The Handmaid's Tale Chapters 1–6: Summary and Analysis
by Margaret Atwood

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Chapters 1–6: Summary and Analysis

Chapter 1 Summary

It is night at the Rachel and Leah Re-education (Red) Center in the heartland of the Republic of Gilead. The Center, housed in a former high school, is where young white women are prepared for their role as replenishers of the population, Handmaids. On her army cot in the dormitory, once the school gym, Offred muses about what the room must have been like before Gilead.

She thinks about the basketball games played here, and how it must have looked decorated for school dances: the excitement, the fashionable clothing, the music. Now it’s such a sad place, and so silent, since talking is forbidden.

As she often does, Offred remembers her past life, how as a teenager she yearned for the future with all its possibilities. Ruefully, she reminds herself that this Red Center, with its armed guards and barbed wire, is her future.

All she can yearn for now is an exchange of glances with the other inmates, even a few words with the armed Angels who stand outside the fence with their backs firmly turned away from the exercise yard. But any Angel (Gilead’s Gestapo) who looked at her or spoke to her would be severely punished, as would she.

Instead, she thinks about the ways she and the other Handmaids secretly communicate by furtive touch or silently mouthing words, which the others lip-read. The one thing they want to communicate is their real names, no longer allowed to them. On her cot, Offred recites these names to herself.

Chapter 1 Analysis

In this brief chapter, Atwood establishes the sense of fear and repression in the new Republic of Gilead by emphasizing the differences between life in this society and life in earlier times. This causes the reader to wonder how this situation came about.

The Red Center is like a reform school or prison, but with differences: in what prison are the guards called Aunts and prisoners stripped of their names?

This raises the question: why must these women’s names be changed? What is going on here?

Chapter 2 Summary

Offred, recently arrived at her new posting, describes her room. Later it is indicated that this is her third posting to a Commander, and apparently each posting lasts somewhere between three and six months.

At this point, there is no clear indication as to how many postings a Handmaid has before it is concluded that she is infertile and ceases to be a Handmaid, but it is implied that when that happens she will be declared an Unwoman and exiled to one of Gilead’s Colonies to clean up toxic waste and die.

In her room, Offred notes that there is nothing from which a rope can be hung; apparently Gilead authorities want to prevent any chance of a Handmaid’s suicide. She also notes that there is no glass in front of the watercolor of blue irises, her window glass is shatterproof, and the windows can only be opened enough to let in air, but without room for escape. Although there are a few homey touches—the watercolor and a hooked rug on the floor—the room is just another prison cell, but better than a dormitory. At least she has privacy.

Here, as at the Red Center, time is measured for her by bells. When the bell rings, she dons her Handmaid uniform. It is an ankle-length red gown and a white, winged headdress that allows her only to see straight ahead and prevents others from seeing her. With these she wears red gloves and low-heeled red shoes. She thinks that this costume makes her look like a fairytale figure.

As she goes downstairs to the kitchen, she remarks that her door is unlocked and, in fact, won’t close properly. In the kitchen, Rita is kneading dough, wearing the Martha uniform—a long green gown and white apron. Rita merely nods to Offred and hands her three shopping tokens for eggs, cheese, and meat.

In the kitchen, Offred must suffer Rita’s surliness. Rita disapproves of Handmaids on moral grounds because they act as a sort of prostitute for the country. The Handmaids, however, have no other choice; if they refuse to be handmaids, they would be sent to certain...

(The entire section is 3,095 words.)