, we are very happy."

Chapter 6 

After their shopping trip, Ofglen informs Offred that she would like to take the scenic route home and walk past the old church and the Wall. They walk along the river, passing by boat houses where students used to row their racing boats. They continue past the former dormitories and the football stadium, which Offred observes has now been repurposed for Men's Salvagings, an event she does not explain until later.

They take a short break in front of the church, which has been converted into a museum. Beyond the church is the Wall, which used to be the edge of the university but is now fortified with barbed wire, bright lights, and guards.

Several bodies hang from the Wall; white sacks cover their heads. One of the sacks has a bloodstain that gives the macabre illusion of a smile. The three individuals are dressed in lab coats and hold signs with images of fetuses, suggesting that they were practitioners of abortion. Offred wonders who told on them. Even though the "crimes" for which they were executed were committed when abortion was legal, the government of Gilead retroactively terms such individuals as "war criminals." Offred is taken aback by her lack of emotional response to the sight but notes that Ofglen is visibly shaken.

Offred recalls Aunt Lydia saying that they will become accustomed to the changes and that eventually everything will seem normal to them and is horrified to realize that the woman’s words are slowly coming true. 


Chapters 7–12: Summary